Stephen Beachy is the author of two novels, The Whistling Song, and Distortion, as well as a new pair of linked novellas titled Some Phantom/No Time Flat. His fiction has appeared in Best American Gay Fiction, BOMB, The Chicago Review, Blithe House Quarterly, and his nonfiction has appeared in New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In 2005, he bore the dubious honor of unmasking the "Real JT Leroy" in a piece for New York Magazine. Raised by Mennonites "somewhere in the Midwest" and educated in part at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he now lives in California where he teaches at the University of San Francisco.
The two novellas Some Phantom/No Time Flat share some common themes (wandering adults,
possible crimes, sexual abuse, parents and children). Were these
simultaneous projects that purposely came together? Did they spring
from a similar inspiration?
Some Phantom actually predates No Time Flat considerably. I think I began working on it in the mid 90s, was trying to sell it by 1999 or so. A few editors liked it well enough, but thought it too slight to stand on its own. By the point I realized it wasn't going to happen on its own, No Time Flat existed as about thirty pages plopped down in the middle of a chaotic novel. Once I decided that it actually belonged as the other half of Some Phantom a lot of pieces fell into place. There were thematic links already present, and others emerged, both unconsciously and as the result of very conscious processes of interweaving the two.
What was your intention with the "crime scene investigation" and
police report texts in No Time Flat? I found myself consistently
wondering if or how they might be connected to the main character,
Wade, but was left, I think intentionally, uncertain.
Yes, that's right. I definitely was using them to create narrative tension, and to invite the reader to guess at connections, look for connections and even to make connections that would mimic the process of solving a crime. Looking at those processes and, in some ways subverting them, or at least highlighting the misguided assumptions, biases and conclusions that might stem from these processes, was very much part of the project. There’s something that happens when the suspect of these reports is being incriminated, based on his reading materials – lots of references to murdered children and so on – that implicates the reader, I hope. Since the reader is also reading such a book.
They are very funny, these "police reports," using a lot of
problemetized "words" in quotation marks, much like the text of the
story itself. Did you have a particular voice in mind when writing
I looked at actual police reports stemming from the case of those three teenage boys who were railroaded for the murder of three children in West Memphis some years back. These murders were examined in the documentary "Paradise Lost" and its sequel, and almost certainly committed by the step-father of one of the boys. I kept some of the details of that case, with which I hoped I might create a sort of ghostly suggestion of it for those familiar with it, while I added and changed details to suggest elements of both of the novellas. The police reports I looked at were on a website critical of the investigation, and so often included a very skeptical, parenthetical voice that I’m sure leaked into my own version. As well as my own skeptical, parenthetical voice, and the voice of the narrator of No Time Flat, who is close to Wade, but not without a largish ironic distance.
Was there anything that you consciously wanted to avoid in writing about these arguably marginal characters and their arguably marginal desires?
Both books are about the easy shift from one version of events to another, from one way of understanding a story or a memory or a few sporadic facts or observations to another. They’re trying to get at some of the arbitrary ways we make meaning of our lives. So I guess I tried to avoid some of the easiest or most prevalent ways that we seem to do that in America these days. The psychology of the family unit is maybe the most obvious thing that's barely there; I really wanted to treat these two protagonists as people who had formed themselves, or been formed by more random and chaotic forces than mommy and daddy. And while it might not seem obvious, I also tried to work against the idea that the major threat to children is posed by strangers with guns, pedophiles, and murderers wandering the landscape. I personally believe there's a lot more to fear from the parents and institutions that “take care” of children (if I may problematize a phrase here) than from monstrous child-murderers. But I certainly used the expected fears of those familiar monsters for narrative tension, and because I was dealing in a lot of ambiguity I think I created possible readings of events very different from my own.
I also tried to avoid clear labels or diagnoses. I tend to see desires and states of mind as things that exist on a continuum, and the whole concept of “normality” I’ve never found very useful for making sense of my own experience in the world, certainly not when it comes to sexual desire. I don’t know what normal sexual desire would look like, and I’ve certainly never met anyone who had it. So it was interesting with Wade, for example, for me to simply describe some of the things he was thinking and feeling, while avoiding words that put them into categories. Imagining a character with a less firm grasp of some very common cultural references than myself opened up a fun space to defamiliarize things, I think. Fun for me, at least.
