Leslie Jamison talks life, love, and the beauty of earnestness
"You should write an essay about that."
Leslie Jamison hears the suggestion from her mother all the time.
"It's with everything I go through," the author admits. "Even if it's just, like, that time I was waiting in the supermarket line for a while." Cozied up on said mother's sofa in Santa Monica, Calif., Jamison, 36, is laughing to herself considering this "advice." Perhaps because there's a greater kernel of truth there than she'd like to admit. Indeed, Jamison has emerged as a definitive chronicler of human connection and the beauty of mundanity. In her nonfiction debut, The Empathy Exams, she drew on her experiences as a patient instructor to sweepingly consider how we relate to one another; her 2018 addiction memoir, The Recovering, studied the recovery narrative as vitally American. (Both books were New York Times best-sellers.) Now she returns with Make It Scream, Make It Burn, an essay collection about longing. It proves those comparisons to Joan Didion and Susan Sontag were no fluke.
Make It Scream begins with "52 Blue," first published in 2014 on Atavist, in which Jamison explores the phenomenon of a whale whose song, registered at a very high 52 hertz, inspired a "rallying cry," with people across the globe projecting feelings of loneliness and grief onto it. In the essays that follow, Jamison continues to report on unusual obsessions before finding the essential humanity within them. One piece follows players of the digital virtual world Second Life seeking meaning in their alternate identities, like a mother of four who wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to "inhabit a life in which she has the luxury of never getting out of bed." Another visits the Museum of Broken Relationships, a real place in Croatia displaying artifacts from romantic breakups. Jamison always writes in the first person, as present as her subjects; the reader is skeptical, enlightened, and moved right along with her.
EW spent an afternoon with Jamison at her mother's home. In the living room where a Make It Scream, Make It Burn galley sits unassumingly on the coffee table — Jamison assures her mother placed it there — our conversation began.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Do you come down here every summer?
LESLIE JAMISON: I'm in L.A. about three or four times a year, but yeah, usually I try to come out for some stretch in the summer and then the holidays. I was thinking about it… particularly acutely on this trip. There's something about physically being in L.A. that works on my emotional state on a level that lives beneath consciousness. I should have arrived here in a tizzy about a bunch of things. Not that the air here is solving any of my problems, but it's working on me on some level underneath. It's physiological. Something about salt air, a particular temperature. I went out with a friend and we went to a burger place and just had milkshakes and sat by a laundromat in a strip mall with palm trees. It was like a John Cusack movie. This is actually my idea of beauty: This city has trained me to find this vista singularly beautiful. It feels good to be here.
[Gesturing to the galley] Let's talk about this.
It holds my whole heart.
The piece you wrote for us, when we did the cover reveal, talked about how a lot of these essays have changed and evolved — and I think you could say that in five years they'd change again. Why is this the right time for this book, these essays, to be out in the world?
In general I think about a sense of doneness, whether it's with an individual piece or a book or a collection, less as this state that resides or this quality that resides in the writing itself and more as something in me. It's never that the piece or the book is going to be the only possible version of itself, or the most fully formed version of itself. It's more like, I feel like I've given it what I can. When you had a long day at the beach or in the sun and your body feels drained but also full — there's some state that I reach, that I felt very strongly with this collection where I was tracing these questions about "What does it mean to long for things, and then what does it mean to get them, and how are both states difficult and beautiful?" I wrestled with those questions for years and years and years out in the world and deep in my life. I've done what I can with those questions in this particular echo chamber of inquiries. I'll probably keep wrestling with those questions. But this feels like a cohesive collection of what I could do with them from this particular vantage point…. My favorite writers — I think of all of their books as part of this ongoing project. For me it feels almost like I have no other choice but to have these books be part of this one ongoing project. This book has a shape and it feels done to me, but it also feels part of this larger thing that won't be done until I die. [Laughs]
How would you describe that ongoing project?
Thinking about the possibilities and limits of how fully people can understand or know each other. That question about how we understand human consciousness in ourselves or in other people; it just feels so natural and so excited to get to explore it in a novel or in an essay or in a long book. That mystery of "What does it feel like to be alive? How do we ever understand what it feels like for another person to be alive?"
Let's go to your first essay in the collection, which is one of my favorites: "52 Blue." What was the editing process there? You took your own presence in that story out a little bit. Was it more about where you felt the piece was now, or how it fit into this collection?
One thing to say about the overall arc of the book, and I touch on this a little bit in the cover reveal essay, is: I really liked that when I started to thematically fit these essays together, it also became clear that there was not just a plot arc of their inquiry into "What does it mean to long for things versus live alongside them," but also this arc — structurally or formally — in terms of moving from reportage and looking out at the world to this confession of "What were the things in my own life that made me so interested in what these other people are going through?"
Part of creating that structure meant that I wanted you to see a little bit less of that personal dimension in the beginning of the book and in that opening essay because I knew that I was going to fully go there as the book progressed. I worked on that piece for almost 18 months when I was initially writing it — it was a very long process piece, even just getting the first version of it into the world — and a lot of that was just really reporting. So there was a lot of finding the piece within the piece that was happening in the drafting process. I think when I came back to the piece five years later, I could both see the ways that I wanted those stories to set the stage for everything that was going to follow in the book, and to set up this dynamic of, not just of "What sort of intimacy did these people feel with this whale?" but "How was it a constituent part of that intimacy that they didn't see the whale and would never see the whale?"
