Vogue

I finally watched Strike a Pose,  the documentary which takes a look at where the dancers from Madonna’s “Blonde Ambition” tour wound up, and what happened to them. That tour was also documented in another documentary, Truth or Dare, which was also extremely controversial at the time of its release.

strike a pose

It was ironic, as I reflected on watching Strike a Pose and how it affected me; what it made me think, and what I wanted to say about it on here, that I checked Twitter and saw a tweet from one of my friends:

A gentle reminder that using “it’s so much better than it was” when queerfolk are talking about their daily life is a dick move, “allies.”

The Blond Ambition tour was in support of Madonna’s fourth album, Like a Prayer (which is one of my favorite albums of hers; I’ve never tired of the title song or the second single, “Express Yourself”), which was enormously controversial when it was released…of course, back then almost everything about Madonna was controversial. She’d signed a mega-million endorsement deal with Pepsi, which was also geared to promote the album. When the video for “Like a Prayer” was released, people got up in arms about it and Pepsi cancelled the endorsement deal–Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” Pepsi commercial never aired–which only got her more publicity. (In an aside, I’ve never understood the issues with the “Like a Prayer” video; it was all about racism, and finding the strength through prayer to stand up to it–but everyone, as usual, got caught up in images from it without the proper context.)

I didn’t go see Truth or Dare in the theater; I rented it from Blockbuster when it came out on video. I had an enormous crush on the dancer Salim–he was just so handsome in the “Vogue” video–and as a Madonna fan, I was curious to see what it was like backstage on one of these massive tours. I was also–and remain–grateful to Madonna for all she did for the LGBT community, as well as bringing attention to HIV/AIDS, and being one of the first celebrities to do so. It was quite an unusual experience to see all these gay men in the film, so openly and brazenly gay and unashamed and just being themselves. The 1980’s was an incredibly difficult decade for me, personally–I’ve still not unpacked my twenties completely, maybe I never will–and the 1990’s didn’t start off much better for me. But at the time I watched Truth or Dare I had already started down a path to make a better life for myself, coming to terms with myself and who I was, and who I wanted to become, the kind of life I wanted. So the documentary resonated for me a bit; these were gay men who’d followed their dreams, and despite everything, despite all the hate and homophobia and prejudice and bigotry, made those dreams came true.

That was kind of aspirational, if not inspirational.

Seeing where the dancers ended up afterwards, some twenty-five years or so later, in Strike a Pose was kind of sad in some ways, but good in others. Being a ‘Madonna dancer’ was both a blessing in some ways and a curse in others, but they all seem to be doing well now, and it was fun seeing them all together–the ones who are left; one died from AIDS complications–again; it was also painful to listen, and see, them talking about their own personal struggles with HIV, the stigma and the shame–another legacy from that time.

Recently I was given the opportunity to talk to a retirement specialist, to help me come up with a plan for my retirement, and she was a little nonplussed about how “unprepared” I was for my looming retirement. “You should have started in your twenties,” she gently chided me.

I replied, “When I was in my twenties I thought I would be dead before I was forty.”

My reply made her feel uncomfortable, and bad–which wasn’t my intent. I knew she wasn’t being insensitive…but I wasn’t trying to make her feel bad, either. I was merely stating the truth, awful as it might seem now.

We all thought–no, believed, we were going to die young.

So, yes, it is very true that things aren’t as bad as they used to be, that things have gotten better in our society and in our world and in our culture.

But for fuck’s sake, that’s a pretty goddamned low bar–and progress doesn’t mean we’ve overcome everything, either.

Now I’d like to see Truth or Dare again. Strike a Pose struck a chord in me, obviously, and I do think it’s an important film…I’m glad I saw it.

NOTE: The Blond Ambition tour was also supporting Madonna’s album I’m Breathless: Music from and Inspired by the Motion Picture Dick Tracy. It was that album that contained “Vogue,” which is a timeless classic.

