Strange Innocence
July 2001
Photography Director: Susan White

LeRoy was here Twenty-one-year-old author J.T. LeRoy, dressed, he says, as “Cinderella after the ball.” At a friend’s house in San Francisco, April 27, 2001.

When J. T. LeRoy's first novel, Sarah, was published last year, the 20‑year‑old ex‑child prostitute became an instant cult figure. The book, named for his mother (who dressed him like a girl and taught him her trade), is a fictionalized account of his life as a "lot lizard" (i.e., truck‑stop hustler) and was embraced not only by the literary demimonde but also in The Guardian and The New York Times. Extremely shy and uncertain of his gender, he has rarely been photographed. With his second book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, due out from Bloomsbury this month, LeRoy agreed to sit for MARY ELLEN MARK and talk with singer‑songwriter TOM WAITS.

J.T.'s stories are like stitches, like exit wounds, dispatches, depositions. He is the brilliant, gifted, and profound fly on the wall. You'll need handkerchiefs and Novocain to get through his new book. It is a golden diving bell crawling through the shark‑infested waters of his childhood. He is the witness to all the tales that go on in the dark, and for all of us, long may he have the courage to remember.

Tom Waits: The world is a hellish place, and bad writing is destroying the quality of our suffering. It cheapens and degrades the human experience, when it should inspire and elevate. You are an exception.

J. T. LeRoy: Wow, thanks. One thing I realized is that to just have merely suffered isn't enough. One day I was in a bookstore trying to steal a book. This guy knew it and followed me. So to not seem like a thief, I asked him for transgressive books, a term I'd just learned and felt like a big shot bandying. He handed me a book by this guy who had been in prison and writing about his experiences. He had a really horrible life, but it was so horribly written that I just didn't care.

T.W After your initial success, did you find it difficult to avoid letting them all package you as a new product line instead of as an artist with a deep well?

J.T.L. Yeah, I quit after I got my book deal. I quit writing for two years because I didn't want to be the poster boy for the dysfunctional‑memoir bullshit. I felt that's what they were really hoping to make me into. So I took my money and ran. I wrote my journalism stuff for New York Press and other magazines. And I had the great fortune of being taken under their wing and guided by some of the best writers around.

T.W. Do you believe that love and acceptance from the public have any ability to nurture or heal, or is it just like throwing peanuts at a gorilla?

J.T.L. The thing that's so hard is I keep waiting for it to fix me, and I keep looking at my life and saying, "When does the magic fairy come along?" You know, it's the joke we have in my house: "Don't you know who I am? What do you mean I have to do the dishes? Or I have to go to therapy?"

T.W. I think that's the thing about fame or any notoriety. It's an illusion that you don't have to play by the rules anymore, the rules of life.

J.T.L. Yeah, like when we've gone out with Gus Van Sant a few times. We get the best table and everyone would be all over ... They'd give us stuff for free and everything. And I know these are places that I would not have been allowed in a number of years back. And I could see getting addicted to this.

T.W. How do you stay so present in your stories? They're wet and alive, as if they're happening to you as you write.

J.T.L. So much of what I do write is from stuff that I've absorbed around me. There's this beetle they use to make jewelry, and they supply it with material and thread and it just weaves it into this beautiful piece. Well, I think it actually consumes it and shits it out or something. And it becomes a really hip kind of jewelry. And I feel like I never know where something's going to come from. It could be from my past, but it could be something or other that I've taken in. I just sit at the computer and shit it into a weave.

T.W. Do you have some kind of total or heightened recall when you're revisiting an experience? Are you remembering or are you conjuring?

J.T.L. I think I have parts of me that get frozen in ice when something happens. It's like the "In Case of Emergency" box ‑writing is like hammering at that box or thawing it, and the words start to liquefy in my hands.

T.W Do you feel safe when you are writing all these things? You know, like wearing one of those dog suits? Did you ever see one of those dog suits that the police put on and then have the dogs attack them?

J.T.L. Yeah. That's absolutely it. And as long as I was writing, the dogs could totally come at me. It was really weird, because once I put the pen down, it was as if l took off the suit and then I was vulnerable again.

T.W. I see. The pen is mightier than the sword.

J.T.L. Or the pit bull.

T.W. There's a line in your new collection of stories where one of your characters is digging his finger into a telephone cord and asks, "I wonder if I can get electrocuted if I go too deep." Well, it jumped out at me as a metaphor for your writing. I wonder if I could get electrocuted by reading them because you are going so deep.

J.T.L. Well, I appreciate you saying that. But it's like a shark. No one would say a shark is courageous for swimming all the time.