Josh Kilmer-Purcell, some goldfish, & PETA’s Fish Empathy Project.
What an exciting beginning to my week with Josh Kilmer-Purcell! Josh is the author of the memoir, I AM NOT MYSELF THESE DAYS, about a good-boy midwesterner who moves to NY to work in an ad agency by day and perform as a drag queen named Aqua by night. There is much more to his story than this, but for today, it’s important to know that Aqua’s costumes always include clear, uh, orbs, containing live goldfish.
If you’ve read this book and would like to send praise to my guest, please do write to me. And if you’ve not read the book, please buy it today because it’s Hysterical, Harrowing and Heartwarming.., and I’ll be very surprised if you don’t love it. Tomorrow we’ll talk about the book itself. But today, a few fireworks from PETA’s Fish Empathy Project:
March 6, 2006
Dear Mr. Kilmer-Purcell:
I am writing on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and our more than 1 million members and supporters to ask that you stop keeping live animals inside your costume and, of course, that you never design a similar costume that would treat animals so abusively.
You must not have put much thought into what being inside this costume is like for the animalscrammed into such a little space in their own waste, terrified by your every movement. Of course, like all of us, fish feel pain and fear, and scientific studies prove that fish are intelligent individuals.
Allow me to offer just a few examples:
A University of Edinburgh study found that fish can learn to escape from a net and retain the ability 11 months later. Scientists said that, for a human being, this would be like remembering a lesson learned 40 years earlier.
Oxford University research has determined that fish can complete some mental tasks that are too complex for dogs.
Culum Brown, Ph.D., says, “In many areas, such as memory, [fish's] cognitive powers match or exceed those of ‘higher’ vertebrates, including non-human primates.”
Fish suffer horribly in captivity. They get motion sickness from vibrations and constantly sloshing water: Imagine how it would be for fish, whose biology is designed for living in an ocean’s worth of water, when they are forced to make do with the bust of your costumeit would be, for you, like living in a covered bathtub that’s constantly moving, tossing you around as you defecate in it. It’s filthy, painful, and terrifying for these animals.
In light of the scientific evidence proving that fish are intelligent animals who feel pain, it is only a matter of time before society views cruelty to fish with the same revulsion that we feel about cruelty to dogs or cats.
Won’t you agree to stop using animals in your projects and to never recreate Aqua’s costume with live fish? I have included more information about fish intelligence, which is also available at FishingHurts.com. (If you eat fish, I’m guessing that this letter and the attached information will turn you off of fish consumption as well.)
Thank you for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Karin Robertson, Manager
Fish Empathy Project
Interview: I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer-Purcell.
Have you read this book..? I just love it. By the time I got to page 19, I couldn’t put it down, because that’s the page where Josh, still drunk from the previous night, is frying an egg while talking on the phone with his mom. He’s trying to explain to her how dressing in drag is different than being a cross-dresser or a transvestite, saying “I’m a celebrity trapped in a normal person’s body.”
I read my limited edition copy–the one with Jame’s Frey’s quote still on the front cover. And though both Josh and James signed my book, I read it the way I always read a book I love–bending the spine backwards, dog-earing all the pages I want to go back to, and folding it into a coat pocket so it’s always nearby. The books I love are twice as fat when I finish them–but because this one is signed and therefore extra-special to me, I did not read it in the bath.
Let’s get right to some q and a with Josh and then I’m going to say some more about why I loved this book until you are convinced.
What was the hardest thing about writing this memoir? Were you nervous about anyone reading it once you accomplished the huge feat of having it published?
The hardest thing about writing this memoir? Remembering.
I was a big ole’ drunk drag queen. That’s why every other chapter opens with either “I came to on a subway car” or “I woke up wondering where I was.”
Many people have called me “brave” for exposing all the warts that I did. I never thought of it that way. I was a fey, shy, nervous little Wisconsin boy. At some point in my early adulthood, I made a desperate stab at bravery. Hence the drag years. But, similarly to hunting an animal you’ve never seen before, I went out tracking bravery, and came home with the carcass of shamelessness.
I’ve never been ashamed of anything in my life. Or at least nothing in the book.
Did you feel that there was something you could do in drag that you couldn’t do without the costume and makeup? Can you talk about that a little?
The book is all about alter egos. We all have them. I just indulged mine a little more visibly.
We’re all raised with a certain set of “rules”. I was taught not to speak too loudly, not to make fun of other people, not to drink too much, not to stand out. And, though maybe not always implicitly, I think gay people (at least of mine and prior generations) were taught by the world not to be gay.
