MICHELE NORRIS, host:
J.T. LeRoy has been a publishing sensation since his first novel came out in 2000. His fiction is populated with teen-aged, gender-bending hustlers and street kids. All of his stories are described as autobiographical which may be a problem because it's becoming clearer and clearer that J.T. LeRoy is a hoax. Today's New York Times reports that the J.T. LeRoy who has appeared in photographs with celebrities like Courtney Love, is really a young woman and his writing is likely done by a 40-year-old female rock musician. That story is a follow-up to a New York magazine investigation a few months ago. It reported, among other things, that J.T. LeRoy's book editors have never met him in person and that payment for his work is funneled through a corporation in Nevada. The story of J.T. LeRoy, whoever he is, sounds very familiar to commentator Paul Ford.
I, too, am a literary hoaxter. It could be on my business card. For a while, I wrote something called "Gary Benchley, Rock Star" on the Web site, themorningnews.org, except I didn't put my name on it. With the blessing of the editors, I wrote it as if I were Gary Benchley.
Now Gary Benchley was a goofy 22 year old who desperately wanted to be an indie rocker. He made a total fool of himself as he got a band together. Gary Benchley was a way for me to make fun of things that I wanted to poke fun at, kind of a big practical joke. I never thought a lot of people would believe he was real, but, man, did people believe. Gary got countless e-mails from fans but also from agents, book editors and The New York Times. They wanted Gary to write for them.
Now I'd been writing and publishing for years, but Gary, age 22, from Albany, New York, was a far more successful writer than I'd ever been. So I don't blame J.T. LeRoy or whoever J.T. LeRoy is for making J.T. LeRoy up. I mean, how could I? It's fun to put one over on everyone else. And it's easy to fall under the spell of your own writing. I mean, it's filled with truckstop prostitutes known as Lot Lizards and heroin and young boys in women's clothing and symbolic snails and nasty, nasty sex. What a great way to grab everyone's attention, especially if they believe it's true.
And let's not forget the audience. For every zillion-copy-selling personal memoir of grief and understanding, there are readers willing to believe, ready to take things on faith in order to get that salacious, vicarious thrill. There's something deeply exciting about the lives of lowlives. Just ask Charles Dickens. And it's all the better when the book ends with a moment of redemption. Of course, in real life, after redemption comes, you still have to go out and buy groceries, but redemption in a novel is as cheap as the ink on the paper because writers have always lied. They come from a country of liars. Writing is just telling lies in a pleasant way. It's only that sometimes, unfortunately, you get caught.
NORRIS: Paul Ford's novel is titled "Gary Benchley, Rock Star."
NORRIS: I'm Michele Norris. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.
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