A fearless essayist, Leslie Jamison revels in viewing life from as many angles as possible. Combining memoir with journalistic reporting, she is adept at telling stories that reveal the ways in which we relate to one another.

In her 2019 collection of essays, Make it Scream, Make it Burn, Jamison explores yearning and obsession, loneliness and broken relationships. The book’s title captures her intent to probe the deeper meanings behind ordinary life. As she explains, “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.”  [1]

In the collection, Jamison describes a solo whale wandering through the North Pacific and details the digital devotees who subscribe to Second Life, an online platform. She chronicles the life of a Civil War photographer and depicts the artistry of a Californian who photographs the same subjects over a period of twenty-five-years. In the book’s concluding chapters, Jamison scrutinizes events from her own life including eloping to Las Vegas, becoming a stepmother and giving birth to her daughter.

The themes echo Jamison’s previous work in which she investigated concepts related to emotional connectedness. Her first novel, The Gin Closet, recounted the story of a young woman who connects with an estranged aunt and discovers that they share a history of addiction and difficult relationships with men. The novel, published in 2010, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize

In her best-selling 2014 collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, Jamison explored her personal experiences with illness and injury while examining poverty tourism, phantom diseases, street violence and incarceration.

In 2018, Jamison described her personal journey through alcoholism and recovery in The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath. The book also includes the stories of other literary figures who have suffered from alcoholism including Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson and Jean Rhys.

A prolific writer, Jamison’s work has appeared in Best New American Voices 2008, A Public Space, Black Warrior Review, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review and The Believer. She is the Director of the non-fiction concentration in writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and serves as a columnist for The New York Times Book Review. Jamison earned an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Yale University.

The Coachella Review: Please tell us how you chose the title of your book, Make it Scream, Make it Burn.  In what ways did you intend for this title to tie together the essays you have included in your collection?

Leslie Jamison: The title comes from an observation the poet William Carlos Williams made about the photographs of Walker Evans—that his photographs “make reality scream,” by which he meant, I think, that he was able to look at ordinary lives, ordinary people, ordinary moments, and find something urgent and illuminating inside of them. That’s what I want the essays in this collection to do, whether they were personal or critical or reported—to gaze at life and find urgencies hidden in plain sight: the pulsing contractions, the surprising sources of light.

TCR: Within Make it Scream, Make it Burn, you organized your essays into three topic areas entitled:  Longing, Looking and Dwelling.  What are the themes that you wanted to explore in each section and how do they relate to one another?

LJ:  The three sections are partially organized in terms of their angles of approach: the essays in “Longing” are largely reported, those in “Looking” are critical—everything from travel writing to photography criticism—and those in the final section, “Dwelling,” are much more personal. That said, I also hope they compose a kind of collective narrative arc: they start by examining what it means to long for things that are far away—past lives, an elusive whale known as the loneliest whale in the world—and end up examining how we relate to what’s close, rather than what’s far away: our families, our spouses, our children, our banal, daily routines.

TCR: The essays included in this collection were formerly published in other venues. In what ways did you revise the essays in order to explore the meta-themes that you wanted to include in this book?

LJ: Once I gathered the essays together around the core themes of the book—longing, haunting, and obsession—it was incredibly exciting to figure out how to dig deeper into the inquiries of each one, to find the additional layers of meaning that were waiting to be excavated. For example, I was able to revisit one essay about reincarnation that had been published in Harper’s magazine and ask the much deeper questions lurking inside of it: What does reincarnation suggest about our notion of the self? What does believing in reincarnation ask us to believe about identity? How are ideas of un-originality that reincarnation makes explicit—when it proposes that none of us are new!—connected to ideas of resonance and interchangeability that show up in twelve-step recovery? How did my own life in twelve-step recovery shape the ways I approached that piece as a journalist? When I revised the piece, I got to engage with all these questions that had been lurking in the margins.

TCR: In several essays, you reference the tattoo on your arm which reads “Nothing human is alien to me.”  How does this tattoo relate to how you view your role as a writer?

LJ: As a writer, I believe in trying to examine the complicated humanity of any given subject—and the complexities of any given situation—rather than reducing anyone or anything to a single note, or making them a piece of evidence serving a pre-existing thesis statement. And I find that one way to keep excavating a subject’s complicated humanity is to understand their humanity as not entirely unrelated from my own. That said, I also believe in minding the gap between my consciousness and anyone else’s: I can’t fully understand what anyone else thinks or feels, and there’s an important humility in recognizing that. So I see my tattoo as a constant reckoning—a tension—rather than the answer to a question, or a simple guiding moral imperative.

TCR: In the second section of the book you explore issues regarding the relative objectivity of writers and the extent to which art risks becoming exploitation rather than witnessing.  How do you view your own work along this spectrum?

LJ: The version of honesty I’ve always been most interested in—as a writer, and a human being—involves confessing, excavating, and exploring my own biases and investments, rather than pretending they don’t exist or trying to banish them to the margins. So I guess I’d say I believe in scrutinizing my own subjectivity rather than trying to achieve an impossible objectivity.

TCR: Several of the essays in Make it Scream, Make it Burn, explore the ways in which narratives are generated in response to specific landscapes.  In what ways, do you see a relationship between our emotional states and the way we view the space around us?

LJ: Yes, many landscapes are important in this book—from investigating the residue of the Sri Lankan Civil War in Jaffna to analyzing the architecture of the Las Vegas strip—and I think landscapes can be important ways of investigating emotional experience in several senses: our responses to landscapes can often be illuminating portals into our interior lives (what are we drawn to, what do we shy away from, where and how do we experience comfort and discomfort) and thinking about our experiences in terms of landscapes also invites a reckoning with the body as an important component of experience: what information is being gathered by our senses, and how does it shape and illuminate our emotional states?

TCR: In your essays you reference your journey to achieve sobriety.  How has your recovery experience influenced the topics you choose to write about in this collection and your two other published books, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath and The Empathy Exams?

LJ: I’d say that drinking and sobriety have been shaping forces in all four of my books. My first book, The Gin Closet, is a novel that is largely structured by the ways in which two different women relate to drinking. It’s a book about addiction with very little recovery in it, which makes sense—I didn’t have much experience with recovery when I was writing it. My next book, The Empathy Exams, was hugely shaped by my experience in twelve-step recovery—and the ways it was asking me to relate to the lives of strangers, to witness the complicated humanity inside each one—but I didn’t write explicitly about recovery within it. That came with The Recovering, an examination of the relationship between addiction, recovery, and storytelling that weaves together my own personal experience with literary criticism, cultural criticism, and reportage. That book rose directly out of my fears that sobriety would somehow kill my creativity—it was an attempt to explore the ways that recovery could actually inspire a new kind of creativity.

Kaia Gallagher is working on a memoir called Return to Estonia, which explores her connection to her Estonian heritage. She is an MFA graduate at the University of California–Riverside’s Low Residency program.

[1] Canfield, David, “Leslie Jamison previews new book Make it Scream, Make it Burn in exclusive essay.” Entertainment Exclusive, January 14, 2019. https://ew.com/books/2019/01/14/leslie-jamison-make-it-scream-essay-cover-reveal/.  Accessed 12-18-19