Amy Hempel Interview
A Long Time ComingInterview by Rob Hart
Amy Hempel is a tough interview.
I don't mean that to say she's rude or doesn't answer questions, it's just that this interview started more than two years ago.
The first time I approached her for this was Aug. 10, 2006, at a reading in the park at Union Square, where she joined other writers to read excerpts from Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs.
By the end of the reading the skies opened. The kind of rain that changes the direction of rivers. She ducked under a tent and stayed to chat with friends and fans. When the crowd cleared, I made my pitch.
She was gracious in saying 'no.' She ran out of things to say after a flurry of interviews for her collected works, she said, and told me to contact her in a year.
So I waited. One year later, I made my pitch again, and our back-and-forth culminated in an agreement to answer a list of questions by e-mail.
The answers arrived in short bursts. I would wake up in the morning and check my e-mail and there would be three out-of-order answers waiting for me. A couple of weeks later I would be returning e-mails and another answer would pop up. It was a slow process. Life gets in the way. I don't take it personal.
I would send her a note every now and again, just to check in and see if she had more time to think about the questions. Even in the face of what I feared was me being a pest, she was enthusiastic - and apologetic about the longer lulls.
All told, we traded 56 e-mails to get to here.
In person, she's everything you would expect from her writing, by the way - or maybe the complete opposite: Witty, inviting and radiant. The very first time I met her, at a reading in 2005 for the Bellevue Literary Review, I introduced myself and she had the look of someone thinking, "I was wondering when you'd show up."
Many of the Cult loyalists will immediately know her name and relevance to this site, but for the uninitiated, she was born on December 14, 1951, in Chicago and resides in New York.
She's written four collections of short stories - Reasons to Live (1985), At The Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), Tumble Home (1997) and The Dog of the Marriage (2005). The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel (2006) binds those four works together.
She was an editor on Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs (1999), and her short stories have appeared in Elle, GQ, Harper's, Playboy and Vanity Fair, among others.
A student of Gordon Lish, she's taught at a number of colleges and universities, and she earned a legion of new fans when Chuck Palahniuk wrote in LA Weekly that one of the lessons to be learned from Hempel is: "You will never write this well."
He wrote: "The French philosopher Jacques Derrida likens writing fiction to a software code that operated in the hardware of your mind. Stringing together separate macros that, combined, will create a reaction. No fiction does this as well as Hempel's, but each story is so tight, so boiled to bare facts, that all you can do is lie on the floor, face down, and praise it."
That endorsement won her a cult of her own.
Rob Hart: Can you tell us about your process? I know you start with a first and last sentence, and the story shapes itself from there, but what's your rewriting process like? How long do you rework a story, and do you have a method for that? How do you know when it's done?
Amy Hempel: Not much from the past years still holds re: how the stories show up. I do still need the last line before I begin, and that's how I know the story is done--when I reach it. I'm not being glib, that's really the way. If I'm writing a short-short, I try to get it as close to a poem as I can, and if it's longer, I just try to remember something Grace Paley said about revision--that you should go back and look at every word and ask yourself if it's true.
Sometimes I look at a story that ALMOST works and feel like the narrator in Donald Barthelme's story "I Bought a Little City," where he says, "...What a nice little city, it suits me fine. It suited me fine so I started to change it."
RH: How about your writing environment? Some people need music and a glass of wine, others prefer complete silence and sobriety. Some do it in short bursts while others lock in for days at a time without break. How do you write?
AH: I'm grateful for occasional short stays at Yaddo where I can think and write unlike anywhere else. But most of the time it is done with dogs sleeping on my feet (see the James Dickey poem about this) or bringing me their leashes to go out. I have two desks--the writerly one that is an antique library table with the silver-framed photos on it, etc., and I have the plain pine table with legal pads on it and those Uniball pens, the desk I actually use. Used to write only after midnight (in my 20s and 30s), but now it's in the morning after buying off the dogs.
RH: Could you tell us a bit about Yaddo - your experiences there and the freedoms/benefits it affords you as a writer?
AH: Each time I've gone to Yaddo, something good has happened. I finished a book there (TUMBLE HOME), I started and finished stories there. The last time I went up, it was just for a week, but it was great. I'm suggestible, so it means something to move into Elizabeth Bishop's room, or Philip Roth's room. I love the place, and though I can't spend a long time there (my dogs), the time is charged, and feels unlike time anywhere else.
Imagine getting to have breakfast and dinner every day with Allan Gurganus, or Walter Kirn, or Donald Antrim--that is what Yaddo is, too.
RH: You teach writing, and while it would be unfair to ask for a breakdown of your curriculum - I haven't paid tuition - can you give us a sense of how you work with your students, and the kind of assignments you give them?
AH: In the fall, I will take over for Michael Cunningham as director of the graduate fiction program at Brooklyn College. Michael did a brilliant job for the past seven years, and I've been working with him on Admissions in advance of officially beginning in September. I'll be teaching, too, of course.
I hope the people who work with me get an ampified sense of what a story can be. There are basic requirements for any story, I think, and I'm glad to see someone stand these on their heads, if possible. A lot of good things have come as responses to stories or poems I bring into the classes, and this creates a sense of continuity, a continuing engagement with the work of others. The writers I work with--I don't want them to hide from real feeling, but I don't want any sentimentality; this is crucial. Finding out what that sounds like is a good part of the classes. I put a premium on the SOUND of a good sentence, the acoustics of a sentence.