 

Picture to Burn

Good morning, Constant Reader! It’s my official release day for my latest Todd Gregory tome, Wicked Frat Boy Ways, which I am kind of excited about. For one thing, I love the cover. For another, I am kind of proud of this book. I did something completely different than anything I’ve ever done before, and it’s also an homage to one of my favorite stories of all time: Les Liaisons Dangereuses. (I’ve also discovered that young people will just look at me blankly when I mention that; or even say Dangerous Liaisons, the award winning film with Glenn Close and John Malkovich from the late 1980’s; however, mention Cruel Intentions with Ryan Phillippe and Sara Michelle Gellar, and their eyes will light up.) It’s a wonderful story; after all, to date, there are four film versions thus far, and a stage version. The Glenn Close movie inspired Madonna’s MTV Video Awards performance of “Vogue”–which I absolutely loved. I am a sucker for the costumes of that era; Bourbon France (1589-1792) is one of my favorite periods of history; the French Revolution is endlessly fascinating to me (Les Liaisons Dangereuses was set in the early 1780’s, and there are those who call the at-the-time scandalous novel as one of the flagstones in the pathway to the French Revolution, by pointing out the corruption and evil behavior that boredom amongst the wealthy and spoiled aristocracy in France to a wider audience); and so my personal favorite film version of the story are the Glenn Close with the Annette Bening/Colin Firth Valmont coming in second. But Cruel Intentions is also very well done, and both Phillippe and Gellar inhabit the evil characters absolutely perfectly. I’ve always wanted to do my own version of the story; but I wanted to follow the novel (which I absolutely loved, and have reread several times) more so than the film.

I’ve played with the idea a lot over the years; the trick is that the novel is epistolary. The epistolary novel was very popular in previous centuries (Dracula is also epistolary for the most part; a mix of letters and diary entries), although it has fallen out of favor in modern times. I’ve always thought they were great; it was a way to get inside character heads much more so than just alternating third-person point of views, and it’s even harder to do alternating first person point of views–which I also didn’t know how to do, and was afraid to try (Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying is perhaps the best example of this ever published). I thought about doing it in the form of emails years ago, and then. after Bold Strokes agreed to publish it, tried to figure out how to do it with modern technology–a combination of texts messages, emails, Facebook posts, etc. But that would also be a formatting nightmare for the technical side of publishing;  I even asked the formatter how it could be done, and the response wasn’t encouraging.

And then I reread one of my favorite books, The Rules of Attraction by Bret Easton Ellis, and I saw how it could be done–alternating first person point of view, present tense; in other words, tell the story in the present from the point of view of characters as it is happening to them, so you can also see, as in the letters, how their perspectives change and how the manipulations happen, and how they really feel. Yes, it was similar to how Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying, but at the same time, it was a challenge I wanted to take on: an erotic novel with a strong plot, told in the present tense, in alternating first person point of view.

Instead of using the same Beta Kappa chapter at CSU-Polk, I moved it to another campus; one that is more rich and more elite: the University of California at San Felice (a shout out to Margaret Millar, who used San Felice in some of her novels as a stand-in for Santa Barbara), on the California coast a few hours north of Los Angeles. I had the character of Brandon Benson, from Games Frat Boys Play, transfer and now he’s a senior, friends with Phil Connors, chapter president. Phil and Brandon are the primary characters in the story; the others the chess pieces they move around the board; Ricky Monterro is the nephew of a very wealthy self-made lawyer who is president of the alumni association, and a recent drop out from the seminary at Notre Dame who’s just realized he doesn’t want to be a priest, preferring to live openly and honestly as a gay man; Dylan, an incoming transfer from UCLA who is engaged to a soldier on a tour in the Middle East; and Kenny, a shy young gay virgin with no self-esteem who falls head over heels for Ricky at first sight.

Jordy from Games Frat Boys Play even makes an appearance, having rented a house on Fire Island for the summer, which is where Brandon and Dylan first run into each other.

Damn, this book was fun to write. Hope it’s as fun to read!