There are three sections here, the last of which is called "Dwelling." It struck me: You have a "wedding essay." You have a "breakup essay." They're such well-worn forms, and yet you kind of turn them on their head.
It wasn't that I came at it in this schematic way of "A wedding essay! A breakup essay!" But I think I am very interested in how we approach these milestones and sites of meaning. It's interesting, actually, to think about the wedding essay and breakup essay together because in each of those cases I'm interested in challenging some familiar narrative. There's the line in the wedding essay where I say, "We think of weddings as beginnings, but they're also endings." Trying to honor them in that way. That's where the heat is in any piece of writing: When it's challenging something that has become transparent for us, or that we take for granted. I never thought about it until we were talking about it right now: There's a real counterpoint to the way the wedding essay is saying, "Every wedding is not just a beginning, but also an ending," and with the breakup essay saying, essentially, "Every breakup isn't just an ending, it's also a beginning, a kind of lasting immortality." In one case I'm trying to challenge an overly rosy narrative of weddings; in the other, I'm trying to challenge this overly dark or overly nihilistic of breakups. That's always my M.O.: To ask, "What's the easy or overly simple version of the story we tell ourselves about our lives or other people's lives, and how do we dig underneath that?"
I think of "Layover" when you ask that, because it feels like such a meta response to that question. It's this small vignette about your encounter with this seemingly difficult woman, resulting from a long flight delay, and yet it tied the book together for me.
It's almost like the world was challenging me over and over again to rethink my narrative about that particular woman. Most of my essays I revise for years; so much of the heart of the essay lives in the revision, and I feel like I discover the heart of the essay through revision. But "Layover" had a different genesis process: Born like Athena, came out fully formed.
Did it feel clarifying placing "Layover" where you did, after, arguably, your most aggressively reported pieces?
I wanted to do a little bit of the work early on that I knew that I wanted the collection to do across the arc of it. Pulling away from the objective, impersonal stance of the reporter to say, "This reporter is also somebody who's also stuck in an airport hotel in Houston," or having issues with the person next to her on the flight. It's not just humanizing work for the sake of narrative interest, but humanizing work to say it's all connected. These questions we wrestle with as reporters, we're also wrestling with on the flight home from the reporting job, literally. The way the beginning of a piece of music might show you a little bit of all the things that are going to follow, I wanted the "Layover" story to do a little bit of that work of revelation, the voice becoming very fallible and very personal early on.
I wanted to come back to your process compiling this book. What's the feeling for you now that in some cases there are two very different versions of the same essay out there?
The example that's most true of is the reincarnation essay. It was published as "Giving Up the Ghost" in Harper's and became "We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again" here. That was another example of the "magazine writer's revenge" moment: "I will give it this title someday if it's the last thing I do!" The original version of that piece about reincarnation is the piece of reportage I've published that has the least of me in it. It was the most straight piece of reported writing that I'd ever done. But from the very beginning, I had a fantasy of writing another version of it.
Coming back to that piece five years later, [I realized that] the most relevant about my life at the time was the ways in which I was getting involved with 12-step recovery and the certain truths that recovery was asking me to become acquainted with, around the unoriginality of my life and my problems and the ways in which what I experienced as this deep, private psyche was actually totally connected to the lives of strangers. Part of why I love reincarnation, even though I don't necessarily believe in it, or don't know what's real or not — I try to be humble about that stuff — is the way it literalizes these abstract concepts from recovery. I didn't understand that about myself five years ago, reporting that piece, but I came to understand it when I was revising. Those are the moments I live for in writing: When I learn something about my own relationship to the topic that I couldn't have known from the outset. That surprise keeps it interesting for me as a writer. You can't fabricate that experience of surprise.
Speaking of recovery: That David Foster Wallace speech you quote in the book reminded me of a frequent, sometimes pejorative comment on The Recovering, that it was too "earnest."
I do think I embrace earnestness. Aesthetically, sometimes I think about earnestness as almost like the way you'd buy a vowel on Wheel of Fortune. [Laughs] I can feel myself trying to earn earnestness on the page by being super-skeptical, in order to prove that I am thinking about something skeptically. When I claim earnestly to believe in the infinitude of every human life, it's not a hollow platitude; it's something I've spent five years reporting out. I really believe in earnestness. I think it's my native tongue. I also think earnestness that's standing on the back of deep research, deep skepticism, deep interrogation has a kind of force to it. It's what separates it from the different earnestness that lives in hollow platitudes or unexplored cliches — which, obviously I have a deep love for as well.
For me, it's almost like when people say earnestness in a pejorative sense, I think they can also mean reductive Hallmark card truisms. The kind of earnestness I believe in couldn't be those things if those things are unexamined. The kind of earnestness I believe in is "How can you think about an idea hard enough that you can fully stand behind it?" That fully standing behind it, without apologizing for it or scare-quoting it, has to be the end of a process rather than the beginning of a process.