I'm really curious about the woman at the center of Some Phantom.
Did you have a diagnosis in mind?
I certainly had models in mind, but, as I said, I'm pretty skeptical about diagnoses in general. Psychology, as practiced in America, is pretty barbaric, and whenever you look back at even its recent past, from a distance of say thirty years out, you see this clearly deluded state of affairs, with lobotomies, electroshock therapy, Valium prescriptions for unhappy housewives, and a whole range of common sexual desires treated as pathologies. I think thirty years from now, or hopefully much sooner, our current era will be seen as something akin to the dark ages. Between our blithe medication of children and our usually silly quest for the genes that cause specific behaviors, we're in a seriously confused world of diagnoses and treatments for mental health. Which isn't to say that the woman in Some Phantom doesn't have some serious issues, or that people in general don’t suffer a great deal from mental afflictions. She's sometimes paranoid, certainly, a state of affairs she tries to crush with a kind of hyper-rationality. More than a diagnosis though, I'd again say she's capable of certain states of mind that are quite common. I think most of us are paranoid at times, or at least capable of paranoia. It's a particular misreading of affairs that places the self at the world's center, an understandable impulse in a world in which very few people and no institutions actually care much about other people's goals and desires, except to make use of them, usually to sell something. I wanted to look at how easily one can sort of slip over that line where misreadings become mental illness, I guess. One very important model was The Turn of the Screw, but by way of the film version, "The Innocents", starring Deborah Kerr. Truman Capote wrote the screenplay, and underlined some of the queer subtext which that old queen Henry James had consciously or unconsciously introduced. In the film it's clear that the prim governess, from a strict religious background, is horrified by the little gay boy she's taken charge of and his improper relationship with his rough trade ghost. Also, after I'd written the first draft I saw Herk Harvey's Carnival of Souls", whose rational protagonist, stuck between the world of the living and the world of the dead, seemed very much akin to my protagonist in a bizarre number of ways.
Both of these novellas deal with dark subjects but are consistently
hilarious in their delivery. Would you say humor has always been a
part of your writing? Would you care to expound for a minute on why
it pays to be funny?
Dark humor feels like a particularly accurate worldview, I suppose, or at least one that suits me. The food chain is just grotesque in its horror, and we're all going to suffer and die, but humor is one of the great consolations. You back up out of the human situation a bit and we seem pretty hilarious. We're such nasty and deluded primates, but even our cruelty can be so ridiculous it's comic. I've always at least tried to be funny, sometimes more than others. Without humor I'd feel pompous or smug, I think, which is one reason humor pays. What reader wants to be lectured or to even be shown the world by somebody who takes themselves so absolutely seriously? I can't read Thomas Mann, for example, and I have issues with Joyce; even his attempts at humor come off as the lame attempts of a man utterly convinced of his own genius and the grandeur of his project to humanize himself. There are definitely many writers I love and who've influenced me, maybe most of them, who use dark humor. Joy Williams absolutely, William Burroughs, Ralph Ellison, Denis Johnson, Ascher/Straus, Clarice Lispector, Roberto Bolaño. Good social satirists like Han Ong, Gary Indiana, Jessica Hagedorn and Colson Whitehead are almost always funny and dark.
You are quoted as having said that "Female Convict Scorpion:
Jailhouse 41" is one of the greatest films ever made. Please explain.
It was made in 1972, the second in a series of four women's prison films about a silent and unjustly imprisoned convict named Scorpion. I haven’t seen the last two, they’re harder to find, but it’s pretty universally agreed that they pale next to the first two, and it’s the second that really transcends the genre’. The surreal landscapes, special effects, awesome soundtrack and unsentimental feminism elevate this film into one of the strangest, most visually interesting and moving films ever made. Seven escaped female convicts flee through ruined villages, meet ghost women, and fight for their lives. Scorpion’s film persona seems to have been influenced by the spaghetti westerns, Clint Eastwood in particular. Meiko Kaji stars as the stoic, vengeful woman, but she’s much more of a badass than Eastwood ever was. The final revenge fantasy takes the film into the stratosphere. I love B movies that transcend their genre’ to become cosmic; "The Brain That Wouldn’t Die" is another great example, or "X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes," starring Ray Milland.
