What do writers do when they’re not writing? Amy Hempel, who was propelled into literary stardom in 1985 with the publication of her first collection of short stories, “Reasons to Live,” spends part of her non-literary time training seeing-eye guide dogs for Guiding Eyes for the Blind. In an article that appeared in Oprah’s Winfrey’s magazine O, Hempel wrote about tracking down four blind people who received a puppy from her dog Wanita’s “A-litter,” as Hempel puts it, explaining these guide-dog puppies were all given a name that begins with the letter A — Audie, Archer, Avalon, and Arizona. She named Audie after a dog she had that disappeared several years ago from her yard. The original Audie appears in a photograph alongside her on the cover of “The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel.”
Hempel gives a reading on Friday, May 1, at the Nassau Club, as part of the fourth annual benefit for People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos, a Trenton-based program designed for people who have had limited or no exposure to literature.
Hempel, who was awarded the 2008 Rea Award for the Short Story as well as the 2009 PEN/Malamud award, has taught in the creative writing program at Princeton University. Last fall, she was appointed the director of the graduate fiction program at Brooklyn College, replacing Michael Cunningham, Pulitzer Prize winner for “The Hours.” This fall she will join the creative writing faculty at Harvard. She also teaches in the graduate writing program at Bennington College. “I often find that teaching adds to my reading,” Hempel says. “I always find out about books that interest me from my students, but it does nothing for my writing.”
Hempel, 57, was born in Chicago, Illinois, has also lived in Denver and San Francisco. Her father was a business executive in information handling systems and her mother was a guide at an art museum. Hempel says her parents were very creative and the house was always filled with books, thus exposing her to literature from an early age.
She had what she calls a non-linear education — attending a total of five colleges and universities in California but did not earn a degree. She majored in journalism and pre-med at one point but abandoned pre-med, she says, “when I hit organic chemistry.”
She moved to New York City in the mid-’80s and studied with Gordon Lish, a former fiction editor at Esquire, in his Tactics of Fiction workshops at Columbia University. She worked briefly in the editorial and publicity departments at two publishing houses and as a surgical assistant for a veterinarian.
Studying with Lish was a life-changing experience for Hempel. She wrote in “Captain Fiction” for Vanity Fair that it was a workshop “in which men weep, women walk out, and thumbtacks are found lodged, points out, in the teacher’s chair.”
A couple of stories in her collection “Reasons to Live” were inspired by writing exercises assigned by Lish. Her most widely anthologized story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” was a result of an assignment to write about your worst secret, something that has the power to dismantle your sense of self. The story is primarily about a woman’s one and only visit to her friend who is dying in a hospital. The dying friend asks the narrator to “tell me things I won’t mind forgetting. Make it useless stuff or skip it.”
The story is about many things, but fear is a recurring theme; even more so the narrator’s inability to be there for her dying friend because of her own fear of death, which, in this assignment, is Hempel’s “worst secret.”
At the end of the story, after the death of the friend, the narrator enrolls in a Fear of Flying class and is asked, “What is your worst fear?” She answers, “That I will finish this course and still be afraid.” Fear is a recurring theme in Hempel’s stories as well as grief, loss, love, and recovery to name a few others.
It is not hard to understand Hempel’s focus on fear when you learn that when Hempel was 19 years old, her mother committed suicide and less than a year later, her mother’s sister also committed suicide. In her 20s, Hempel faced more tragedies. She was in a couple of serious automobile and motorcycle accidents and she lost a very close friend to leukemia.
“In the Cemetary Where Al Jolson Is Buried” is also used frequently in the People & Stories workshops. In these workshops, which are conducted in English or Spanish, participants work in small groups, reading and discussing various short stories, drawing on their own personal life experiences. Discussions about “In the Cemetary Where Al Jolson Is Buried” invariably raise questions about death and grief. Pat Andres, executive director of People & Stories, says: “Participants enjoy the tone of voice, the tragic-comic mood, and the issues raised” in the story. “By examining these kinds of questions, raised by beautiful, powerful, complexly poetic text, new readers, including those in prisons and shelters and GED programs, come to enjoy literature.” Andres says the main objective of the organization is to “introduce people to the transforming power of literature. Many other things happen along the way including increased motivation to read, enhanced literary skills, and increased self-assurance.”
According to Andres, some other stories that seem to have the most impact on the participants include Chinua Achebe’s “Marriage Is a Private Affair,” Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral,” James Joyce’s “Eveline,” Langston Hughes’s “Thank You, M’am,” and Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean Well-Lighted Place.”
Hempel, who is single and lives in Manhattan, says she agreed to participate in the About People & Stories benefit because she says she admires the work that they do, and is very glad to be part of the program. People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos was founded in 1972 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by Sarah Hirschman, whose desire was to share her passion for literature with those who do not have accessibility to novels and stories. Hirschman moved to Princeton and established the program in Trenton in the mid-’80s. The organization currently serves 900 to 1,000 people a year through 60 different programs led by 25 coordinators in 35 different locations. It has locations not only in the United States, but also in Bogota, Columbia and Paris, France.
“The enjoyment (of reading and discussion) brings pleasure, but also skills,” says Andres. “And a large part of the enjoyment is the sense of self-assurance in relation to reading complex texts and analyzing them at a literary critical level. It is this discovery of innate knowledge brought about by living their own narratives that move our participants forward.”
Hempel’s “Reasons to Live” was followed by “At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom” in 1990. Seven years later Hempel published “Tumble Home” and in 2005, she published “The Dogs of the Marriage.” A compilation of these four books, Hempel’s entire body of work, is included in “The Collected Stories,” which was published in 2006. All 48 of her stories combined barely exceeds 400 pages. The book was a finalist for the 2006 PEN/ Faulkner award, won the 2007 Ambassador Book Award for Best Fiction, was named one of the New York Times’ Ten Best Books of the Year, and was recognized as one of the Best Books of 2006 by Newsweek, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Boston Globe, and Time Out New York.
Hempel is often identified as a minimalist writer because many of her stories are not any longer than a few pages. Some are just a few sentences long. Hempel even has a couple one-sentence stories. She, however, does not care for the minimalist label. She once preferred to be called a miniaturist, but has revised her view. “I did prefer the term miniaturist to minimalist,” says Hempel, “but the term I prefer to both of those is one Raymond Carver used. He called us Precisionists. And by us, he meant himself, me, and Mary Robison.”
In an interview with the Missouri Review, Hempel says, “A lot of times what’s not reported in your work is more important than what actually appears on the page.” She adds, “Frequently the emotional focus of the story is some underlying event that may not be described or even referred to in the story.”
As if raising seeing eye dogs isn’t enough of a sideline, Hempel is also fascinated with forensic psychology, which she has studied at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Due to current time constraints, she no longer studies forensics formally, but she says, “Maybe someday I’ll go back and take a class a semester instead of trying to combine a full load of classes with teaching and writing.”
Benefit Evening, People and Stories/Gente y Cuentes, Nassau Club, 6 Mercer Street. Friday, May 1, 7:30 p.m. Reception and reading by Amy Hempel, author of “Collected Stories.” The organization offers more than 38 programs in English or Spanish. Register. $100. Benefit chairs are Vivian and Harold Shapiro. 609-393-3230 or www.peopleandstories.org.