Interviews April 2006

Sentence by Sentence

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

In the past, when speaking about your first collection, A Reason to Live, you’ve said that the whole book is “true.” I’m wondering if you might elaborate on that. Were you talking “true” in a fiction writer’s sense of a larger truth, or were you talking about a factual truth, or a little bit of both?

I know you hear notions of emotional truth, psychological truth. I know that those are present. And in that book, I certainly did use, as a point of departure, a lot of things that really happened—maybe not entirely, but largely. And I still do, which is not to say there’s no place for imagination, but my background was in reporting and attention to facts. I read a lot of memoirs and creative nonfiction, like Joanne Bierd’s brilliant work. So yeah, I’d still stand by that comment.

With regard to this attention to fact, there are so many wonderful moments in which you seem to delight in the minutiae of real things.

That’s the joy of research. Finding out just the wonderful, wonderful, you-couldn’t-make-this-up kind of stuff.

Is research a part of writing for you?

A huge part. Huge part. Or just using stuff that I happen to know about anyway because I’m fascinated by it. About a year or so ago, I went back to school to study forensics, psychology, and criminology. And that’s just been a revelation.

What prompted you?

Years of reading true crime and watching all the forensics shows, the ones from real cases, on TV. But mainly years of reading about criminal profiling, not sensationalized true crime books, but the real police work and criminologist work and profiling work that is just fascinating.

So would you pursue a career in this?

I don’t even know. I just enrolled at John Jay to ramp up the interest and the attention I was already paying this subject to a new level, to a bigger height, and just see what happened. But it’s not that unlike what a fiction writer thinks about anyway. It’s character study and narrative—you know, Well, gee, what happened? The person did this and look what happened after that and why did he do that anyway, and what were the factors that led to him doing that? It’s more whydunit than whodunit.

It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of this!

No telling.

Tragedy is certainly part of the majority of your stories. It’s either in the forefront or it’s the dull headache that’s behind the present of the story. Why are you drawn to these types of situations in your fiction?

Well, it’s what I’m familiar with. I think I’m familiar with probably more of that in life than a lot of people, and less than a lot of other people, but what interests me lately is the extent to which our nation is experiencing this with the hurricane aftermath, and before that, events of September 11th here in New York. It’s really a national and a global situation, and the war in Iraq, I mean, my God, it’s everywhere. The questions that come from that are very basic and very profound: How do we survive this? How do we continue in the face of this? And what is the moral? What are moral acts? What does a good person do now? Those are all worth addressing.

Your characters are resilient. What is the source of their resilience?

I think that maybe what enters in is the consolation found in dailiness. It’s in the small acts, or small things one notices that are a small comfort, but that accumulate. There’s a wonderful Sharon Olds poem about a very difficult father. She says something like that it would be wrong to love the big things about him, but you can love the small things. It’s kind of that idea. One of my favorite lines in contemporary literature is a line near the end of Christopher Coe’s Beckett novel Such Times. The character is dying of AIDS as Christopher was dying of AIDS when he wrote this, and there’s this line that says, It was possible to love life without loving your life. And it’s just immensely generous and hopeful. I’m really attracted to that, and when it’s been my lot, I’ve been grateful for it—that in the grip of something seemingly overwhelming, there is consolation to be found in the world in small pockets, small places. And it can be enough, it can be enough.

You also pair these tragedies with a certain levity. Your characters tell jokes. They deliver witty one-liners. They say things like, “It helps to have a sense of humor.”

Dark humor, maybe.

Right. Exactly.

Well, because it is one of the very best ways to get past unthinkable losses and tragic loss. It’s one way to regain a kind of equilibrium. I mean if you look at a collection like Jesus’ Son. Gorgeous writing and terrific dark humor. So many of my favorite writers have that as a predominant feature in their work.

And then there are the animals.

Yes, there are the animals.

Who is the dog on the cover of your new collection with you?

That is Audie. She was my Great Pyrenees/golden retriever mix of many years. And she’s the dog in Part IV of “The Dog of the Marriage,” the dog who disappears. She’s a beauty.

These dogs and animals, they’re present. They’re the staring deer in the background.

Right. They’re always there.

Animals do play a role in your life.

A huge part.

And they’re important characters in your stories.

Well, if you spend much time around, take dogs, because they’re mostly who appear in my stories, they have personalities, they’re willful, they’re funny, they’re dear, they’re unique, they’re compassionate, they’re goofballs, they’re just entirely present in remarkable ways. Most of my day today is about tracking some newborn puppies who have bacterial/intestinal distress and giving them a product called Resorb for dehydration, a hydrating thing for calves that is also given to very young puppies. I’m more likely to end up talking about doses of Resorb than short fiction, so it’s not surprising it enters into the work.

They’re your puppies?

They’re the litter of one of my two dogs. I now have two labs who are breeders for the guiding eyes for the blind. My dogs’ puppies become seeing-eye dogs. They’re incredibly yummy, these little pups, and they’re really a lot of work too.

So between all those teaching assignments, forensics, and taking care of these pets, when do you actually write?

There’s the question. That’s the question I’m trying to figure out again. I don’t know. I’ve never been a daily writer, never had a real pattern. That really is my question right now. How do I do all of this? I’ve got to answer that one soon.

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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