Because you were the first to unmask Laura Albert as JT Leroy (New
York Magazine, October 2005), I thought I'd ask what your
afterthoughts were, if any, on how story played out in the media? It
seems clear that many agreed there was something insidious about the
AIDS angle that made this more than just a clever literary hoax. Has
there been anything you've heard or seen since the story broke that
particularly shocked or bothered you? I've noticed that JT's website
features a faux headline "The Real JT Writes On" and links to
interviews with Laura, as well as a couple of dead links to her band
Thistle's website. I imagine someone has probably given Laura Albert
another book deal?
The last I heard, nobody was going near Laura’s book proposal. I think she’d polluted so many relationships as JT, and left such a trail of lies and fraud that not even the New York publishing world was willing to take the chance on her. That could change, of course. I’ve also heard rumors that she’s working on a documentary. The more interesting documentary (which I’ve been consulted on), however, is being produced by a San Francisco woman Marjorie Sturm. She had been hired by JT at some point to make a documentary, but they killed it when they realized that Savannah Knoop, who played JT in public, would be recognized. Marjorie has all of this footage from early on, and she’s interviewed everyone involved with the story, with the exception of Laura. Nothing Laura does could much shock me any more. Mostly she just runs around threatening to sue people. Laura’s whole angle, since going public, has been that she in a big way really is JT, because she had an abusive childhood, she spent time on the streets, and so on. Taking on a male identity is supposed to be a combination of feminist necessity and fun-loving gender play. But she’s behaved so monstrously that her plea for sympathy as a victim isn’t getting her much traction. People have really focussed on the HIV angle, as the most obnoxious lie, but I’m not so sure. S/he never underlined the HIV thing so much; it was an excuse s/he used early on not to show up in public, because of the unsightly Kaposis’s on JT’s face. But the whole white trash, West Virginia, fundamentalist child-abusers he was supposedly raised by, the grand-daddy who bathed him in lye, the whole JT bio, really, was pretty sick in the way it made use of abuse narratives, combined with common stereotypes, and whatever roots it had in her own dysfunctional personality, a large part of it was always about scamming, and about her own success. At the same time, it does seem to me that Laura was and still is mentally ill, and I have more sympathy with her than many commentators. It’s like Kim Novak in "Vertigo" – another movie with a large presence in the novellas – she’s played this role and made Jimmy Stewart love her, but then she meets him again, no longer the blond aristocratic queen, but a trashy brunette from Salina, Kansas, who wears too much makeup. And she wants him to love her for herself, but he just wants to transform her into the fake woman he remembers. Kim Novak does a brilliant job of capturing the torment of somebody so desperate to be loved that they’ll become whatever the lover wants. And Laura must have been tormented in a similar way.
As far as how it played out in the media, there’s been a lot of focus on Laura, either how evil and fraudulent she is or how misunderstood and merely a fun-loving prankster she is. But I think it’s more complicated and interesting than either of those positions implies. Her actions were very dark, in terms of how she manipulated people, how close she got to a lot of people, and how she used their fantasies against them. But our culture is equally dark, and the literary world is equally dark, and there’s been very little examination of the cultural assumptions that she used and the things that she unintentionally revealed about celebrity culture and the literary world especially, and the outrageous things that people wanted to believe in.
What is your next project?
First there's a more-or-less finished novel that Suspect Thoughts will bring out sometime in the next few years, I believe. I tend to work on several things at once, so that when I get bored or stuck I can move over to a different track. I'm trying to finish these essays I've been working on forever, which are all related but which have divided themselves into two books. The first I'm calling Dreams of Terror and Abuse, which includes pieces about September 11th, Multiple Personality Disorder/Dissociative Identity Disorder, JT LeRoy, the recent shooting at that Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, and one I haven't written yet about my ex-Amish aunt who drowned herself a few years ago, when she was in her 60s. The second one I'm calling Dreams of Transformation, and it's more tightly focused on evolutionary myths: the relationship between Neanderthals and early homo sapiens, the gay gene, the global brain, empaths and sociopaths. Meanwhile, I'm tinkering with another novel that's still too unformed to say much about. At the moment, the models driving it are 1001 Nights and the work of Roberto Bolaño.