Category: Interview (Page 1 of 6)

TCR Talks with Leslie Jamison

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

TCR Talks with Maggie Downs About Her New Memoir, Braver Than You Think

By Pallavi Yetur

When we first meet Maggie Downs in her debut memoir Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime, her mental state is immediately established from the image of her shuffling through the Cairo airport in flip flops, her sweatshirt hood pulled over her head, and her body hovering between sleeping and waking because, “Sorrow does that.” Incidentally, travel can do that too, and Downs’s memoir tells a story of both.

Ten years ago, Maggie Downs quit her newspaper job and set off on a yearlong trip around the world. As she traveled from Peru to Bolivia to Uganda to Thailand, her mother’s mind and body were succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease back in the US. The trip is initiated when Downs, underwhelmed and disengaged with her job and life, decides that she must live because her mother can’t; because her mother gave up dreams of seeing the world to tend to her parental and familial duties. Downs asks herself: “By confining myself to this cubicle, wasn’t I making the same mistake my mother made?” In this state of suspension between doubt about her future and certainty of her mother’s, she found the reasons to travel: “to see what I was made of, to discover how strong I could really be, to live out the dreams of my mother.”

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TCR Talks with Lexa Hillyer

By Lindsay Jamieson

Lexa Hillyer is not only the author of the poetry collection, Acquainted with the Cold, and four Harper Collins YA novels: Proof of Forever, Spindle Fire, Winter Glass, and, her most recent, Frozen Beauty, but she’s also the co-founder of Glasstown Entertainment. While pursuing her own writing career, Hillyer and her partner, The New York Times bestselling author, Lauren Oliver, transformed their original publishing collaboration, Paper Lantern Lit and e-book publishing imprint, The Studio, into Glasstown; Hillyer remains at the helm. As their mission statement reads, “Glasstown Entertainment is an all-women, 360-degree media and content company based in New York and Los Angeles, dedicated to powerful, relevant, voice-driven story-telling across multiple platforms including book, film, and television.”

The Coachella Review recently sat down with Hillyer to discuss her fifteen-year career in publishing, the evolution of Glasstown Entertainment, and her latest novel, Frozen Beauty, which was released in March of this year.

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TCR Talks with Garth Greenwell

By Leah Dieterich

Garth Greenwell is the author of What Belongs to You, which won the British Book Award for Debut Book of the Year, was longlisted for the National Book Award, and was a finalist for six other awards. His new book, Cleanness, picks up where What Belongs to You left off. We follow the same narrator, a gay American ex-pat teaching high school in Bulgaria, through a variety of anonymous sexual experiences as well as a reckoning with love lost. While the book is at times brutal and explicit, it is also unspeakably tender. Many of the interviews Greenwell has done begin with questions about writing sex, an act which he calls “one of our most charged forms of communication,” so I wanted to break new ground and ask first about his love of language, particularly foreign language.

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TCR Talks with Rick Moody

BY SCOTT STEVENSON

Rick Moody, the award-winning author of The Ice Storm and Garden State, shares the true story of the first year of his second marriage in The Long Accomplishment: A Memoir of Hope and Struggle in Matrimony. A recovering alcoholic and sexual compulsive with a history of depression, Moody is also a man in love and the divorced father of a beloved little girl.

He emerges from a complicated past into a second marriage. This union is strengthened by confronting new challenges—miscarriages, the deaths of friends, and home invasions.

The Coachella Review: Can you give our readers a brief synopsis of The Long Accomplishment?

Rick Moody: It describes, more or less, the first twelve months of my marriage to visual artist Laurel Nakadate, and all of the things that happened to us in that year, many of them rather hard. Infertility treatments, lost pregnancies, suicide among friends, death, dementia among our parents, crimes committed against our persons and our property. It tries to arrive at a celebration of committed-ness, despite all the hardship.

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TCR Talks with Rene Denfeld

BY FELICITY LANDA

The Butterfly Girl is Rene Denfeld’s second novel in the world of Naomi Cottle, a private investigator who is drawn to cases of missing children. Naomi’s knack for finding these children has earned her the name “The Child Finder,” but her need to pursue them stems from the one cold case in her own life: the missing sister she left behind when she herself escaped captivity as a child. When Naomi sets aside her work to finally find her sister, she meets Celia, a lonely homeless child abandoned to the streets. Celia is running from her abusive stepfather and hiding amongst butterflies, her imagined guardians and the only place she feels safe. Naomi and Celia continue to collide throughout a shocking series of events in Naomi’s search.

Denfeld’s own experience as a homeless teen has led to an incredible life of advocacy, from her career as a public defender helping victims of trafficking, to her life as a foster mother of twenty years. Denfeld is no stranger to the hardships of abandoned children, and she cares for her characters as fiercely as she cares for those off the page who turn to her for aid.

Denfeld has written a tense, page-turning, crime novel that leaves readers feeling connected to her characters and their stories in an intimate way. Naomi and Celia dig through their haunted pasts, even while they uncover the truth of the present. The Butterfly Girl is a book that lingers, alive with hope as much as it is streaked in sorrow. Denfeld and I spoke about the importance of how we fictionalize trauma, the way she discovers her stories, and the beautiful and inspiring life she has led that motivates her writing.

