In Conversation: Laura Albert and Jeff Feuerzeig On 'Author: The JT LeRoy Story'
V sits down with Laura Albert and Jeff Feuerzeig to discuss the new documentary, in theaters today
V sits down with Laura Albert and Jeff Feuerzeig to discuss the new documentary, in theaters today
Text: SAMUEL ANDERSON
In 2006, the New York Times reported that the it-boy novelist JT LeRoy, whose gritty spark plug of a debut Sarah had set the publishing world ablaze six years earlier, was actually the pseudonym of a 40-year-old wife and mother named Laura Albert. LeRoy’s legions of readers knew the author as a survivor-turned-wunderkind who spun a lurid early life of hooking and homelessness into gripping art, while a would-be inner circle of celebrities including Courtney Love and Billy Corgan chased after the author’s Thompsonian-ish mythology with Depp-sized infatuation.
In LeRoy’s sporadic public appearances, the author emerged as a scrawny, longhaired blonde dude who winced at the spotlight behind a hat and sunglasses. As the Times first alleged, it turned out that the longhaired personage was Savannah Knoop, a 25-year-old woman and Albert’s sister-in-law, enlisted by the real JT LeRoy, aka Laura Albert, as a decoy—but not before the Albert/LeRoy industrial complex had spawned three critically acclaimed books and a movie adaptation of The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things by Italian film star Asia Argento.
While women writers, from George Eliot to JK Rowling ad infinitum, have been pushed into masculinized pseudonymity before, Albert’s male-presenting public persona was not just the elaborate byproduct of garden-variety misogyny. As the new documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig (The Devil and Daniel Johnston), examines in herculean detail, Albert’s multifaceted personality began to unfold long before she was a published author and architect of a stranger-than-fiction literary scandal; When, as a troubled youth, Albert began to seek refuge in suicide prevention hotlines, she was only able to confide in the operators by speaking as oftentimes-male characters: there was Jeremy, Terminator (later condensed to “JT”), Speedy, and Astor, to name a few. The habit continued when Albert began cold-calling her favorite authors to share her early writings.
In Author, the serendipitous, out-of-body ascent Albert experienced after she wrote the books eclipses even the magical realism present in the fantastically bleak stories that made JT LeRoy famous; it would be the documentary equivalent of Weekend at Bernie’s meets Josie and the Pussycats if Albert’s struggles (tumultuous childhood, stints in mental hospitals) weren’t so sobering. With the added layer of surreality lent by the constant specter of early-aughts celebrity (the first scene is a clip of Winona Ryder onstage, professing her love for LeRoy), Feuerzeig’s portrait of Albert is a Hollywood-gothic tale of truly literary proportions.
Read our interview with Feuerzeig and Albert (and a little bit of Speedy) below.
How did you guys meet?
Jeff Feuerzeig I had never heard of JT LeRoy, nor had I read the books, nor had I heard about the scandal as it was breaking in 2006. A journalist friend of mine turned me onto the story a few years later. And I love, more than anything, a great truth-is-stranger-than-fiction story. When the scandal broke, it was being labeled, quote-unquote, the biggest literary hoax of our time. It generated a massive amount of ink because it was so scandalous and such a big controversy. I went back and read everything that had been written and I said to myself, there must be more to the story than we are being told.
I then reached out to Laura Albert, the author of the fiction, on and off the page. And at this point in time, she’d literally been excommunicated from the literary community. She’d been labeled a pariah and a fraud. She’d been actually convicted of fraud in a court of law for singing the name JT LeRoy on a movie contract and that’s a human being that does not exist. And she was curled up in a ball.
Did it take any coaxing to get you (Laura) on board with the documentary?
Laura Albert No, I was waiting for somebody to come. I knew someone would come. But it had to be the right one, someone who wouldn’t focus on the celebrity and could really handle it all, because I knew the story. I was both in and outside of [it]. And there was a lot of deceit. I knew it was real and I also knew it wasn’t. And I believed it and I also knew it wasn’t real.
JF You lived the story!
LA I was both in and outside of [it]. And I knew it was very complex. It wasn’t black or white. And there was a lot of deceit. I knew it was real and I also knew it wasn’t. And I believed it and I also knew it wasn’t real.
I felt very upset about being labeled a hoax because that’s something you do to deceive people. It’s premeditated. This was organic. This was created the way an oyster creates a pearl: out of suffering.
