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.

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.

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.