The Persona is Political: Laura Albert Interviewed by Lindsey Novak

On the new audiobook recordings that bring JT LeRoy to life.

One yellow and one blue audiobook cover of new releases by JT LeRoy i.e. Laura Albert

When Laura Albert revealed JT LeRoy as her literary persona, some readers took it as a punch to the gut, a dupe. Yet for many of her devoted fans, she is a literary hero. For Albert, the language to describe a queer experience was missing. We didn’t have the language and we certainly didn’t have the community, but her work elevated a holy, queer space. The LeRoy persona is for the queer kids who grew up in church, or oppressed, or never knew what to call what they felt inside. For us, LeRoy held church. Through LeRoy, Albert preached to the unnamed outsider in me, and to that end, there’s a spark of LeRoy in us all, a polyphonic spree.

The recently released audiobook recordings of Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things have only served to further bring the LeRoy persona to life—inherently multitudinous and multi-voiced. For Laura Albert, the audio recordings of her two works as LeRoy are now finally being revered and retold—by the likes of musician Shirley Manson, actors Joshua Caleb Johnson and Michael Imperioli, and director Darnell Martin, actor among others—in a symbolic act of restoration. 

Discovery of self is never a solitary process. The person, once transformed, returns to contribute to society. This is how the collective conscience evolves. Albert is incredibly accessible online and is always so encouraging to emerging writers. She recently gave some invaluable writing advice, which sparked my desire to interview her, while asking questions centering the ideas of persona, autofiction, and the things we do to reveal—or run from—vulnerability. 

—Lindsey Novak

Lindsey Novak I think writers would be especially interested to hear your take on the urge to use a persona to write memoir. Is it a kind of hiding? Or alternatively, a creative rebellion?

Laura Albert To my mind there is no way of writing anything—especially memoir or autobiography—without the assumption of some kind of persona: The writing voice is a persona, words have been selected and arranged to make a certain point to you. And the more sensitive, detailed, and nuanced that writing voice is, the more elaborate the persona. The surrealists’ interest in automatic writing resonates because outside of such direct communications from the unconscious, you are always dealing with a persona in whatever writing you read. 

LeRoy was the mask that enabled me to tell the truth, to again reference Wilde; another metaphor I use is the mechanical hands that manipulate materials too dangerous to be touched directly. LeRoy was my shield, and most writers tend to use the form of what they’re writing as a shield, telling you only what that form permits them to share, only what you need to know, and shielding the rest of their thoughts and feelings and personality and history.

LN Early in your writing career you were writing for the web as a sexpert under your own name. You said that it felt like more of a lie than your writing as LeRoy, because writing as LeRoy felt more real to you, dealt with more of your issues, and allowed you to explore the darkness. After the persona was exposed (many called it a fraud and literary hoax) you said “being public with writing, it wears you out.” When the documentary Author came out, you said that you needed a rescue, but you knew you wouldn’t be in charge of anything in it. Was the persona created as a mechanism of control, a way to mediate how your readers connected to you? And did it become its own monster, like Frankenstein’s monster, from which you needed rescue? 

LA Having LeRoy “walk among us” was very much my way of exercising control, not only for my readers to be able to connect with a being but as a barrier for everyone coming at me. I was safe because no one was dealing with “me,” I dealt with them through the scrims of Speedie (LeRoy’s gatekeeper) or LeRoy. Now, LeRoy did in fact take on a life of his own, on several levels. But I never saw him as some kind of albatross around my neck or a menace that I needed to be rescued from. By the time of the reveal, I actually was feeling ready, as a writer, wondering, Could I let him go, could I “move on” and do other things? But the separation that was forced at the time was awful. “If you take him from me I will die,” I wrote in one of my journals, as I could not imagine living without him, he was a conjoined twin, or so I thought—it felt like we shared lungs.

So I was deeply invested in LeRoy’s realness. Nobody loved him more than I did, because he was everything about me that I could still love and respect—as long as it was projected onto someone else, as I was also very given over to my own shame and self-loathing from what I had experienced in my past but was not ready to own. LeRoy, however, was able to live it all, and out in the open for everyone to see. He was the Scorpio who was able to forgive an abusive and abandoning childhood, he was the omnisexual gender-fluid individual who naturally eluded all categories, he was the author who was able to reframe suffering and degradation and exploitation. Of course, his being all these things was a hint that perhaps I was of those same things, but that truth was not recognizable to me then.

LN Tell me about the production of the audiobooks for Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. LeRoy, as a now beloved persona, was inherently polyphonic. How did the different readings by actors, musicians, a whole host of artists elevate that voice? 

