Same As It Ever Was

In the wake of the stunning success of "The Empathy Exams," life is different for author Leslie Jamison. But one big thing hasn't changed.


MANCHESTER, N.H., Sept. 17, 2014 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- This is the dream that writers have—that once you hit a home run, once you publish something big and the applause rings in your ears, then that sort of success will foster a confidence that will wring all the toil out of writing. To paraphrase St. Luke, that which was difficult shall be made easy.

Leslie Jamison, who teaches in Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program, is just such a home-run hitter. Her first book, a 2010 novel entitled "The Gin Closet," was good for extra bases, being named a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. But with "The Empathy Exams," published last April by Graywolf Press, this young writer, only 31, hit one out of the park.

"The Empathy Exams" is a book of essays dealing variously with the byways of human understanding and yes, empathy; and market expectations are always small for essay collections by little-known writers from small independent publishers. But if the ideas range widely enough, if the prose cuts deeply enough, and if the author's honesty is equal to her compassion, something extraordinary might happen.

In fact, "extraordinary" is what the New York Times said in one of its two rave reviews of "The Empathy Exams." "A beautiful and punishing book," added Slate. Amid a chorus of such praise, the book debuted at #11 on the New York Times paperback best-seller list, and is already in its eighth printing by Graywolf. The book has made every "best-of-the-year-so-far" list, and expectations are great for a bouquet of prizes at the end of the year.

And it's all been a life-changing experience for the author. Jamison still occupies the Brooklyn apartment she moved into last November, and she's still a doctoral candidate in American literature at Yale, even as she teaches at Southern New Hampshire. But while once she had to scrape and scavenge for opportunities to showcase her work, these days they arrive unbidden—such as the phone call that invited her to be one of the stable of high-profile writers used by the New York Times to supply its weekly "Bookends" column on literature.

"Those are short columns, while by nature I'm a long-form essay writer," Jamison said. "So not only was I grateful for the opportunity, I knew I'd benefit from the discipline of writing in that compressed format."

Nor does she have to worry—like many writers—about who might want the next book. In June she signed a lucrative deal with Little, Brown for the next two works, in fact. The first, "Archive Lush," will be an "exploration of addiction blending cultural criticism, journalistic reporting, and literary criticism with the author's own narrative," says Little, Brown; and "Ghost Essays" will be a collection focused on "haunting and obsession, love and loneliness."

Last month Granta Books purchased the United Kingdom and Commonwealth rights for both titles. But now her readers will have to wait. "2017 or 2018," Jamison said when asked about the U.S. publication date for "Archive Lush."

Which highlights another important difference in Jamison's life. Formerly she had more time than opportunity for book signings, interviews, panels, festivals, etc. Now that's all flipped around for an author who is no longer little known.

"Suddenly I have to say no to stuff like that, or a lot of it, in order to protect my personal boundaries, and the time I have to produce new work," she said. "That's definitely been one of the big challenges of the last two months."

In regard to this new work, however, Jamison has found one thing that hasn't changed at all—even for the celebrated author of "The Empathy Exams," even for a home-run hitter.

"The central act of writing is just as much a struggle, just as difficult, as it's always been," said Jamison. "It's been incredibly heartening to find so many people responding with such enthusiasm to 'The Empathy Exams,' but still, in front of the blank page, it's just me by myself, trying to figure out what to say next and how to say it."

Fellow essayist Benjamin Nugent—also a novelist and the director of Southern New Hampshire's MFA program—knows all about that struggle, but is pleased with such an outcome as "The Empathy Exams."

"I watched Leslie write this lovely book over several years, taking great pains to make familiar things strange," he said. "It's been gratifying to see it find a large, ravenous audience."

Photos accompanying this release are available at:

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