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This blog was featured on 03/21/2019
Amy Hempel on Tattoos, Novellas and Powerful Modesty
Written by
She Writes
March 2019
Written by
She Writes
March 2019

Amy Hempel is the recipient of awards from the Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts, the United States Artists Foundation, and the Academy of Arts and Letters, and is the author of Reasons to Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, and Tumble Home, all from the ‘90s; and The Dog of the Marriage (2010). Now, she brings us Sing to It, her first story collection to be published in over a decade.

Sing to It collects stories of varying lengths about confronting danger: a novella about a home health aide in Florida who learns some terrible truths about the maternity home where she gave birth as a teenager, some resonant short stories, and a handful of very short stories that convey whole worlds within a couple of lines, including one in which a self-centered man repeatedly calls his ex.

“You can’t run from danger,” Hempel says. “That makes sense to me as a way to try to deal with all that’s going on today.”

The excerpt above originally appeared in Publisher’s Weekly. Read the full interview here.

On Her Book’s Title

“I got the title of the book tattooed on my leg next to a big old scar from a motorcycle accident I was in as a teenager,” Hempel says. The title comes from an Arabic proverb: “When danger approaches, sing to it.” What better way to reclaim one’s leg from injury than to make it appear physically beautiful? Sing to it. “It’s a stance for how to deal with life,” she says. “When there’s danger coming your way, you disarm it. It has a better result than meeting threat with threat. We see how well that goes all the time.”

The excerpt above originally appeared in Publisher’s Weekly. Read the full interview here.

On Her Journalistic Writing Style

“I started writing by doing small related things but not the thing itself, circling it and getting closer,” she said. “I had no idea how to write fiction.”

So instead, she studied journalism, which had a certain structure she could follow – how to write a news story, how to write a lead, and so on.  

“Moving to fiction was a straight transition,” she continued. “Journalism was great training, as it turned out, because you have to grab readers instantly and keep them. I knew how to do that, and it happened to work very well in fiction. I hadn’t been a good reporter because I didn’t care about getting the story before the general public had it. I didn’t care about being the first one on the scene, the first one at the accident. I also started to feel the limitations. Obviously, in journalism, you’re confined to what happens. And the tendency to embellish, to mythologize, it’s in us. It makes things more interesting, a closer call. But journalism taught me how to write a sentence that would make someone want to read the next one. You are trained to get rid of anything nonessential. You go in, you start writing your article, assuming a person’s going to stop reading the minute you give them a reason. So the trick is: don’t give them one. Frontload and cut out everything extraneous. That’s why I like short stories. You’re always trying to keep the person interested. In fiction, you don’t need to have the facts up front, but you have to have something that will grab the reader right away. It can be your voice. Some writers feel that when they write, there are people out there who just can’t wait to hear everything they have to say. But I go in with the opposite attitude, the expectation that they’re just dying to get away from me.”

The excerpt above was originally published in The Paris Review. Read the full interview here.

On Community

As a young writer, Hempel took a nighttime writing class at Columbia, where she studied under Gordon Lish, the notorious writer and fiction editor. There, in his workshop, she discovered her community of writer support.

I can say that over the years I’ve been reminded of the luck it is to have a bunch of writers you can always talk to and get together with easily,” she said. “It usually happens at conferences where I meet writers who live somewhere this is not a given. I’ve found it crucial to have a handful of writer friends who are also trusted arbiters and will tell me whether something works or not. Sounds simple, but it’s not. I rely on these few people in the way I rely on certain pieces of music, certain photographs–the way they can snap you back into your smarter self.”

This excerpt was originally published on Café MFA. Read the full interview here.

On Revisions

As writers, we each approach wordsmithing differently, so it’s always interesting to note how the process works for others.

“I’ll turn a sentence over endlessly in my head before it hits the page. By the time it’s on the page, it’s pretty likely to stay there,” Hempel said. “So much revision happens before the writing starts. That can really trip a person up. I think I would find it more gratifying to write a lot just to be able to see something I had done more than a few sentences at a time and then go tidy up, but I’ve never been able to work that way. I don’t like to see a bad sentence written down. And I have a superstitious fear, which is to put it in type or in handwriting on the page is to freeze it and make it indestructible, and I won’t be able to see it another way.”

This excerpt originally appeared on Bomb Magazine. Read the full interview here.

On Novellas

Novellas typically incorporate a lot of background on the characters, but not Hempel’s brand of novellas. Instead, her characters bubble up slowly, dreamily, she says.

“It has to be a kind of dreamy vignette, a mosaic, made a different way. Something more like Noy Holland’s Orbit, or Edna O’Brien’s Night, or Barry Hannah’s incomparable Ray. I don’t experience life in a linear fashion, in any kind of continuum. It’s moment, moment, moment, moment. Piece them together and you get some sort of whole. That’s how I process experience. But it was hard doing that over the length of a hundred plus pages. Just having to trust that the little vignettes accumulate, that there is a reason why they work together in some way. But there are a lot of writers who make me look completely conventional, and I’m all for it. I think that’s great. You know, Carole Maso’s novel Ava or David Markson’s novel, Reader’s Block. And especially story writers, like Ben Marcus and Gary Lutz. I’m still kind of distressed by critics who will just tear into you for not writing within their antiquated definitions of what a story or a novel is. They’re out-of-date, and yet these critics have no problem condemning a lot of new work, saying this isn’t a story or this isn’t a novel because it’s not something they recognize. And it goes on all the time. Sort of boring.”

This excerpt originally appeared on Bomb Magazine. Read the full interview here.

On a Writerly Attitude

“Whenever I come across a writer who is truly arrogant I recoil,” Hempel confides. “I find that so deeply unattractive. I’m not promoting false modesty, I don’t think people should underplay their stuff, but it isn’t seemly. We’ve all attended so many readings of poetry and fiction over the years, and when I think of the writers who were in love with every word that they read versus the writers, like Raymond Carver – hearing Ray Carver read and the almost matter of fact quality of his presentation. He had reason to be one of those arrogant performers and he wasn’t at all.”

“Carver said a wonderful thing. Barry Hannah told me this story. Somebody complimented Carver on something he had written and Carver said, ‘It’s what I can do.’ And it just brought tears to my eyes when I first heard that. Still does. The simplicity, the humility, the respect inherent in a comment like that. I think that was just a wonderful way to put it.”

This excerpt originally appeared on Bomb Magazine. Read the full interview here.

Photo Credit: Vicki Topaz

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