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An Interview with Leslie Jamison

[Writer]
by Casey Cep
October 3rd, 2019

“Writing about the self doesn’t have to come ‘at the expense’ of other perspectives or other modes of inquiry.”

Objects of Leslie Jamison’s Obsession:
The Act of Revision
Albert Bierstadt’s
painting A Storm in the Rocky Mountains
The Impossibility of Documenting Everything

I first met Leslie Jamison the way most people do, through her byline, but I was a decade ahead of the rest of you. I read her short stories in the archives of our college literary magazine; she was, it will not surprise you to learn, already a legend. I even wrote an essay about one of her stories to join the staff. Eventually, I read my way through everything Leslie had written, and even tracked down her senior thesis, which I was told was about incest in William Faulkner, although really it was about siblings and intimacy and solipsism. 

You might say that I was obsessed with Leslie Jamison, although of course saying that triggers an avalanche of assumptions that only Leslie herself could tease out. The great joy of becoming Leslie’s friend is following along as she does this kind of teasing: the nature of love and exes over ramen and seltzer with Emergen-C; the ideas of charity and confession while stacking non-dairy creamers at a midnight diner; the art of the essay for a group of eager, bleary-eyed college students or the capitalist roots of dating in front of a whole auditorium full of people. I’ve followed along, too, as everyone else has these last ten years as Leslie does this kind of work in essay after essay that helps us all make sense of the world and our place in it.  

Sometimes a book has a heart that’s a character, like Isabel Archer in Portrait of a Lady, or a setting, like Brideshead in Brideshead Revisited, but Leslie’s new book, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, has a heart that’s an idea: obsession. There are the lonely souls obsessed with a specific whale in “52 Blue.” There are the hundreds of thousands of people living through digital personas in “Sim Life.” There are the artists obsessed with the possibility of verisimilitude, such as the writer James Agee in the title essay and the photographer Annie Appel in “Maximum Exposure.” And then, of course, there’s Leslie herself, obsessed with empathy and subjectivity, ethics and honesty, health and wellness, and many other subjects in the last third of this new collection where she focuses more on her private life. Because I’ve known Leslie for so many years, I know how much she can do with a tiny prompt, so I’ve opted to start our conversation with that single word—obsession—that feels so central to Make It Scream, Make It Burn

—Casey Cep

THE BELIEVER: How do you define obsession?

LESLIE JAMISON: First of all, I love this idea of obsession as the unwieldy beating heart of the book. It makes me think of the mysterious blue whale at the center of the first essay—”52 Blue,” the “loneliest whale in the world,” with his singularly high-pitched song—whose heart, moving through unknown ocean waters, is as big as a van. I also picture The Giant Heart at the Franklin Institute in Philly—it’s exactly what it sounds like! A giant heart you can actually walk through. Maybe that image of a heart you can walk through is my way of starting to answer your question: obsession is fixation, sure. It’s preoccupation. It’s possession. But more than anything, it’s a form of exploration. Or at least, that’s the difference between generative obsession—which can yield knowledge, engagement, growth, transformation—and a more toxic, static form of obsession, in which you keep obsessively retracing the same suppositions or projections. I think of obsession as the state of helpless return; what you keep coming back to, what you find you can’t turn away from. Your body is drawn back to the giant heart once more.

Leslie Jamison, 2017. Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

BLVR: I like that distinction between generative and toxic, because of course obsession can be sustaining and nourishing, a kind of means to mastery, or it can be dangerous, potentially corrosive or corrupting. That latter is the way a lot of people use it, sort of pejoratively, or as a way of expressing some shame or disapproval. I’m curious how it feels to you.

LJ: It’s fitting you should frame it that way, because one of my best friends from childhood told me she loved the fact that my book was about it obsession because she often associated obsession with powerlessness—with being beholden to something, or in its thrall—and she liked the idea of exploring everything that could feel powerful about obsession instead. I suspect that her associating obsession with thrall—or at least, associating my relationship to obsession with thrall—had to do with the fact that we knew each other during the long, exhausting years of our teenage crushes, when obsession did involve a state of terribly tyrannized fixation.

