Heidi Benson of the San Francisco Chronicle tries to get to the bottom of the question: Who is the real J.T. LeRoy?
The author, noted for publishing his first novel at 19, a searing tale of a boy who disguises himself as a girl and turns tricks at a truck stop, is suspected of making up his identity. An article in New York magazine in October by San Francisco author Stephen Beachy suggested LeRoy was not really a former hustler who once lived on the streets of San Francisco but a 30-year old woman from Brooklyn.
Beachy pointed out in his piece that very few people had actually ever met LeRoy. They had conversations via e-mail, through grimy car windows, or not at all. But face-to-face meetings were rare.
Does it matter? Is it all right for an author to obscure his or her background, particularly when they write fiction? Benson finds differing opinions:
“Eventually, someone may prove that LeRoy is -- or is not -- who he says he is,” reports Benson. “Meanwhile it's an occasion to ask: What if LeRoy did make up parts of his background to woo important friends and sell books? Are the implications dire for American literature or simply par for the course today?
Armistead Maupin, author of "Tales of the City," has had experience with literary pretenders. In the early '90s a small publisher sent him an advance copy of "A Rock and a Hard Place," a memoir by Anthony Godby Johnson, a teenage AIDS patient near death, which inspired Maupin to contact the author. A six-year telephone relationship ensued during which Maupin came to question the veracity of Johnson's story.
"The work of both Anthony Godby Johnson and J.T. LeRoy seems quite harrowing and moving when you don't know they're a fraud," Maupin said by phone last week. "When you go back and read it again, it reads like the most awful kitsch."
Out of the experience came Maupin's 2000 novel, "The Night Listener," a meditation on literary pretending. In the phone interview, Maupin called Johnson's ability to rally support -- and writing tips -- from authors and editors as "one big literary circle jerk." (The subject will soon hit the big screen, in a film starring Robin Williams based on Maupin's novel.)
"The minute I read the New York magazine piece, I knew that the situation was almost identical," Maupin said. "Writers are vulnerable because we have imagination. Throw us a little raw meat and we'll gobble it up."
Some have insinuated that LeRoy created this new persona precisely to stir up controversy – and sales:
"There are two kinds of publicity," said Jeff Seroy, executive vice president and publicity director of publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux. "There's critical writing about the work on the page and then there's everything else." That is, stories about the writer, how the work came into being and how the work speaks to the moment.
"Those are extrinsic to the creation of a literary work, but they have become increasingly important in terms of driving sales," Seroy continued. "Proust famously said that the work and the writer -- his personality and how he lives his life -- are two separate and distinct things. That's a close-to-impossible situation to imagine now."
Since LeRoy is writing fiction -- and makes no claim that his books are true -- I don't think his true identity actually matters. The obfuscation makes his books more intriguing, but is already costing him jobs at traditional media outlets, like the New York Times, which killed a recent travel piece of his.
My gut says that LeRoy is not who he says he is. Otherwise why would he go to such lengths to hide his identity, including hiding out from his agent and publishers. When something is that complicated, it usually is a lie. But I don't think it really matters.