APRIL 16, 2020
GIRL BOY GIRL: How I Became JT Leroy (Seven Stories Press) by Savannah Knoop was published in 2008, two years after the news broke that the widely acclaimed, celebrity “pet” writer known as JT Leroy was actually two people: Laura Albert, who wrote the books and cultivated telephone relationships; and Savannah Knoop, who appeared in person as JT.
JT LeRoy, a major motion picture co-written by Savannah Knoop (with Justin Kelly), starring Kristen Stewart as Savannah and Laura Dern as Laura, was released last year.
In this interview, Savannah talks with editor Amy Scholder, who published Girl Boy Girl, about the process of writing their memoir and translating the memoir to the screen.
AMY SCHOLDER: In terms of adapting the memoir into a film, a lot had to be condensed or left out because of how much shorter a script is than a book. Also, not everything is cinematic. I wonder, reflecting on the movie and the fact that the story is becoming known to some audiences for the first and only time through the film, is there any part of your experience which pains you that it got left out?
SAVANNAH KNOOP: I don’t know if it pains me because, well, the book is so personal that it’s almost nice to have some distance.
Okay, it was a leading question because there’s a part of your story that I missed when I saw the film! I was aware that the film doesn’t include the major arc of the book, which is about you becoming an artist. I can understand why that would end up on the cutting room floor —
That is indeed what happened —
Interesting! You mean you actually filmed it, but it was edited out?
Yep. We had different threads of the story in terms of my character beginning to make clothes and working with their hands, draping their own body with different costumes. It was one of those things that is hard to convey in film because it’s an internal shift, and these scenes ended up feeling forced. They pointed to a feeling but didn’t actually give you the feeling, so eventually they got taken out.
I can see how a portrait of a young artist is really hard to represent cinematically without falling into cliché.
Yes, though in a way that is absolutely the underlying theme of the film — it ends up being explored through juxtaposition. You are making someone else’s art for them — I was making art for Laura — being someone else’s “vehicle.” And then you wonder, what about being my own vehicle?
The questions you asked yourself — Who am I? What do I want to do? — which led to writing a memoir — maybe that’s the subject of the movie sequel! Because you did find your voice by or while writing your memoir. That must have been challenging, given JT’s success as a writer, and the fact that Laura would always say …
[AS and SK together.]
“Just because you played a writer, doesn’t mean you are one.”
It’s cruel, but it’s true!
Unless you do it, and then it’s not true. There is this interesting division in the story between what you say you are versus what you spend your time doing … in “regular” life it’s often blurrier than that. Something that I love about the book is the way it weaves the story of your desire for making art with the story of entering into the JT world, a world of artists. And because you were only 18 years old at the time, and didn’t yet have a focus for yourself, becoming JT probably wasn’t really derailing you from anything.
I was cast well for the part of JT. Perfect timing! As we talk, I keep flashing on a memory of our very first conversation. You asking me directly in our meeting, “Did you write this memoir?”
Right! That was of course my main concern: that I was going to be another casualty in the JT saga. When you were meeting with other publishers, wasn’t it on everyone’s mind?
I think it was, but you were the only one who actually asked. They asked other questions: Are you going to spill the beans about all those celebrities? Do you hate Laura? And most emphatically, are you sorry?
Are you sorry?
Yes, they wanted to know if this was going to be a story of redemption and victimhood, which is great for sales.
Hard to believe it’s been over 10 years since Girl Boy Girl came out! Are you writing these days?
I am writing. There is a theme that has been brewing for a while in my work — intimacy with strangers. Mostly, I get my ya-yas out through my obsession with Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which is a form of wrestling that I’ve been studying for a decade. I find it’s an extremely addictive way of having real, physical, and nonverbal intimacy. It’s also about play and collective learning. It’s unusual in that the game is based in a kind of ever morphing, tangled closeness and conflict — it’s all about touch and space but it’s not necessarily about comfortable space.
I’ve been thinking about where I find that sensation of random contact with strangers outside of wrestling. It’s been mostly through various kinds of dead-end gigs that have sustained me financially over the years.
This new writing is turning out to be based on a mix of fantasy and lived experience … but I’m finding it hard to step back and forth into reality and fantasy on the page. I feel uptight about what’s based on fact and what’s made up — I don’t have these questions when making other kinds of work, but I do feel it acutely in writing.
Is there a voice in your head when you write that’s associated with JT and Laura?
Yeah, it could very well be that that the feeling of uptightness is partly because of playing JT Leroy!