Then I broke the don’t-be-gay rule and came out. And it didn’t suck. (Well, I did, but this is a family blog) Coming out was one of the greatest things I’d ever done for myself. Which led me to wonder: if I can break one rule and succeed, what other rules are arbitrary? Drinking? Drugging? Prostitution? Waking up in strangers’ beds? Waking up on subways with only one high heel and no purse?
Except that this fey little gay boy who played first chair bassoon in 7th grade wasn’t emotionally equipped to ask a group of sailors on fleet week whether they’d like to drop anchor in an hourly hotel room on the West Side Highway.
But Aqua was born ready to break any rule put in front of her. It took four hours of makeup to put on a disguise thick enough to hide that nervous Midwestern boy.
Your voice and writing style are wonderfully humorous even during the most serious and horrifying situations. Can you talk about the disparity between the often lighthearted telling of pretty harrowing stories?
I think I’m pathologically unable to deal with seriousness. I didn’t really try to make the harrowing moments funny. To me they just were. Funny in an absurd way. I mean, how does one come to grips with the concept of waking up in a puddle of their own urine/vomit after narrowly avoiding being raped and finding a gaggle of rich upper east side private school kids pointing and staring at your exposed thong? It would take years of therapy for which my insurance won’t pay (why should they?) to even skim the top of that little adventure.
When you start to tally up all those self-inflicted wounds, a triage judgment call must be made. I can either try to heal them, or just slap on a bunch of Scooby Doo bandaids and hope I don’t look too stupid.
(See, I approach everything metaphorically. Some kind reader should really chip in with some pro bono therapy for me.)
Do you miss Aqua? Why did you give up drag? Is there anything that’s taken its place or filled the same need?
Writing the book was a way to bring Aqua back. I’ve had fun with her through the whole process. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to type her onto paper than squeeze myself back into a 22 inch corset.
What do I miss? The fake celebrity, the cute and horny fans, the sense and fulfillment of danger. What don’t I miss? All of the above.
I gave it up because there’s no retirement plan for drag queens. The career trajectory is short and potentially deadly. Much like writing, I’m beginning to find out.
Are you still with the guy you dedicated the book to?
Yes. Six years and counting (hopefully counting up, not down.)
Personally, if I were him, I’d feel a little odd having a love story dedicated to me that wasn’t about me. But there’s something kinda special about a guy who has no problem with that. And by “special” I mean “odd.” And by “odd” I mean “endearing.” I obviously have a fucked up internal thesaurus. (see above cry for pro bono therapy help.)
Where does Kilmer and the hyphen come from?
Kilmer is my biological father’s name, and Purcell is my stepfather’s name. My stepfather raised me from the time I was five, so when I turned 21 I added his name to mine. I guess I feel that they both deserve to share equally in the shame.
Are you working on another book? And if so can you tell me about it?
I’m working on a novel right now. It follows a young boy who’s obsessed with celebrity and envisions God as Tony Randall. He has a lesbian mother, a brother with Prader Willi syndrome, and a best friend who’s kidnapped and brutally murdered.
Obviously, It needs some editing. From a therapist. (hint hint.)
I really do adore this author. But let me talk about his book for a minute because I’ve been dying to do it. I don’t want to give away too muchjust a taste.
I AM NOT MYSELF THESE DAYS is about a boy who knows how to disappear into someone else….
This is how I become not me:
It is an exacting processthere’s no room for error, and little for improvisation. It is ritual and sacred, and regardless of my physical or mental condition, it is unchanging.
It begins by monitoring my diet for the entire day before any show. My body must be relatively empty of food to fit into the corset, and relatively full of alcohol to dull the discomfort.
About four hours before I head out, I gather together the pieces of my predetermined outfit.
Two pairs of pantyhose. Up to three wigscombined together and prestyled. Tucking panties. Decorative panties or thong. Matching elbow-length gloves. Bag. Shoes. Necklace. Earrings. Assorted accessories. Wig cap. Toyslaser guns, bubble makers, candy to toss out into the crowd. All is transferred, piece by piece, into the bathroom.
No one is allowed to witness the transformation. It occurs completely behind the closed bathroom door. It’s a slow motion magic act where the male audience volunteer disappears into a box and a woman appears from the inside hours later (pp. 139-140).
I AM NOT MYSELF THESE DAYS is about a boy who shares some things with his family….
