This story is over 5 years old.

The Fiction Issue 2010

Amy Hempel

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.

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. Speaking of Jim Shepard, I remember talking to him about this. As you know, he’s written a few novels, but he seems more and more focused on the short story. He said that he had basically lost interest in the idea of the “moving of the furniture” that you have to get done before a novel. He liked the idea that with a short story you are just dropped into something and the reader kind of has to figure things out quickly.
Yes. You know, a lot of short stories of Jim’s have so much research behind them and they’re very full. I think that he is one of those writers who brings the best of what a novel can be into a short story. It seems to me that your stories aren’t “novelistic” at all.
The story provides every challenge I could want in writing, and endless possibilities. It comes naturally, and lends itself to the way I experience life—or, to make this more manageable, the way I experience a single day. I don’t think of writing a novel for the same reason I don’t think of writing a biography: Who or what could interest me for that long? I need to keep finding new points of entry for the discussion, rather than working on one sustained narrative. That being said, a novel such as Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever makes me think that an associative kind of novel might be worth trying. I love that book and reread it often. You take your time writing a short story. Can I say this?
[laughs] I think you can. What I mean is that one can tell that each sentence, really each word, has been carefully considered. It’s almost like a prose poem.
Well, that’s the highest compliment I can get. The most recent story I’ve published is a short short in Harper’s. It was a couple of months ago. It’s about three short paragraphs, and it’s called “The Orphan Lamb.” I’m going to be doing more pieces like that, pieces that are very much like prose poems. I love writing these incredibly condensed pieces that just have one swift kick in them. It’s very satisfying to do, and since my Collected Stories came out, all the stories I’ve written have been short shorts, maybe between 200 and 750 words long. I find that I keep going back to these short shorts, and they do kind of totter on the verge of prose poetry. But I do have just the beginning of what might be a novella, from an idea given to me by Chuck Palahniuk. I’m excited about that. That’ll be longer. This short-short-story writing seems to be one of the principal developments in American fiction in the past decade. I know I can certainly count you in that group, and I think there are a couple of other writers who do it who are—maybe coincidentally—all female. I’m thinking about—
Lydia Davis? Certainly Lydia Davis, but also a few other writers like Sarah Manguso or Deb Olin Unferth, or even the stuff that Diane Williams is doing. This idea of extremely condensed, extremely short, extremely stylized shorts. Do you think that it could be a new current in fiction?
I don’t think that it’s a current. I mean, the writers you name—and I know all of them—it’s just what we’ve always done. There’s actually an Italian writer who’s doing this, who is extremely good. Paola Peroni. She’s published in a lot of literary magazines, and she’s another strong voice in that realm. It’s interesting that all of the writers we’ve just named are female.
Well, let me think, there’s a male writer— Ah, yes. There’s Gary Lutz.
Gary Lutz, of course. And, although Bernard Cooper hasn’t written [this sort of work] in a few years, he started out writing these too. He does other kinds of writing, but some of his best work in his first book, Maps to Anywhere, is similar to what we’re talking about, and it’s just gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous. But yeah, I do think immediately it’s more women who write this. It’s interesting to see who’s doing what and to wonder why. When I think about the limited word count of these stories, I remember that old theory about keeping your best line for the last sentence of a story and your second best for the first sentence of a story.
Well, often I would agree with that, but sometimes you get a deeper effect if you make the best line the penultimate line, and you end on something very ordinary. It can strengthen what I call the thunderclap moment. Sometimes you want to try that as an effect. I remember first reading Raymond Carver’s short stories. When you read some of his final sentences it’s just… it kind of feels like the pressure in the room changes, you know?
I know what you mean. It knocks you in the head.
I absolutely agree. And a lot of it is in the “music” of that last sentence. I know you’ve said that in other interviews. That’s paramount to you.
Yes. When I write a story, the acoustics of the sentences and the rhythms of the single sentences are so important. I’m strongly influenced by music. Mark Richard is another writer of fiction and nonfiction who does this so beautifully. He’s one of my favorite writers of fiction. He went so far as to research autistic children and the sounds that they respond to, and he learned that no matter what the words were, the sound of the words would produce certain effects. It’s certain sounds that are relaxing, no matter what the words are, to all readers. He took it pretty far. Personally, I just know that music is so important to me that I will substitute a word that gives a sentence a masculine instead of a feminine ending. They think about this in poetry more than in fiction, normally, but I borrow a lot of poetry concerns when I’m writing. It almost doesn’t matter what the words are, it’s the sound that produces the effect. Wow. But this question of the importance of the single sentence—opening or closing or otherwise—do you think it’s primarily a short story concern? And do you think this has something to do with so-called minimalism? Is there a difference in approach between a story and a novel, in that in the story, you will leave things out of a sentence, and in novels, you’re playing a game of putting stuff in?