Wicked Frat Boy Ways_final

 

Blank Space

It always feels good to finish a project. It’s not entirely in the books yet, of course–there’s another round of edits, and then page proofs to get through–but this stage is completed and it feels lovely.  Ironically, it didn’t take nearly as long as I thought it would; I’d started working on it Friday night, and had gotten much further along in it than I’d remembered. I then repaired to my easy chair and read some more of About the Author, which is terrific; a really great noir I can’t wait to finish. I did have to put it aside, though, because it reached that point I always call the “uh-oh” moment; the part where the character makes the really bad decision that will eventually bring him down. It’s an extremely well put-together novel, structurally speaking, which gives me some ideas about a noir I want to write–the long-thought about Muscles.

Reading is such a lovely gift to one’s self, really. I am so glad I learned to read very young, and fell in love with it. It’s a terrific pleasure.

Last night, TCM aired the old Lana Turner movie Imitation of Life, directed by Douglas Sirk, and I watched it for the first time, while paging through Sam Staggs’ gossipy book about it, Born to Be Hurt: The Untold Story of “Imitation of Life.” I love Staggs’ books; I’d already read both All About ‘All About Eve’, Close-up on Sunset Boulevard, and When Blanche Met Brando. They’re wonderful books about the stories behind the making of iconic films–including gossip, of course–and also wittily written and compulsively readable. I do want to read the others again; I recently bought a bunch of them in a lot on eBay  just for that purpose. This one also includes information around the notorious Johnny Stompanato murder–he was Lana’s abusive lover; one night he was threatening her and he was stabbed by her daughter, Cheryl Crane–and it was after this scandal that Lana was cast in Imitation of Life. The movie itself works on so many levels; it’s campy but self-aware, and everyone plays it straight, which makes it even better. Turner plays Lora, an aspiring actress with a young daughter, whose life becomes entwined with that of Annie and her daughter, Sarah Jane–Annie is black and the two come to live with Lora and her daughter Susie, who is about the same age. Lora of course becomes a huge star, and the drama surrounding her has to do with her own self-absorption and basically she allows Annie to raise Susie–but it’s the story of Annie and her light-skinned daughter–who hates being black and passes for white, abandoning her mother until of course, at the very end, Annie has died and Sarah Jane comes back too late, that is the real story here. The movie doesn’t face any of the racial issues, they just are–there’s one perfectly horrible scene where Sarah Jane’s boyfriend, who has found out she is black, beats her (played by Troy Donahue) which is about it, really. There’s a sort of sense, at least on my first viewing, that the terrible situation for people of color in the US at the time was taken for granted; but I can only imagine how controversial the movie was at the time of its release. It was an enormous hit, and Juanita Moore and Susan Kohlar, as Annie and Sarah Jane, both got Oscar nominations. The film is flawed, but Turner is actually pretty good in the role (she was always considered a beauty who couldn’t act), but I also couldn’t help thinking how amazing Joan Crawford could have made it–it was the kind of role she or Bette Davis or Olivia de Havilland could have played in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s.

born to be hurt

If you like books about Hollywood, you have to read Sam Staggs’ books. They’re terrific.

So, this week I am getting back to the WIP, and hope to get some good work done on the short stories I’m struggling with. Woo-hoo! But I’m actually looking forward to getting back to the work I had to put aside to work on the edits of this other manuscript. (Keeping up? Sometimes I can’t keep up with what all is going on with me, so I am often curious if people reading this can follow along.) I should make it clear that the manuscript I just revised from editorial notes is one that will be published under a pseudonym; and the one I am now getting back to is neither a Scotty nor a Chanse. I mentioned a few entries ago that I was looking through Mardi Gras Mambo, and I do think I do need to make the time to reread the entire Scotty series as written thus far before trying to get back into writing another one. It’s long overdue, frankly; I’ve not reread the pre-Katrina Scottys in years, and I think, for this next one, it’s kind of necessary. The nice thing is it’s not like I need to read them deeply, I can sort of skim-read, get a sense of the voice and the characters, and the story.