Jeff mentioned that you were the author of the fiction, on and off the page. Did you think about it in those terms? That this is a crazy story, that’s different from the one I wrote, but…
LA Every now and then it would hit me, like, “Wow this is weird.” [laughs] But it was normal for me, what I was doing. My oxygen was being somebody else. My oxygen was being a boy and telling a story.
To have to be me was the hard part. This is the surreal part. Doing this is the bizarre part. Everyone’s like, “What a crazy story!” and I’m like, no, this is the crazy story, that I’m in my body, that the book is out under my name. That’s weird. That I’m sharing authorship with someone who is said not to exist… He might not exist but he lives.
In the film you glide back and forth between personalities. Is JT still accessible in that way?
JF Speedy seems a little more accessible today. Speedy’s been around a lot today.
LA [in British accent] Aw, fuck off mate!
JF See, there she is!
LA JT’s more raw and vulnerable. He carries the pain, where Speedy’s the mover and shaker and the fighter, so her energy is easier to get into. I really am surprised when I feel JT.
I saw Billy Corgan not that long ago when Smashing Pumpkins were on tour. And I went backstage and I’m hanging out with him and I felt JT wanted to pop out again and talk to Billy. He was like, 'Okay, well you got your time. Where’s my time? Why don’t I get to hang out too?' And I told Billy, “Oh fuck. Oh fuck. He wants to hang out with you too. I still got competition!” And that always surprises me. Because I can't really explain it. I can't explain it. And it’s embarrassing, too. It also feels like, this is a little psycho. But it is what it is.
[To Jeff] Some taped phone conversations you use in the film go back really far. Did you know that Laura had kept such an enormous record of her life going into making the movie?
JF That is a huge fear when you take on a film: What are the materials to work with, to sculpt, to find the inner truth? When I made my film The Devil and Daniel Johnston I believed it was the biggest excavation of self-documentation ever in documentary history.
When I reached out to Laura, of course I couldn’t possibly have known that she did the same thing. But then she had even more self-documentation than Daniel Johnston; all of her childhood notebooks and all the writings through the years, videotapes, boxes and boxes of audio including her 15-year-old young girl voice in the group home, which you hear in the film. It turned out that she was always doing that. She was a writer. And I think it validated her own existence to hear or see that, yes, I somehow exist.
Not everyone finds that kind of writing valuable. Memoir is now a popular genre among comedians, where truth is not necessarily put at such a premium. When you read personal narratives today, do you think, “Hm, is this true?”
LA To me, I told JT’s truth. It was labeled fiction, but it was his truth. If you don’t believe me, the facts are there. Do your research. Do your journalism. It’s all there. I was in a group home. I was in a federal court trial; it’s all out there.
Writing is hard, and I really don’t care about the label. I really think it’s irrelevant. What I am looking for is the felt authenticity of the experience. I don’t care what you label it, whether it’s humor… Louis C.K., to me, is genius. What he gets to his level of truth, you’re just laughing through the tears. Him, Sarah Silverman, Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham—the list goes on and on and on.
What I love is that there are women right now, who, especially in comedy, are changing the whole paradigm for women and size. That if you're overweight, you’re not just a sidekick buddy. That, to me, is powerful. If I had had those heroes available to me when I was a young girl, I probably would have felt invisible, and less like a loser.
It’s interesting that you bring up the issue of size [within female comedy] because Leslie Jones and Melissa McCarthy just did Ghostbusters…
LA And [then came] the attack. For me, it was like, “Who you gonna call? Hoax Busters!” [laughs]. It’s a wonderful exciting time for people who are saying, “This is who I am, in my size, in my body. I can identify any way I want. If I want to use “they,” or call myself “he,” and have this body, I can do so. And that’s legitimate now.
10 years ago, we didn’t have words like gender-variant or gender fluidity. We had a strict gender binary. No one asked me how I identified. And I wanted to be a gay boy. The books were never labeled as gay, but the community embraced them, because I think they understand the issues of identity and longing to understand who you are.
In the books, I created this truck stop where the world is turned upside down. In real life, the lot lizards, as I called them, would be called trans or gender-fluid prostitutes, and it would be very dangerous [for them]. But here, they are the crème-de-la-crème. I created a world that did not exist, where that was the best that you could aspire to.
Author: The JT LeRoy Story is out in select theaters today.