Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Hoax charges levelled at best-selling writers

NEW YORK (AFP) - The gossip mill in US literary circles has gone into overdrive over alleged hoaxes by two best-selling cult authors -- one a former truck-stop prostitute, the other a recovered crack addict.

Both writers, JT LeRoy and James Frey, have been targetted by investigative journalists casting doubts on the former's real identity -- and gender -- and challenging the latter's autobiographical accuracy.

The hoax allegations have fuelled concerns that the reading public is being sold falsehoods to sate its apparently insatiable appetite for harrowing, confessional works that sometimes blur the line between fiction and non-fiction.

In LeRoy's case, various media probes have concluded that the author of several critically lauded works of fiction is not the 25-year-old ex rent boy he claims to be, but actually a 40-year-old middle-class woman.

LeRoy's true identity has long been a source of speculation.

Championed by an impeccably hip roster of celebrities, including the likes of Bono, Lou Reed and Courtney Love, LeRoy's rare public appearances always saw him disguised behind sunglasses and a woman's blonde wig. He identified himself as gay and desirous of a sex change.

His background was that of a child prostitute who became a drug addict and contracted the HIV virus before being rescued from the streets of San Francisco by a couple named Laura Albert, 40, and Geoffrey Knoop, 39.

Albert and Knoop were credited with allowing LeRoy to channel his harsh experiences into three works of semi-autobiographical fiction that swiftly garnered a substantial cult following and have been published in 20 countries.

LeRoy also wrote the original screenplay for Gus Van Sant's movie "Elephant" and is listed as the film's associate producer.

As his fame spread, his insistence on conducting interviews via fax, e-mail and, on rare occasions, the phone, aroused suspicions.

In October, a lengthy article in New York magazine suggested that Laura Albert was the real author of LeRoy's works and that the entire LeRoy persona was a fabrication.

On Monday, the New York Times weighed in with a report backing the Albert-as-writer theory and also unmasking the bewigged public face of LeRoy as Savannah Knoop, Geoffrey Knoop's half sister, who is in her mid-20s.

"As a transgendered human, subject to attacks, I use stand-ins to protect my identity," read an explanatory e-mail statement from LeRoy in response to the Times' revelation.

Albert and Knoop have so far declined to comment on the hoax allegations.

The other scandal involving James Frey is less complex but no less damaging in its charges of fabrication.

"A Million Little Pieces," Frey's memoir of violence, drug addiction and rehabilitation, became a runaway best seller after being selected by television talk show queen Oprah Winfrey for her book club.

The book sold two million copies in the United States in 2005, making it the highest selling non-fiction title of the year and second overall to "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."

On Sunday, the popular investigative website, TheSmokingGun.com, published an article titled "A Million Little Lies" that followed a six-week examination of police and court records, as well as interviews with law enforcement personnel.

The verdict of the website was that Frey had "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished" numerous details of his outlaw past, including a three-month spell behind bars and the death of a teenage girl.

Responding to the report, Random House, whose imprint Doubleday published Frey's book, issued a statement saying: "We stand in support of our author ... and his book which has touched the lives of millions of readers."

And Frey himself posted an angry retort on his website, saying the allegations were just one in a series of attempts to discredit his work.

"So let the haters hate, let the doubters doubt, I stand by my book, and my life, and I won't dignify this with any sort of further response," he said.

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