And on that note, it’s back to the spice mines.

La La (Means I Love You)

Good morning. It’s a lovely Sunday morning in New Orleans, as I look at the start of a relatively easy and short week for me at work. Good Friday is a paid holiday for me, so I only have four days to get through, and I have short days on both Monday and Thursday (horrifying long days on Tuesday and Wednesday, of course), so it’s kind of a ‘win some lose some’ kind of week. I ended up not writing much yesterday; instead I read Underground Airlines (which I am enjoying) and when Paul got home from his errands, I made dinner and we watched Rogue One and then the first two episodes of Five Came Back, a wonderful documentary about five Hollywood film directors (Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, and George Stevens) who spent World War II making documentaries about the war rather than directing films in Hollywood. It’s narrated by Meryl Streep, and is based on the book of the same title by Mark Harris (who also wrote the documentary). It’s very well done; and it does a really good job of capturing the era it’s about, while at the same time not only exposing how easy it is for film to be used as propaganda, but raising questions about the ethics of making propaganda during a time of war. As we as Americans are currently wrestling with the notion of news as propaganda, and how to tell what is real and what is not–a horrifying place to be, quite frankly–and how the news was controlled for the American public during the Second World War to keep them behind the war effort (which was prodigious) as well as buying war bonds to finance it, it raises difficult questions about truth, ethics, and the media. I cannot recommend it enough; I’m really looking forward to viewing the final episode.

I will undoubtedly spend today in a mix of cleaning, writing, and reading. My friend Stuart is in town, and hopefully we’ll get to have lunch or an early dinner together today, if not, it will be tomorrow.

Underground Airlines, like The Underground Railroad, is not an easy book to read. I’ve never read much alternate history (Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle being one of the few exceptions), and that’s what this book is; alternate history, and one that, as you learn more about the ‘history’ of the United States and its ‘peculiar institution’ the deeper you get into the book, is terribly disturbing because you can see how it might have gone this way.

American history, as it pertains to questions of race and equality, is difficult; and the truth of American history, as opposed to the deeply sanitized version we are taught in public school (or at least, the deeply ‘rah-rah-rah’ version I was taught in the 1960’s, predicated on the manifest destiny of white Europeans to take dominion over the Americas while eradicating the natives and enslaving Africans, required a lot of unlearning; I told one of my co-workers the other day that I’ve spent most of my adult life unlearning everything I was raised to believe while re-educating myself on the truth), is actually kind of ugly. I remember reading James Michener’s Centennial when I was in my teens, and realizing everything I’d been taught, read, or seen in movies about the native Americans, and their clash with white Europeans, was actually incredibly biased against the native ‘savages’. (If you’re interested in re-educating yourself on American history, please read Howard Zinn’s histories of the United States, starting with A People’s History of the United States.)

Anyway, when Underground Airlines was released, there was some controversy, given the subject matter and that author Ben H. Winters was white and writing from the perspective of an African-American who worked as a runaway slave catcher. Questions of cultural appropriation often dog the work of white people who write from outside their own experience; yet at the same time there is also a clamor for diversity within fiction and there has long been a Twitter hashtag #weneeddiversebooks. I don ‘t think–and I could be wrong–that the problem is so much cultural appropriation as it is that authors of color do not have the same easy access to publishing that white people do; it’s easier for a white author to get a book published with a person of color as the main character than it is for an author of color to do so. I’ve personally enjoyed seeing the progress made by film and television to cast people of color; when I was a kid I would have loved to find books or television shows or films where gay men weren’t tragic figures doomed to die, or the butt of the joke, or figures of contempt; I can only imagine the positive impact this is having on young minority children to be able to see characters like themselves on films and television shows, or finding them in books.

This is not a bad thing.

