Interviews April 2006

Sentence by Sentence

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

You began publishing your short stories in the 1980s, during a period that has been described as the renaissance of the short story, and now it’s perhaps not as hospitable a time for short story writers. In your experience how does this period compare with those earlier days?

I actually still think there’s a very hospitable climate for short stories. In part you can look at the fact that more literary magazines are being started by young writers and editors, and they certainly celebrate short stories and poems. I don’t see editors balking at story collections, debut collections, and at collections from writers who have already published. I know that certain magazines close down or reduce the number of stories.

The Atlantic Monthly?

I know! I know! It’s so sad. But there are others, as I said, the little magazines that come forward, and people still do read them. So yes, when I started, you had Raymond Carver, you had Mary Robison, and other people, Ann Beattie, Rick Barthelme, these wonderful writers. I don’t see a diminution in that respect.

Still, it seems like there is sort of a push toward the novel, at least from a marketing point of view.

I was never faced with that. I never got that. I sort of said, This is what I can do, this is what I like to do, and, really, nobody—not my agent or either of my two editors over the years—have said, Where’s the novel, why can’t you write a novel? I’ve skipped that. I know a lot of people have to deal with that, and I don’t know how they navigate it. I mean you do what you can do, and it’s just another thing entirely—a novel. It’s like saying, Why don’t you write a screenplay? Well, it’s a different form. Just because somebody can write a story doesn’t mean they can write a novel or a screenplay.

I wanted to ask you about endings. How do you know when a story is finished?

I’ve always known when I start a story what the last line is. It’s always been the case, since the first story I ever wrote. I don’t know how it’s going to get there, but I seem to need the destination. I need to know where I end up. It never changes, ever. So that’s kind of curious, but that’s how I know.

Do you know the first line?

Yeah, I have the first and the last. Nothing in between. Grace Paley once said a very long time ago that as soon as she has a first line, she knows she has a story. Which is different from writing a first line, and thinking, Okay, now I’ll just go to work. She knows. She said she knew with the first line, and I seem to know with the first and the last line.

One thing that’s very nervy and fascinating that I’m reading right now: have you seen on Slate that Walter Kirn is writing a novel in real time and posting installments? Which is just an incredible experiment. He’s one of my very, very favorite writers. It’s just quite thrilling to see someone do, work this way, and work well this way.

I read that Miles Davis once said “You have to play a long time before you sound like yourself.” When reading your collection, there’s definitely a voice that sounds like Amy Hempel’s voice. Was it a long time in the coming?

Not a long time in the coming. The curious thing is that it’s nothing like my “voice” in life. It’s just not. If you talk to Grace Paley, to use a brilliant example, she does not sound so unlike herself on the page. The voice on the page is extremely artful, but I don’t see such a wide gap there; whereas my voice, or the way I sound on the page is quite different. It’s much tighter, and more compressed, and maybe savvier sometimes than I am. So I think it’s a kind of idealized self or idealized voice on the page.

In one New York Times review of At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, the reviewer began, “Since the publication of her first collection, A Reason to Live, Amy Hempel has frequently labeled (libeled?) as a minimalist.” In your view is this label apt? Is it limiting? Is it libelous?

Limiting. I feel it was shorthand for reviewers more than an accurate assessment of some very different kinds of writing. This Times book reviewer you just cited might be the same one who went on to use the term “miniaturist,” which I much preferred. But quite honestly, at the time that “minimalist” was being used—overused—I probably had a good ride on it because I was lumped in with some really terrific writers who had been publishing a good deal more than I had. So though I don’t think the term was accurate, I was happy to be in that company. It included some of the writers I just mentioned—Robison, Barthelme, Ann Beattie, Carver—and that’s heady company.

And, of course, you had worked with Gordon Lish, the legendary fiction teacher and editor. Can you say anything about working with him and how he affected your writing?

I’ll try to compress because I worked with him for many years as a student and then as one of his authors at Knopf. He just really introduced standards worth having and worth paying attention to. He asked the right questions about what his authors were trying to do, and, gosh, he took it with all seriousness. He took writing and language with more seriousness than anyone I’ve ever known. He was a wonderful arbiter and instructor and editor.

Let’s talk about this idea of compression that you brought up earlier. Your stories are compressed or distilled to these very essential moments, details, pieces of dialogue. How do you decide something is worth keeping? In your eyes, what gives that detail, line, word, sentence, joke a certain staying power?

Yeah, boy, that’s the question, isn’t it? That is the big question. It’s a good one, and I think it’s the one a writer most often asks during the writing. How do you know? Part of the way I could answer that is: Leap of faith. Part of it is: Have I seen anyone else say this in this way? If not, maybe I’m saying it in a new way that will be greeted with interest.

I think it helps to have in mind an ideal reader, an ideal audience, and if that person thinks it’s funny, it must be funny. Or simply relying on somebody else and their response, showing the work to somebody you trust absolutely. I more often need to do that than having it come from within, I’m afraid. I wish it came from within more, that certainty, but there it is.

Throughout your fiction, you invert the reader’s expectation. One example is in your story “BEG, SL TOG, INC, CONT, REP,” when a woman goes into labor and her friend, very methodically, starts taking care of everything. The friend says, “I told her I couldn’t help it. I get rational when I panic.”

Yeah, you overturn the expectation that a reader might have. That’s a big part of what I like doing and what I like finding in stories I read. The overturned expectation. There are so many wonderful examples of it. Or reversal, like, you know, what Philip Roth wrote to Claire Bloom when they were married. He’s describing a walk in the country to her, and he says, “A skunk crossed my path today, or as the skunk might say, a Jew crossed my path.” There’s a reversal. But the overturned expectation is always pleasing, I think, because it’s a surprise, and a logical surprise.

I think for a lot of writers, the main relationship while they’re working is between writer and story, and my main relationship is often writer and reader. Yes, there’s a story to be written, but it’s being more mindful of who you’re talking to and bringing them in and factoring them in as you go.

So does this reader change from story to story?

Not usually for me. It’s a reader with very, very high standards and my feeling is: I don’t want to disappoint this person. I don’t want to waste this person’s time.

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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