On that other hand, obsession can try to wield power in terrible ways. There are absolutely forms of obsession that become tyrannical, solipsistic, insistent—that get fixated on a particular understanding of something or someone, or a particular love object, and want to trap that thing in amber, to make it theirs, to keep it still (a la Humbert Humbert.) There are other forms of obsession that allow room for surprise and revision and undermined or thwarted expectations—that keep returning to something and are able to actually see it freshly each time. That’s the kind of obsession I strive for in my writing, whether I’m working in a journalistic mode, or writing personal essays or criticism—an obsessive attention that’s flexible enough to keep revising and overturning its own ideas, its own vision.

That’s the kind of obsession I was striving for when I was reporting and writing the essay called “We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live Again,” about children who have past life memories and the ways in which other people—their parents, researchers, skeptics—make sense of those memories. The piece has a long history—I started working on it in 2014, reported and wrote it through much of 2015, and then returned to it for a massive revision in 2018; I kept coming back to it even once it was a “finished piece.” I wasn’t done with it. I kept trying to figure out why I was so compelled by other people’s belief in reincarnation, and what it suggested about their vision of the self / the soul / identity, and eventually—after years—I realized that it had something to do with my life in twelve-step recovery, which insisted on the unoriginality of the self in a way that reincarnation literalized: You aren’t original at all! You were once someone else! There was a humility in that metaphysics that appealed to me.

That’s the kind of obsession I strive for: the ongoing process, and that sense of not being “done” with something even once the piece is filed or the copy is final. The idea that I could still find new things in the material; it’s that hunch that there’s more, and more you don’t understand; as well as that willingness to be surprised.

Did I somehow just tell an ennobling story about my own relationship to obsession? I didn’t mean to! I think my own relationship to obsession is less about mastery than futility—feeling like I become obsessed with things because I can’t do them, or don’t have them, or have failed to fully understand them.

It’s funny that you asked about obsession as a means to mastery, because I’ve always been thinking about the engine of obsession as failure—specifically a sense of failing to fully grasp something, or obtain it. How that makes you keep reaching for it. Your book, Furious Hours, is telling several fascinating stories, but one of them is the story of Harper Lee’s obsession with the book she couldn’t write. To what extent do you think refusal or failure is an essential ingredient of obsession?  Is that refusal the bit of grit—the irritant—you need for the pearl?

BLVR: You’re starting to convince me, although I have to say when I hear the word obsession, there’s always this echo of Ahab. It’s distinct from devotion, which seems saner, and, well, more virtuous. So Harper Lee is such an interesting case, especially when it comes to the true-crime story that’s at the heart of my book. She was devoted to the idea of being a writer, and certainly the world rewarded it for her, but then after To Kill a Mockingbird, I think her devotion soured. The obsession wasn’t just the one murder story, but this bone-deep, life-long obsession of hers to tell the “truth” about the South, and that was caught up in all these other ideas of identity and culture, equality and justice, family and society. I wish it had been the grit she turned into a pearl (or the worm: as it turns out, most pearls start with one of those, which is maybe some comfort to an obsessive on a bad day), but there was no pearl, it was all struggle and misery and for quite some time dysfunction.

That said, I’m not sure Harper Lee felt like she could choose her obsessions; they chose her. Which makes me want to ask about your obsessions. What are the persons, places, or things with which you’re obsessed now or were when you were working on this book? And do you feel like you have some control over where you turn that laser beam of attention?

LJ: My daughter’s curiosity. Her giggle. Her gaze and where it lands. The fact that I sometimes do not understand why it lands there. Also: Borges’s map of the whole world. The impossibility of documenting everything. Pound’s idea of periplum: the shoreline not as it would appear on a map, but as seen by a sailor from the prow of a ship. Breakups and their residue. The Nutshell Dioramas of Unexplained Death. Mika Rottenberg’s film Spaghetti Blockchain and its relationship to ASMR. Sensation as a site of beauty and pleasure and meaning. Gary Winogrand’s color photography. Ordinary lives as beauty. Public baths. Ramen noodles and the conversations that happen over their steam. A painting called A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie at the Brooklyn Museum, in front of which I often sat nursing my daughter during the first year of her life; its landscape perpetually returned me to the immensity of the world, its infinitude. And honestly I can already feel the beginnings of a new obsession, with that fact that most pearls begin with worms (!).