I guess if I were to follow the thread of all my work including the JT days, the through-line would be intimacy. Remember, for JT, my “job” was to hold intimate exchanges with people who felt something that, ultimately, had nothing to do with me.
Can you say more about that?
So many people that I met as JT already had a prior relationship with him, through phone calls or correspondence or just through reading the books. I had to get into friend overdrive with them and feel this connection. But, of course, like so many parts to the experience of being JT, there was always an underlying contradiction. There was no way to be close to people, because there is so much distance between you and the other person’s projections of you. And the shared experiences that they thought we had were, in fact, with someone else — with Laura.
How does that relate to the work you are doing now?
In some ways, I think that it’s always very rare to share real intimacy with another person, no matter what the circumstances. For me, it’s really easy to be close to people when you are just a bunch of bodies together.
For example, jiu-jitsu!
Yes, and I think through body empathy you often can find a way of imagining you are another person. So I find myself drawing a frame around those kind of settings in my work and life. I’m drawn to strip clubs, thrift stores … I’m working on a project set at the Russian and Turkish Bathhouse on East 10th Street. It’s a short film shot during operating hours, and an installation. It was prompted by this idea that you can love people when they are just bodies in their routines, but then when they open their mouths, it can instantly erase anything you found interesting about them. The people who go regularly to this bathhouse can be quite conservative — and I found that the shock of difference in worldview is acute. And in the heat, everyone feels particularly emphatic. I wanted to distinguish between reaction and response — even within the environments themselves. Our skins and our psyches are a kind of screen that we filter experiences through. At the baths we are so clearly bound together by our bodies craving heat — for this we agree to many a sort of collective contract!
I think it is so strange how people separate and hierarchize the mind’s arena over the body’s. And I think it is just as true that we are often having different kinds of experiences simultaneously. I think most of my work grounds itself in wrangling or reconciling the sort of slippery, slow, and nuanced language of the body. To me, the body doesn’t lie.
I do keep thinking about that part in the Kathy Acker book that you and Douglas Martin edited, Kathy Acker: The Last Interview, where she is talking about bodybuilding and how she can’t reconcile this experience of the body’s language into words, she’s struggling to find a way to put it into writing —
Right, she spent so much of her life living in her head, I think that taking up bodybuilding at 40 became this pathway to get out of her head. But then, being an intellectual, she had to then think about how she could write about this experience and thereby share it. More contradictions. I think Kathy’s impulse, her interest in bodybuilding came from this desire to not only change her body but also have a different relationship with her body, but then when this shift was actually happening, as an artist she wanted to make work about it so it wasn’t this isolated experience. She wanted her body to be connected to her body of work … I’m so interested to hear that connection to Acker has come up for you.
Let me ask you a question: I wonder about your publishing my book. I wonder if you could talk about how it operated in your mind at the time, which was shortly after the JT “unveiling”?
As you know, I was not attracted to the JT project, so when your agent approached me, I did not feel predisposed to read the proposal. I suppose there was something, in fact, unappealing to me about the JT story — that the cult of the celebrity of the author really was much more meaningful than the work itself. That’s not the kind of publishing I’ve ever been interested in. So my inclination was to pass. But your agent rightly declared that you were a writer who had a story that was unique and beautifully told and really powerful in that it was an unpredictable epilogue to a very sensationalized story. So that made me curious.
Once I read the proposal and first few chapters, I was hooked. Not only was there pleasure in the storytelling, which unfolds with drama and says so much about popular culture and the cult of celebrity. Beyond the specific JT saga, there is also this underlying, very complicated story about how a young person finds their way in the world in unexpected ways.
Yes, that crazy juxtaposition between JT’s star-studded world and this lost 20-year-old …
I also love the intimacy that you had with Laura. I mean, I think you are completely right that intimacy is your through-line. The moments that are so memorable in Girl Boy Girl are when you capture that intimacy.
And of course, you want to feel that with more than just Laura, and that’s where your relationship with her begins to break down. When, for example, Mary Ellen Mark is photographing you and pulls you aside and says, “I see you and I understand that you are not who you say you are.” You convey the overwhelming feeling you have at that moment — it’s anxiety of being found out but more than that, it’s a relief that maybe not everyone who meets you is just projecting, not really seeing the person right in front of them.
It makes me think about the first question you asked, about what was missing in the movie. This isn’t exactly an answer but I’m so happy that the book is a record of that time — so soon after my JT years. I had so many mixed emotions and confusion, and I tried to stay inside those feelings. And the film, written in drafts over many years, is something else — something more outside of me. I’m glad both versions exist in the world.