Leslie Jamison is a Yale grad student, but right now she’s answering questions from a writing residency in the woods somewhere that’s she’s not allowed to talk about.
Jamison published a book called “The Gin Closet,” which, if you turn past the great looking mauve negligee on the cover, includes trailer parks, Reno, and a memorable trip to the gynecology office. Charles D’Ambrosio called it a “gorgeous first novel” and Vogue liked it too.
Leslie seems fierce, or maybe just accomplished? In one of her press photos she’s standing in front of two white trucks flying the flag of the People’s Republic of China … grrrrrr. At 26, she’s checked off Harvard, Iowa Writers Workshop, and now Yale too.
Leslie has no phone at present, so questions were posed over e-mail.
Q. What are you working on?
A. I’m working on a novel about the 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. I’ve been thinking about it for a few years but only started writing it recently. I’ve made a “wall” covered in timelines and photographs — guys in ski-masks roaming the streets of Managua, dictators on horseback. Contra fighters in the jungle. It’s nice to make a wall, I’ve discovered. It keeps me company when I write late at night.
Q. Do you have any writing vices? Does residency help save you from yourself?
A. Yes. The internet. This place — like many residencies, I think — doesn’t have wireless. It’s truly incredible how much that helps.
Q. Harvard, Iowa and Yale … That’s quite the pedigree. What have you done when not studying at these sorts of places?
A. Between stints at prestige factories, I’ve worked a pretty wide variety of jobs. My first job was as a “juice barista” at Jamba Juice, where I specialized in being benignly degraded by my manager. I was a travel writer in college, as well as an assistant to an immigration lawyer. I’ve also worked as a temp, where I learned the soulless depths of the Citibank building located (unbelievably) at 666 Madison Ave. Temping was only tolerable because it was better than the job I had immediately before it: working as a personal assistant for a writer with limited capacities for empathy or journalistic integrity. She got paid unfathomable sums of money to write “political” pieces that were basically dressed-up New York gossip columns. Both of these jobs (temp and PA) showed up in my novel — divided neatly between its two major characters. I think that writing about jobs has felt like a way to redeem them, to search for meaning in what felt meaningless. Right now I’m taking a break from school and working as a baker and barista while I plug away at this new novel.
Q. Why go to workshop right after undergrad? Did you feel ready for it?
A. In retrospect, I would probably have waited. I think I would have appreciated the time more fully if I’d had 9-5 jobs for a few years beforehand. On the other hand, I was young enough not to spend my time at Iowa worrying about agents and publishing. It helped me take myself seriously as a writer, for better or for worse, when I was still young — and I think that feeling of self-importance, while possibly intolerable to people around me, was pretty vital to the radical and foolhardy life choices I made — quitting jobs, going off health insurance, etc. — in order to pursue my writing in the years to come. There are about a million people with opinions about when you should go to MFAs: I think you just make it work whenever you end up there. It’s such a privilege however you end up there. My boyfriend, another prodigal Yale Ph.D., is at the workshop right now — so it’s like I’ve got a second lease on the dream.
Q. How was Iowa? Some people don’t like Iowa. Sandra Cisneros has that YouTube video called “I Hate the Iowa Writers’ Workshop” or whatever. Was there anything soul-crushing about it? Or to use a milder word: discouraging?
A. Iowa was wonderful. I had fun — probably too much — while I was there, and fell in love with writers and had them fall in love with me and drank at bars that famous people drank at. All that. The most important part was meeting brilliant and inspiring writers who will be my muses and readers and confidantes, I hope, for the rest of my life. Being in workshops for two years did cramp my writing a bit. I think I started writing stories I thought people would want to read, rather than simply letting myself run free, but my final workshop teacher, Charlie D’Ambrosio, cured me of that by telling me: “be brave.” It’s a simple mantra but I come back to it every single day.
Q. Share a memorable workshop moment? Or maybe two — one funny, one serious.
A. I wrote a story about an ex-boyfriend who was also in the workshop at the time, and after people talked about the important stuff — character psychology and all that — somebody said, out of the blue: “Do you really think he has a lisp?” And it was a strange moment of real-world, page-world porousness. These happen all the time but this one was raw.