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TCR Talks with Steph Cha

By Collin Mitchell

Steph Cha is the author of four novels including the Juniper Song mystery series (Follow Her Home, Beware Beware, Dead Soon Enough) and most recently, Your House Will Pay, a highly-anticipated and well-reviewed book about the aftermath of the 1992 L.A. riots and the relationship between the Korean and African-American communities. Steph Cha spoke about the narrative possibilities of crime fiction at the UC Riverside Low-Res MFA December residency. I sat down with her afterward to talk about Los Angeles, Palmdale, writing different races, and a little about food.

The Coachella Review: One of the things I like about your books is your appreciation for Koreatown in Los Angeles. You’re from the Valley. What was your relationship to Koreatown like growing up?

Steph Cha: Koreatown was probably what I thought of as L.A. because we lived in the suburbs and we would go into L.A. for dinner or go to the market because a lot of the stuff was there. My grandma lived in Koreatown, so when we went into Central Los Angeles it was to go to K-Town. It was always a major part of my map of Los Angeles, but I didn’t necessarily know the surrounding areas.

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TCR Talks with Tembi Locke

By Scott Stevenson

Tembi Locke is an accomplished actor, TEDx speaker, and bestselling author. She has appeared in over 60 television shows and films including The Magicians and NCIS: LA. Her TEDx talk, What Forty Steps Taught Me About Love and Grief, traces her journey as a cancer caregiver. Her New York Times bestseller, From Scratch: A Memoir of Love, Sicily, and Finding Home, is a Reese’s Book Club x Hello Sunshine pick.

From Scratch is a poignant and transporting cross-cultural love story set against the lush backdrop of the Sicilian countryside, where one woman discovers the healing powers of food and family and finds unexpected grace in her darkest hour.

Tembi is currently on a paperback tour for From Scratch, and will be speaking at Book Soup in West Hollywood tonight (2/4/20, 7pm), and tomorrow at the Palm Springs Cultural Center at noon (2/5/20, 12pm). Tembi will be in Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Houston, Dallas, and Seattle promoting the paperback.

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TCR Talks with Helen Macdonald

By Kaia Gallagher

Hailed as one of the fifty best memoirs in the past fifty years by The New York Times [1], H is for Hawk catapulted Helen Macdonald to fame as a prize-winning author. Trained as a naturalist, Macdonald is a writer, poet, illustrator, filmmaker, and an Affiliate Research Scholar at the University of Cambridge Department of History and Philosophy of Science. In her best-selling memoir, Macdonald combines the eye of a scientist with the lyricism of a gifted writer as she recounts how she overcame her grief over the death of her father by training a goshawk she named Mabel.

After H is for Hawk won the 2014 Samuel Johnson Prize for nonfiction, Macdonald helped make the film 10 X Murmuration with Sarah Wood. In 2017, she narrated a BBC Natural World documentary which followed her as she trained a goshawk named Lupin. A passionate environmentalist and bird enthusiast, Macdonald is currently researching a new book on albatrosses. In this interview, she describes her writing process and her views regarding falconry, environmentalism, and the importance of maintaining a connection to the natural world around us.

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TCR Talks with Catherine Chung

By: Kaia Gallagher

Writing about family and the search for identity, Catherine Chung has published two best-selling novels. Released to great acclaim in June of 2019, her novel, The Tenth Muse, is an intricately layered story about a female mathematician who tries to unlock a mathematical theorem while investigating the mysteries surrounding her identity that were buried in Germany during World War II.

Chung’s first novel, Forgotten Country, was awarded an Honorable Mention for the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2013. It was also listed as one of Booklist’s 10 Best Debut Novels in addition to being recognized by the San Francisco Chronicle and Bookpage.

Chung’s short stories and essays have been published in The New York Times, The Rumpus and Granta. She was the recipient of the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize in Poetry in 2009 and received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in Creative Writing in 2014.

While she was working on The Tenth Muse, she was appointed as a Director’s Visitor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. She currently serves as a fiction editor for Guernica Magazine and teaches creative writing at Adelphi University.

After receiving a mathematics degree from the University of Chicago, Chung worked for the RAND Corporation. She earned her MFA from Cornell University.

In this interview with The Coachella Review, Chung talks about the themes in The Tenth Muse related to female empowerment, gender bias, and the role of women in the field of mathematics.

THE  COACHELLA REVIEW: The title of your book, The Tenth Muse, invokes a Greek goddess who rejects her divine heritage in order to tell stories using her own voice. Why did you select this title and how does it connect to the ways in which the female characters in your novel struggle to be recognized for their talents?

CATHERINE CHUNG: I really wanted this book to engage with and sometimes push back on the kinds of stories I grew up with. Some of the earliest stories I heard were myths and folktales—grand stories about how the world was formed and order was made, and stories about adventure and danger and what we’re allowed to do and get away with and accomplish. A lot of the female characters played the supporting character in the male’s journey: they were the romantic interest, the muse, the mother of the hero. Not always, of course: I found stories about Athena, the war-loving goddess of wisdom, and stories about Artemis the huntress who refused to take a husband and turned everyone who fell in love with her into animals absolutely enthralling. But it was clear in those stories that they were extraordinary, not just because they were immortal, but because their talents and passions were unexpected in part because of their gender.