LA You’re right about LeRoy being “inherently polyphonic.” I always thought that eventually, everyone will have their fifteen minutes of being LeRoy. So, it wasn’t just appropriate but essential that the audiobook of The Heart speak through a spectrum of readers from diverse backgrounds and experiences, which is not the norm with audiobooks. And this was mostly recorded during the start of COVID, ground zero in New York City, so under the most horrible of circumstances! Folks recorded from all over the world, it was a logistical feat! I am very moved by the dedication from Blackstone to make this happen.

LN How long had you been thinking about the idea and how did you make the impeccable casting decisions that you did to read the stories in Heart?

LA After Sarah was first published, they wanted LeRoy to record the audiobook, and we had all this equipment in my home, but the novel felt too close to read. And reading for an audiobook, I learned very quickly, requires a very different skill set. After refusing him for a very long time, I finally let director Jeff Feuerzeig persuade me to read some of “Balloons” and bring forth LeRoy, of sorts, for his film Author: The JT LeRoy Story. It’s not a voice I can summon or do; when I speak as LeRoy, it always has an emotional tug, although that has lessened over time. But having that experience of reading “Balloons,” of allowing him out and it being OK, made it easier for me to go into the studio for Blackstone and record the piece for the audiobook of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. It helped that both the engineer I worked with, Jayme Mattler, and the producer, Bryan Barney, understood I was not coming in as a professional reader, and that reading it had intense emotional resonance for me. And they were nothing but supportive.

For each reader, I recognized something in their being that is also accessible in their voice—not only a feel for nuance but an intrinsic understanding of the material as well. Some I go way back with, like Pamela Sneed and Darnell Martin, who I have known for over half my life. Shirley Manson has been a steady friend through all my various iterations of being. I have been friends and worked with all the readers in some capacity—Laila Hayani, Robin Weigert on Deadwood, Laura Desiree, Christelle de Castro, Alissa Bennett, and Leigh Ledare (who reads Billy Corgan’s Foreword for Sarah). Paul Mendez is an exciting British writer, and with the publication of his new novel, Rainbow Milk, it was brought to my attention that he had credited my LeRoy work for leading him to write. It was clear he could hold and convey this material, and I loved the full circle connection.

Through friends, I had been connected with singer Lawrence Rothman and our youngest reader, the stellar Joshua Caleb Johnson. Kerris Dorsey I met through actress Paula Malcomson (The Hunger Games). I knew Donovan Leitch from the JT days, and I coincidentally met his sister-in-law, singer Julie Mintz, when she recognized me in New York City and we connected. Her sister, Libby Mintz, read too. I heard from a friend that Michael Imperioli was a supporter of my work, and I had been a fan of the singer Soko and was very jazzed when she agreed to read a new piece that isn’t in the book. Daniel Newman has been a pal from the JT LeRoy days.

As for Winsome Brown, she is a force of nature supreme. Malcomson introduced me to Winsome when we all happened to be in New York. When I met her, I was struck by this glow—Winsome radiates a compassionate acceptance, this honest warmth. Also, there was no fuss about her. I did not know I had found my Sarah but I tasted it—often how I react—when we met up again. That she felt the material as well and agreed to take it on was quite a marvel. Winsome reads the novel Sarah and a story from The Heart, and it is all extremely difficult to do, an audiobook is not a radio drama—the point is to project a text. To get the rhythms of that is hard enough; it also has to sound personal to the reader if it’s going to be really present to the listener. And it’s a lot tougher to read an entire novel than to read a story, you have to know the overall movement of the whole text and work within that, while still bringing the moment-to-moment activity to life. But Winsome is extraordinary, she has a musicality that lends itself organically to the work. Her reading allowed me to understand more about what I was revealing in Sarah, which I had not yet processed.

Laura A Albert Sanchez

Photo of Laura Albert by Albert Sanchez.

LN With the Author: The JT LeRoy Story documentary, the rerelease of Sarah and Heart, and how the LeRoy persona was embraced, you’ve been on a bit of a redemption tour. I want to ask you about the idea of redemption—who deserves it, who is it for, what does it mean, what does it look like to you? 

LA Early in 2006, when a worldwide frenzy was unleashed after my authorship of the LeRoy books was revealed, Courtney Love urged me to write a book, and she connected me with her agent. She wanted to go on Oprah with me where I could weep and beg for forgiveness. America loves redemption, she told me, and would welcome the spectacle of herself and Oprah basking in the special glow of having brought me to redemption—and to a big market for my book, which would have to be of the celebrity-tell-all type, packaged with the optics of an apology.

She could not understand it when I refused. I had no interest in doing that kind of writing, I was still figuring out what it all was. What I did know though was that I did not need to do some performative plea for forgiveness from everybody for how I needed to bring my fiction into the world.

I’m wary about the milieu of redemption. As far as Sarah is concerned, I see a difference between being redeemed and being rescued. Spoiler Alert: yes, the narrator is brought back to safety at the end of the novel, but if you compare it with how things were at the beginning, the character experiences a fall from grace, a journey from innocence to experience, which is perhaps also a part of their growing self-awareness.

