Savannah Knoop had been worrying about this night for months. And she knew she'd brought it on herself. She remembered perfectly well that after San Francisco's greatest literary hoax had been exposed three years ago, she'd managed promptly and almost completely to fade away from public view, while her co-conspirator bore the brunt of the backlash. Maybe now Knoop's time had come. Maybe what awaited her tonight was not a cultural coming of age and her community's forgiving embrace, but a long-deferred comeuppance — a battery of ruthless heckling, the figurative shower of pig's blood.
These were her worries on the mild Wednesday evening in September when Knoop, 27, appeared at A Different Light Bookstore in the Castro to read from her new memoir (which would be released on October 1) in San Francisco for the first time. She'd had plenty of readings before, here and elsewhere, over several years. But never as herself.
For those events, she had posed as the best-selling author known as JT LeRoy, a gay male HIV-positive Appalachian truck-stop prostitute whose transgressively chic autobiographical fiction had earned him — and, by extension, Knoop — a cult following. People flocked to JT's readings. They thought him precious and brilliant, a beacon of hope for other battered young lives. Celebrities like Winona Ryder were among those who counted themselves as fans of JT. Then they learned he was fictional, the golden brainchild of Knoop's sister-in-law, Laura Albert. And it all fell apart.
Nightclub chatter and thumping bass drifted in through an open back door. The store's assistant manager apologized for not having enough chairs. "Our readings don't usually get this many people," he said. Knoop had some friends in attendance, and some strangers, and some people in between.
JT always had so many decoys, she was telling herself, remembering her literary alter ego's public events. The wigs. The sunglasses. She felt suddenly vulnerable now without those props. Now, dressed in a dark slicker, sweatshirt, and decoratively banded leggings, all of which she'd designed and made herself, Knoop cut her own conspicuous figure. Now all she had was her real haircut, done by a friend to look like the kid from There Will Be Blood, and her unhidden silver-blue eyes, by turns steely and shifty as she tried not to make a show of sizing up her audience. She reminded herself that she wasn't interested in retreating anymore. But that didn't mean she wasn't scared.
She began by introducing the passage she'd be reading, from a period, she said, "when it got more interactive." At that, she raised an eyebrow, as if surprised to hear herself describe it that way. And she read:
"In practically all the interviews, this question came up in one form or another. The most direct had been in another city, when an interviewer said, 'You could be anybody. How do we know you are who you say you are? I mean, you sound like a woman to me.' The rest of the reporters muttered and shook their head at him, indignant that he had asked such a question. They considered him a nut. I would be saved each time by remembering Laura's 'Chinese Finger Puzzle' rule: always go in further to get out.
"'Um, you don't know. And you won't know. And I don't want you to know. JT could be back in Spokane, a 500-pound black man, like that guy, the voice of Elmo, right? Some people say I am Dennis Cooper. Some people say I am really Gus Van Sant. I like that. I mean, yer absolutely right. I could be anybody. As fer sounding like a woman, thank you.' I curtsied."
Chuckles bubbled up from the audience. Knoop stopped reading to absorb the reaction. Briefly, she smiled, but then she looked up, and nervously scanned the audience again. Was there someone in particular she was looking for?
One of her fears for this night, she would later explain, was that Laura Albert would show up, and somehow make a scene. This was not a rational fear, because by now Knoop and Albert had grown accustomed to not speaking to or seeing each other at all. But, rational or not, the fear was real. If Knoop had come away from their time together certain of anything, it was that Albert had a flair for making scenes.
Go in further to get out. That's what had saved her before. And that, in effect, was her rule for writing this book, which is called Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT LeRoy, and is ostensibly about becoming Savannah Knoop. It was a good rule, but still, after all, Laura's.
The following day, over a lingering breakfast at the St. Francis Diner in the Mission, Knoop elaborated on all the anguish she'd brought to her literary local debut, and the deliverance she hoped it would bring her in return.
"I was really inspired by Laura," she said. "But I didn't want [the memoir] to tell her story. And I just wasn't convinced that I should be doing it. Laura was a big part of that. It took me forever to find my voice in it. To get over that fear that I have no voice. I kept reworking the chapters. It was a block. I could say what happened but I couldn't put myself in there. It took a while to claim it."
Before becoming JT LeRoy, Knoop, a Bay Area native who grew up in Marin County and went to prep school in Connecticut, had plans to become a clothing designer. She has her own company, called Tinc (a Thai word, meaning to throw away), whose small SOMA workshop is cluttered with clothes racks, old sewing machines, a well-worn work table, and many vinyl records. Knoop's clothes have been noticed, locally and elsewhere. For starters, her mother, Sharon, a San Francisco acupuncturist whom Knoop describes as "intensely creative" and entirely supportive, lately has been seen at her daughter's events, be they about literature or apparel or both, looking sharp in Tinc jodhpurs and an angular heather-gray duster. She's not alone in suspecting that Savannah has a promising future in fashion.