DEAR READER: A Q&A with Leslie Jamison

Tin House Staff

Leslie Jamison’s brilliant (and New York Times bestselling) essay collection The Empathy Exams drew comparisons to the work of Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, and John Jeremiah Sullivan, and it’s quickly established her as one of the visionary nonfiction writers of our time. She’s also a novelist (The Gin Closet), a columnist for The New York Times Book Review, and—drumroll, please—this month’s Dear Reader author at Ace Hotel New York.

Earlier this month, Leslie spent one night at Ace, penning a letter to an imagined audience. What she wrote has been kept secret until today, when her letter will be placed bedside in each room. We caught up with Leslie to talk disruption, the associative logic of the essay, and feeling lucky.

TIN HOUSE: If you could correspond with any fictional character or literary figure via letters, who would it be?  And why?

LESLIE JAMISON: How to choose? I love letters. I’ll say the first answer that comes to mind. Recently, I’ve been rereading Zora Neal Hurston’s Of Mules and Men—an account of gathering folklore from her childhood home in Florida, as well as an exploration of voodoo culture in New Orleans—and would love to have corresponded with her as she wrote it; to hear the fuller version of her fraught feelings about being an ethnographer in her own hometown.

Do you map out your writing, or do you discover your path as you go? How often does your work go in directions you never expected?

There’s always some kind of plan and there’s always a disruption of the plan. It’s so different with every project, and my pieces range from personal essays to critical pieces to longform narrative journalism, but the work always surprises me somehow: the essay about an ultra-runner in prison in West Virginia also ends up becoming a piece about the West Virginia prison industry; the piece about past-life memories also becomes an interrogation of what journalists owe their subjects, the essay about my obsession with Kevin Durant also becomes an account of the week Alton Sterling and Philando Castile died. There’s something about the associative logic of the essay itself that invites surprise, and certain something about the act of reporting that seems to demand a level of openness to it: How can you know what you will discover, before you discover it?

Dear Reader tasks you with writing for an imagined audience of strangers. How much do you think about your audience when you write? Have you ever been surprised by who is drawn to your work?

I loved writing for anonymous strangers staying in various hotel rooms, largely because whenever I stay in hotel rooms, I always think about strangers—specifically, the other strangers who have stayed in that same room, and what happened to them while they were staying there. I never pretend to imagine what other people will make of my work, so I find it hard to write “for” an audience in any way—it seems like a necessary species of humility to confess: I have no idea what you will think, or how you will respond! But I do love hearing from people who are drawn to my work, and am often surprised by the people I hear from: One of the first people who ever wrote to me about an essay I wrote about (among other things) an abortion was an elderly man writing from his nursing home, saying how much the piece had spoken to his experience. There are dangers to universalizing—to pretending we can all share experiences, or common ground—but also dangers to precluding certain kinds of resonance across predictable category boundaries.

What’s a book that you wish more people knew about?

I recently read and loved Kathleen Collins’ posthumous collection of short stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? It’s a stylistically jagged and provocative collection. Some of the pieces read like one-act plays, a lot of them left me feeling like I was eavesdropping on someone from the inside of her kitchen cupboards. They were raw and penetrating: about creativity, passion, race, being young, trying to be young with other people who are young. She never takes herself too seriously; there’s something witty and tonic about every move.

Do you have any rituals, ceremonies or requirements that accompany your writing process? 

My main “ritual” involves writing whenever I am not teaching, commuting on the subway, paying bills, or caring for an eight-year-old. Which is not to say that life or writing is drudgery—my writing is the sacred clearing I try so hard to clear room for, because I love it and feel grateful whenever I am able to inhabit it, and I genuinely believe that the various parts of life, logistical and creative, are not forces in opposition but can speak to each other in weirdly generative ways—but that I write whatever I can, whenever I can, and feel fucking lucky whenever I get to do it. I’m not precious about it.

Dear Reader is a collaboration of Tin House and Ace Hotel New York. You can find this interview and other delights on the Ace Hotel blog.