Leslie Jamison by Beowulf Sheehan
Credit: Beowulf Sheehan

In her breakout essay collection The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison tackled all things empathy, drawing on her own experiences as a medical actor. In her acclaimed best-seller from last year, The Recovering EW’s top nonfiction book of 2018 — the author turned her attention toward the role of addiction in American culture, and her own struggles with recovery. She’s headed into new territory once more with her new book, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, an exploration of longing and obsession, due this fall.

Written in Jamison’s signature synthesis of memoir, criticism, and journalism, the collection covers a range of subjects including 52 Blue, deemed “the loneliest whale in the world”; the eerie specter of reincarnated children; devotees of an online existence called Second Life, to the exclusion of their real lives; Civil War photography; and an entire museum dedicated to relationship breakups. Make It Scream, Make It Burn evolves into a meditation on storytelling itself, and whether it is ever really possible to hear someone else’s story without somehow making it our own.

Jamison went on quite the journey putting this book together, which she writes about for the first time in an essay exclusive to EW. In the piece, Jamison details the process of writing Make It Scream, Make It Burn, how her life kept changing as she was writing it, and how that, in turn, kept changing what the book was becoming. Read on below, where EW can also exclusively debut the book’s gorgeous cover. Make It Scream, Make It Burn publishes Sept. 24 and is available for pre-order.

Credit: Little, Brown and Company

Leslie Jamison on writing Make It Scream, Make It Burn

This book happened in conversations with strangers, on a puddle jumper from Houston and an overnight bus ride across the Sri Lankan interior, in the swampy Louisiana suburbs and on a Naval Base in the middle of the Puget Sound. It happened in a community garden in Harlem, where a woman told me how a blue whale she’d never seen had helped her recover from a six-week coma. It happened on the Vegas Strip, between a New York that was not New York and a Venice that was not Venice; in a wedding chapel with a neon Elvis swinging his neon hips above a neon awning. It happened at my grandfather’s deathbed. It happened at my daughter’s birth.

These essays are about haunting, longing, and obsession, which is to say they are about how we’re defined by what we’ve lost, what we desire, what we reach toward but can’t ever fully hold: alternate lives, broken relationships, dead parents, landscapes haunted by love and violence. These essays took me to places and stories I couldn’t have imagined—to the living room of a family who believed their son had been a fighter pilot shot down during World War II, to a museum full of relics from romances that had ended years before, and to the strange digital paradise of a place called Second Life, where I rode a virtual horse through a virtual redwood grove, and chatted on the virtual rooftop of a blind woman who had found, in this other world, a way to see.

Over the course of the seven years I spent working on this book, my life changed in fundamental ways. I met my husband. I became a stepmother. I had a baby girl. I realized that it’s sometimes easier to long for what’s far away than it is to live with what’s close at hand. At first, I thought this collection was about the connection between desire and distance, about being obsessed with what we can’t fully grasp: the mystery of prior lives, the metaphor of a lonely whale, the allure of an online avatar. But eventually, I realized that it was just as interested in what’s right in front of us. How do we keep showing up for our daily lives? How do we keep reinventing them?

If this book began as an exploration of longing, then it ended up becoming an exploration of dwelling. “We can break through marriage into marriage,” writes poet Jack Gilbert. “We must / eat through the wildness of her sweet body already / in our bed to reach the body within the body.” Reaching the body within the body means finding mystery within the familiar and the daily, finding the unknown within the known. These essays are also about that discovery—not only about extraordinary manifestations of obsession, fascination, and loneliness, but about the deep realms of enchantment lodged inside ordinary life. They’re about looking for the correct princess for a five-year-old girl who is just starting to call you “Mommy,” or begging for a replacement whoopee cushion at a kid’s arcade in a run-down casino at the north end of the Strip.

While my first essay collection, The Empathy Exams, began in a deeply personal place before turning outward to look at the world, this collection starts by looking outward—at the forces that might propel someone toward an elusive whale with a singular song, or a past life as a tobacco farmer, or an online avatar that isn’t confined to a wheelchair—and then turns inward to examine the kinds of loneliness and heartache and transformation that saturated my investigations of desire all along. My response to the Museum of Broken Relationships was also an exploration of all the former relationships that still lived as ghosts inside of me. My fixation with Second Life was also about reckoning with my own escapist impulses—is the impulse to flee an intrinsic part of what it means to inhabit any home, any family, any life?

This book took seven years not just because the essays were written across that span of time, but because they were re-written across that span of time. An essay about my grandfather’s death became—six years later, after the birth of my daughter—an appreciation of my brother’s relationship to the young boys he was raising. An essay about a documentary photographer who had spent twenty-five years photographing the same Mexican family became—after I’d read hundreds of pages of her diaries, and interviewed the people she’d been photographing—a piece that was as much about obsession as it was about art. An essay about Las Vegas as a city built of unmet desires became a very different essay once I fell in love with a man from Vegas and married him in one of its all-night chapels, committing to our shared daily life in that city designed for fantasy.

The collection’s title—Make it Scream, Make it Burn—was inspired by a review written by the poet William Carlos Williams, in which he praises the photography of Walker Evans for documenting ordinary life so acutely: “What the artist does applies to everything, every day, everywhere to quicken and elucidate, to fortify and enlarge the life about him and make it eloquent—to make it scream.” For me, the notion of making life scream is less about pain and more about urgency. It’s about finding a kind of primal cry inside the ordinary house, the ordinary marriage, the ordinary morning. It’s about looking at something so closely that you feel it starting to smolder under your gaze. It was what I wanted to do in this book: Make life scream. Make it burn. Make it funny. Make it strange. Make it sing.

—Leslie Jamison

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