Weyerhauser Boardroom was packed Tuesday night as students, faculty and staff from the ACTC schools crowded in to hear author Leslie Jamison read from her newest book, The Empathy Exams. The event was co-sponsored by Macalester’s English department and the ACTC consortium, and brought Jamison back to the Twin Cities almost exactly a year after the release of the book by local publisher Graywolf Press.
Macalester creative writing professor Peter Bognanni, who attended graduate school with Jamison at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, opened the reading.
“Thank you, everybody, for coming out,” he said. “It’s a packed house! I’m really excited to see that. I’m sure it’s no coincidence, though, given the caliber of the reader we have tonight.”
The Empathy Exams won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize in 2011 for a partial submission and hit number 11 on the New York Times’s Bestseller List in April of 2014. The essay collection has received positive reviews from such acclaimed publications as Publisher’s Weekly, The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Entertainment Weekly, and others.
On Tuesday night, Jamison read two selections from the collection; a partial excerpt from “The Devil’s Bait”, a longer essay focused on Morgellons disease, and the entirety of “The Broken Heart of James Agee”. Shorter essays such as the latter are grouped together in Jamison’s book in what she described as “pain tours.”
“I was thinking through, with all of these pieces, what voyeurism is,” Jamison said, introducing her second excerpt. “The piece that I’m going to read is from one of those pain tours. It’s about a different sort of voyeurism, and it’s the voyeurism of being a writer or a reader.”
Following the readings, Jamison answered questions from the audience.
“My answer is a chicken and the egg answer,” she said in response to a question regarding the early stages of her writing project: had she actively decided to write about empathy, or had she just discovered the common thread of empathy in the things she decided to write about?
“I didn’t set out thinking, ‘I’m going to write a collection of essays and they’re going to be about empathy.’ When I started writing the essays, I imagined them just as pieces on their own. I didn’t imagine that I’d make a book out of them.
“There are a lot of things we do before we have labels for what we’re doing, and I think that my interest in empathy was one of those things. I just followed those vectors to wherever they led to.”
Another audience member cited his own feeling that reading The Empathy Exams had changed him, and wanted to know whether Jamison felt the same way after working with the book over a long period of time, both pre- and post-publication.
“There’s nothing I would want more than for my writing to do in the world than to make people feel witnessed or challenged or spoken to, all of which are things I often hear when people talk about their experience with the book,” she said. “There’s a deep sense of something that I’ve wanted to do — I’ve done.”
The event was followed by a reception and book signing.
“I was thrilled to see such a big crowd at the event, but I wasn’t surprised,” Bognanni said. “Leslie is one of the most exciting writers in the country right now. I felt so lucky to be able to bring her to Mac.”