At 16 years old, J.T. LeRoy began writing regularly for New York Press, Spin and Nerve under his street name Terminator. Now 20, he has just published his first novel, Sarah, about the life of a preteen Appalachian truck-stop whore who takes on his mother’s name to turn tricks. LeRoy mixes camp and horror in a nutty narrative so breathlessly paced, in a tone so hysterically funny, that the harsh reality portrayed — a series of abuses including exploitation and abandonment — does not sink in deep until afterward. Notoriously shy, LeRoy spoke with the Weekly via e-mail from his home in San Francisco.
If Sarah is loosely based on your own experiences, were you a cross-dressing preteen sex worker?
I really prefer calling it all fiction. I like that breathing room. I just need to say I love my mother very, very much! And I should not have used her name. My mom had a lot of trucker boyfriends. We lived around a lot of stops — it’s a good place to make cash fast. Well, if your mom is sick, even if it is from not having her drugs, and you are gonna have to watch her in intense agony, and you know you can go do something fast to get money and get her her “medicine,” what would you do? I did what I needed to do. And sometimes I just tricked because I knew I could. I liked hearing I was beautiful, getting attention, being touched. I sure liked getting money! Some stuff hurt, felt bad physically and mentally, but you close that off and live off the good parts, the parts you need to survive.
Your mother dressed you up like a girl?
Yeah, me and my mom found if I was dressed as a girl things were easier. Did I like it? Yes. I tricked as [a girl]. I hate the term cross-dressing. I got busted and got the shit kicked out of me. It is a painful thing for me. My therapist is working to help me feel good in the skin I was born in. I would like that.
You’re also a former junkie.
I wouldn’t call myself a junkie, ’cause I used whatever I could get, wasn’t that particular. The last time I shot was in June of ’97. Dennis Cooper was up here to read, and I couldn’t deal with the reading — too many people and all, and I felt really ugly. I didn’t fit in with all these cool, sophisticated queers, ya know? I felt I looked like shit, I was shit, and just to deal, I got fucked up. I shot up and I sat in front of his hotel, waited and puked, passed out. It was so horrible. I stopped after that.
The list of literary celebrities who have written plugs for Sarah is impressive. How did you and Dennis Cooper meet?
This trick I dated regularly gave me Cooper’s Try, and it was phenomenal. I related so much, I tricked using the main character’s name, Ziggy. I asked a friend if I could interview Cooper for their zine. I didn’t know what the fuck I would do, but in Try the kid has a zine, so I just went along with that inspiration. I had to talk to Dennis. I was so blown away that someone could create something so touchingly beautiful and authentic, without the melodrama that usually would accompany a story about an abused kid. I never had read anything I so identified with. I went to the library, and they helped me look up his agent. I spoke to Dennis later that night. I was 15. We really hit it off.
How did you begin writing — did you go to college, or take writing courses?
Nope. I have to get my GED. My therapist, who basically saved my life, is the head of St. Mary’s adolescent unit. He was teaching a grad class at USF for folks that want to be psychotherapists. He asked me to write for them — that this was my chance to let them know what the real deal was like. I really hated all those social worker/therapist types, so I did it. And something fucking clicked. Getting those stories to him became more important to me than getting high. I craved to hear what they thought. I had a voice, and they listened and respected me on some level.
Bruce Benderson and Mary Gaitskill have mentored you. How did they come into your life?
Dennis gave me User by Bruce Benderson, and I was blown away! So I called him and we became friends. He’ll kill me for saying this, but he really is the wonderful Jewish mother I never had. Mary Gaitskill and I had the same agent, and he arranged for us to meet. When I met her, I was so struck by how beautiful she is. The clearest, most brilliant eyes. She also had a huge zit on her chin that made me feel less intimidated somehow. She was the first woman I ever could say I fell in love with. Her books are scary, how she describes things is just . . . a miracle. Mary Gaitskill approached me with the idea of doing a reading for me. I was so honored by that.
Because you are, as you put it, too “chicken-shit” to do your own readings. And from there, Cooper, Lydia Lunch, Jerry Stahl and Suzanne Vega signed on. That’s not a lightweight bunch to stand in for you!
I was in an anthology called Close to the Bone, edited by Laurie Stone, as was Jerry Stahl. I read Permanent Midnight and was knocked out by its honesty and humor. He was like a sponsor to me. He really gave me a lot of strength to stay clean and create. Lydia is the older sister I never had — and don’t think I could’ve handled! Suzanne Vega, whom I interviewed and became e-mail buddies with, read my book. She really loved it, which was the coolest!
In Sarah, all of the boy-girls wear raccoon penis bones around their necks, and you sell them on your Web site. I know of them being used for toothpicks, but you’ve elevated them to some kind of sex magic symbol.
The raccoon penis bone is a sexual amulet used in the South and Midwest. Gamblers will wrap a $20 bill around it, tie it with red thread and keep in their pockets. Men or women will put a raccoon penis bone between the box spring and mattress so that the man will perform better, longer, stronger and harder. The reason the ’coon penis bone is the most popular as a sex charm is that for the size of the animal, it has the longest bone. The penis of a big old bear ain’t no different then the size of a raccoon’s dick bone.
Did you grow up in the South?
I’ve lived in almost every state there is. My mom and I lived in a car a lot. When I was 11, 12 we came out West. I tricked in L.A., worked all over the West Coast. We settled in San Francisco when I was 13. She went off with a boyfriend, and I stayed in San Francisco. I was 14.
You confront and question childhood demons in Sarah, yet it doesn’t read like therapeutic purging.
For me, Sarah was very therapeutic. I didn’t know I was writing a book, thought I was just writing a chapter. It just came from this very pure place. I didn’t even know I was gonna get fictional. It also really helped me understand my relationship with my mother. When I am not writing, I am in trouble. I get dangerous to myself. Dennis and my shrink are always trying to get me to write. Keeps me safe.
SARAH | By J.T. LeROY | Bloomsbury Press | 166 pages | $20 | hardcover