MANCHESTER, N.H., April 22, 2014 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Leslie Jamison began by describing pain that didn't exist, that was scripted for her in her role as a medical actor in role-playing sessions that tested medical students not only for their skills in diagnosis, but for their capacity for empathy as well.
The essay she wrote about that experience set her off on more essays about pain: how it is experienced, perceived, shared, imagined, or kept hidden. The manuscript of her collection of such essays won a prize—and the promise of publication—from Graywolf, a small literary press in Minneapolis.
Two weeks after publication on April 1, "The Empathy Exams" debuted at #11 on the New York Times paperback best-seller list, and was already in a sixth printing of 10,000 copies. Meanwhile its critical reception has been, well, ecstatic.
"Her insights are often piercing and poetic," said the New Yorker. "It's hard to imagine a stronger, more thoughtful voice emerging this year," said the New York Times. "A beautiful and punishing book," said Slate. "A soaring performance on the humanizing effects of empathy," said National Public Radio.
The Boston Globe sums it all up nicely: "We're in a golden age of the essay . . . and in 'The Empathy Exams' Leslie Jamison has announced herself as its rising star."
And how does the rising star herself describe the sensation of suddenly being such a sensation? "It's been pretty surreal," she said. "Nobody expected anything like this."
Even before publication, though, there was buzz. Jamison's first book, "The Gin Closet" (Free Press, 2010) , a novel, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times's First Fiction Prize. Then a number of the essays included in "The Empathy Exams" have appeared over the previous two years in such places as Harper's, the New Republic, the Oxford American, and the Mississippi Review.
And Graywolf was so certain of this new book's at least modest success that they funded a promotion that has become rare even for books from large commercial publishers—an author's tour.
"And it's been so much fun being on tour as the book has just come out," Jamison said. "As various things come out in the media—reviews, interviews, whatever—it gives me the opportunity to celebrate with pockets of friends in different parts of the country. My stepdad told me about standing up in the kitchen and eating his cereal while I was on NPR's Morning Edition."
Jamison views "The Empathy Exams" as a collaborative effort with all those pockets of friends, many of whom played roles in helping her get the book done. "It's like something we've accomplished together," she said.
But Jamison is especially effusive about her friends at Graywolf. "I had an offer with a larger advance from one of the big publishers for this book, but I went with Graywolf because I felt like I would be better supported, and I was right," she said. "I just can't speak highly enough about all the effort they put into getting the name of this book out there."
Combine that effort with a book as striking as this, and you find yourself in enough demand to make book promotion a full-time job. Jamison has a full docket of readings this spring, and then a series of literary festivals and conferences in the fall.
And yet she has other tasks to attend to as well. She's still in school, for one, thing, working on a doctorate in literature from Yale University, and writing her thesis on addiction narratives in American writing.
There is a chance that thesis will be the cornerstone of her next book, but Jamison isn't sure yet. "I'm also toying around with doing another collection of essays," she said, "but this one built around the theme of hauntings."
And Jamison teaches school as well. She's a faculty member in Southern New Hampshire University's low-residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction program. "I like feeling useful, and that's what teaching at SNHU provides me," she said. "I'm there for the moments of doubt and confusion known to all writers, and I can use my own intimacy with those moments to help my students get through them. It succeeds in making us all feel less alone."
Eco-journalist Richard Adams Carey, who is the assistant director of the Southern New Hampshire program, has both taught in workshops with Jamison and listened to readings from the manuscript of "The Empathy Exams."
"The readings are like performance art, and reflect the essays themselves in the passion and ferocious energy they bring to their subject matter," Carey said. "But then in a workshop, Leslie is thoughtful, gentle and supportive. She has this quality all really good teachers need to have. Coincidentally enough, it's empathy."
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