BLVR: This is why I love you, and why I think so many different readers are drawn to your essays. They are capacious and fascinating, but also sometimes delightfully common and familiar. I’ve heard your daughter’s laugh, and I think it should be on the Richter Scale of Delight, so I love that she’s on the list with the Rocky Mountains. But I want to change registers for a minute and go back to one thing we didn’t get to in the discussion of obsession’s elastic meaning. Elsewhere you’ve written powerfully and critically about addiction. Do you feel a correspondence between obsession and addiction? And what distinguishes the two?

LJ: Obsession and addiction both involve a kind of fixation, and a certain loss of control: despite your best intentions, you keep coming back to the thing; it compels you in a way that moves you past volition. But I tend to think of addiction as a narrowing force—one of the doctors I interviewed for my last book, The Recovering, described addiction as a “narrowing of repertoire”—and obsession, ideally, as a form of expansion: a way to keep learning, keep understanding, keep absorbing, keep complicating. In its best forms, obsession lets you get larger—through knowledge, through engagement—rather than narrowing the aperture of your fascination or attention to something impossibly small.

BLVR: That makes sense, and of course the aperture makes me want to ask you about James Agee by way of Walker Evans, whose photographs so shape the way we “see” Agee’s work. How did you find your way to these obsessive artists?

LJ: James Agee has been a major figure for me for many years. I first read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men back in 2007, during my first year of graduate school at Yale. It’s this unhinged, sprawling, quasi-absurd and often staggeringly beautiful four-hundred-plus page documentary text about three sharecropper families in Alabama, but it ends up becoming quite confessional about Agee’s process as a reporter: his guilt, his affection for his subjects, his feeling of being unable to represent them or their lives with anything approaching wholeness or totally. When I talk about failure as the engine of obsession, Agee is lurking right behind that statement. He’s one of the godfathers of that statement. After I wrote the long essay about Agee that became the title essay of this collection, I got to talk to the wonderful journalist Jeff Sharlet about Agee and failure (the conversation actually ended up being titled “Fail More”) and how both Jeff and I love this part of his aesthetic—it’s more endearing than the long-windedness or self-seriousness that can sometimes infect his prose.

In any case, the first time I read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee spoke to me immediately. I felt simultaneously awed and enraged by what he was saying, but he spoke to me immediately—I knew he was someone I’d keep wrestling with for the rest of my life. The writers we keep wrestling with—the ones we are simultaneously compelled and enraged by—are the ones who get under our skin most fully, I think—more, even, than the ones for whom we feel a more uncomplicated awe or affinity.

BLVR: I sometimes think about how happenstance can play such a pivotal role in our intellectual lives. What if you’d never read Agee? Maybe it doesn’t matter, some other artist would’ve set you on the path of awe and attention, but intellectual history can be as nostalgic as a family reunion, where we just keep getting our old favorites together and talking with them and about them. That’s part of why I was interested to find another photographer in this book, one much less well known than Walker Evans. Tell me a bit about how you came to Annie Appel.

LJ: What delivered me to the photographer Annie Appel—or I guess I should say, delivered her to me—was, in a roundabout way, the first essay I ever wrote about Agee, which was not a scholarly piece, but a deeply personal piece about reading his book in a bar full of peanut shells, that first fall in New Haven, feeling moved by his documentary impulse, and by his guilt, and by the conversation between the two. Annie read that piece when it was first published and felt a kinship with the way I thought about his work, and reached out to tell me about her own documentary project: a series of photographs she had been producing of a single Mexican family—living on both sides of the border—over the course of several decades. At the point she first reached out, she had been taking photographs of them for twenty-five years. Now it’s been more like thirty. Annie was right. I was interested in her project. I was particularly interested in the fact that it seemed endless; it seemed not only like something that had been going on for a long time but like something that might never stop.

I was moved by the figure of this woman, an outsider artist who had received almost no support or funding for her work, but who kept photographing this family anyway. She struggled with her own version of the sense of futility that Agee struggled with—the sense that her work would always be incomplete, that it would be never enough. Which in one sense is just plainly true: you can take as many photos of a person or a family as you want; you’ll never capture them in their entirety. You have to replace the fantasy of totality with someone else. But I was moved by the part of her that couldn’t let it go. That’s what I started to write about—not just the photos, but the sense of impossibility that fueled them. It’s another version of obsession fueled by absence, or incompleteness, rather than mastery.