I wanted the book to pay homage to them, to the gender-expectation-defying characters of my childhood. I wanted also to create a new story about a muse who rejects the expectations put upon her by her birth, and strikes off on her own, and for this muse to be an inspiration to my narrator. That’s why the tenth muse is there, and the book is titled after her.

TCR: In The Tenth Muse, you have incorporated stories about well-known women mathematicians with others who are fictional. How does this blending of real-life stories into your fictional account help enhance the story?

CC: I thought the real-life stories of these women mathematicians who overcame so much to pursue this totally unexpected passion of studying mathematics were fascinating. Mathematics doesn’t sound like something you’d marry to do, but Sofia Kovalevskaya married her tutor because he promised to take her to Germany to study. Sophie Germain posed as a schoolboy to get lecture notes. She taught herself languages to read math textbooks. It’s extraordinary, and important and humbling for me to remember, that before I imagined a character who would single-mindedly overcome immense obstacles to accomplish so much, that these women had already done so in real life.

TCR: Throughout The Tenth Muse, you have described the language of mathematics and the reason why mathematicians are drawn to work on still unsolved formulas. Was it your hope that more people would appreciate the beauty and mystery of mathematics?

CC: I grew up in a math family, so I’ve always been convinced of the beauty and mystery of mathematics. It’s been a bit of a shock the number of people who told me after my book came out that they’d always hated the subject. I had just sort of assumed everyone had a secret burning desire to think about and talk about how mind-blowing certain mathematical ideas are, like the idea of infinity and different sizes of infinity, or what makes a number imaginary versus real. This book was a bit of a love letter to those ideas and the people who live them.

TCR: The protagonist in The Tenth Muse faces significant gender bias as she attempts to become an academic mathematician in the late 1970s. Why did you choose to situate your novel in this time period? As someone who studied mathematics in college, do you believe the barriers for women mathematicians have improved since that time?

CC: She actually comes of age as a mathematician in the 1960s, and I think I chose that time for a number of reasons. First, she was born in America right after WWII which was important for the plot regarding how her American war veteran father and Chinese mother met, but also because I was really interested in the way that American science changed because of the tremendous exodus of European scientists and academics out of Europe and into America as a result of the war. I was also really interested in the way that education changed for women in the 1960s. Women weren’t allowed into most Ivy League schools until 1969. The Civil Rights movement and Title IX meant that was a time of such tremendous change and potential for women academics, who were given chances they’d never had. I do think the barriers for women mathematicians have changed a great deal since that time, thank God. At the same time, I think the barriers are still significant, maddeningly so.

TCR: The protagonist in The Tenth Muse, Katherine, shares your name (Catherine) albeit with a slightly different spelling. Are there other ways in which you have blended autobiographical details about your own life into the narrative?

CC: Not really! I feel like if you ask any Catherine-with-a-C they’ll tell you how different we are from the Katherines-with-a-K, and vice versa. It was partly an inside joke with myself, just because everyone assumed my first book was autobiographical, and I thought who would think this book about a math genius in her 70s would secretly be about me? It was also partly born out of another inside joke with myself. When I was a child I loved Anne of Green Gables so much, and she broke my heart by announcing in one of her books that she was glad another character was a Katherine-with-a-K because “a K is so much more alluring. A C always looks so smug.” And so I always had a lifelong fascination with these other Katherines, these alluring Katherines with their glamorous, incredible lives. So I thought why not write about one?

TCR: As the protagonist in The Tenth Muse, Katherine struggles to learn about her lost parents and to find her place in the world. Who are the other writers you admire who have also dealt with themes of “otherness” and disconnection?

CC: William Faulkner. Ray Bradbury. Alexander Chee. Virginia Woolf. James Baldwin.

TCR: In addition to your two books, Forgotten Country and The Tenth Muse, you are a poet and have also published a number of short stories and essays. What has been your experience as a writer in exploring these different narrative forms? Which of these narrative forms do you prefer?

CC: Poetry is my first true love, but it seems somehow I grew away from it as I grew older. I’m always hoping I’ll find my way back to its embrace (as a writer: I still read it, of course!). I worked on an experimental theatre project exploring the idea of Gretel from “Hansel and Gretel” with my friends the poet Lauren Alleyne, video-artist Tomiko Jones, and composer Sidney Boquiren—I don’t have a preference, I just want to always be working in a way that makes me feel the most free.

TCR: Could you share with us details about your next writing project?

CC: I’m working on a new novel I can’t say too much about, and I also just started working on a new opera “ A Girl and the Stars” with the composer Faye Chiao about a girl who, on a quest to save her home world from the ravages of an ecological disaster, finds her way to a new and dazzling, more technologically-advanced world amid the stars, where she is promptly arrested, and where she will have to make the case that humanity should be saved.


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.

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