Amy Hempel’s introduction to writing fiction was a workshop in her late 20s with Gordon Lish at Columbia University. Lish had recently left his post as the fiction editor of Esquire to become an editor at Knopf in 1977. There he continued to publish many of the writers whose careers he had launched at the magazine: Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, and others. For his students’ first assignment, he instructed them to write about their worst secret: the thing they had done that, as he put it, “dismantles your own sense of yourself.” “Everybody knew instantly what that thing, for them, was,” Hempel recalled in an interview with The Paris Review almost 30 years later, after three spare collections of short stories—Reasons to Live (1985), At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), and Tumble Home (1997)—had established her as a star among Lish’s protégés. She continued: “We found out immediately that the stakes were very high, that we were expected to say something no one else had said, and to divulge much harder truths than we had ever told or ever thought to tell.”
The result, for Hempel, was “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” which appeared in TriQuarterly in 1983. A narrator, who may or may not be Hempel, is visiting her dying best friend in the hospital. When I first read it, I was awed by the specificity with which the story—fewer than 3,000 words, many of them dialogue—conveys both the intimacy and the mundanity of the encounter: the trivia the two women discuss; their macabre jokes (“The end o’ the line,” says the patient, draping the cord of her bedside phone around her neck); their conversations with doctors and nurses; the memories they share. I was surprised to learn that for Hempel, the story was about failing her best friend, which was the “worst secret” she uncovered in Lish’s class. The story turns on the narrator’s refusal to spend the night in the hospital with her friend, a moment described so obliquely that one might miss it. But the story is also much larger—a chronicle of grief, and a testimony to the universal helplessness of the living in the face of death.