story behind the book | kate tuttle

Leslie Jamison sets her curiosity free in ‘Make it Scream, Make it Burn’

david wilson for the boston globe

Leslie Jamison’s second essay collection, “Make It Scream, Make It Burn,” begins with a whale — the elusive and possibly lonely giant known to researchers and fans as 52 Blue — and ends with a baby, the author’s own child, whose gestation and birth Jamison tracks from the moment of her first positive pregnancy test. Along the way, the book’s 14 essays explore ideas of art and obsession, love and loss, and the ways human beings use stories to organize and understand our lives.

The pieces follow the author’s “curiosity and engagement and passion,” Jamison said, written “without a blueprint, or even the sense of a collection emerging.”

Jamison, whose previous books include “The Empathy Exams” and “The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath,” added that despite a range of subject matter — marine biology, past lives, documentary photography — she found that “the same fascinations and preoccupations and obsessions trail us wherever we go.”


For her, those interests include longing and desire, as well as the tensions inherent in making art out of other people’s lives. Essays on James Agee (“Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”) and the photographer Annie Appel allowed Jamison to examine the artistic process itself. “They’re wrestling with these ethical questions in addition to aesthetic questions,” Jamison said. “Part of why I’ve been drawn to them is that I was hungry for engagement with other minds that were wrestling with these same insoluble things that I was.”

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Whether writing about the meaning total strangers put onto a mysterious whale or pondering the dilemmas of Civil War photography, Jamison maintains a stance, she said, of “interrogative agnosticism” – withholding judgment in favor of curiosity and compassion. “I get humbled by the world over and over again,” she said, “and retaught what I don’t know.”

Jamison will read at 7 p.m. on Monday at Brookline Booksmith, and at 6 p.m. on Tuesday in conversation with James Wood at Fong Auditorium, Boylston Hall, Harvard University.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at