The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
brings together four volumes of immaculate fiction, forty-eight stories spanning more than twenty years of work. Award committees, mark it down: Read this book before casting your vote.
It would not be unfair to call Hempel a writer's writer, but it might be misleading—she's a reader's writer, too. Some of her stories contain only a few lines; few run longer than ten or twelve pages. None rely on high-concept mechanics or lofty language. She demands very little of her readership, and then delivers in spades. Hempel has been called a miniaturist—fair enough—but if her stories tend to be small in scale, they drill as deep as fiction goes. Emotionally charged, fantastically precise, an Amy Hempel story is a miracle of efficiency.
One critic raved, "There are writers who pull you along in deep, satisfying drafts of narrative and human color; then there are writers who, sentence by sentence, cause you to stop breathing. Hempel leads the latter group."
Note the verb: leads. It's true. A lifetime of reading can't quite prepare you for the profundities Hempel wrings, again and again, from just a handful of carefully chosen words. Here's wagering you won't come across a more accomplished collection this year.
Dave: If you don't mind, I want to start by reading a passage from one of your stories. Just listen through to the end and then tell me what it brings to mind.
Amy Hempel: Okay.
|"Tell me things I won't mind forgetting," she said. "Make it useless stuff or skip it."
I began. I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. I told her the shape of the moon is a banana—you see it looking full, you're seeing it end-on.
Hempel: You are of course reading the beginning of the first story I ever wrote, "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried." I immediately picture myself, feel myself, to be back in Gordon Lish's workshop at Columbia University, where I wrote that story to a classroom assignment.
We were told to write up our worst secret: the thing that would dismantle my sense of myself, as he put it.
Dave: I didn't know it was the first story you wrote. Was it the first one you tried to write?
Hempel: It was the first fiction I had ever tried. Before that, I had done some journalism, but not very much.
Dave: In an interview you did years ago with Eleanor Wachtel, you talked about a different assignment, the one that got you to write "Nashville Gone to Ashes."
Hempel: Yes—and those are the only two that I wrote with a quote-unquote assignment in mind. For the "Nashville" story, if you read the interview, you saw that the assignment was to write from the point of view of someone who is the opposite of yourself in a fundamental way.
Dave: If those are the only two that sprung from assignments, where do the others come from?
Hempel: In part, writing for me is a call-and-response proposition. I often read something and then write as a kind of response. For example, another story in my first book—since the ones you cited were in my first book —the one that closes the first collection, "Today Will Be a Quiet Day," was written in part as a response to a Grace Paley story called "Subject of Childhood" and a Mary Robison story called "Widower."
By response I don't mean point-for-point, but those stories called up something in me, and perhaps my story wouldn't have come into being if I hadn't read the others first.
Dave: Is "The Harvest" the story people ask about most often?
Hempel: Along with the "Al Jolson" story, probably, too.
Dave: I read The Collected Stories in order, so by the time I got to "The Harvest," from your second book, I felt like I had a good idea of your style and sensibility. When I read the line where you reveal that the man has a wife, I actually noted in the margin, to test myself, that you wouldn't mention his marriage again. And of course you completely undermined all my expectations by tearing apart the story in the second half.
You mentioned call-and-response. The way the second half of "The Harvest" unravels the first, it's as if you were doing the call-and-response with yourself.
Hempel: I like the way you put that. I was thinking about why you can't take a real experience, something incredibly dramatic that changed your life, and just write it up the way it happened and make it work in fiction. It doesn't seem possible, at least not for me.
I did start writing "The Harvest" with a real accident in mind, one that changed my life. And when I finished it, I thought, Isn't it curious? Look at everything I changed or embellished or left out to make it a story that works. I hadn't planned to, but I wrote the kind of addendum or deconstruction, after a space break, playing with the whole idea of personal mythmaking, which we all do— we're mythologizing our lives every day when we talk about ourselves.
I was looking at that head-on, the joke on me being that the so-called "real" version, the second version—I ended up changing things in that, too. So it's an infinite exercise. I could do Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, and each time it would be not quite the truth.
Dave: It's probably true to some extent that any artist's work reflects a set of talents or perspectives as opposed to a simple mission. You end up doing what you're good at, in other words. If that's the case, what do you consider your greatest liability as a writer? What are you not so good at, or what makes you uncomfortable?
Hempel: I don't know that I'm not good at it because I've avoided it; I've never even tried to write a novel. Though I've written one novella, Tumble Home.
I didn't feel I would be good at writing about sex until I tried it for the first time in the last story ["Offertory"] in my last collection. I put that off for twenty-some years until I felt a little more confident.
Let's see: sex, novels...
I don't know that I'm not good at as much as I'm not interested in the big picture in any given story. I like the moment the thing changes. I like the aftermath of the big event more than I like to portray the event itself.
