Other People’s Happiness: A Conversation with Leslie Jamison


Leslie Jamison hates to use the word “failed” to describe her second novel—at some point she’ll pick it up again—but the assessment persists. She had planned to write about the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, but, daunted by the project, she started writing essays instead. Her collection The Empathy Exams covers a lot of ground, from ultramarathons to Bolivia to a prison complex, but each piece, no matter its setting, asks a similar set of questions. What are the limits of human understanding? What sort of potential does the human body hold? What does it mean to be part of a community, something bigger than yourself? The response to the book so far has been good; Jamison reports that she just spent an amazing night in Kalamazoo. “There was this one bookseller,” she explains. “A couple months ago, she asked me, what’s your favorite snack food? I said, ‘Chocolate-covered pretzels,’ because it was the first thing that popped into my head. So she had this big tray of homemade chocolate-covered pretzels. I didn’t even know you could make those at home.” Jamison will be reading at Book Court tomorrow, April 8. Bring snacks.

When did you move to Brooklyn?

In July. I love being in Brooklyn right now. I lived in New York in my early twenties, and I really wasn’t happy, so I moved back to LA. I had so much emotional baggage around the issue of living in New York, feeling like I’d failed at crafting this adult life. Somehow living in New York was this task that other people had succeeded at and I had failed at.

What did you think an adult life was that you now think has nothing to do with it?

What springs to mind is Charlie Engle, that guy in “Fog Count.” He had a core passion—running—that was so different and counterintuitive to me. The structure of his life was intuitive to me. I totally get that, what it feels like to commit everything in you to this one thing, to feel so devoted to that one central thing. But I didn’t understand his one central thing. Going through my twenties and feeling all the different directions of my career and feeling all the twists and turns in all my friends’ careers, I have been astonished by how different people need different things to feel satisfied with their lives, which is so self-evident but infinitely revelatory. People who were part of the same super artsy world as me when we were undergrads, who were amazing writers and deeply creative people, are now in completely different industries, and I keep thinking, oh, they must be unhappy, they must feel like they sold out. But actually no, there is no “must.” I think a lot of them have created beautiful lives, and their creativity finds expression in other ways that aren’t making art.

I just feel like I’m constantly getting schooled. There are so many models that can happen. I feel the same way about relationships, too. I’m sort of stunned by relationships over and over again, like, how can that make you happy? But then it does. And you have to accept that other people’s happiness isn’t always going to make sense to you.

Do you read many personal essays? Is what you read reflected in what you write?

I do read personal essays, and I enjoy reading personal essays. It’s a very compelling form for me. I love Jo Ann Beard, Boys of My Youth. I love Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land, which I hesitate to call just personal essays, because it’s more than that. I just finished reading this collection called If Only You People Could Follow Directions, by Jessica Hendry.

I’m drawn to those moments of confessing ugly feelings. The process of becoming frustrated with someone else’s dysfunction has a lot of honesty to it. When you’re willing to recount those moments not just where everything was crazy and dysfunctional and you were doing the best you could, but also where you were like, you know what, I don’t even want to hear it this time.

When your empathy fails.

And you can see that.

Did you tell Charlie, “Hey, I’m going to print some of your letters to me. Is that okay?”

Yes. The big answer is yes. I’m still on the learning curve in how to deal with all that stuff. With Charlie, I absolutely requested his permission on those letters, and there were parts of his experience and his life that he didn’t want me to write about, and I honored that.

I never want to make myself or my own story of encountering a story central. It’s a kind of evasive move. Sometimes I feel like I have an urge to bring myself into the story because the reporting didn’t exactly turn out how I wanted it to or didn’t yield what I wanted it to. I want to be on guard against the danger of that. I do feel like each of the pieces poses that question: how much of this is going to be a story about the thing, and how much of this is going to be a story about my attempt to find the thing?

I just reread the title essay in Slouching toward Bethlehem, and something that struck me was how Didion rarely says how she feels. She makes little jokes or snide comments, but mostly the position is implied. And there was a very definite feeling of her looking down upon her subjects.

And you felt like part of that looking down upon… one of the symptoms of that was a refusal to confess her own feelings?

I don’t know. She’s appalled. But she never says, “I’m appalled.” The people that you write about: is there a prerequisite of liking them first?

I think a lot about trying to create a relationship with readers. The reaction that you’re describing having to Didion, wherever it was coming from, is… I’m desirous of creating a very different feeling for a reader to have. Some of that came up in the writing of the pieces, but that issue also came up when I was figuring out how to order the essays in the collection. Before I take readers through other people’s pain, I want to take them through some of my own. Maybe it’s just a way of establishing the street cred of trauma, but for me, I felt it partially as a desire to give the reader something before we moved into the rest of the essays.

In terms of feeling toward subjects and liking subjects, I think sometimes it’s easier to write about people you don’t like that much, because when you like somebody you get really concerned about what they are going to think about what you write. I have given up trying to predict when people will be upset by their portrayal and when they won’t. There are some people who are private enough that they just don’t like being portrayed at all.

There’s this piece in Harper’s about this guy… he’s a private detective who specializes in getting people out of cults. Have you read this?


He does it by getting into the cult himself. He gets into these cults so that the people he eventually gets out trust him because they think he’s gone through the same experience they have. But of course he’s never totally gone through the same thing, it’s a lie. Whereas, when you use your own pain to relate to someone, you have gone through it yourself. That’s what makes you interested in the first place.

Yes, in his case, everything is chosen. The involvement is chosen. In the collection there is this real mix of chosen and unchosen experiences. Some of the painful experiences are unchosen in their initial incarnation, but I choose to follow them to different places or deploy them in certain ways. So they become a very intentional and chosen thing, even if the fact that they happened to me wasn’t a chosen thing.

So do you think something about not choosing what happens to you lends itself to an imperative to write about it?

Yes, I do. That’s certainly how… I think there’s an element of chance that makes those experiences feel imperative or urgent. I also think that going through an experience that makes you feel powerless can create the desire to narrate the experience. You’re not just writing about because it happened to you, you’re writing about it because writing about it allows you to feel a little less victimized by it.

And paradoxically you end up making yourself more vulnerable and more open, just by putting it out there.

I don’t always think that openness makes you vulnerable. And I don’t always feel vulnerable about the pieces of my work that feel confessional. I think part of what creates a position of vulnerability is needing something from somebody else in a given moment. That’s what makes you vulnerable to them. I don’t always think it feels vulnerable to write about personal things. It’s never the full version of an experience that I’ve laid out there. When I tell somebody that I’m close to about certain experiences that I’ve had, those are the moments when I feel vulnerable, because I care about them and I need something back from them.

When you write something though, maybe you do need a response. I mean, when you write something, you don’t want nothing.

Right. There are those moments [in the title essay] where I talk about my heart doctor and I talk about not knowing that I needed a certain kind of response until I didn’t get it. I definitely want to create a response with writing. It might very well be something where my own needs are clarified when they’re not met. And I see that they existed in a way I didn’t see them earlier.

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