The book is very well-written, and I am enjoying it tremendously, but it’s not an easy read, as I said earlier. I had always, as I’ve said before, intended to read it and The Underground Railroad back-to-back, to get a sense of comparison and to see how the differences between how an author of color deals with the issues of race and white supremacy vs how a white author does. Both books have made me think about these issues–the racial divide/conflict that is so deeply woven into the fabric of our society and culture, and how it always has been there from the very beginning.

That’s not a bad thing. Being made to think, to reexamine your values and beliefs, to unlearn things you were taught that are wrong and to reeducate yourself is never a bad thing. I think we, as a country and a society and a culture, can do with some reexamination.

Heavy thoughts for a Sunday morning before I head back into the spice mines.

Here’s a happy Sunday morning hunk for you, Constant Reader.

IMG_1678

 

 

Hey Jude

Well, yesterday was a bust. I got practically nothing done yesterday, other than laundering the bedding, doing the dishes, and straightening up some around the house. I was surprisingly tired, somehow, and wound up relaxing in my easy chair for most of the day, streamed a movie (G. B. F., which was really cute; it’s lovely to see that they are making teen movies with gay characters front and center) and then watched old episodes of Dark Shadows. I simply gave into the being tired and listened to my body, and decided it wasn’t smart to force myself to do anything when I was so tired and listless. I overslept again this morning–stayed in bed until ten again, just like yesterday–but am again refusing to feel any guilt. Obviously, my body, mind, and spirit need rest. Today I will have to go get groceries–no choice, really–and work on some things. We’ll see how it goes; trips to the grocery store rarely end well, you know? That always seems to wear me out somewhat.

And much as I loathe the very idea, my taxes do need to be done.

Heavy heaving sigh.

And I need to go to the grocery store.

Heavy sigh.

Oh, well, it has to be done, no sense in moping about it, right?

And since I embraced my lazy yesterday, I have to get things done today. There is no choice. It simply must be.

At least it’s a beautiful day out there, right? That has to count for something.

I am a little worried about my tendency to stay in the house. I mean, I have a new car and could spend time on the weekends doing things; like exploring New Orleans, going to the beach–all sorts of things–and yet it’s true: a body at rest tends to stay at rest. Like even now I am dreading the very thought of getting out of this chair and going out to do things. It really is sad.

But at least today I feel rested. Yesterday I did not; I felt tired all day. I already feel rested and awake this morning even though it’s already 11:30 and I’ve only had two cups of coffee. I do feel like if I can just get motivated I can clean and make groceries and edit and write and do some of my taxes and so on. And maybe, just maybe, I can get that rewrite of the story finished and maybe make some progress on Crescent City Charade and figure out some other things.

The day is rife with potential and possibilities. You have to love that, don’t you?

I also rewatched my old DVD of Beauty and the Beast yesterday; I’ve been thinking about writing about it and the live-action version that’s just been released (I do want to go see it; just am not sure when I’ll be able to get to a theater) and some of the controversy involved with both. I love the movie, I love the stage play based on it, and if people want to read things into it that are offensive and whatever, have at it. I will still love the movie and the story, and read into it what I see in it: namely, the entire movie is a metaphor for HIV/AIDS, and hope.

Next weekend is the TWFest/Saints & Sinners; I’ve made the executive decision to not stay in the Quarter for more than Friday night; I shall simply commute back and forth between the evejavascript:void(0);nt and the Lost Apartment. That way we won’t have to mess with boarding Scooter. I’ve taken Friday off from work; I shall head down there in the early afternoon and go shopping at the outlet mall for an outfit to wear to the opening parties, and then after everything I am doing on Saturday I shall take the streetcar home, and then take it back down there for Sunday’s events.

All right. I am getting nothing done here. So I shall post a picture of one of the attractive young actors from G. B. F. before I go.

This is Taylor Frey, who also played gay on Days of Our Lives.

What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)

SATURDAY!

