The first sentences of stories
Forensic pathology textbooks
Reams of paper
The last sentences of stories
The miracle of Amy Hempel’s stories is their extreme compassion despite their extreme brevity. Dense and undecorated, they exemplify short literary form, but they also awaken a deep empathy that seems more appropriate to long company with characters through hundreds of pages. This mysterious and elusive effect has earned Hempel recognition as a master of short fiction.
Hempel was born in Chicago in 1951, went to high school in Denver, spent some dozen formative years in San Francisco, then moved to New York. She studied at Columbia with the renowned writers’ mentor Gordon Lish, who was a champion of her work and who edited her first two collections, and whose name appears in print often preceded by the word legendary. Hempel’s books include Reasons to Live (1985), At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (1990), Tumble Home (1997), and The Dog of the Marriage (2005). With Jim Shepard she edited Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs (1995). Her Collected Stories appeared in 2006 and was just released in paperback. She has won a Guggenheim Fellowship, taught at a number of colleges and universities across the country, worked as a veterinary surgical assistant, and provided foster care to seeing-eye dogs in training. She’s currently a faculty member in the graduate writing programs at Bennington and Sarah Lawrence.
This interview began in a diner on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, continued during a dog walk with Wanita, Hempel’s yellow Lab, and finished via email.
THE BELIEVER: Do you ever feel the impulse to write what could be called memoir?
AMY HEMPEL: I have written maybe three or four personal essays that included things that really happened to me, and I found them very difficult to do. Sticking to the facts—I refer to a reporter in an early story as being officious, “really into accuracy,” and that enters in. I love to read memoirs—I’ll read a less-than-perfect memoir where I won’t read less-than-wonderful fiction. But in terms of trying to do it, I’m more interested in what happens when I think I’m going to write about something that really happened, and see where I start to veer away, and why, and where I end up.
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