A coupon has no value unless it is redeemed; does a person have no value unless they are redeemed? Many people who profess to be Christian seem to think so. But I agree with Oscar Wilde: “Reformations in morals are as meaningless and vulgar as reformations in theology. But while to propose to be a better man is a piece of unscientific cant, to have become a deeper man is the privilege of those who have suffered.” Exploring that depth is what interests me as a writer.

LN You have said in an interview with The Rumpus in 2016 that your mother used a man’s pseudonym to help her get published and that this was modeled for you. You said a theme of your writing is the question, “How do you love the unlovable?” I’m curious about how, in your work, “unlovable” meant queer, or how it represented difference and outsider status. I’m curious if, through the complex and contradictory characters you’ve created, you created a kind of queer church, a holy place for those who identify as such?

LA I want to be clear, I do not conflate being unlovable with being queer. In the LeRoy books, it’s Sarah’s cruelty, her own suffering, her own self-hate, which make her unlovable to herself and to some readers, while her gender-fluid son keeps trying to show her love. We live in a society where queer people are constantly being told that they are unlovable—unless they are redeemed in some way, if they are entertaining, if they are visually appealing. Otherwise, they should be invisible. The message when I was growing up was that to be queer is outcast and dangerous.

In Sarah, I deliberately elevated queerness. I very much like the idea of creating what you call “a holy place” for those who self-identify as part of the broader queer community—and that’s exactly the sort of language which should be used. Societies throughout history have understood this special status for people who don’t fit within the standard boundaries of gender and sexuality, they’ve recognized that we walk between other kinds of worlds as well, seen and unseen. We need to renew and extend this recognition.

LN You went to the New School on a scholarship and didn’t finish the year; you partly attribute this to being discouraged by a professor from writing in a male voice. It sounds like the writing you enjoyed—writing about punk bands, doing music journalism, and writing as a male character—saved your voice. I’m very interested in what you think about the kinds of writing that make us lose our voice and the kinds of writing that bring our voice back?

LA It’s a rare thing to encounter an authentic personal voice—almost impossible in any writing done for hire, and exceedingly rare in noncommercial writing as well. So many people have praised LeRoy’s authenticity, and readers have reached out to express how valuable the writing is to them – which still keeps happening, long after I was “outed”—I know I’ve tapped into something personal and startlingly honest within myself in those books. I was also dealing with real social issues that people have been ignoring for too long.

LN So, you fell in love with writing in the group home, went to the New School on a scholarship, ended up in a mental hospital before the year was out—I’m curious to hear your response to the quote, “Trauma is a gateway drug”? 

LA Of course trauma is what leads us to behavior that is self-destructive and harmful to others. It’s the first thing we tend to forget in dealing with people who are aggressive, especially if they’re in the grip of some fucked-up ideology. Trauma has impelled them to that state. And because the experience of trauma is the bond that all of us share—no one gets through life unscathed—trauma is also the gateway to universal compassion and to recognizing ourselves in others. Each of us is processing trauma in our own provisional, half-spoken, self-medicating methods, and it’s all triage to return us to the battlefield as quickly as possible. If we can get through the door, out into the world and back again in one piece, that’s seen as a real victory. But until we get to the infection in the sentence, so to speak, we are the walking wounded. (I think that is the attraction to zombie films, the perfect metaphor.) Look, when I was in foster care, PTSD, as it related to people outside of war, had only just appeared in the DSM. The strategy for treatment was three hots and a cot, our basic needs met within a set structure. We were lucky that we had staff who were very caring and went above and beyond, but there was no work done to try to heal our real traumas after having been exposed to physical and sexual abuse. And after being discharged, every one of us went into the world as the walking wounded. We would have to find a way to deal with that infection in our sentence. And some did not. We lost many to suicide.

LN Since you’re now presenting to the literary world as yourself, Laura Albert, what can you tell us about who you are? What would you like readers to know about you that they didn’t get to as LeRoy? Now that you’re being seen, what would you like readers to see about Laura Albert?

LA What I would most like people to know about me is what I told them in my dedication for the reissue of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things: The things I’ve written about are happening to people all the time. And when they happen to you, you believe nobody knows and nobody cares. But I know and I care, and I’ve written this book for you.

Once we can name and identify what our own story is, we can be advocates not only for ourselves but for others who name themselves. And that can lead to our living outside the illusion of an isolated self, which leads to activism. There is no greater gift than moving out of frozen suffering and joining with others in the knowledge that our stories can impact the world for the better. That is our imperative.

Lindsey Novak is a writer whose work has appeared in the Rumpus, Atticus Review, Puerto del Sol, Chattahoochee Review, Stonecoast Review, and others. She is pursuing her PhD at Arizona State University where she teaches composition and is at work on Shelterwood, a memoir recounting her time at a Christian reform school in the Ozarks.