15 Questions with Amy Hempel

FM caught up with Harvard’s newest Briggs-Copeland lecturer to talk about writing, the weather, and Wanita, her yellow lab.
By Jyotika Banga

Amy Hempel is widely regarded as the queen of the American short story. She has published several collections and has received countless awards for her fiction. As she prepares for her latest honor—the PEN/Malamud Award for the Short Story—FM caught up with Harvard’s newest Briggs-Copeland lecturer to talk about craft, the weather, and Wanita, her yellow lab.

1.Fifteen Minutes (FM): So, what’s your dog’s name? What kind of breed is she?

Amy Hempel (AH): Well, this is my yellow lab Wanita, spelled W-A-N-I-T-A, not the correct way. She’s affiliated with Guiding Eyes for the Blind. She was trained to be a guide and the school decided to pass the good genes along, so she’s in their Brood/Stud program—her puppies become guide dogs. I’ve worked with the organization for about 14 years, doing some of the puppy raising and pre-training. So she’s still part of the Guide Dog program. FM: And is she well-behaved, or does she get into trouble? AH: (Laughs) She’s impeccable! She’s really well-behaved, except for what you just experienced—she’s a little over-enthusiastic in her greeting. She just loves everybody.

2. FM: Speaking of dogs, it seems that animals are a pretty pervasive theme in your work—you refer to a chimp who knows sign language in “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” and you even published “Unleashed: Poems By Writers’ Dogs”—an anthology of poems written from the point of view of dogs.

AH: Right, with Jim Shepard.

FM: Any reason for this theme?

AH: Well, I love animals. I have to have them in my life, dogs in particular. I just find them endlessly interesting and funny and moving. In the Al Jolson story, the first story I wrote, I had followed ape language experiments for many years—I just was interested in them. And I got to meet Coco in California many years ago, the gorilla who was taught sign language and that was a truly life-changing experience, sitting down with this gorilla who could communicate with me. Yeah, it was extraordinary. So, I’d heard about this story years before I even started writing, and I just knew sometime that I would use it.

3. FM: What’s your writing process? How do you begin crafting your stories—do you have a specific format, or do you just let it flow?

AH: It’s changed over the years. I wrote my first two collections of stories between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m. and then I had to change and actually learn to work in the daytime, and then I tried working first thing in the morning before I did anything. And now I have no process at all. It’s up for grabs.

4.FM: You’ve pretty much built your reputation writing short stories. What do you like best about this genre? Why do you prefer it to the novel or longer pieces?

AH: Well, I have one novella, but you know, short stories and short-short stories are what come naturally to me. And I think it has partly to do with the way you experience life, or a given day. I’m not big on cause and effect. It always seems contrived to me on the page. Well, not always, but often, at least when I do it. So I like moments. Something small shifted there and that’s interesting. I like moments that effect a change, that accumulate.

5.FM: Have you ever considered writing a novel?

AH: No.

FM: No?

AH: (Laughs) No—I might have another novella in mind, but I have no interest in or need to write a novel. I mean, I like reading them, but I don’t have anything in me that says “Oh, you gotta write a novel.”

6. FM: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? When did it hit you?

AH: It ran as a concurrent theme—concurrent with wanting to be a vet as a little girl. I didn’t start writing for real until I was in my mid to late twenties, but I’d always worked with animals and veterinarians. I’d been a surgical assistant for one. Oh, wait, do you hear that? Snoring dog in the background!

FM: (Laughs)

AH: Anyway, a book like “Unleashed,” which you mentioned—Jim Shepard and I decided to do that, and we gave half the money it made to animal charities and it’s still earning money for them, which is great, it makes me feel very good. So, much of my writing is still interconnected with animal concerns in a big way.

7.  FM: In a New York Times review of your collection “At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom,” the reviewer wrote, “Since the publication of her first collection of stories, ‘Reasons to Live,’ Amy Hempel has frequently been labeled (libeled?) as a minimalist.” So what do you think about that? Does being labeled a minimalist define you correctly, or not?

AH: No, no. It became sort of a lazy reviewer tool or label. And a number of writers were labeled minimalists. It became somewhat pejorative when it was more widely used some years back, and the person who came up with the more accurate term was Ray Carver, who said, “Well, you’re actually a precisionist!” He included me and a couple others, including Mary Robison, and himself. We’re precisionists. It wasn’t about what we left out, although that can be important too, but that’s the description that I much prefer. And, coming from Carver...well, excuse me, but that’s pretty great.

8. FM: So if you’re a “precisionist” in your writing, does that taste apply to other areas of your life? I mean, do you focus a lot on detail?