Dave: Do you have your sights set on something now? I really want to try to do that.
Hempel: I think I've just begun another novella, but a very different kind. I suppose you could call it a why-done-it. Not a who-done-it— it's not a mystery in that sense, but it is a mystery. It springs from an obsessional act.
Dave: People talk about the economy of your writing. They throw around words like minimalist and miniaturist and realist. Rick Moody stressed in the introduction [to The Collected Stories], "It's all about the sentences."
Describe what it's like to create those sentences. Is there a process or a routine that's familiar to you?
Hempel: People sometimes ask me, "Do you just write a lot and then take away the extraneous parts?" No. I certainly revise, but not in the manner of taking out great amounts of writing so that I'm left with a more distilled kind of prose. What comes out the first time is pretty distilled.
I'm just not wordy. I am in life, but I'm not on the page. The kind of revision I do is fine-tuning, it's tightening, it's dispatching a metaphor and getting one that's closer to what I mean. It's every kind of revision except starting with many, many pages and whittling down to a short short. That's not how it happens.
Dave: Somewhere, it might be in In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje writes about deeply inhaling the pads of a large dog's paw. I wondered if you've ever done that.
Hempel: I have done that. [Laughing.] I did it this morning!
Dave: Where did it take you?
Hempel: It took me to Syracuse, New York, because...
No, I just got back one of my dogs, who had puppies six weeks ago. She's been away with the litter in what's called "home litter care" because her babies become seeing-eye dogs.
I just got her back a couple nights ago. I was checking her out, seeing how she was after weaning the pups. I was giving her a little massage on her paws, and yes, I did exactly that.
Dave: I have a yellow Lab. I've done it, too.
Hempel: I have a black and a yellow. It's the yellow that just had the babies.
Dave: You mentioned that you might be more wordy in real life than on the page. Is there a story that you like to tell at parties, one that always gets dragged out?
Hempel: Anything? Golly. That's a question no one has ever asked. I don't know. Maybe we can come back to it. Nothing crops up immediately.
Dave: Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage, to an author's stomping grounds or hometown, someplace like that?
Hempel: I went to Oxford, Mississippi, several times, years ago, not to visit Faulkner's home, Rowan Oak, or his haunts, but to meet Barry Hannah. To visit him and write about him. That was certainly one. He's a writer who I admire endlessly. I love his work.
Dave: If we were going to set up an Amy Hempel Hall of Fame, who gets nominated as the author of your twenties, your thirties, and so on?
Hempel: Who I was reading? And wishing I could be...
As a kid, it would be the Bronte sisters. Then when I was starting to be grown-up, it would be Grace Paley, Joan Didion, and Mary Robison. I wasn't that serious of a reader until the seventies, starting to read grown-up writers who would have an impact. Those are all the girls, right?
Others... Barry Hannah. Carver, of course.
I have huge gaps in the classics. They're never what I cite as books that got me revved up to write, myself. Those would be much more contemporary writers. Oh, Leonard Michaels, around the time I was reading Grace Paley. And then on from there it gets to be too numerous to mention; then I really started reading everything.
Dave: I studied Lit in college, but I actually started pre-med...
Hempel: I was pre-med, too.
Dave: Right, I read that. Did you finish?
Hempel: Finish, no. I had this little thing called Organic Chem. Woops!
Dave: Someone should bring together a group of writers with the same history. It would have to be a big room.
Hempel: Barry Hannah is one of them, too.
Dave: So you started pre-med. You've studied forensics. Is there some connection here that lends itself to storytelling?
Hempel: In my case, the pre-med and that whole side of things came about because I'd been in several bad accidents, and I found myself being terrified of death, terrified of the body that could be broken so easily. So I made the counter-phobic move and thought I'd learn everything I could to defuse the fear. That's how I started. That's what got me going. Then, it's just interesting.
Dave: You've been addressing those subjects in your writing from the start. In "Al Jolson," as you said, it's the secret you don't want to face.
Hempel: Beckett: I can't go on, I'll go on. I can't look at it, I'll stare at it. That's a very compelling duality. I think that's something a lot of writers have in common, repulsion and attraction.
Dave: The story "Rapture of the Deep" got me wondering: Did you ever egg a house?
Hempel: Did I ever egg a house? No. I've TP'ed, but never egged.
Dave: What's the last album or song you fell in love with?
Hempel: Last album as in record?
Dave: No. CD, any format.
Hempel: I didn't know if you wanted me to go back to the olden days.
The most recent would be one cut on the new Cat Power, number six on The Greatest ["Willie"].
Dave: When you teach creative writing, is there one piece of advice that seems to resonate more than others, seems to work, with students?
Hempel: Not so much a piece of advice as a question to keep in mind, which is the most basic of questions: Why are you telling me this? Someone out there will be asking, and you better have a very compelling answer, or reason.