I slept in this morning gloriously, and it is apparently already above seventy degrees outside; I see nothing but blue sky when I look up, and the sun is shining through my filthy windows. I will undoubtedly have to get out the ladder and do the windows today. My plan was for today to be my day off; cleaning, of course, doesn’t count because as weird as it sounds, I actually like to do it.

I might start some preliminary editing on the secret project as well. But don’t hold me to that, okay?

Yesterday, a conversation with friends somehow ended up on the subject of the movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, which I saw in the theater when it was first released but haven’t really seen much since then, other than the clip of “Little Bitty Piss Ant Country Place,” which was de rigeur at Lafitte’s on Sundays for tea dance. I liked the movie when I first saw it, and some of the music was quite catchy. But there was always something a bit off about it. Last night I decided to stream it, watch it from a modern-day perspective, and yes, the movie is quite disturbing on many levels.

It seems funny now, but back when the film was released many television stations couldn’t say the word “whorehouse” on air; many newspapers wouldn’t print the word, either. (I don’t know how they reported on actual whorehouses; I guess they called them ‘houses of prostitution’ or something like that) And the tone of the movie…well, I guess it could be best described as “Hee Haw, only with whores.”

And that was really what the problem was for me, on this rewatch. Prostitution is prostitution; whether you think it should be a crime or not (for the record, I think it should be legalized and taxed) turning it–and sex–into this ‘wink-wink-nudge-nudge’ cutesy musical just doesn’t work. And there’s also an underlying cynicism to the movie that clashes with the cutesy-ness: the governor is a politician who doesn’t really care one way or the other whether the Chicken Ranch is breaking the law or is a boon to the economy of the town but only about popular opinion–making his decision only when the polls come in; Melvin P. Thorpe, the Houston news sideshow who breaks the story and gets the Chicken Ranch shut down is a snake-oil salesman of the worst kind–a phony and a liar and an anything-for-ratings shyster; likewise, the political structure of the town is perfectly fine with the existence of the Chicken Ranch and taking Miss Mona’s money until things go south and they all abandon her when the spotlight is shone upon the town; and so on and so forth. All along the whorehouse, Miss Mona and the sheriff trying to protect her as shown as the heroes/victims of the story while law-and-order/politicians/the news are shown to be slick hucksters and really of lower character than the whores–begging the question, ‘who are the real whores here? The girls are selling their bodies but the others are selling their souls.’

There’s also the political subtext of city vs. country; a very popular political subtext in our so-called liberal popular culture, in which city people are seen as buffoons and the country people are the voices of reason and common sense–this thread has frequently run through film and television and even in literature to the point where politicians will feed on it: Sarah Palin’s “real America”, etc., ignoring the fact that the urban centers are the engines that drive the economy and where most of the population live. In this story, the ‘city folk’ from Houston are seen as the villains, not understanding something that the ‘country people’ see as not a big deal, making a big fuss over something that doesn’t bother the country people, and ultimately, telling the country people how to live their lives.

The fact that this movie is based on a true story makes the fluffy film even more unfortunate. Looking into the original non-fiction piece “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” that ran in Playboy, the film pretty much actually follows the trajectory of the movie’s story. They did take poultry in exchange for services during the Depression; the business did exist as long as it did in the movie; the sheriff did refuse to close it down despite being ordered to by the Attorney General of Texas; the house operated pretty much the way shown in the movie.

As I watched the movie again, I couldn’t help but wonder not only what happened to the girls after the Chicken Ranch was closed, but where they came from to begin with. I almost wish the movie had been made based more closely on the original article rather than turned into a musical–although the musical was a Tony-winning hit on Broadway. Also, casting Burt Reynolds and Dolly Parton in the leads was also a mistake. Dolly was coming off her debut in 9 to 5, which had made her a bona fide movie star, and Burt Reynolds was one of the biggest male stars in the world at the time, which resulted in a lot of sanitization, which kind of hurt the movie. Burt and Dolly have chemistry together, and charisma to spare…but you never forget it’s Burt and Dolly, rather than Sheriff Ed Earl and Miss Mona. Burt and Dolly being cast also resulted in an adaptation to the original story which turned them into romantic interests, and a schmaltzy scene where they go on a picnic and stare up at the stairs and Miss Mona talks about her religious faith–having to explain Jesus to the sheriff in such a basic way that makes it clear that Ed Earl has somehow, as a small town Texas sheriff, never set foot in a church or watched a religious epic movie. I find that rather hard to believe.

