irst, a whirlwind CV. Amy Hempel is the author of four story collections, Reasons to Live (1985), At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), Tumble Home (1997), and The Dog of the Marriage (2005), as well as The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, published in 2006 with a foreword by Rick Moody that starts, and ends, with this line: “It’s all about the sentences.” This collection was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, won the Ambassador Book Award, and was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by every other news outlet that talks about books. Amy also won the Rea Award for the Short Story in 2008 and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Hobson Award. She teaches at Brooklyn College, Bennington, and Harvard. At least two of her stories, “The Harvest” and “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” are among the most widely anthologized stories of the past 30 years, and for all the right reasons: Like the rest of her work, they are emotionally powerful without being the least bit sentimental; they are filled with unexpected leaps of intuition and are composed exclusively of microscopically precise sentences that talk about big things like loss, loneliness, accidents, death, and breakups while making you laugh and still managing to move you to tears. They are, quite simply, extremely good. Amy is also beautiful and has bright white hair.
Together with writers like Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, and Mary Robison, Hempel has been canonized both into the “golden age” of the short story and as a minimalist writer. Whether these classifications are correct or not, Hempel was one of the chosen who worked with legendary editor Gordon Lish at Alfred A. Knopf, where he was employed from 1977 to 1995. His gigantic impact still reverberates today. Hempel is also one of the few authors—together, perhaps, with Carver and Grace Paley—to have built a rock-solid reputation without ever having gone after the novel. But who cares? She can do more with 15 pages, in terms of affecting the reader, than with 150.
I recently had the pleasure of talking to Amy over a Skype connection that linked the flat I was staying at in Paris to her house in New York City. She was extremely gracious, and never once commented on the rambling and pointless nature of the majority of the questions of a nervous fan who was eager not to sound like an idiot.
Vice: Hello, Amy.
Amy Hempel: Tim, hi. You’re calling from Paris?
I am. It’s very romantic. Seeing how this is an interview with a writer and seeing that I am, after all, in Paris, I was wondering what you think of the traditional “writer’s interview” format as championed by the Paris Review. Do you think that it’s something that writers themselves can find useful?
I think that sometimes there’s a useful collaboration there. I remember reading Joan Didion’s interview in the Paris Review a long, long time ago and finding that she said something that I had felt exactly—but of course she said it beautifully. She was talking about why writing fiction was ultimately more satisfying for her than writing nonfiction, and she said that it was because in writing nonfiction the discovery comes during the research, but during fiction writing, the discovery came during writing itself. That seemed exactly right to me. I like looking for gems like that when I read those interviews.
And how do you feel about giving that kind of interview yourself? Your own interview in the Paris Review was a good one. Do you enjoy talking about your writing?
I’m a great promoter of mystery on the page, and I think there’s a point, in talking about writing, where you just want to leave it alone, when you can’t explain any more—because it’s a mystery.
You write precise, perfect sentences. You spend hours on a single line, and to then have to explain that in a few minutes within an interview might kind of disrespect the work.
One has to understand that past a certain point it’s not discussable. You can go so far in talking about it, or explaining how something came to be, but just so far and no more.
I guess it’s good that we started off with that question, just to lower the bar of our readers’ expectations.
[laughs] Well done.
Do you think about readers when you’re writing? Do you personify them?
I do. I always have, and it’s always been a handful of other writers. Sometimes it has changed, but yes, I really do think of a few actual people. It makes it a little bit easier since I know them, and I know that, well, if this person will find it funny, then I’ve succeeded, or some such thing. It makes it more like trading confidences. I think it’s daunting to think of writing for one’s readers, whoever they may be, so I bring it down to something manageable—a few people whose standards I know and whose work I very much admire—and that makes it more like, almost, a letter to the person. That helps me set the course.
So do you think like, “I’m going to change this here. I’m sure Gordon Lish would love it”?
[laughs] Well, I often have in mind Barry Hannah, and in fact when you phoned me just now, I was working on some remarks I’m going to make at a sort of memorial tribute to Barry, who died last March. This is something that will be held just outside Boston, two nights from now. A bunch of writers who adored him, just paying tribute to him. Barry Hannah was always on my list of people I knew, writers I admired immensely, and just thinking, you know, Barry Hannah might read this, it seemed to focus me when I was writing.
Writing is an extremely solitary activity, but at the same time it’s also very intense. One analogy that I always think of is swimming—it’s something that you do on your own, and the only standard of success you have is your last lap.
I agree 100 percent. And yet there are writers who hold themselves up and compare themselves to other writers. I think that’s useless. As you say, you’re only trying to beat your own best time. That’s the only relevant competition as far as I’m concerned.
Is your past with Lish something that still has an influence on you?
You know, it was a long time ago. I was a student of his at Columbia and then privately and then his author back in the early 80s. I did two books with him. Working with him was a crucial formative experience, but it was a long time ago. There are other writers who have sort of stepped in. Interestingly, Barry Hannah was one and Mary Robison is another, and they are both his authors, too, and were at the time that I was being published by him. So, yes, [Lish] had a terrific impact on my writing very early on. I don’t think he’s writing any more, but he’s still present among writers who really do care about writing at the sentence level. His impact there has certainly endured.
What about the so-called golden age of American short stories? I don’t really know if it’s accurate, or even intelligent, to define it that way.
Well, I think it was a phenomenon in publishing, with a lot of critics rightly going to Raymond Carver—who was also Gordon’s author—and people like Mary Robison. You know—some of the story writers who really, really opened things up again for stories as a commercially viable kind of writing as well as something that was important to a lot of readers.
Also, a lot of magazines would publish these great short stories. The conditions existed for these works to be seen by hundreds of thousands of readers.
It’s true. There were more magazines publishing stories at that time. But even lately, in the last couple of years, when there’s such dire news from the publishing industry, there are literary magazines starting up and often flourishing. They are just using a different sort of image and scale. But there are ventures that are gauging the situation out there and accommodating people who still want to read short stories and can’t find them in the traditional markets, so to speak.
The opposite occurs in Italy, where I live. Magazines there have never considered the short story as publishable and have never really pushed them. They are not part of our culture, and therefore our readers simply aren’t used to them, and collections of short stories sell pitifully.
Oh boy. So you get them where? In the literary magazines?
Not really. Not many of them exist here. But I was wondering if we could talk about another renaissance in short stories, let’s say from around 2005 onward in America, when all these new literary magazines started popping up.
Well, having magazines publish your stories is very important. And here, at least, there’s still a market for short stories with trade publishers, especially as debut collections. Authors are still finding publishers for their first collection of stories. It used to be that publishers would say, “Have you got a novel back there?” and they’d publish that and then they’d tag on the story collection. But there are enough story collections that still get published in book form to suggest that there are readers for them.
And writers of them, too.
And writers. Like Jim Shepard. He’s one of the best out there, and he’s an old, old friend of mine. His last collection was nominated for the National Book Award, and the three or four stories that I’ve seen from the new collection that’s coming out here are, I think, some of his strongest work ever.
So, not all hope is lost for the short story, I guess?
Not at all.
But there still remains in the publishing world the idea that you write short stories as a first step toward writing a novel.
Some people used to think that way. Obviously, the more intelligent take on it is that they’re entirely different things. One’s not a warm-up for the other. It’s a different form. I’ve never wanted to write a novel. I wrote one novella, then I wrote another one, but they are different things. And they do different things.