Serious? I spent three nights in a row writing a dream-fever story about six Vietnam vets who live on an intricate network of houseboats in the Venice (CA) canals, and I thought the story was brilliant, and not a single person in my workshop could even decently feign a positive reaction. I cried. That’s not so memorable, I guess.
Q. Best advice you got at Iowa?
A. See above. Better quote, perhaps, is that Charlie used to say: “Abandon your citizen self.” I had that taped to my computer for a while. It meant: be fearless, do on the page what you can’t do in life, write every scene you’re terrified of writing.
Q. What brought you to Yale?
A. I’ve always wanted to write about books, and my undergraduate thesis (on incest in Faulkner) was a labor of love — not in a strange way — that left me feeling hungry to return to scholarship. I loved Yale from the start, for reasons I couldn’t quite explain, and have felt a strong connection to my advisors here, Amy Hungerford and Wai Chee Dimock. I’ve even tended Amy’s garlic.
Q. What made you want to do a dissertation instead of a novel? Is it a way to research a novel?
A. It’s not a way to research a novel but it’s a way to think about how to write novels — and essays — about poverty, which is a subject to which my fiction often returns. I feel a fundamental tension between portraying rich consciousness inside the conditions of poverty (someone like Faulkner does this beautifully) and doing justice to the way that poverty can erode or deform one’s relationship to interiority or the interior self. Now I’m writing academic. Rephrased: it’s hard to spin suffering into beauty, and potentially unethical to do so. But it also feels like a moral imperative to make literature about socioeconomic suffering and injustice — so how do we do it? My first novel (as the flap copy will tell you) deals with “poverty and privilege” but in truth I think I’m still very much learning how to venture into worlds I haven’t known myself.
Q. Your book — the twenty second summary?
A. A young New Yorker goes looking for an aunt she’s never met — a troubled woman who’s been estranged from her family for thirty years — and finds her drinking herself to death in a Nevada trailer. They end up building a precarious but deeply invested life together, trying — to be blunt — to save each other’s lives.
Q. Hardest scene in your book to write?
A. I struggled most with — and rewrote most frequently — the scene in which the two main characters meet for the first time. I didn’t know whose voice should narrate the scene — I felt them struggling for ownership — and it felt like every single thread of the book converged into that room, at that moment, and I didn’t know how to juggle all of them at once.
Q. How did you research the book?
A. I checked out every prostitute memoir in Bass and Sterling, for starters. (Most of them were in Bass). I drove through rural Nevada a bunch of times.
Q. Why Reno? Why drunks and prostitutes?
A. I wanted to look at the body as a site for self-expression and self-injury; I wanted to look at sex as a form of both of these things. Sometimes I feel self-conscious about my themes (sex and drugs and eating disorders and vanity) because they make me sound like a teenage girl. But redeeming subjects from cliché is its own pleasure and privilege.
Q. How did you get published so quickly? That’s hard. Rejection stories?
A. So many rejection stories. So many editors rejected the manuscript until one didn’t. I’ve sent more stories to small lit mags than I can count — very few have been accepted. I’ve been told my writing was too predictable, too familiar, too strange, too dark … But I got lucky, is the truth. I got lucky with my agent and my job. I worked the night shift as an innkeeper when I was working on the first draft, which meant I had my days free to write.
Q. Daily writing routine? Writing rules you adhere to?
A. I try to get some writing done first thing in the morning, so I don’t feel guilty for the rest of the day. Guilt becomes a crippling cycle. Facebook becomes part of this cycle, etc.
Q. Favorite word(s)?
A When I was young, my two favorite words were “marshmallow” and “blackberry.” I think right now I’m really digging the word “fever.” It really makes your mouth work.
Q. What are you reading now?
A. I am reading Thomas Merton’s autobiography “The Seven-Storey Mountain.” He joined a monastery when he was exactly my age (26) and led (I hadn’t known) a pretty wild life beforehand. He was tenuously but fascinatingly connected to the Nicaraguan revolution.