Sometimes it just means taking things out, and it happens when you ask yourself, as you go along, “Is this essential?” I mean every sentence, every word. It means leaping past anything that would slow things down for the ideal reader. You know, embellishment that is there just to be “writerly.” I never liked the term “minimalism.” I prefer Raymond Carver’s term. He called Mary Robison and myself “precisionists.” And that’s what he was doing too, of course. Something that I glean from your writing, especially in stories like “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” or “Three Popes Walk into a Bar,” is that you pay attention to comedy. That also has a lot to do with sound, and with the right placing of one word, like a punch line.
One of the most eloquent people on this subject is a very good writer and a hilarious comedian: Steve Martin. He’s somebody whose work I would pay attention to. I would go to see him at the beginning of his career, when he did stand-up in clubs in California. One thing he does that is so interesting is he abandons the punch line. He says something like: If you don’t tell an audience where they’re supposed to laugh by telling them the punch line, if you let them find out and decide as you go where to laugh, it’s a much more interesting experience. He also said something in an interview once about writing humor: “You have to say something that no one else would say, but it can’t just be anything.” He wrote a wonderful memoir, Born Standing Up. It’s great.
And I learned a lot from another humor writer, Mark O’Donnell, who used to work for Saturday Night Live. He’s a very funny guy. From him I learned about reversing expectations. An example of his work that I always think of is from one of his novels. He was writing about a man with two good job options, and he described him as being “between a pillow and a soft place.” Was the intuitive link halfway through your story “The Harvest” something where you applied this kind of reversal of expectations? I’m talking about where you begin a new paragraph by writing, “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth. The same when I write a story. I’m going to start now to tell you what I have left out of ‘The Harvest,’ and maybe begin to wonder why I had to leave it out.”
That wasn’t planned. Tim O’Brien did the same thing in The Things They Carried, which was published at the same time as my second book, the one that contains “The Harvest.” He did it in one of his Vietnam stories. I think it’s just called “Notes,” and it comes after a story called “Speaking of Courage.” He reexamines a story he just wrote and he takes it apart. How many times did you think, “I should cut this”? Or, “I should leave this in”? Did you go back and forth, or was it just like, “I know I have to do this”?
Do you mean with the story “The Harvest”? Yeah, I mean that famous leap.
Well, I wrote it separately. I wrote the first part, and Gordon Lish took it for his magazine, The Quarterly, and then a few days later I wrote a letter to him. That was the second part. Oh, I didn’t know that.
I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned that before! But I wrote him about how I’d written that story or, rather, how I’d changed it. I thought he would find it interesting. He ended up publishing that letter, also in The Quarterly, in the Letters to the Editor section. So when it came out in book form, I ran them together. That’s great.
It worked out nicely! So the second part of the story—the letter part—is truthful?
Well, that’s the interesting thing I learned from writing “The Harvest.” People think that’s the real version, but in fact it’s an infinite exercise. There are things I left out of the so-called real version that I could have put in a third version. I’ve thought of revisiting that story because in the years since I wrote it, all these other things have happened that stand out from the original. You could go on and do that forever, you know? You could always keep amending the amendments to the story. Right. I guess there are some writers who do that, who will actually send to print a new version of their book maybe ten years after their first version. Is that something that you find interesting?
That could go on forever. I would never redo something I had done. When my Collected Stories was going to come out, my editor, Nan Graham, gave me the chance to redo anything I wanted and I chose not to. It seemed right to bring it out as it appeared. Anything I might do along those lines would come as a separate new work. Maybe today you would have written some things from Reasons to Live differently, but one of the best parts about reading that book consecutively is noticing the evolution of your concerns and your style.
Sure, it’s what I like doing when I read somebody else’s collected stories. It is interesting to see the trajectory of what concerns the writer has at the beginning and what concerns the writer came to have later, and how they reached them. That seems the correct way to do it. If you’ll forgive me for changing the subject so abruptly: I’ve read that you are a student of forensics. Is this true?
Oh yeah! This is a great interest of mine. I did enroll in a master’s program in forensic psychology at a college in New York—the College of Criminal Justice. It’s just endlessly interesting. The psychology of criminality, you know, and why some people break, snap, and do things that the rest of us are not doing. It’s a separate interest, but it also bears a lot on fiction writing. It has so much to do with character—with characterization and with the psychology of people and characters. For me, it’s not so much why do these people commit horrible crimes but rather, why aren’t we all doing it? That’s what my interest in the subject is, and I’m quite, quite addicted to reading true crime and watching true-crime shows on TV. I’m a tremendous fan of crime fiction. Is that something you like to read?
