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The Truth of JT Leroy: A Conversation with Savannah Knoop

The Vancouver Writers Fest has partnered with VIFF to promote their screening of “JT Leroy.”

Written by Hogan Short

Novelist Laura Albert created JT Leroy as a pseudonym for her semi-autobiographical novels Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things in 1999. But when the books took off, readers, journalists and publishers all expected to meet JT. For a while, Albert kept them at arm’s length by conversing on the phone and by email as her alter-ego, but soon she enlisted her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to impersonate the reclusive Leroy in person. It was a role Knoop would play, off and on, for six years, before the New York Times exposed the deception. Now, 13 years later, Kirsten Stewart plays Savannah / JT in a new movie based on Knoop’s book about her experience. We talked to the author about writing and role-playing.

JT Leroy opens at VIFF Vancity Theatre May 17. Click here for tickets and more info

I have heard you talk about the rawness of the book Girl Boy Girl and how that helped guide you to understand what had happened during the time of JT Leroy. How did writing through that do this for you?

I wrote the book very shortly after the whole saga unravelled in the public, from the New York Times. In some ways, I had been there the whole time but I also hadn’t processed that experience, since I was younger. That was maybe the impulse to sit down and write out what had happened. It had a rawness, it was written right after. I was untangling all of the details and how I had gotten from A to Q. It snowballed into many years of living a double life.

You also said then rewriting this film has shifted that mindset once again. How has it changed?

It has changed so many times. The script is a different kind of editing, working on something over and over. It is a process of translation to make each form have a different set of terms. Living this was one form, jotting from memory is another form of translation, writing the screenplay with Justin Kelly is a different way. You have a two-hour runtime, a page a minute, and trying to condense the story… it was a process of condensing and letting the logistics fade away to keep the emotional trajectory of these characters. That story shifted under my fingertips.

Did you like writing in that format?

It was really interesting. Writing a book or most writing is a very solo act and it’s sort of like, to me, it can be one of the hardest things to me – sitting down and writing. I use writing in my practice as a tool to untangle details and dynamics and nuance to get at an experience. Writing a script is endearing. You’re sitting with someone talking. It’s one of the only ways to be social and collaborative in the process of writing. Editing is collaborative but it is compartmentalized. This, you’re sitting together, one person takes the wheel and you just talk it out and do it together.

Does it feel like you have written and explored, on paper and in your mind, all you can about your time as JT Leroy?

I think this is the deal. To be honest, the act of writing the screenplay and putting it out there… you never shut the door on life experiences, but I think this capped. I don’t have any more. That was my work, I’m done

When writing this film, there is you, Savannah Knoop, writing for the voice of Savannah and JT Leroy, who is living the persona of JT but written by your sister in law Laura Albert, who are played by new people, Kristin Stewart and Laura Dern…was it hard to find the voices to so many layers even if you experienced it yourself?

I think it is accurate again to bring up the idea of translation. I had seen this character of hers been in contact with people as JT before she approached me to play this character for her. It was a casting. She could have asked someone else to play her character completely different. I would stress that process of translation and casting and how that changes. With Laura Dern playing Laura Albert and Kristen Stewart playing mine, they are amazing performers and they filtered these characters through themselves and that to me was just a very interesting process seeing how they translated what they’d been given. They did a lot of research and read a lot of books. They pastiched together things from the script, asked me questions, and brought their own threads.

Casting Kristin Stewart to play you…what were your first meetings like?

Kristin is amazing. She acts a lot through her body and to me, why she is amazing… she just was. The first few meetings were interesting because the JT Leroy part was so public it was easy to access this character. There’s footage of me being JT out in the ether, so she had some of that research and had that in her pocket. When we met she said the part that is still a mystery to me was accessing through my body. So she does access through movement which is what I relate to. She understands and embodies both JT and my character. I see her taking moves from me as we talked, she’s amazing at mimic.

Did the end of JT Leroy hurt? Do you ever miss JT?

You know, I think if I had lived that experience and then gone on to be an accountant that was not connected to it I would miss it more. It’s funny how this fictional person becomes a friend. In some ways, I did miss JT. It’s not a person, it’s an energy about them in this other sense and that was closed off. When all of that broke, a few years later down the line I missed this space of performance that was out in the world. It also felt very performative in terms of how you were aware you were performing. Living in New York gives me that feeling a lot. So many people living in the public space. You are swimming with other people, in the street, the subway…I love sitting on a bench, watching people go by, being curious about their lives. That’s something that was an obsession when I was JT but I also found ways to access that now through performance and being in a city like New York.

Author

Lauren Dembicky