Monday, September 24, 2018

Blog Tour / Interview: Carol Jeffers, Author of The Question of Empathy: Searching for the Essence of Humanity

Through her writing, Carol Jeffers blends narrative nonfiction and fiction to more fully explore the human condition. She is the author of works both in short- and long-form. Her forthcoming book, The Question of Empathy, was named a semi-finalist in the 2017 Pirates’ Alley William Faulkner Writing Competition (Walter Isaacson, judge). A Professor Emeritus of Art Education, her interest in empathic listening began in the classroom years ago when she and her university students explored works of art that served as personal metaphors. These experiences and related interactions with art, self, and others were the subjects of Carol’s academic writing published in refereed journals, edited volumes and a single-author book (Spheres of Possibility: Linking Service-Learning and the Visual Arts) during her university career.



Author: Carol Jeffers
Publisher: Koehler Books
Pages: 209
Genre: Creative Nonfiction/Speculative Nonfiction

What if we all had a power to connect with others, to understand what they are feeling, what they are thinking? What if such a power was flighty, unreliable, open to true understanding or total confusion? Would that make us better human beings? In The Question of Empathy, Carol Jeffers explores a power that exists today within each of us and its ability to connect and to delude.
Have you ever wondered about empathy, what it is and why it matters? What makes us human and capable of incredible caring, total savagery, or worse, complete indifference toward each other? Are you looking for ways to better understand yourself, the people around you and across the world? The Question of Empathy entreats you to explore this hard-wired capacity, not through rose colored glasses, but with an honest look at human nature. Philosophy and psychology, neuroscience and art lead the way along a journey of discovery into what makes us who we are and how we connect to others. It isn’t always easy, but then neither is real life. The Question of Empathy offers a roadmap.