There’s also a delicious irony in the fact that in a movie about a whorehouse, there is only one brief flash of bare breasts. The majority of the nudity in the movie is male–and it’s all in the post-game locker room scene, where the Texas A&M football team, having won their annual rivalry game with Texas, is excited about going to the Chicken Ranch (the winning team’s seniors are rewarded with a trip there). There are lots of great bare dancer bodies, even bare butts as they perform “Aggie Stomp.” (When I first saw the movie, I greatly enjoyed this scene as there were very few places to see the bare male form in popular culture at the time, or that many bare male forms at the same time. But even then I thought the guys weren’t bulky enough to be football players, and there certainly were no men big enough to play on the line.) The song itself again is one of those ‘wink-wink’ things, because we are supposed, as an audience, to believe that for college football players, being taken to a whorehouse was a treat–because football players never had access to women’s bodies for sex otherwise.

Riiiiiiiiight.

Of course, the Chicken Ranch is supposed to be closed until things settle down, but Miss Mona risks opening for the football party–which is, of course, when Melvin P. Thorpe and his camera crew break in and film. There’s also, if you pay attention in this scene, some subversive sexuality going on during the Aggie party–we see two players in bed with one woman; two guys and two women together; etc.

The movie now seems much sillier than it did at the time; terribly dated, more than a little misogynist, and like I said earlier, that ‘wink-wink, nudge-nudge’ approach to sex and sexuality now reads as annoyingly and insultingly coy.

I would actually love to read a non-fiction history of the Chicken Ranch, to be honest.

And now, back to the spice mines.

Poker Face

So, last night I watched the documentary Author: The JT LeRoy Story. I’ve been digesting it ever since, and still am not really quite sure how I feel about it.

If you aren’t aware of the background story, essentially in the late 1990’s stories began to be published written by someone who wrote under the name “Terminator”, and they were quite good, actually. Eventually, a novel was published called Sarah; “Terminator” was now writing as “JT LeRoy.” By the time Sarah was released, I was working as editor of Lambda Book Report. We’d gotten a review copy of it along with a press release about the author’s background, and basically claiming that the novel was loosely autobiographical. JT’s mother, Sarah, had been a truckstop prostitute; and that was the world JT was raised in; JT was also very young and unsure of his gender/sexuality, and had also worked as a truckstop prostitute. It was a fascinating story, really; but at the same time it seemed kind of, well, off to me. People were raving about the book, and I didn’t actually have to assign it out to anyone: a reviewer emailed me, having just read it, and begged me to let her review it, so I did.

Hey, when someone volunteered to review, it made my life easier and I rarely said no. But I was able to keep the review copy that had been sent to us, and I read it in my spare time–when I wasn’t having to read something to review or determine whether it should be reviewed–and I was impressed. It was a very dark story, but very well written. So, I emailed JT to let him know how much I enjoyed the book, and to congratulate him as well as to let him know we were running a review of it, and since it was going to be a full page review, rather than one of the shorter ones we usually did, I needed an author photo. He emailed me back…and then another bell went off. The email was barely literate, for one thing: and while I knew editors sometimes work really hard with authors…it just didn’t seem to click for me. Something wasn’t right. And a few days later I got a letter thanking me for my interest in the book–again, a handwritten letter rife with grammatical and spelling errors.

And I recognized the author photo. It was an image that had run on the cover of a Dennis Cooper novel that had been published ten years earlier.

And since JT was supposedly only twenty or twenty one at the time…it didn’t compute. Had he been the model for the book cover image? But he would have only been ten or eleven at the time. Again, it didn’t make sense–but it was neither my place nor my job to question this, so I just let it go; and we didn’t run the author photo with the featured review.

