When Laura Albert told the New York Post, as she did earlier this month, that someone is “really stepping on my feelings,” she was talking about Savannah Knoop, the young woman who, at the age of 19, was enlisted by Albert and her husband, Geoff Knoop, to participate in the now infamous literary hoax. “Just because you play a writer doesn't mean you are a writer,” Albert added, when asked about Knoop's forthcoming memoir, Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy, which will be published by Seven Stories Press. JT Leroy, of course, was the supposed waifish, former prostitute and author of the well-received novels Sarah (2001) and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things (2002), both of which drew critical praise and attracted a hip and influential following, from Dennis Cooper to Gus Van Sant to Winona Ryder. That the books were written by Albert, a onetime phone sex worker and rock singer, and that the person making public appearances for “Leroy” was really Albert's husband's half-sister Savannah, was revealed in 2006 in New York magazine. Albert has not published since, but Savannah, 25 at the time of the exposé and six years into being someone else in public, began writing a story of her own. Her story arrives in October into a publishing world much altered by not only the hoax of which she was a part but by other similar deceits perpetrated within the publishing industry.
The noted photographer Mary Ellen Mark was a key figure in bringing Knoop's story into being. Mark did a photo shoot of Leroy for Vanity Fair, but was never taken in by the Leroy persona. “I don't think I believed for a moment that JT was a boy,” Mark told Photo District News, “or that the books were real.” Mark eventually befriended the girl behind the boy wearing a wig and sunglasses. After the hoax was made public, Savannah showed Mark some of her writing about the experience. Mark showed them to Vicky Wilson at Knopf, who had published Mark's now classic photo-essay about Bombay prostitutes, Falkland Road. Wilson liked what she saw. “I wanted to publish it,” she told PW of the proposal she saw in early 2006. “But it was right after the James Frey scandal. Sonny [Mehta] liked it as well, but we felt we couldn't go forward right then.”
Wilson recommended an agent to Knoop—Martha Kaplan, whom she'd known since the days Kaplan worked for Robert Gottlieb at Knopf. “I thought, who's going to be open enough and unbound by any corporate anything, and I thought Martha could find that publisher.”
Enter Seven Stories Press, the independent house run by Dan Simon, and his editor-in-chief, Amy Scholder. “Savannah's story is the one that nobody's heard,” said Scholder. “I read two sample chapters, and I thought they were phenomenally good. ” Asked if she was worried that the public was turned off to hoaxes, Scholder said no. “This is very much a journey of a young, confused woman finding herself in completely bizarre circumstances. I think it will appeal to young women readers who are starting to learn to deal with societal pressures on who they are.”
Knoop, now a fashion designer (in New York, her line can be found at the Japanese boutique Takashimaya), said she has always had an interest in writing “but during the JT experience I just stopped.” The experience of impersonating a writer taught her “what people responded to at readings—visceral narrative.” And it helped her find herself. “I am definitely settled now,” she told PW, then laughed. “I have some gender and sexuality idiosyncrasies, but I feel more comfortable.” The clothes she designs now, she said, reflect where she is. “They could almost be unisex,” she said, “but they're definitely for women.”
As for the understandable concerns about truth and authenticity, Kaplan said, “I believe her. She has nothing to gain by not finding the truth in her own story.” Knoop admitted to being a little nervous about doing readings. “I suppose I should have someone else read for me,” she joked, “but I don't ever want to go there again. I'm in my life.”
Seven Stories is planning a 20,000-copy first printing.