Yeah, I do, and one of the writers who is so good at that is Lynda La Plante, who wrote, among other things, Prime Suspect, which was then turned into a BBC show with Helen Mirren. I love her. And of course Lee Child, who is a great writer. I recently wrote a story that people thought was very different from anything I have done, and it appeared in a crime anthology, The Dark End of the Street. That’s the first time that this particular interest has turned up in a story for me. I think one could make an argument that most literature is kind of connected to crime literature. If you think of crime in a less literal way—as an unexpected incident that then has consequences.
Absolutely. I agree with you completely. I do a lot of teaching, you know. I teach at Harvard, I teach at Bennington. And I’m always saying: It’s not enough that something happens, but also, you know, what are the consequences? What of it? That’s the question that’s interesting. It’s not the situation as such, but who is in the situation and what are they making of it. That’s where the story is. What are some other things that you tell your students?
Well, potentially, the most fundamental question a reader has, consciously or unconsciously, when they are reading is, “Why are you telling me this?” So, you know, I want my students to think about that and also to think about what they have to write about that not everyone else does. I ask them an obvious question, but one that sometimes they don’t think of, which is, “Where is the first interesting sentence?” If it’s not the first one, then that’s something to attend to. And I don’t want them to waste their time or a reader’s time. They have plenty to compete with, in real life, so get to it! Get right to it! When I read, what I really look for is that state that you get to sometimes when you’re reading something and you are really immersed in it, and time seems to stop.
It’s a trance. A friend of mine refers to it as “the gaze.” I like that.
What is it that produces “the gaze”? That’s the goal! It is like a trance, and you are caught in it and you want to be there, you are not struggling to get out of it. You want to stay in it. And how do you create that? It’s largely a matter of seeing who produces that for you, as a reader, and then finding out a way in which you might be able to do it yourself. I don’t really write fiction, but even just writing an article I realize that the trance you can achieve with writing is much more powerful than what you can achieve while reading.
Well, that’s when it’s at it best, I would think. People say, “How do you know if you’ve really reached the end of a story?” For me it’s always been a physical sensation, not a rational one. You feel kind of transported for a short time. And then you snap back. What happens to me is my jaws clench really hard, and then when I snap out of it, my face hurts. Does anything like that happen to you?
Oh yeah. One physical sensation is that my eyes will get teary, will well up. And it’s not because I’m oh-so-moved by what I wrote. It’s not that! It’s just a sense of… I don’t know, it’s just a physical response. Or it’s like getting a chill for just a moment, like a gasp, a short intake of breath. And I feel like, “Oh my God that’s it, that’s it, that’s it!” And I trust that physical response more than I would trust a more rational reason. So ideally, what you want is that kind of feeling.
I do, yeah. I think that started with Emily Dickinson. When she got something right, she said she felt like the top of her head lifted off. I think that was her description. That’s perfect. But how do you then approach the rewriting and editing process?
I think I go by something that one of my literary heroes, the wonderful Grace Paley, used to say. Her idea of revision was that you go back and ask yourself, “Is every word true?” She didn’t mean, Is it true in fact? She just meant, Is it emotionally true? And I think that she meant every word. It’s like, “Is this essential? Is this essential for this story?” Maybe there’s nothing wrong with a line but it’s not essential to this specific story, so out it goes. But I do so much revision in my head before I write something down that I probably do less actual revision than many other writers. I have a poet friend, Timothy Liu, who once sent me a revision of a short poem, and it was staggering to see! I’ve never done that much revision on a short story. But then again, I have—it just wasn’t on the page. It was all in my head, before it got put down in the first place. Grace Paley has been a big influence on you—as I think she has been on almost every good short-fiction writer, because she is absolutely fantastic.
Yeah, a tremendous influence. In what way do you think she specifically influenced you?
She was one of the two short-story writers who made me want to write short stories. The other was Leonard Michaels. In terms of possible influence, I’d say it’s the idea of voice. Reading Grace Paley, you hear a person speaking, not a writer writing. She is a total master of that.
And the amazing thing was, she sounded in person just like she sounds on the page. I feel that way about Barry Hannah as well, and so for this tribute, it’s just wonderful, remembering the amazing things that he’s said. When we hang up, I’m going back to that. He said something so great and simple once: “You know, just be master of such as you have.” That was his advice to anybody who was writing. Don’t try to be somebody else. Just be the master of such as you have. .