BLVR: What a compelling account of the allure of accuracy. We’re back to the maps that Lewis Carroll and Borges wanted of the world, those utterly impossible one-to-one maps, or Kis’s encyclopedia of the dead where every minute of every life is recorded as it was lived. I thought about that obsessive accuracy lot while I was working on my book, because I was aware of wanting to find every single fact about every single event in it and also wanted every sentence to be perfect, so I flirted with these twin obsessions, endless research and endless revision. Common enough, right? At the extreme that’s Friedrich Hölderlin and his fragments, but it’s also Elizabeth Bishop spending years searching for just the right word or Yeats altering his poems years after they were published. How much revision is part of your writing process? And at what level do you revise—subject, idea, perspective, line? Are there particular essays in this collection that underwent more revision than others?

LJ: Yes! I think you are absolutely right to think about revision as a form of obsession. It gets back to the notion of obsession as the inability to leave something alone. I keep thinking of something that one of my early writing teachers, Ethan Canin, once told us in class after one of my classmates asked him, “How do you know if you’re a writer?” Ethan said: “You know you’re a writer if you just keep writing, no matter what.” Something about the way he said it, it made me think of a piece of trash that keeps floating to the surface of a river, which doesn’t sound like an inspiring image at all— “a real writer is like a floating piece of trash!”—but weirdly has been, for me. The simplicity and stubbornness of it. You just keep coming back. Obsessive revision is like that too. You just keep diving back into the thing, because you feel convinced that it can yield more.

I revise most of my essays across the course of years; anywhere from a year or two to five or six. That doesn’t mean I’m working on an essay constantly across the span of time, but that I’m returning to it. Sometimes that means doing more research. Sometimes that means digging into places where the thinking or the narrative seems overly simple, and finding more complexity underneath the smooth surfaces. I often find that my prose is polished before my ideas are fully in focus, which can lull me into a sense of premature completion. For that reason—and a thousand others—it’s so important to me to have readers with x-ray vision who can see through polished prose to all the flaws within. You were one of those readers, for this book! You were able to see certain essays that still had major thinking to do, and, in a few cases, essays with such shaky foundations that perhaps they didn’t deserve to exist at all! That makes you sound like a very harsh reader, which you are not! You are generous! Or rather, you are both generous and harsh. You expose the ways that each can contain the other. You are rigorous in a way I find completely necessary and ultimately generative.

There’s a personal essay in this essay (appropriately called “The Long Trick”) that I ended up working on for about six years. I often work on personal essays even longer than reported pieces, because I find it can take many drafts—many revisions—to get to the more complicated version of the story underneath the reductive cocktail-party-anecdote version of the tale. I often do this with my life—I think many of us do—have the easy shorthand version of an experience or a relationship; but when I write I try to listen for the tinny grooves of this easy version, and pry them open. In any case, “The Long Trick” is about the restless men in my family—pilots, frequent fliers, absent fathers—but across the course of the years I spent working on it, I realized I was telling myself pretty reductive stories about absence. It started to feel important to acknowledge the ways I had become attached to these narratives of absence, to ask what they were doing for me, and to understand there was another side to them—or rather, ways they were experienced differently from the other side. It felt incredibly exciting to keep breaking the essay open and finding more ragged moss under the smooth stones of its easy notions.

BLVR: I’m worried that trash bag image is destined to become an inspirational poster in the halls of creative writing departments. But in all seriousness, it brings to mind Berryman’s dream song about the bards freezing for their art, and the kind of devotion good art requires of us. That said, you know me well enough to know I put no stock in the suffering artist myth, and worry about anyone who is led to believe art demands the manufacture of pain. The world is so tragically full of it already. I think there’s some back and forth about those kinds of ideas in a strange way in your essay “The Quickening,” which is about the birth of your daughter and how radical self-love can be. I’m wondering, though, if you worry about self-obsession, or what people sometimes complain about when they don’t like first-person essays, a kind of embedded, perhaps inescapable narcissism. You are so good at interrogating your own interiority—in fact I’d go so far as to say it’s one of the hallmarks of your work—but do you ever worry about doing so at the expense of other perspectives or other kinds of writing?