AH: Well, I do, often to the detriment of what I’m supposed to be doing. I’ve said to a few people: “Well, I’m the person who goes to a fascinating lecture, but what I’m paying attention to is the kind of barrette the lady in row three is using to hold her hair up and when it’s about to fall out.” So again, details, certainly, but it’s not always a gift.

(Editor’s Note: Wanita wakes up, climbs on the couch.)

AH: Up, Wanita, up! Good girl.

(Editor’s Note: The dog promptly falls back to sleep.)

9.  FM: As you mentioned, your first short story was “In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried.” How did the idea for this story come about?

AH: I was in a workshop at Columbia taught by Gordon Lisch, and we had one assignment which was to write your worst secret, the thing you would never live down, or as he put it: “the thing that dismantles the sense of your self.” And so, I was in my late 20s, almost 30 at the time, and I knew the worst secret was I felt I had failed my best friend when she was dying. So that’s why I wrote that story. It wasn’t something I wanted to think about, and I certainly didn’t want to write about it, but it was the assignment, and I thought, “Well, I’m game, and here we go.”

10.FM: Wow. Speaking of this short story, it’s one of the most anthologized works in the last quarter century. Al Jolson was considered to be one of the world’s greatest entertainers. He sang a lot of jazz and blues and influenced a bunch of famous musicians and performers, including Judy Garland and Bob Dylan, who once referred to him as “somebody whose life I can feel.”

AH: Wow, I never heard that. That’s amazing.

FM: Yeah. So, what types of music do you enjoy, and who are some of your favorite artists?

AH: Well, a lot, and you know, I always listen to music when I’m writing. I listen to a lot of soul, Southern soul, and R&B, and I have all those early Verve records—all these old soul singers and blues singers, and I bought a bunch of these old CDs in Southern Mississippi that I listen to a lot. Jimmy Reed, just great old timeless stuff. Anything with real energy and real feeling, I mean, it’s like caffeine to me.

11. FM: Do you draw inspiration from other art forms? What do you love writing about?

AH: Well, I rely on place a lot. My whole first book was “California,” and focused on beach communities and the transient lives there. My novella was actually set in a beach community too. I was urging students that I have here to think about place in terms of what happens in a certain place that doesn’t happen somewhere else, or anywhere else. And that’s how I look at place in fiction. It always interests me that what happens in one place doesn’t happen somewhere else. There’s this book by Saramago, a recent novel, “Death With Interruptions.” He writes about a town in which nobody dies. So, that’s a pretty extreme example of something happening that doesn’t happen anywhere else.

12.  FM: You’re a Briggs-Copeland lecturer here at Harvard, and that lectureship is a big honor in the world of literature. So what’s your day-to-day life as a Briggs-Copeland lecturer like? Any perks?

AH: (Laughs) You know, being here is actually the biggest perk. It sounds so corny, but it’s really thrilling—it’s Harvard! I’ve only just started, honestly, so at this point it’s a bit hard to say what life is like, but this term I’m commuting from New York City, so I come over every week from New York, with that girl over there snoring on the couch, just like she does during office hours. But being here, there’s people whom I’ve read with great admiration, and suddenly they’re over in the next office, so it’s very heady and exciting. The students are remarkable of course. I don’t mean to pander here, but they truly are. The undergraduates here are as accomplished often, as graduate students I’ve worked with other places, so that’s fun for me. One of my brothers came here as an undergrad, and I used to visit him, you know, longingly, when he was in college, so it’s good to have found a way to be here.

13. FM: You teach two fiction courses here at Harvard—“Intro to Fiction Writing” and “Advanced Fiction Writing.” What advice do you have for your students or other aspiring writers?

AH: Well, I think the standard answer would be to read, and that’s certainly important. But they know that already. Well, my teacher used to say, “Stay open for business” which meant, you know, just be open to everything and anything. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten a line that I’ve used in a story, or even started a story with, that came from just eavesdropping. Just listening to people in a theater before a show, at the student center, a coffee shop. You are always on the job. Grace Paley, a writer whom I adored, advised something else: “Keep a low overhead.” But that’s to worry about after graduation I guess.

14. FM: You were born in Chicago. How much worse are Chicago winters than Boston winters?

AH: (Laughs) I think they’re about equal! I’ve had many years spent walking along Lake Michigan with wind chill at -60 or something horrible like that. So Boston doesn’t scare me.

15. FM: And now, a predictable final question: what are your plans for the future?

AH: There’s a famous quote that I put in one of my stories: “If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” (Laughs) I’m a little superstitious about talking about plans. Put it this way: I’m very happy in the moment, in this moment.

(Editor’s note: Wanita’s snoring reaches its peak.)

She’s dreaming. Look, she’s dreaming. So, yes. I’m very happy with the here and now. You can’t always say that, but right now it’s true.

In The Meantime