There are people who have been raised by loving parents to believe that the world awaits their every thought and sentence, and I'm not one of them. So I respond to that. Is this essential? The question might be, Is this something only you can say—or, only you can say it this way? Is this going to make anyone's life better, or make anyone's day better? And I don't mean the writer's day.
Dave: What stories are your favorite to teach?
Hempel: I've written an introductory bit in an anthology [You've Got to Read This] about Tillie Olsen's story, "I Stand Here Ironing." That is not only a brilliant story but one that a writer can learn from.
I always use Barry Hannah's story "Water Liars" because Gordon used that one so effectively in his Columbia classes.
A Leonard Michaels story, "In the Fifties," just to show to people different ways in, different ways to get going, the power of a list.
Certainly any number of Grace Paley stories. "Wants" would be one of them. More recently, I always use "Demonology," the story by Rick Moody. There are many, for different reasons.
Dave: When Jonathan Safran Foer goes on book tour, he visits high schools prior to his readings. I interviewed him a couple weeks ago, and we got to talking about how students are typically weaned on classics, which is strange when you think about trying to hook a kid on music by playing a nineteenth century composer.
Dave: But that's the way books are introduced. It can be hard for a young reader to find interesting contemporary authors.
Hempel: I agree. It's great that he does that. I didn't know he did.
One time, I was somewhere out west at a school. In addition to the reading I was going to do that evening and the college class I was going to speak at in the afternoon, they had me hooked into a "writers in the schools" program. Instead of high school, it ended up being a fourth grade class. I thought, Alright, I'll just wing it.
The first question that came to me was from a little boy, who said, "Are you famous?" I said, "What do you mean by famous?" And he said, "Well, everybody knows who Judy Blume is."
Dave: Not quite that famous, then.
Hempel: Tough room!
Dave: What have you been reading lately?
Hempel: I just started reading Torpor by Chris Kraus, who wrote a novel I just adored called I Love Dick a few years ago. I'm reading George Saunders's new collection [In Persuasion Nation], which is terrific. He's so funny. I'm reading Walter Kirn's novel, The Unbinding, that he's writing in real-time on Slate. And I also started Bernard Cooper's new memoir, The Bill from My Father, the one where his father gives him a bill for two million dollars for raising him.
Dave: You brought up the Walter Kirn. In the email when we scheduled this phone call, you said that you live on another planet. You don't have a cell phone, for example. Does new technology and the opportunities it brings interest you, as a writer. Are you interested in trying to play with it at all?
Hempel: No. It's probably a failing, but no.
I'm glad people can entertain themselves in all these interesting ways, but...
I got a new computer three months ago, and I still haven't hooked it up to the printer because I don't know how. I forgot to ask at the store. I haven't found a day that's convenient when a knowledgeable person could come over and do it. And this could go on. If you were to call me up in two years, probably I would say the same thing.
That's my life. I reach a plateau where I think, Wow, I'm with it! I'm modern now. But it's laughable, and I'll stay at that plateau forever.
Dave: It's probably safe to assume you don't have an iPod.
Hempel [several seconds pass]: You can indicate She laughed.
Rick Moody emailed me recently, and he said, "Would you be willing to participate in this podcast I'm doing?" I had to email back and say, "What is a podcast? Does it involve a pod, and if so I don't have one." That was the end of that.
But I know people who don't even do email.
Dave: As long as they're out there, you won't be at the far end of the spectrum. Nurture those people.
Hempel: Yes. There are worse things you could say about a person than "She can't download an attachment."
Dave: It's true.
You mentioned A.M. Homes in the acknowledgments of one of your books. She's going to be here next week. What should I ask her?
Hempel: In fact, if you go to Gawker.com, you can see a piece about the book party she had a couple nights ago here in New York. I didn't know about Gawker, of course, until someone said, "Go look." There's pictures of the party, including one of moi.
What to ask Amy? She's amazing in many ways. One is how knowledgeable she is and how much she writes, not just her fiction and the memoir she's completing, but a lot of art criticism and catalog essays. She's extremely knowledgeable about the art world and photography. What else? Her love for Los Angeles.
She really is pretty fearless. You might ask her what she's afraid of. Even one of the blurbs on the new book has someone saying she's fearless, and she does give that impression on the page. Ask her if that's so much the case off the page as on.
Dave: I should probably let you get back to your life now.
Hempel: I feel like such a dullard. I want to try to answer that question about what story I tell.
Dave: What did you talk about at the book party?
Hempel: I'm probably just always shooting my mouth off about how cute my dogs are. Put it this way, it would be a dog story. I've got to stop talking about dogs.
I decided I wouldn't have any dogs in the thing I've just begun. We'll see. But in terms of overturning expectations...
Amy Hempel spoke from her New York home on April 27, 2006.