Interviews April 2006

Sentence by Sentence

Short story writer Amy Hempel talks about forensics, seeing eye dogs, and her new Collected Stories
book cover

Collected Stories [Click the title
to buy this book]

by Amy Hempel
432 pages

Amy Hempel fans can finally rest in peace. They can stop scouring used bookstores for out-of-print copies of her collections. And they can stop spending a lot of money for them. (Novelist Chuck Palahniuk admitted to dropping $75 on a first edition hardcover of her first collection.)

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, due out in May, will include all four of her previous collections—Reasons to Live (1985), At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1986), Tumble Home (1997), and The Dog of the Marriage (2005)—all in their entirety and in their original order. The Collected Stories represents, in Hempel’s words, an “honest” trajectory of her work, and sitting down to read these stories as a whole is nothing short of a literary feast.

But remember we’re talking about Amy Hempel here. This feast is neither lavish nor overwrought with sentiment. Her fiction was born in the age of minimalism, under the tutelage and editorial vision of novelist, fiction teacher, and longtime Knopf editor Gordon Lish, at a time when minimalist writers like Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and Mary Robison were coming into their own. Her stories are measured, her wit exacting, and her language compressed to its most essential. The word “lapidary” seems to be the most common—and apt—adjective used by reviewers to describe her stories. “It’s all about the sentences,” Rick Moody writes in his beautiful introduction to this collection, “It’s about the way the sentences move in the paragraphs. It’s about rhythm…. It’s about the sentences used to enact and defend survival.”

Her characters endure catastrophe and tragedy—car crashes, the deaths of loved ones, rape—but they soldier on, and if her work is “about” anything, it is largely about what it means to survive. Survival comes through many means: through writing a letter, through driving endlessly, through learning to sew, through having a sense of humor, through faith—“My heart—I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God.” Animals, dogs in particular, are also a part of such survival. One woman must figure out what to do with her deceased husband’s animals, even if she resents them. In the title story of The Dog of the Marriage, a recently divorced woman finds out that a seeing-eye dog she has trained and handed along has kept with him a sachet of cheesecloth stuffed with her hair which she’d used to keep away deer. “That is how I like to be known,” she says.

Tumble Home, her third collection, is her most expansive in terms of form—one of her stories is a single sentence and her title story is a novella, proving that she can indeed write longer with success. But in the end, Hempel is a short story writer, unapologetically so. It’s what she can do well, and she is defiantly hopeful about the state of the form in the present day.

For the past decade she has been a teacher at the Graduate Writing Program at Bennington College and teaches occasionally at Columbia, all while breeding, raising, and training seeing-eye dogs. She came to fiction after years as a reporter, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that she has enrolled in a criminal justice forensics program. But still. Forensics? What could possibly come next? If she keeps to her usual considered pace, we may need to wait several years for her next collection, but in the meantime, The Collected Stories has plenty to offer.

We spoke by telephone on March 30.

—Jessica Murphy

Amy Hempel
Amy Hempel

It’s rare to have an author’s entire body of work in a single book. Who decided that your Collected Stories would include all four of your previous collections, and how did you or your publishers decide that now would be the time to publish them?

My editor at Scriber, Nan Graham, was the one who proposed the sort of omnibus edition, which I was thrilled about. This spring is when they might otherwise have published the paperback of my last collection, The Dog of the Marriage, so instead of bringing out the single paperback, Nan had the idea to bring out everything. That was especially nice since my second book, The Gates of the Animal Kingdom, has been out of print for a while. It’s just great that now everything is out and all together. I suppose I could have gone back over everything and made some changes, but I decided not to. It seemed not really fair, and I liked the idea that everything was published in order. There was no rearrangement as to subject or anything like that, so that it really would show a trajectory that was honest.

In the collection’s introduction by Rick Moody, he writes that “it’s all about the sentences.” I thought this might be a good place to start our conversation about your stories and about your writing process, since you’ve said before that you craft your stories on the sentence level. How does attention to sentences affect or define your process or your approach to writing?

Well, it means it’s very slow going, but that’s not a complaint, it’s just an observation. I do feel that if you can write one good sentence and then another good sentence and then another, you end up with a good story. It also represents the way I read. I’m not first and foremost interested in story and the what-happens, but I’m interested in who’s telling it and how they’re telling it and the effects of whatever happened on the characters and the people. That’s always what has interested me in what I have read and continue to read, so it does make sense that I would approach writing in the same way—at that basic unit of construction level.

If you’re taking your time with this sentence-by-sentence construction, do you have very little revision by the time you’re done?

I probably have less revision than those who have that wonderful rush of story to tell—you know, I can’t wait to tell you what happened the other day. It comes tumbling out and maybe then they go back and refine. I kind of envy that way of working, but I just have never done it.

Is your focus on the sentence one reason you are a short story writer rather than a novelist?

It’s partly that, and it’s partly the way I live, or the way I make sense of what happens on a daily basis. That is, I don’t have the big overview, or as Barry Hannah once wrote, the “underview.” He wrote something about people in the bleachers, watching the main event, and he’s under the bleachers—his underview—picking everything that’s been dropped and left behind. I think that’s more of what I do, too. But part of it is just maybe registering more of the peripheral, the lingering after-effects, than the main subject that other writers might be able to write about.

How was the experience of writing your novella, “Tumble Home,” different from writing your short stories?

Just for one thing, having to keep so much in my head at once. I honestly don’t know how anyone writes a novel. I don’t know how it’s possible. I really don’t. The only way that this novella could get done was because I wrote it in vignettes—in “takes”—and then assembled them. The form of it was crucial to completion. I’ve written stories in vignettes, but I didn’t have as many elements to keep pulling forward, to keep intersecting as the thing went on. It was hard. It was really hard.

You have a couple of one-sentence stories. Did you start by saying, Okay I’m going to give myself this challenge of writing a story that will happen in one sentence, or do you write the sentence and realize, This is all I wanted to say?

The second. I wrote the sentence in each case and saw that that was the whole thing. Sadly, the first time I did it I didn’t see that for two-and-a-half years. In “Housewife,” I thought, Oh, this is the first line of a story, and two and a half years later I’m like, Nope, that is the story. The second time I did it, in The Dog of the Marriage with “Memoir,” that was it. I knew that was it.

Presented by

Jessica Murphy Moo

Jessica Murphy, a former Atlantic staff editor, is the 2006-2007 Milton Center writing fellow in Seattle, Washington. Her writing has appeared in Poets & Writers Magazine and her fiction is forthcoming in Memorious magazine.

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