And I advocate something I learned from Mona Simpson, which is to urge writing students to do some kind of volunteer work. It not only ensures you do some actual good in the world, but often takes you quickly to the core of experience: think of crisis center work, hotline work, etc. It's something I've always done, and though one doesn't go into it in order to write about it, that can happen too.
RH: Who are the writers you would recommend for someone learning the craft? Which books do you think every aspiring writer should read?
AH: I would recommend the writers I read early on for their singular voices: Grace Paley, Leonard Michaels, Mary Robison, Barry Hannah, Gordon Lish, Rick Barthelme. As always, I know I'm leaving people out. It's such a big question--I mean you just have to read poets and essays--Emerson, Montaigne, and on. I don't know what would turn on the lights for someone else, but these have been important to me.
AH: I have never wanted to write a novel, though I might write another novella someday. I never get tired of what stories can do. I'm working very short again, and will continue this way (short-shorts, prose poems) until that gets old. I'm still drawn to MOMENTS, moments when power shifts between two people, or moments when something small but encompassing happens. There is a poem by Jane Hirshfield titled "Changing Everything" that best describes what I mean by that last-- a person walking in the woods who picks up a stick and moves it to the other side of the path and says, "There, that's done now."
RH: In a recent interview with The Believer, you spoke about the lyrical, poetic quality of your work. Can you tell us what importance poetry has played in your writing career, and what can be taken from it? I get the sense a lot of younger writers don't spend a lot of time with poetry. Is that to their detriment?
AH: Poetry is the biggest help in writing stories that I know. You learn so much about rhythm and acoustics and compression and selectivity. No wasted words, no "furniture moving." I read and re-read certain contemporary poets all the time. Look at John Rybicki out in Michigan, someone I quote often. The passion is palpable, the heartbreak--you have to read his new book, WE BED DOWN INTO WATER, to see what a strong man does with soul-shattering grief. I find I bring more poetry into my writing classes than fiction.
RH: Could you name a few musicians that, if you could no longer listen to their music, you would be terribly disappointed?
AH: My pal Syd Straw's music is crucial to me--wait till you hear the CD she's bringing out soon!--and I like Trespasser's William, and so many of the old Verve recordings (Jimmy Reed, for example), and all the soul music out when I was a teenager, and Dusty Springfield and of course Al Green, so, so many; the Wingdale Community Singers, I'm forgetting so many...
RH: This is a site that highlights the work of Chuck Palahniuk. He hasn't been shy about his love for your writing, and I think a lot of people who wouldn't have found your books before call themselves fans now after that endorsement. Has anything noticeable changed about your fan base, and how has his writing affected you?
AH: I'm really looking forward to being at Barnes & Noble Union Square with him on June 2 (note: The event was canceled, and has since been rescheduled to Aug 30th at The Strand.). I'm reading SNUFF right now. Chuck continues to beat his own best time. You sometimes hear, about poems, that the poet "stops just where he should begin," that the poet loses his nerve just as he is about to finally SAY something. That's where Chuck STARTS. His humor often involves escalation, and the hard thing there is--how do you get out of it?? It's thrilling to read Chuck and see that imagination fused with research solve this question every time. I'm probably less timid on the page as a result of reading his books. And I can still make myself laugh out loud with his lines--for example: "I fell asleep and you ate my ass?!!"
Chuck looks at what many other people don't want to see, or are afraid of seeing. I don't think it's a decision he makes, and I don't think it's about selling books, even though he does. It looks to me more like a moral stance. He does it without hesitation, and with enormous energy and humor. This is what I found the first time I read him, and why I continue to read everything he writes.
Yes, as a result of Chuck's generosity in recommending my work to his readers, I do find more young men (but not ONLY men) applying to work with me at Bennington and at Sarah Lawrence. It's really nice, and the times I've worked with people who heard of me from Chuck--these people have been very enthusiastic, experimental, FUN. Or they turn up at my readings and tell me they heard of the books from Chuck. And another thing about Chuck's writing that has affected me--I'm thinking here of the nonfiction pieces--is the level of hard truth he tells. That is always a good model to have.
RH: As a writing teacher, and in the interest of all the aspiring writers reading this, what's the most common mistake young, fresh writers make?
AH: This is the young writer mistake question: Wanting to publish more than wanting to write well.
RH: This is an involved, and maybe ridiculous, question to ask in this format, but where do you draw your inspiration from? Your stories are, at the same time, hysterical and heartbreaking. Many of them teeter between melancholy and, for me at least, hope. Not to dig too deep, but does your own life, and the lives of those around you, inform what you write? Or do the words just tell you where to go?
AH: As Chuck shows us in STRANGER THAN FICTION, it's hard to do better than what real life offers. I have drawn a lot from my experience, though it ends up altered on the page (sometimes not very much, sometimes a good deal). I've found that nearly every time I've written about something that happened, I've had to tamp it down, cut it in half, to make it credible as fiction. One thing that has never inspired a story is an idea. Never. An idea might spark an essay, but never a story. I confessed this to Barry Hannah years ago, and he said, "Ideas, Sugar, are not sexy." I never worried about it after that.
RH: "Reference #388475848-5" from The Dog of the Marriage, I think, answers some of these questions about why you write. But, as a fellow New Yorker, I'm curious to know, was this a real response to a real ticket?
AH: The story titled "Reference #..." did begin as a letter to the Parking Violations Bureau. I sent them a part of the story with the photos of my license plates, and they dismissed the $65 ticket! Then I saw a feature on the local news one night about this practice, labeled a "scam" run by the traffic cops.
RH: Do you struggle with doubt? How do you deal with those feelings, and how do you get past them? Is it possible?
AH: The crisis of confidence is a constant.