Both my mother and stepfather, who raised me and who I call “Dad,” are extremely accepting of me being gay, and have been genuinely fond of my prior boyfriends. The drag thing threw them a little, but since there’s little chance of their Wisconsin church friends wandering into a New York nightclub and recognizing me through three wigs and a quarter inch of foundation, they’ve pretty much just adopted a “don’t ask, and for God’s sake don’t tell us about it” philosophy (p. 116).
and hides other things. His drug-dealing male escort boyfriend can pass as a doctor with his expensive apartment and a pager that goes off at all hours. And his boyfriend’s clients, such as the married CEO who secretly pays thousands of dollars to be left naked in their apartment with his wrists tied to his ankles, can be rescheduled when family comes to NY for a visit.
I AM NOT MYSELF THESE DAYS is a boy who begins to long for a quiet life that more closely resembles his childhood home, where he ate baked acorn squash with butter and maple syrup…
I’m too tired to bother with the squash, so I just take it out of the bag and set it on the counter. That’s enough for me, actually. Just looking at it there on the counter amid the piles of tin foil and burnt spoons and Brillo pads and glass pipes and baking soda and rubbing alcohol and the rest of the crack paraphernalia is soothing enough (p. 204).
I AM NOT MYSELF THESE DAYS is the story of a doomed love relationship…
“I have a client in the bedroom.”
“Our bedroom?!” Jack and I agreed early on that he wouldn’t do anything with his customers on our bed. It may seem like an insignificant bow to traditional monogamy, but to me it’s as close as we come to a family value.
“He’s not on the bed. He’s in the chair watching me on the TV. It’s a live feed (p. 227).”
Try this book and tell me how you like it. I’ll have more fun with Josh later in the week, but tomorrow is the day I’ll award a prize to the fabulous Ron Currie, Jr. Stay tuned.
I received an AQUAgram!
The beautiful, 7-foot Aqua has written to me about my interview with Josh Kilmer-Purcell and his memoir, “I Am Not Myself These Days,” that features both Josh and Aqua. Read on….
Dear Sue, I’m writing from a cabana somewhere south of”¦well, somewhere. Your guess is as good as mine. As long as there’s a drink menu within arm’s reach, I’ve never let the little details of where I wake up in the morning concern me.
Been following your blogging with my ex-alter ego, Josh. He appears to be getting on rather well for someone with so little to offer. But there are a few clarifications to his scribblings that I think you should be made aware of. Not that I’ve read the book, mind you, but neither have many other people.
First off, I’m not a drunk. He was. I drank to indulge him. And because I was thirsty. “They speak of my drinking, but never my thirst.” I don’t know who said that, but it was someone important. More important that Josh, certainly. And really, did he need 300 pages to say what I just did in one sentence? You’re kind to humor him as you do.
Secondly, I didn’t commit suicide. I was escaping. As a rather promiscuous alter, I can’t commit to one ego. Especially one as self-deprecating as Josh’s. (that’s not to say the deprecation isn’t well deserved.) I’m currently interviewing for new alter ego positions. I seem to be getting a strange amount of requests from right wing closet cases.
Thirdly, where’s that drink?
Fourthly, why do authors always look like shit on television? (Not Josh mind you. He can’t even get a TV gig.) Don’t show up in front of Katie Couric wearing some sloppy t-shirt and hoodie. Blow that miniscule advance on something designer. It makes Katie happy. It makes your audience happy. It makes your mom happy. You’re not a hipster any more. You’ve got a signed book deal. Think Jackie Collins. Now there’s an author people can get behind. And probably many have.
Fifthly”¦have I finished a fifth already?
Sixthly, theriously authors, stop picking the most melodramatic portions of your book for readings. Go with the funny bits. No one’s actually there to hear you read. They just want to get their signed copy in hopes that one day it’ll be worth something on Ebay. They shouldn’t have to suffer through a poetically metaphoric childhood rape scene to get it. These people have lives, even if you don’t.
Seventhly”¦Oh fuck it. I can’t drink and type at the same time. And guess who loses? You.
Hugs and Fishes,
Surprise! My mom interviews Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s mom!
Okay, to close out my week-long focus on Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s memoir, “I Am Not Myself These Days,” I have a little surprise for him: a mom-to-mom interview. I’m so excited about this!
So here is my mom (that’s me in the little nurse’s outfit)…
interviewing Josh’s mom (that’s little Joshie fixing a wedgie)…
Oh, I sure do hope this is a nice surprise for Josh and not too much of a shock. Okay, here are the moms . . .
When you first read Josh’s book, “I am Not Myself These Days,” what was your reaction to the details of his Technicolor life?
My first reaction to Josh’s “technicolor life” was such relief regarding his safety now, then sadness at the necessity of his journey, and finally great anger at some of his decisions…….much like when you lose sight of your toddler while shopping. Upon finding them once again, you are so happy to see them you want to shake them for your worry!!!!!
