The Cult of J.T. LeRoy

How a Teenage Hustler-Turned-Novelist Built a Celebrity Support Group

Gaitskill explains, "He told me he didn't write for a year because of something I said, and I was horrified. I considered some of the early stuff I saw to be pretty one-dimensional, even though I thought it was the kind of one dimensionality that would definitely push people's buttons, because it had a hard emotional charge to it. I didn't see his full level of perception or sophistication in it, and that's what I told him."

Threaded through both of LeRoy's books is a hunger for family, and he says that for obvious reasons it's his weak spot. "A lot of hustlers had this thing of taking them for their money and then you leave. But I would always hear these stories about the kid who got adopted and lives in a nice house as a family, and that's always what I hoped. It happened to me a few times, but I had so many emotional problems that once that stuff started leaking out, they'd throw me out." LeRoy's mentors are all older and mostly childless, and Gaitskill believes this definitely plays a role in their relationships with LeRoy. "There was a certain point, when I'd known Jeremy for about six months, I remember having an emotional reaction that baffled me. I was thinking, 'Am I falling in love with a 16-year-old?' Then I realized it was maternal feelings. I started having fantasies of marrying someone and adopting him, and I told him about a dream I had about him being abused by a terrible john. I burst in and said, 'Get your hands off!' . . . I said, 'I'm his mother' and shot the guy. That stuff lasted a few months, and then I began to deal with him as if he was my age or I was his age. It was like a game but not a hurtful game." LeRoy now has an ad hoc family of his own that includes a boyfriend and a baby and so has less need for intense emotional support, and more use for career guidance.

LeRoy's career is about to go into overdrive. He sounds like the awestruck 21-year-old he is as he lists his high-profile upcoming projects (the Sarahscript, an animated musical with people from the hit children's TV series Blue's Clues, and a screenplay for an HBO show produced by Diane Keaton) and name-drops famous people who like his work (from "Shirley Manson wrote a song about me for the new Garbage album" to "I got e-mails from Courtney Love"). He's been enjoying hanging out with Van Sant lately, and one wonders if LeRoy's focus on fiction will survive all this mass media adulation.

A hint of anxiety creeps into LeRoy's voice when he contemplates where his writing will go next. The authors he admires all write complex, layered prose, and he's afraid his work may be stuck in a groove. "How do you will growth?" he asks in a strained tone. "I write from this sick shit that's in me, stuff I'm still trying to work out." Cooper says he's impressed by LeRoy's most recent writing—"His work becomes structurally more self-aware all the time"—but LeRoy doesn't always feel he's in control of his gift. Of Sarah, he says, "I thought it was just going to be a short story, but this pit bull came raging out and grabbed me by the neck and wouldn't let me go till it was done." He adds later, "I'll never be able to write anything like that again, for better or worse. I wasn't writing for an audience, there was no book deal, I was just writing like a shark swims. Now I have that feeling of being looked at over my shoulder."


Reading: June 13 at 8:30 p.m., the Brooklyn Brewery, 79 North 11th Street, Williamsburg

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