Encountering it, we're almost reflexively trained to recoil from it too.
I totally agree. I think there can be a knee-jerk recoiling. I see it show up all the time in the classroom too: The hardest, bravest, most vulnerable thing to do in a classroom environment is often to say, "I believe this is good. I believe this thing." Easier than "Here's how this author is doing this wrong." You can duck behind something when you're skeptical in a way that, when you own it, you're putting yourself out there in front of the firing line. I'm interested in different forms of that bravery. Often the writing that I love is willing to do that.
Are there any essays in here that were particularly difficult for you to revisit?
Probably the essay that I was recoiling or quarreling with an early version of myself, but in a way that I think was ultimately productive for the revision process, was the essay that's called "The Long Trick," but it was originally published six years ago. That and the reincarnation essay were the old essays that were most heavily and substantively revised, in a way that actually felt like a new act of creation. Some of what I wanted to argue with when I reread that piece, that earlier version of "The Long Trick," was just an earlier version of myself that had grown very comfortable with a certain narrative with my relationship to men and my family. I grew up with a lot of absent men, so I grew up longing for them. Longing for the man who would stay was one of the great driving engines of my life.
When I reread it, I was like, "God, this story about myself is too easy, and I believed it for so many years and peddled it for so many years." I felt unsatisfied by it. It felt too simple. The more complicated version of the truth is that I became really attached to something about the state of longing itself. That was a lot easier than having. That was what I wanted to tell that version of myself from six years ago. "This is the more complicated truth that this essay was trying to get at." The ways I felt frustrated at my earlier self were essential to making it a different, better piece. There's something really generative and human about that impulse to quarrel with our earlier selves.
You studied fiction but, obviously, have made a real name for yourself in the nonfiction space. What's your relationship to fiction like right now? Are you eager to return to it?
One of the projects that I'm thinking about for what's next is a novel. At this stage in my career and my life as a writer, it feels deeply thrilling to think about going back to fiction. It has to do with a lot of things. Initially how I came to nonfiction was a little bit of a "mistress genre" — I felt like I was in this official relationship to fiction and it was what I had studied and what my first book was. It was thrilling to have this secret relationship on the side with essays, and to be doing them in this way that was a little bit more happening in the dark — in all the best ways — insofar as I didn't have 16 workshops from the past sitting on my shoulder telling me "Show and tell" or "Build this scene here." It felt like I was fumbling around in this twilight fertile space. That felt freeing and liberating, to not have so many of those commandments lurking behind me. It didn't have so much pressure and so much weight on it. It's almost like I feel like the tables have turned about it. Nonfiction now is my official zone and purview, it's where I live professionally, and I love it, and there's something about the essay form that will always hold this magic for me, just because it can be so many different things and it can be so many different things at once. But there's this way that fiction has this kind of mysterious, slightly "It can happen in the back room" quality to it that it's exciting to me to return to. Once something starts to feel familiar, it starts to feel dead. If you don't feel that fear that comes with not knowing exactly what you're doing, the thing doesn't have the same charge or pulse or electricity. There's something about fiction that feels scary and unknown to me. That's part of the appeal too.
To end, a big question that gets asked too often, but I'm too curious given the book's contents: What do you hope readers take away from Make It Scream, Make It Burn?
I actually love that question. Maybe this gets back to your thing about earnestness. I think I'm rarely going into a project with that intention of "Here are the lessons I want somebody to draw, and here's how I'm going to make them draw those lessons." But it feels more possible, looking at the writing after I've written it, to almost come at it from that space of curiosity. What were the things I was trying to teach myself when I was writing this? What feels like grace, really, about finding solace in unexpected places — you might find solace in the mythic figure of a lonely whale. You might find solace in a rooftop garden in a digital wonderland. You might find solace in the kind of ritualistic activity of coming back to photograph the same Mexican family twice a year for 30 years. You might find solace in putting the toaster that you used to own with your ex on a pedestal in a museum in Zagreb. The ways in which we find a sense of connection or find a sense of meaning or create a sense of identity. We can't know them from the outset. We have to be caught off guard by them. They come at us from angles we weren't expecting. That sense of being surprised by life, surprised by solace, surprised by weird forms of connection, weird sources of refuge, is one of the truths that feels at the core of the book to me.
The other one that's coming to mind that feels like one of the great and perpetual lessons of the last decade and a half of my life is the way that an experience or relationship or memory not just can be many things at the same time, but always is many things at the same time. My friend and I have a phrase for it called "acute simultaneity." This idea that remembering a past relationship can be simultaneously angering, saddening, and deeply consoling. Trying to make room for all of those contradictory truths, rather than edging out two of them so that you can rest coherently in the third one. The way of honoring the ways that a wedding is a beginning and an ending at once. Honoring the ways a whale is lonely and powerfully independent at the same time. Second Life is both an escape and a paradise. Letting things be multiple ways at the same time. It feels like it lets life be complicated and capacious in a way that I stand behind.
This interview has been edited and condensed.