As far as I was concerned, that was the end of it. I did get a copy of his next book, The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, but it never came out of my TBR pile, and I was no longer running the magazine, so it wasn’t that big of a deal. I did occasionally see notices about readings being held of JT’s work–with big name celebrities, like Winona Ryder and Matthew Modine, actually reading the work because JT wouldn’t do public appearances and was reclusive. Which, you know, was fine–but it was also interesting. But then he started showing up in magazines and so forth–always in sunglasses, and I also wondered if he was actually bald; because he was clearly wearing bad blond wigs. Again, I arched my eyebrows, but hey, whatever works. It was revealed that he was HIV positive, one of the books was being made into a movie…and then the scandal broke: JT LeRoy didn’t exist; he was a myth, a creation, and the person who was actually writing the books was a straight lady with a longtime male partner and a child, and the partner’s sister was ‘playing’ JT for public appearances and for photographs. I didn’t really see this as a huge scandal at the time; authors always use pseudonyms, and while there was some deception there–the woman pretending to be JT, the backstory, etc.–the bottom line for me was the writing was good, and the fact that it wasn’t autobiographical after all made the achievement even more extraordinary.

But the claiming to be HIV positive…that didn’t sit well with me. It was an insult to everyone infected and living with HIV; it was an insult to everyone we’ve lost to the disease. How very dare you claim HIV positive status to lend authenticity to your fabrication. You deserve to go to hell for that.

But I wanted to watch the documentary. I knew from seeing a review of it in the New York Times that it was primarily focused on Karen Albert, why she became first “Terminator” and then “JT LeRoy”. It’s an interesting story, and while I felt like the documentary was too busy apologizing and making excuses for Ms. Albert–the way she talked about all these different personas she took on–JT, his friend Speedy (which is who she appeared as in public with JT, so she could be there at the readings and everything else public that was going on for JT’s work)–it sounded almost like there was an element of dissociative identity disorder going on there; she certainly had the kind of childhood which tends to result in that particular psychiatric disorder. But she insists that isn’t the case; but she seems to fall back on a particular writerly trope that has always rather put me off as pompous and annoying: the notion that writers have no role in their actual writing and that the characters TAKE OVER.

Um, no. I don’t know where or why that trope about the experience of writing started or even how it got started, but I’ve always felt it’s a steaming pile of bullshit and whenever I hear any writer say something along those lines my eyes roll so hard they almost unscrew out of their sockets.

Don’t get me wrong; when I am writing, especially in the first person, I have to get completely inside the character I am writing about and channel them–but they don’t take me over. I don’t BECOME Chanse or Scotty when I am writing about them. They are a part of me but they aren’t me.

The documentary, though, is fascinating, and Karen Albert is an interesting person. Do I think she set out to pull a long con? No, I don’t. I do believe that it got out of control and she didn’t know how to contain it–and there were also money issues involved; why kill the goose that’s laying the golden eggs? But I also think she doesn’t own her part in any of it; she’s so busy (in the documentary) giving explanations and justifying the masquerade that she doesn’t really feel any remorse about the lying and the fraud. She only regrets being caught.

Interestingly enough, the publisher of the JT LeRoy books have published new editions to coincide with the release of the documentary–which makes the documentary and her role in it even more suspect. Hey, here’s another chance for me to sell some books!

And she never apologizes for, or even tries to justify, the HIV lie. She makes the point that the books are fiction and they exist, so calling the whole escapade a fraud isn’t honest; she seems to think the more grandiose word “myth” is more apt to describe what she did with the creation of JT LeRoy.

JT LeRoy, though, was a fraud. The books are real, of course, and nothing can take away from the fact that she wrote two really extraordinary books. Would the books have become so successful had she not created the fraud?

We’ll never know.

And here’s a hunk to slide you into the first weekend of Carnival parades: