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Author Q&A ft Carol Jeffers | The Question of Empathy Blog Tour | PUMP UP YOUR BOOK Presents #Creative #Speculative #Nonfiction

THE QUESTION OF EMPATHY: SEARCHING FOR THE ESSENCE OF HUMANITY by Carol Jeffers is on virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book Publ...

THE QUESTION OF EMPATHY: SEARCHING FOR THE ESSENCE OF HUMANITY by Carol Jeffers is on virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book Publicity and stops here at Readeropolis with an author interview. Enjoy!

The Question of Empathy: Searching for the Essence of Humanity by Carol Jeffers, Creative Nonfiction/Speculative Nonfiction, 209 pp., $16.95 (paperback) $5.95 (kindle)

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.



Chapter I
In the Rhizome
Strolling among the dunes and driftwood, and the mock heather and yarrow of Moonstone Beach on California’s Central Coast, you are likely to come across a humble wooden bench made remarkable by what it declares, by the empathy it stirs, and by the stories it invites us to share. Rough and weatherworn, the bench is evocative of the salt air and wild daisies, the restless tides reshaping the continent’s rocky edge, and the wide sunset views it is meant to afford. But it has become legendary and invokes much more than a simple seascape. From its niche in the coastal ecosystem, this bench triumphs in returning us to the cultural sphere, to the human hands that created and mounted a small plaque to the backrest, and to the soul forever inhabiting the carved letters proclaiming: “I shall always love a purple iris.” Like the bench itself, the thought is at once simple and elegant, forthright and mysterious—a paradox, to be sure, but also a metaphor for that innate capacity enabling us to wonder, to imagine, and thus, to empathize.
     If the plaque captures your imagination, as it has mine and others (judging by Internet postings), then you may wonder whose words these are. Full of whimsy, or poignancy, or both, they resonate, inscribe themselves upon our hearts. Who is it that we have to thank for this unexpected delight, and for the images it inspires, the stories it prompts? What is the meaning, symbolic or otherwise, of the flower we imagine, springing from its rhizomic underground network to be capped off by its distinctive beard, caterpillar-like and golden in the April sun? Or maybe we envision a couple who once shared the bench. Is she gone now, his purple iris? What was her story, or his? Theirs? What is ours, we might also ask, as each of us takes a small part in creating this larger narrative, one echoing beyond the beach itself? And where might that narrative take us?
     Each time I return to Moonstone, the bench reminds me of the story always unfolding even as it retells itself, an ever-expanding narrative that begins with our shared curiosity and appreciative smiles and builds to the empathic response that connects us all to the spirit of the plaque and the mystery of its maker. I watch as others pause to read the line, then turn from it slowly, thoughtfully, before continuing on to the observation point where the best views of the otters and seals are to be had. And I wonder what images, what stories the bench—our shared touchstone—conjures up in them.
     Perhaps there are those weekenders who, like me, envision a loved one—an uncle, in my case—who cherished their iris beds, tended them faithfully through the summer and fall, and patiently awaited the blossoms, lavender and lovely, in the spring. Or perhaps they think of their children who, like my own, found the quivering petals fascinating, and delighted in stroking the fuzzy beards. I wonder, too, if, upon their return to the routines of the work week, these weekenders might Google the bench’s poetic proclamation and come across the image of two purple irises, one pinned on each side of the plaque. If they do, perhaps they, too, will savor the moment and its mystery, even as they wonder about this online tribute and the new connections and stories it encourages. 
     Like the iris rhizome itself, these connections are bound to crisscross, to entangle and create an unruly latticework of horizontal stems, with their all-important nodes sending out new roots and shoots that allow for more connections still. And like those in the botanical sphere, connections of the cultural kind are often random, sometimes serendipitous, and always meant to replenish the rhizome, if not to expand its reach. As a professor of art education, I find that my stories and images of the Moonstone bench are tightly intertwined with Van Gogh’s Irises (1889), which, in turn, overlap with former students’ experiences of the painting. I envision the canvas at the Getty Center in Los Angeles—its stunning blues, violets, electric aqua, a splash of white—leaping from the museum wall. In the perpetual crowd gathered before it, I imagine my students over the years, so many resonating with the artist’s work and poignant life story. They read the wall text and learn that Vincent began the painting upon his arrival at the asylum in Saint-Rémy in May, 1889, and they almost always agree with brother Theo’s assessment that the composition, bursting with more than two dozen purple irises, a solitary white one among them, is “filled with air and light.”
     In another instant, I am whisked off to the South of France where I follow Van Gogh’s path, hiking the trail that led him and the pain he carried from the center of Saint-Remy past a mulberry tree still young in his day, past the stone farmhouses, old even then, past the dark green cypress trees and pale gold wheat fields rising up to meet the asylum on top of the ridge. I stand in Vincent’s meager cubicle of a room—or one very much like his—and look out the window at the garden below. The lavender beckons now, but I imagine the irises that bloomed a month or two earlier, and try to get a sense of what he saw, a feel for his world in Provence in what turned out to be the last year of his life.
     In still another image, I am back in the classroom, drawn into one of my student’s assignments. Christina, a twenty-something prospective elementary teacher, is explaining to the class why she has chosen Van Gogh’s Irises to serve as her personal metaphor. While growing up, the wistful Christina tells us, she had always felt different from everyone else, a painful, sometimes humiliating, and always lonely experience for her. But now that she is older, she sees herself as the white iris: unique, but not alone, a part of the iris garden’s beautiful air and light. Holding up her reproduction of the painting, she smiles and says she is proud of her individuality, her identity, just as she is proud to be a contributing member of the group. Her classmates smile back, an affirmation welcoming her into their purple midst, and I am convinced that Christina will always love a white iris.
     What is this wonder that allows us to connect across time and space, or to connect at all? What allows us—compels us, even—to snatch these existential moments from afar, from across the room and hold them close? They are as random as they are resonant, and somehow these empathic tangles twist within our corporeal and spiritual beings, knotting the two together.
If the answer lies matted in the rhizome, then we must also acknowledge that bamboo and crabgrass are part of this metaphor, their crisscrossing roots and shoots bound to complicate the question of empathy. Are we meant to see ourselves, backs bent, brows sweating, chopping back the bamboo’s unruly growth? Must we remember the knuckles bloodied again and again clawing at the stubborn crabgrass, or are there other metaphors to raise us from our knees, free us from the paradox that gives the bench’s purple iris both its certainty and uncertainty? Perhaps we could tell different stories—tales of wizards and incantations, say—that cast us into a land beyond the rhizome. Or we might share different images, of miners digging into the depths, detectives searching for clues, all intent upon unearthing the wonders of human connection.
We might understand our connections as demonstrations of empathy’s work, outward manifestations of an inner capacity and will to survive as a group-living species. Connections may be obvious, the critical nodes in the human rhizome that permit us to feel rooted, secure enough in our own situations even as we send out shoots seeking to explore, and finally, to understand the situations of others. But we might also know that empathy can be as elusive as the breeze in a bamboo forest, whispering cryptically, sometimes stirring us, but often leaving us to fall silent, exasperated and alone.


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.




Carol Jeffers, The Question of Empathy: Searching for the Essence of Humanity, 2018 Koehler Books. Available at Amazon and select book stores. More about Carol at

Who is your intended audience and why should they read your book?
Hello and thank you for focusing on the intended audience for my book, The Question of Empathy: Searching for the Essence of Humanity. I am trying to connect with readers who are curious and open-minded; readers willing to go on a quest and search for answers to provocative, often profound questions about what it means to be human. Readers who allow themselves to wonder, to ask “why,” readers with imaginations who look for possibilities and see themselves connected to other seekers, all part of a larger “human odyssey.” My hope is that there are others, who, like me, want to better understand empathy and the conditions under which it can be made to flourish.

How did you come up with the title of your book?
Throughout many drafts, the title remained simply “The Question of Empathy.” Indeed, the manuscript was judged by that title in a recent Pirate’s Alley William Faulkner Writing Contest  (Walter Isaacson non-fiction judge), where it was named a semi-finalist. It was my publisher who asked me to add a subtitle. “Searching for the Essence of Humanity” came to mind and I’m glad it did.
The first part, The Question of Empathy, still allows for a bit of mystery in keeping with empathy’s elusive, even fleeting nature. There is an implication that empathy is not a given, not always well understood; a human capacity, perhaps, a phenomenon that begs many more questions about what it is, where is it found, what does it look like, how does it differ from “sympathy,” and the most vexing of all: if we are all hard-wired and evolutionarily designed for empathy as the scientists tell us, then why aren’t we more empathic?
The subtitle lets readers know that a quest, a voyage of discovery awaits them if empathy’s particular characteristics so essential to all of us in the human community are to be revealed.

Tell us a little about your cover art. Who designed it? Why did you go with that particular image?
I feel so very fortunate to have Kellie Emery’s art grace the cover. She is Koehler Books’ senior designer and came up with the design in response to a list of themes and ideas I offered. A water color-style purple iris captures the theme of the book and stands as a symbol, a metaphor that appears throughout the book beginning in the first chapter.
The iris is a rhizome, an interesting botanical feature that freely gives itself to the book’s weave of science, aesthetics, philosophy and psychology. Readers will see that the iris is as powerful below ground as it is beautiful above. And best of all, they will be able to use it to raise their own questions, and make their own meaning about the larger rhizomic metaphor that captures the essence of empathy and more.

Who is your favorite character from your book and why?
Some nonfiction writers may be tempted to skip a question about characters. Not this one. Yes, to be sure, The Question of Empathy is a work of creative nonfiction. It could also be described as a piece of “speculative” nonfiction, a newer, more specific term that points to an author’s use of imagination and invention, even fantasy, to reveal a deeper truth.
I tried hard to imagine empathy, capital “E” Empathy, as a nomadic figure walking among us. Empathy flits and hides, and we must continue to search. Empathy speaks and we must work to understand the words, hear in them its wisdom.
There are also four ghosts in this book, historic figures who each played a role in identifying empathy and understanding how it works. None agreed with the others and thus their loud argument still haunts us to this day.

Give us an interesting fun fact or a few from your book.
Here are a couple of odd, if not “fun” facts: Did you know that the English word “empathy” was not coined until 1907 or so, prompting a friend of mine to ask: “Does that mean there was no empathy before then?” This is actually an intriguing question, by the way, as it riffs on Benjamin Whorf’s claim that “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” What do we do if there is no word for empathy, which is already a difficult phenomenon to pin down.
I will add that “empathy” is derived from the German word “Einfuhlung,” which can be translated as “feeling into” or “in feeling.” Still, the German term “Einfuhlung” itself was not coined until 1876 or so. What about the centuries and centuries before then? Did our ancestors know what empathy was? Could they?
The other “fun” and quirky fact I’ll leave you with: Empathy is purple. At least this is how my students imagined it, represented it in their “analog” drawings. Such drawings rely only on color, shape and line to represent emotions, for example, and, in my classroom assignment, “empathy.”

What can we expect from you in the future?
I want to keep writing as fast and furious as I can in this, my second career. As a university professor in my first, I did a lot of academic writing. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to leave that stuff behind, no more jargon-filled, footnoted dry journal articles written in APA style. I am liberated, overflowing with creative juices pent up for so long. It feels like this is my time to catch up, get down on paper all the ideas taking me over, pushing me to write my Act II while I still can.
I currently have a “speculative” memoir written in third person, Smoke of a Great Fire, under review. Here’s hoping that a publisher will see its inventiveness as my way of getting at the deepest truth of what life is like inside the medical world. I also have a couple of short pieces of creative nonfiction, personal essays I guess you’d call them, under review, and a couple more about to be published. Another one “Sea Wall,” was published in July 2018 (
I have a couple of projects lined up waiting to go right now, both in research stages, both still in need of structuring before I can begin the first of four or five drafts it will take to get them in a readable state. Stay tuned, follow me if you wish at


  1. So cool to learn about this fascinating sounding book and author Carol Jeffers. Thanks Mayor Sonni for an interesting author interview. Visiting you on #WOW where I shared How to Use Fall Colors to Awaken Your Senses. Hugs, Nancy Andres @


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