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Drag, Booze and Goats: An Interview with Josh Kilmer-Purcell

By Isaac James Baker

Full disclosure: After I picked up a copy of Josh Kilmer-Purcell’s memoir I Am Not Myself These Days I finished it in two days.

It’s a troubling, dark, yet sharply funny story of a hard-drinking, fucked-up, cocaine-addict-loving drag queen in New York.

Kilmer-Purcell’s prose is disturbing, punchy, playful and, at its core, tremendously hopeful.  Kilmer-Purcell’s tale of drag queen fame might be unique, but his struggle with the elusive idea of personal identity is universal. After I put down the book, thoroughly highlighted and marked up with all sorts of notes and thoughts, I wanted to speak with Kilmer-Purcell. He is also the author of the bestselling book Candy Everybody Wants and a new memoir The Bucolic Plague. He graciously agreed to be interviewed for Mary Literary Quarterly. Below is our conversation.

Your memoir, I Am Not Myself These Days, is filled with intensely personal information. You lay it all out before the reader, the good, the bad, the glamour, the dirt, it’s all there. Was it difficult to bare yourself completely bare before the public?

I’m not really ashamed of much in my life. Whatever I’ve done, I’ve done, and I usually had my reasons. I tend not to think of living as “being good” or “being bad.” We all make choices based on what we know at the time, and part of what I hoped readers would take away from my memoir was that the choices I made at that time in my life were actually pretty logical given who I was.

What are some of the benefits and difficulties of the memoir as an art form?

I think that most of the difficulties of memoir stem from the fact that it’s not as well-defined as other genres. It’s not biography. It’s not fiction. It’s not journalism. It’s pretty much whatever the author wants it to be. And that can cause problems for readers (and some writers) who like their books well-defined. Perhaps the hardest part for myself in writing both of my memoirs was deciding what to include, and what not to include. I could write a thousand words about any given second in time. And I think my books may have been shaped more by what I left out than what I included.

Why did you write this memoir? Was it cathartic? Or did you feel like your story could help others in who might struggle with some of the same feelings you did?

Yes, writing both memoirs was extremely cathartic. The books are about two of the most dynamic periods of my life. I would recommend to anyone that they take time to reflect upon the most active times of their life — no matter how much time has passed since. We move on so quickly in life, and we try to bury those events that we haven’t quite come to an understanding about. In the case of I Am Not Myself These Days, I found myself turning that period of my life into a dinner party joke, those “silly, crazy, years when I was a drunk drag queen who dated a crack head hooker.” Ha, Ha, Ha. Except they weren’t merely funny. They were also very moving and important years to me. And they didn’t seem to want to be relegated to being reduced to a punch line. They kept resurfacing in my emotions. So I went exploring.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from people who have read your book?

I can’t recall any adverse reactions from people who have read I Am Not Myself These Days. Perhaps some people didn’t care for the subject matter, But I didn’t hear from very many of them. I receive a lot of messages from young people who feel differently from other people around them. I’m not sure I would call the book a self-help book, but it seems to serve as a “self-explanatory” book for many people who haven’t yet found their landing place in this world.

What initially attracted you to the drag scene? Did you like the attention it brought you?

Yes. I was a shy Midwestern kid growing up, and when I finally came out, I wanted to draw all the attention to myself that I’d foregone up to that point.

You write: “I learned to become exactly what whomever I was with at the time expected me to be. Mostly I was afraid that if I didn’t become what they wanted, then they would realize what I really was.” How did you get over these feelings of self-loathing?

I don’t know if I consider that self-loathing. Mostly it was just fear of being “found out.” as a child or teen, it’s very frightening to consider the possibility of losing the support of family and friends. I moved passed that when I realized that I could easily be accepted in the world for being exactly what I wanted to be.

How did you remember all the minute details of your life as a drag queen? It’s evident from the book that you were inebriated a lot if not all of the time. Did you keep a journal?

No, I didn’t keep a journal. I could barely keep my lunch down. I find that I remember emotional details quite well. Physical details were more of a challenge. Luckily I had photos and mementos to fill in many of the blanks. But like I said earlier about the memoir form, there are no rules. If I didn’t remember exactly what I ordered for breakfast, but I remembered having an argument over breakfast, then I did my best to recreate the physical details of the moment based on whatever memories I have of the neighborhood, or the kitchen pantry, or my own habits.

I don’t think I can even fathom how much vodka you drank during the period of time that the book covers. Why do you think you drank so much? Was it impossible for you to drink in moderation?

I drank that much because it dulled the pain of the costumes, and because I liked being drunk. And being more drunk I liked even more. “More was more” pretty much defined me at that stage of my life.

Do you still drink?

Yes. That surprises people, but I do. Perhaps you can tell from my answers that I don’t like absolutes. I don’t believe in them. So I never believed that I needed to give up something entirely to have control over it.

Are you writing anything else these days?

Yes, my new memoir, The Bucolic Plague, details the purchase and subsequent learning curve of becoming a mid-life goat farmer. It launches in June.

Can you tell me a little bit more about your farm?

My partner and I purchased our farm as a weekend getaway three years ago. Like most things in my life, it quickly got out of hand. We now have over a hundred goats, a thriving business, and a new reality show (“The Fabulous Beekman Boys,” also premiering in June on Planet Green network.). It all somehow seemed worthy of another memoir.

Josh Kilmer-Purcell is the New York Times bestselling author of I Am Not Myself These Days, Candy Everybody Wants, and a new memoir The Bucolic Plague. Kilmer-Purcell was born in upstate New York and raised in rural Wisconsin. A former drag queen in New York City, he and his partner now run Beekman 1802, a goat farm in upstate New York. For more information on Kilmer-Purcell and his projects, visit www.johkilmer-purcell.com and his farm’s website at www.beekman1802.com.

Isaac James Baker is a poet and fiction writer who lives in Washington, DC. His novel Broken Bones, the story of a young man’s struggle in an anorexic and bulimic psychotic ward, will be published this year by The Historical Pages Company.  Contact him at issacjamesbaker@yahoo.com.

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