Leslie Jamison earned her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and, more recently, pursued a PhD in literature at Yale University, where her research focused on addiction narratives. She is the author of a novel, The Gin Closet (2010), and the essay collection The Empathy Exams (2014), as well as two forthcoming works of nonfiction: Archive Lush, which entwines cultural criticism, literary analysis, and journalistic reportage with Jamison’s own narrative, and Ghost Essays, a collection that centers on haunting and obsession, love and loneliness. The Gin Closet was chosen by the San Francisco Chronicle as a Best Book of 2010 and as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times’ Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. The Empathy Exams won the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize; reached #11 on the New York Times bestseller list; and garnered praise from The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, Cosmopolitan Magazine, NPR, Entertainment Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle, Book Riot, and many, many other publications. Jamison is a columnist for The New York Times Book Review, and her work has appeared in magazines and journals including Harper’s, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The New York Times, A Public Space, Oxford American, The Believer, and more. She currently resides above a smoke shop in Brooklyn.
Two nuns and a penguin approach you at a bar, and you tell them you’re a writer. When they ask you what you write about, how do you answer?
What are they drinking? Might depend on what they’re drinking. Is the nun on her sixth shot? Does the penguin have a tell-tale seltzer? I’d probably say my work is interested in the difficulties of intimacy, the struggle to get outside our own lives, and the way we (all of us) are always reckoning with the complicated experience of living in a body.
Points is a blog primarily for drug and alcohol historians. What do you think this audience would find most interesting about your work?
Part of my fascination with embodied experience has to do with contingency and dependence—how are we constituted and humbled by what we long for, even when we long for something that robs us of ourselves? Addiction is many things, but it’s charged by just that kind of deforming longing.
What led you to write about drugs and alcohol in the first place?
My novel, The Gin Closet, is about the bond that forms between two women: a twenty-something named Stella who goes to look for her estranged aunt, Tilly, an alcoholic drinking herself to death in the Nevada desert. Large parts of their relationship are shaped by Tilly’s alcoholism—Stella’s urge to help her get better (also an escape from her own life) and Tilly’s own self-sabotaging survival impulse.
This was the first piece of writing that really explored addiction; and I can say that its driving urgencies came from my own life and my own family.
How would you describe the way that drugs function in your work, whether in terms of thematic concerns or the choices you make about how to craft a narrative? Do you think there are things that you wouldn’t be able to explore as successfully if drugs weren’t in your writing arsenal?
I’m interested in substances for so many reasons: how they change our relationships to our bodies, how they bring us together, the hollowness of their promises, the drama and banality of addiction, the difficulty of shaping it into honest narrative—and, more and more, the complexities and intimacies that rise out of recovery communities.
Even though it can feel—these days—as if we are overrun by addiction narratives, I think that addiction is actually quite a difficult story to tell. Because part of what’s ultimately so difficult and hopeless about addiction is its repetition—underneath all the melodrama and the fucking-up is a deep, driving fear that just takes someone back to the same behaviors over and over again. As a writer, how do you do justice to that tedium, to the over-and-over again quality of addiction, its endless cycles and lack of resolution; without creating a narrative that’s simply frustrating for a reader?
What do you personally find most interesting about how drugs work in your writing, and where do you see that interest leading you in future projects?
Sometimes I look at my work as a kind of treasure hunt: in each book, there are buried clues that point to where the next book will go. In my first book, The Gin Closet, there was a lot of drinking and a few hints of recovery; there was a young woman struggling (and often failing) to get outside herself; there was a lot of pain on display. In my second book—a collection of essays—I think more explicitly and critically about what it means to examine pain; and that fledgling impulse toward outwardness is more explicitly realized—many of the pieces examine my own life, but many examine (through criticism or reportage) the lives of others. There’s a line in the book (my mother’s favorite line, for what it’s worth—to me, a lot) that goes: Suffering is interesting but so is getting better. And in a way, that’s one of the rallying cries of my next book: how can we tell stories of recovery that are engaging and rigorous, that don’t feel formulaic or claustrophobic? In this book [Archive Lush], there’s a lot of drinking but also a lot of recovery—as if a dangling thread from the first novel has finally been picked up and pursued.
This current book project is motivated by certain driving questions: how do we craft stories of addiction and recovery? How do we craft them into art, and how do we craft them as tools of redemption, and how do these crafts differ? I write about my own life, my own experiences with drinking and sobriety; but I also draw on the lives of others: a set of reported oral histories as well as years of archival research that went into my doctoral dissertation at Yale.
One of the recurring fixations of the book has to do with the tension between isolation and community—the ways that addiction can be deeply isolating (can drive people deeper into themselves) and the ways recovery works against, delivers people into relation and structural intimacy that actually runs a lot deeper.
BONUS QUESTION: We wanted to offer Leslie a different bonus question, as it’s difficult to soundtrack (and to movie-fy) an essay, and we didn’t want to force her to choose a credits song for a novel she wrote half a decade ago. Since Jamison has been researching addiction narratives at Yale, Fiction Points curator Amy Long posed to Leslie the question that bugs her most when she puts together Fiction Points: Where are all the women and authors of color writing drug-centered literature, and why can’t I find them?
Long: Why do you think men tend to dominate drug- and alcohol-related literature? I see lots of women’s recovery memoirs, and I’ve seen more women writing about drugs recently, but it’s still harder to find women than men [for this series] and even harder to find nonwhite authors (especially women of color) who write literature that’s unapologetic about drinking and drug use. Can you talk a little about your view of this?
Jamison: I’m so glad you asked, even though I don’t have a good answer–because the truth is, it’s just the truth that there are so many stories out there that don’t have adequate representation in the literary mainstream.
In my experience of recovery, in multiple American cities and around the world, I’ve encountered so much social, racial, and economic diversity–and so much productive conversation across those dividing lines, and so much exposure to stories from multiple social contexts. It’s just a travesty that published narratives don’t document this range of experiences. Some of this is just a compounding of social inequalities in opportunity and visibility–who is getting heard? I do think you’re right to point out that in the past few decades gender disparities in addiction narratives have lessened more than racial or socioeconomic ones–we have more stories from women, but the stories we have are still very white. I hope we see that change.
(If you’re curious about Jamison’s taste in music, see this Largehearted Boy playlist she created for The Gin Closet.)