LJ: Do I ever worry about writing from the first-person? The answer is yes! I worry about it a lot. I hope that my worry is useful, rather than cluttering. I just finished writing about Sontag and the new Sontag biography and spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant that she kept her personal life out of her critical work—the ways I somehow absorbed the notion that this choice to exclude the personal is more “rigorous” or “disciplined.” I think I was trained to absorb this notion; especially as a woman. Sontag has long functioned as kind of intellectual super-ego in my mind, shaming me for being too personal. But reading her biography, I was also struck by what got lost in her exclusion of the personal from her work—how this absence constrained the range of her meanings. Also: the biography claims she wanted her diaries to be published after her death, which was fascinating to me—she wanted the personal to become part of her legacy, albeit in this other form. As if then readers could connect the strands of critical work with the material of her diaries, find resonances between them.

Why am I addressing your question about the “I” by talking exclusively about another writer? As if to somehow prove—in the very form of my answer—that I think about the lives of others, too?

In all honesty, I believe that writing about the self doesn’t have to come “at the expense” of other perspectives or other modes of inquiry. I mean, of course there’s a basic question of real estate. The more “I” that’s on the page, the less we see of others. This is part of the anguish of Agee’s work. But I also believe that the “I” can be a conduit, a complicating force, a useful way into otherness and other subjects and other modes—that it can be a way of saying, Look at this other thing with me! I guess what I’m trying to say is that in an essay like “Sim Life,” about Second Life and digital avatars, where you get more of my “I” than you’d find in a straight reported piece, that letting my own perspective into the piece—my own process of bumbling around this digital world, and trying to make sense of it—that it can be a way to bring readers into a closer engagement with the material. That the “I” becomes a vessel in which I can tussle with questions of what it means to want to explore, to escape, to connect; that these stop being abstractions and start feeling more electric and alive, because I’m willing to let my psyche wrestle with them on the page. In any case, that’s the hope.

BLVR: I think one of the reasons I so cherish our friendship is the different way we’ve found our way through the world as writers. You talked about the putative rigor and discipline at work in the avoidance of the “I,” and I think that must be the same critical story I was told or restrictive logic I somehow internalized about the way writing should work. Yet some of the writers I most admire, the ones whose work has been so meaningful to me, violate that rule all the time. Including, of course, you. I framed that question as about your own interiority, but the strong, vulnerable “I” in your work is what we as readers adore. That suggests to me that even solo obsessions can be shared, and that’s part of what you illuminate in the essay about the Sims and in the one about 52 Blue. Can you talk more about how obsessions, which seem so solitary, can be communal?

LJ: Sometimes the word “obsession” conjures the image of monomaniacal solipsism—the figure whose obsession precludes or obstructs intimacy with others, the Ahab model, as you mentioned earlier (and of course you are right! Impossible to think of obsession without thinking of that peg leg). But I think that obsession can be a catalyst for community in beautiful ways. The possibility of that connection is one of the great preoccupations of this book, and the trio of reported pieces that comprise “Longing” (the book’s first section) are all about the connection between obsession and community in some way: “Sim Life” (about folks obsessed with their digital avatars and the relationships these avatars form on Second Life); “52 Blue” (about the “loneliest whale in the world” and the folks who have become fascinated by him) and “We Tell Ourselves Stories in order to Live Again” (about children who have past life memories and the ways their family ecosystems find meaning in these memories).Other pieces come at the intersection between obsession and community in other ways: the break-up museum in Zagreb as a way of creating community out of solitary heartbreak, for example, like a lab experiment mixing together people’s obsession with their own heartbreak (does anything feel more solipsistic than obsession with your own heartbreak) and our obsession with the lives of strangers…

On some level, the whole book is examining the possibility of finding solace in surprising places—finding intimacy in surprising forms, surprising ways, surprising relationships. Surprise itself as a form of solace. Which brings us back to obsession, I think—that it can be a kind of balm or solace, too. Not in its resolution, but in its perpetuity, the constant quest of it.

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