Savannah Knoop on Being JT Leroy
Originally published in the Village Voice, October 1, 2008
Gavin Browning: You played JT LeRoy for six years. What made you want to write about it?
Savannah Knoop: I got through that experience and had no idea how I felt. It was like I'd suppressed my inner thoughts and emotions while I was in it — because they weren't JT's.
GB: Many people rallied around JT. Why?
SK: He fit easily into most people's projections. He was the Jean Genet, the quiet-sage mute. He was wild and crazy; he was a train wreck. Or he was hope that we could all get through it and transform it into art. I was never offered so many drugs in my life as when I was the recovering addict JT — and for someone who didn't like to be touched, I was constantly being touched.
GB: Were you troubled by the deceit?
SK: There were many times I felt uncomfortable playing JT. It was complicated. For instance, at a reading, if a fan would tell me how the books had affected them, about what had happened in their life that made part of a book resonate so strongly — there was nothing I could say, because I couldn't interfere with that true emotional connection they were having to the work. My reaction was not the point.
GB: When it ended, did you miss JT?
SK: Yeah, I think so. I knew that it would come to an end, but I would have never chosen for it to end. It was a huge part of my life. It was almost like an addiction.
GB: What were you addicted to?
SK: Well, it was a completely other life. I got to express myself, and be a boy. I had permission to do so many things in that world. JT could do whatever he wanted! He was allowed to be as weird as he wanted to be.
GB: But in the beginning, you seemed ambivalent about being JT. What changed?
SK: Deciding that I wanted to do it. At first, I was thrown into it [by her sister-in-law, Laura Albert], and I was really resentful of that. I quit for about a year. When I came back to it, it was like: "I want to be doing this." It was a commitment.
GB: There were inconsistencies. In the late '90s, HIV was part of JT's story. But that got dropped. Were you ever challenged about that?
SK: No. I think that HIV was dropped right around the time I started impersonating him. HIV wasn't part of the story that I was playing, but there were little details. I would wear long sleeves, and there were scars. HIV was part of the trajectory, and then it was just dropped.
GB: People really want to believe in something.
SK: People believed in JT because it made sense to them — the square fit in the square hole. It's not like people haven't undergone trauma like JT's. It's not like it couldn't have happened. When I read the books, I felt like they came from some emotional place of truth, and that was what I responded to. I don't think you can fake that.