Josh’s witty humor is very evident in his writing. Is this something you were well acquainted with about your son?
Oh yes, as soon as Josh could verbalize it became very difficult to discipline him because most of the time, while he was not necessarily behaving as you wished, he was clever and just plain funny in avoiding the issue at hand.
He was also able to put into words what was going on around him in a very descriptive manner. I was driving a jeep over a washboard section of country road when Josh was about 3 or 4. He was humming to himself in that mindless way that children do and we hit a particularly rough spot in the road. He remarked, “Mama, you are wrinkling my tune.”
When you are mentioned in his book, Josh describes how he felt he needed to concoct a story to explain some of the details of his life with Jack. How did you view this hoax that Josh and Jack had created about Jack’s need for a beeper?
I knew the beeper story was not as it seemed. I wasn’t sure what exactly…..but I knew the “story” was pretty hollow. However, I felt my lack of confrontation and digging “forced” him further down a path of lies and he would eventually not like who he had become to the family; no longer really “true to himself” and his place within our lives. It was a chance I took.
When reading my daughter’s writing, I lose my usual critical reader’s perspective because I am so compelled by what her experience was in our family, and I am especially curious about anything said about me. How do you react to Josh’s comments about you which, by the way, seem quite complimentary?
Josh’s comments about me, good or bad, were interesting of course. But they were just that. We all appear differently to each other; especially in family relationships. We become who we are needed to be for each other. How many times do we each have a very different view of Grandma Sally? Yet she was very special and unique to each one of us. That is what a memory truly is. It’s all about perception isn’t it?
Have you ever asked Josh not to write about something concerning you and/or your family?
Absolutely not. I trust Josh in his ability to discern what would truly hurt another. And I don’t really have any fear regarding others’ judgements…..again it is all about perceptions and egos and trying, but usually failing, to be objective.
In reading Josh’s amazing story, were you alarmed by the dangers he faced, and the frightening situations he put himself in?
I was very frightened and alarmed at the dangers regarding Josh’s life at that time. And I am very thankful to have him safe, not bitter and most of all, free of emotional baggage….excepting Aqua’s make up case, of course!!! I credit his partner, Brent, for this.
How have you come to grips with having a fairly well-known writer in the family?
Having a “fairly well-known writer” in the family is exciting and wonderful, but has really not changed much for us. We are happy and interested in all his good news and pleased to provide respite when we can for him. Last winter Josh spent a week with us on vacation doing a final edit and it gave us much joy to be of use. Next time we shall charge rent!!!
What kinds of books to you usually read? What books are in the stack of books you’d like to read soon? What book, besides Josh’s has had the biggest effect on your life?
I read all kinds of books. Like most of us, I go in phases….all history, all biographies, all mystery, all romance, all memoirs, and so on. The only book in my pile currently is Gifts of the Sea which will be a re-read for a book club. I have just completed Broken for You by Stephanie Kallos. This will cause some “tension” I am certain but the book that has had the biggest effect on my life is the Bible. And if that is an unwise choice, you may use The Little Engine That Could.”
Congratulations on raising a brilliant and beguiling son, who is having lots of attention paid to his new book. Do you have any advice for me when my daughter’s book is sitting in the “New Arrivals” section of Barnes and Noble or Border’s Books?
I really am not good at giving advice (except to my children!!). When your daughter’s book is sitting in the “New Arrival” section of a bookstore, you won’t need any coaching on how to be proud, supportive and thankful. Keeping one’s ego in check and pride in down-to-earth proportions is not a bad idea either….of course, I am speaking about the writer, not the mom!!
We all know the pressure of “publish another book right way” is very real and consuming to writers and NOT dwelling on that is important. You can tell it’s not working for me.
Is there anything I have not asked, or that you would like to tell us about being the mother of the writer, Josh Kilmer-Purcell?
Being the mother of the writer, Josh Kilmer-Purcell is such a pleasure. I have learned much about the industry, which is fascinating, and met so many wonderful people. His inclusion of us all in his life is very generous. It has been a bit of a revelation for me to recognize that we are as important to him as he is to us. There it is again………..that perception thing.
Thank you for reading and answering these interview questions from one writer’s mother to another. I hope you have a fascinating year ahead. Susie’s Mom.
Aren’t they both so lovely? Don’t forget to pick up Josh’s book. I know I always provide Amazon links for ease, but it’s always best to buy from your local independent bookseller.
Hmmmm. I wonder if my mom likes Josh’s book or my book better? I’m off to ask her exactly that.