This interview is part of an ongoing LARB A.V. series from this year’s LA Times Festival of Books. Go to the LARB A.V. homepage to see more interviews with T.C. Boyle, Daniel Handler and Mona Simpson, and keep checking in for upcoming interviews with Walter Kirn, Michelle Huneven, and many, many more.
LESLIE JAMISON’s LATEST BOOK ambles between poverty tourism, reality television and Bolivian silver mines, though at its core is a singular pursuit: to understand other people’s pain. In this quest Jamison not only goes to extreme lengths, both personally and imaginatively, but she also turns inward to explore how her own interest — perhaps obsession — with pain and empathy, and how that might challenge her capacity to actually empathize. In Suzanne Koven’s recent review of the book for LARB, she writes that Jamison “…considers the possibility that empathy isn’t always helpful. There’s a fine line between interpretation and hostility, between relating to someone else’s experience and appropriating it, between travel and transgression, inquiry and voyeurism.”
Though Jamison understands there are limits to making equivalencies, to relating painful experiences with philosophic thinking and TV shows, her relentless drive to search for answers under every nook and cranny are what make The Empathy Exams so enjoyable. “I’m interested in…thinking about different arsenals of experience,” says Jamison. “So the encounter you have with a text is one thing in that arsenal. A night you had in the E.R. is another thing in that arsenal. How can you deploy both of those things in the same piece to create an experience for a reader?”