Monday, July 30, 2007

amy hempel

I first read Amy Hempel's collection of stories Reasons to Live while standing in the stacks of books in the Washington University library. In that collection is her story "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried." Broke my fuckin heart. When I finished reading that story, I felt 10 years older. And a little sadder. But good-sad. Y'know?

Here's the nice Q & A with writer Amy Hempel that was in today's Tribune.

Writer's roots run deep in heartland

Chances are you haven't heard of native Chicagoan Amy Hempel -- even though she's one of the most respected writers working today.

That's because 1) she lives a lowprofile life in New York and 2) has never published a novel. Yet, in writers circles, she's a rock star.

"Writers have always admired her work," says "Fight Club" author Chuck Palahniuk. "A few years ago, I had dinner with Michael Chabon, David Sedaris and Jonathan Lethem and we talked about our favorite authors. Everyone pretty much said, 'Amy Hempel.' "

She's not better known, Palahniuk contends, because "none of her stories have been made into movies."

Another explanation: Her writing spans 25 years but stretches taut over little more than 400 total pages.

But Hempel's status as an iconic minimalist writer (though she -- like colleague Raymond Carver -- prefers the term "precisionist") among other writers has started to move into the mainstream.

Not only has her work been widely anthologized, she was a finalist for the 2007 PEN/ Faulkner Award for Fiction for "The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel." Now in its eighth printing, the collection will be released in paperback in September.

Meanwhile, Hempel continues to shape writers as an in-demand professor at Sarah Lawrence College, Bennington College and, this fall, at Princeton University.

On a recent afternoon in Chicago, Hempel stopped by the Art Institute of Chicago, a favorite, calming locale for someone who still considers herself, at heart, a Midwestern writer.

"I have a special affection for these Impressionist paintings," she says, walking past a row of Van Gogh works. "There's something, I don't know, soothing when I'm rattled. When I need relief from New York, I often get on a train, come to Chicago, and this will be my first stop off the train."

Below, we excerpt a conversation with Hempel about her stories, her Chicago roots and, among other things, writing about sex.

Q. You imbue a lot of your work with autobiography. Is there an inherent danger in making your fiction too close to the bone?

A. It rarely turns out too close to the bone. I don't write about something that happened to me looking for any sort of catharsis. ... Fiction is about making the reader feel something.

Q. But how much are you giving up privacy? Your collection, "The Dog of the Marriage," was inspired by your own divorce.

A. I'm not that interested in what happens. ... What interests me is what someone is making of it. I'm interested in how people get through hard things. And it's different. Borrowing from real events pretty much guarantees a fictitious outcome.

I just think it's easier to distinguish yourself on the page that way, because I just can't imagine I would write a story with a plot that no one's heard of. So I think the way you make something new and your own is in that: What are you doing about [your situation]?

Q. When do you feel particularly Midwestern?

A. I just feel in some ways -- I'm not a prude, but prudish responses will surprise me from time to time -- the "golly" reaction. That seems Midwestern to me.

I grew up with the Great Lakes. I've lived near oceans and it's still: The Lake.

The more like Lake Michigan a body of water I can find, the more right I feel. Water is a necessity.

It's like finding the place in the world that you are most yourself. Well, for me, it's Lake Michigan. Even standing up in water to my knees on Oak Street Beach ... it's one of the ways I know who I am.

I know who I am here.

Q. Why have you spent so much time away from yourself then?

A. [Laughs] That's a good question!

Firesign Theatre, this comedy group in L.A., used to do this bit where one of them would be a portrait photographer trying to get people comfortable to take their picture. And he'd say, "Just be yourself. Or someone you know well."

I thought, "Yeah, you don't want to be yourself."

Q. But you do draw directly from your life in your fiction. You almost lost a leg in a car accident, which you wrote about in "The Harvest." And your longest work, "Tumble Home," was inspired by your time in Lake Forest.

A. I drew from things and experiences here, profoundly, in that novella.

The psychiatric halfway house in "Tumble Home" is modeled after Ferry Hall ... which is now part of Lake Forest Academy. [Laughs]

I thought of one other Chicago thing: After my first book -- or the second might have come out -- Studs Terkel chose two stories and read them aloud on the radio.

You have to understand, whereas I was incredibly honored and baffled how this could have come about, my grandmother, Hannah Siegel, who lived here in Chicago, was beside herself.

It was a huge, big deal to her. She wrote to him, in care of the radio station, thanking him, and he wrote her back the loveliest, very personal letter that no way did he have to do.

I thought, "What an incredibly nice man." I used to ask her how her pen-pal was. It wasn't just my grandmother ... it was one of those defining moments of how to live a life: you go further than is expected in a kindness, and that defines you.

It was extremely moving for me, and it still is.

Q. But is there something uniquely Midwestern about your approach to writing?

A. I think the more we talk about this, the clearer I think I can get about it. It's both subtle and kind of profound. It is the "golly" response, in this way: I didn't write a sex scene for 24 years.

And then I wrote a story, "Offertory" [about a woman's affair with a married couple], that was XXX-rated.

I think it was the Midwestern part of me that said, "Oooh, I don't know if I can write a sex scene." But then ...

Q. And given your penchant for autobiography, were you afraid people might think that story was about you?

A. Well, you can't control people's response to something you do.

Q. But that's different than having a mechanism in your work that is confessional. So, is there a blush response associated with "Offertory"?

A. Oddly, no. Truly, what would embarrass me about a story is if a story was badly written. If a story was badly written, that would be excruciating to me.

It's not me, but if they think it's me, I don't care.