An Interview with Short-Story Writer Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel is the recipient of awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the United States Artists Foundation, and the Academy of Arts and Letters. Hempel is the author of Reasons to Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Tumble Home, and The Dog of the Marriage, and is co-editor of Unleashed. Her stories have appeared in Harper’s, GQ, and Vanity Fair among others. Hempel’s stories have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Her Collected Stories was named by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2007, and won the Ambassador Book Award for best fiction of the year.  In 2008 she received the REA Award for the Short Story, and in 2009 she received the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story.  She currently teaches at Bennington College as well as Harvard. She lives in New York City. Hempel will be at American University on October 2, 2012 as part of the Visiting Writers Series.

CA: In your story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” the two women, long friends, seem to use joking as a way to buffer the fact that one of them is dying. To borrow from the writer Steve Almond, is comedy the midwife of atrocity in this story?

AH: I like Steve Almond’s phrase.  For me, humor has always been what makes the unbearable bearable.  So it was a natural part of this story—it wasn’t something I thought about or DECIDED to include.  It’s an inherent part of the stance in the face of what they’re facing. The late Mark O’Donnell once had a student arrive at a class he was teaching on humor writing, hand him a very long manuscript, and say, “Here’s my novel; I just have to go back and add the humor.”

CA: It’s widely known that as a young writer you studied under Gordon Lish. Tell me, what did the workshop community mean to you as a young writer?

AH: It is hard to remember that far back!  I can say that over the years I’ve been reminded of the luck it is to have a bunch of writers you can always talk to and get together with easily.  It usually happens at conferences where I meet writers who live somewhere this is not a given.  I’ve found it crucial to have a handful of writer friends who are also trusted arbiters and will tell me whether something works or not.  Sounds simple, but it’s not. I rely on these few people in the way I rely on certain pieces of music, certain photographs–the way they can snap you back into your smarter self.

CA: This question is two-parted. First, I have to ask, does “The Harvest” end when the protagonist says to the surfer boy, “And I’m going back in?”

Second, why was it important to reveal the distinction between fiction and fact at the end of “The Harvest”?

AH: No, “The Harvest” ends at the end of the second part, the so-called “true” part.  The importance of indicating the separation of the fiction from the fact in this story is that the fact bleeds into fiction (“bleeds” seems an appropriate word in this story…) and the fiction relies on facts.  The malleability is interesting to me, and the blurring of the two.  I always like genre-blurring or genre-busting stories and novels, notably I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus, for example, Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be, some of Bernard Cooper’s writing, and Rick Moody’s wrenching story “Demonolog.” I like finding the exact point at which the impulse to embellish or veer occurs.  It makes me think of a new kind of lie detector that is in the works—it registers the moment the INTENTION to lie occurs.

CA: With the advent of e-books and Twitter, among other Internet venues, writers are finding new ways to publish short stories. How has this affected or not affected your approach to publishing short work?

AH: This has had no bearing on what I do.

CA: Grace Paley says, “It’s the job of the fiction writer to illuminate what’s hidden.” In your story, “The Most Girl Part Of You” what is being illuminated when Big Guy moves from dragging the razor blade over mosquito bites on the female protagonist’s body to kissing her?

AH: I don’t know how to answer this one except to say that with this particular pair, their drawing towards one another is grounded in pain—the boy’s mother has just killed herself—and pain is part of the transaction. His drawing a razor blade over her mosquito bites makes them stop itching, so it’s a comfort he’s providing, just as the kiss is a seeking of comfort or pleasure in the midst of pain, the pain they both feel.  It’s a common duality, the presence of pleasure and pain at once.

K. Tyler Christensen

Photo: Kenneth Chen

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