Thank you for this interview! I’d like to know more about you as a person first. What do you do when you’re not writing?
I read as much fiction as I possibly can. After a long career as a university professor with barely enough time to keep up with the academic journals in my field, I am excited, even a little desperate to discover the world of good creative writing. I want to learn all I can about how a well-crafted piece can stir the reader, use metaphor to distill the essence of human nature.
When I say reading, I should clarify. I mean listening to audio books and to The New Yorker podcasts. Good writing is very rhythmical, which is wonderfully apparent when read aloud. Not to mention that my hands are free and I can knit, run through my exercise routine, make lunch, make the bed, do those otherwise boring household chores barely noticeable in the flow of fresh, intriguing writing.
I also go walking with my husband in the evenings, a brisk pace that for thirty minutes allows us to reflect on the day’s events as we work to keep the cholesterol and blood pressure down, the energy and spirits up.
When did you start writing?
I began writing creatively after my retirement from academic life in June 2014. I am getting a late start. Funny, I had been a full professor for fifteen years, but learning to write creatively for the first time, join writers’ group and attend conferences made me feel like I was starting over. I was back in grad school, so to speak, learning the ropes, cobbling together a program to prepare me for what I hoped would be a new career. It was exhilarating, interesting, challenging as I groped for handles to hold on to while practicing my craft. I found some online writing courses that really helped propel me forward, walk upright, gain confidence and get vital feedback.
As a published writer, what would you say was the most pivotal point in your writing life?
Like any university professor, I focused on all things academic. Conducting research and publishing the results in journals (publish or perish, as it were). I was always interested in the ineffable yet powerful relationships between human beings and works of art and focused on the key question: what does it mean “to be human?” Dry, boring, jargon-filled academic writing always fell short, was never able to capture the nuance, the richness and ineffability of profound experiences with art and experiences with each other. Indeed, a “telling” approach acceptable to journal editors was not acceptable to me. Or to readers, as I soon discovered.
I found that “showing” readers what human beings were doing in the art museum, showing how students felt about works of art that served as their personal metaphors was more revealing and far more satisfying to readers and to me. I began to include classroom vignettes with my articles and was able to get them published in academic journals.
A good friend and colleague told me about “creative non-fiction” one day, a new genre gaining some traction in the writing world. “That’s what you’re doing,” she said with a smile. That changed everything for me! I smiled back, loved having a name for what I knew I wanted to do.
With retirement coming, I couldn’t wait to leave academic journal-writing behind and learn all I could about “creative non-fiction.” In fact, the first order of business was to rewrite the existing draft of my empathy book, to take it from the academic “telling” and move it into creative “showing.” The book and I came to life, oxygenated, inspired. It was a way to reveal our search for empathy and Empathy’s search for us.
If you could go anywhere in the world to start writing your next book, where would that be and why?
Paris. Happily, we are bound for the City of Light after Christmas and hope to find a neighborhood café to have tea and a buttery baguette while we write. I will be inspired by the many artists and writers who have come before, who did their best work in Paris, in their neighborhood haunts. I will wonder about the artists and writers of today, about the edgy work they are doing, the books they are reading, the museum shows they are seeing.
We have been to Paris many times before, so our touristy days are behind us. We know the neighborhood where we like to stay, have a café or two in mind. A real working vacation ever so sustaining.
If you had four hours of extra time today, what would you do?
If I had four hours, I would grab my husband and head for the nearby Huntington Library and Gardens. This is a huge, restorative place. Strolling through its different gardens, we reconnect with a botanical world, with each other, remember what it means to be alive. Lose ourselves in the cactus area with its stunning golden barrels and prickly pears, the Japanese area with its magnificent koi and moon bridge, the Zen meditation garden and bonsai collection, the Chinese area complete with lotuses and water lilies in its sparkling lake. There is the amazing collection of historic manuscripts at the library and art exhibited in Henry Huntington’s mansion and in newer galleries. And there is lunch, reflection, relaxation, renewal.
Where would you like to set a story that you have’t done yet?
The new project that calls me will be set in an old Victorian farmhouse we once fixed up. Our own story about the headache and heartache, the labor of love of restoring an abandoned house while we started a family, went to graduate school and commuted to jobs miles and miles away is something to tell.
But I am much more interested in the first family, the one to build the house, to raise their children and farm the land around it. What was their story? There are some interesting historical records that offer a sketch, which further piques my curiosity. What was their story and how can I best tell it, bring it to life?
Back to The Question of Empathy: Searching for the Essence of Humanity, how did you publish it?
I shopped the manuscript around and noticed that once the manuscript was named a semifinalist in the Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Writing Contest, there was a bit more interest. Koehler Books offered me a contract, a generous one at that and helped me follow the steps leading to  publication.
In writing your book, did you travel anywhere for research?
In a way, I did travel for the The Question of Empathy, though not with luggage and a boarding pass. I traveled to my classroom in the Fine Arts building on campus where my students were in the cockpit carrying me higher than any 747 ever could. Using works of art as personal metaphors, they shared stories in class that resonated deeply and built caring, cross-connected communities that inspired me, crystalized in me an abiding interest in empathy. How had it come to visit us in this classroom? What would it take for empathy to appear in every classroom or shopping mall or in the halls of justice, the chambers of legislative bodies?
I was also inspired by a humble wooden bench on Moonstone Beach along California’s Central Coast. During one of our get-away weekends to this wild seaside ecosystem, my husband spotted a small plaque mounted on the old bench. “I shall always love a purple iris” it read. Such a simple poem, an elegant declaration that inscribed a mystery even as it stirred my empathy. Finding empathy in two very different places called me to delve in, do the research to understand this most human phenomenom.
Where do you get your best ideas?
As I mentioned earlier, my inspiration and drive to focus on empathy, share my journey into its mystery came from my students. Sorting through my thoughts, making sense of them finding the structure can happen at a place like Huntington Library and Gardens or during a walk on the beach. But more likely, it is the shower that crystalizes what is still murky and unresolved. The shower, where I am relaxed, not thinking about anything in particular, will surprise me with the “aha” moments, beautiful epiphanies when the steamy mist parts and everything comes clear. These are such magical experiences that I was moved to write about them in a personal essay called “Shower Moment” currently under review.
More about Carol at The Question of Empathy: Searching for the Essence of Humanity is available at and select bookstores.
Why was it important to write The Question of Empathy
Empathy as a subject, as a character even, is compelling. Discovering empathy in my classroom, in the students’ connections to their personal metaphors and to each other was moving. I wanted to share the students’ stories, describe how empathy thrived among them.
As I got deeper into the research, consulted the scientific, aesthetic, philosophical and psychological literature, it became clear to me that there was much to be done if the human community was ever to utilize its capacity for empathy. If we as human beings—Homo sapiens—were to become a better, more caring and self-actualized species—Homo empathicus—then we must actively search for the essence of our own humanity. Sadly, the current political and economic times will make this project more difficult and more necessary. Civility, compassion, tolerance and cooperation are at stake now more than ever before.

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