Amy Hempel on Turning Survival into a Story

The award-winning short story writer on her new book "Sing To It" and resisting bow-tied endings

Author photo Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel’s Sing To It is her newest short story collection and her first in over a decade. Each piece is precisely honed and crafted with associational thoughts orchestrated into brevity to intensify, not lessen, the complexities behind emotions, memories and motivations. Rhythmic and tip-top language, punctuated by images and unrivaled metaphors, are tools she uses to destabilize her narrators while mobilizing readers into a cleft of curiosity and compassion. Far from being a minimalist, Hempel is a writer who magnifies a mind in motion. Her narrators swerve toward us with a muscled complexity of vulnerability, not a state of victimhood. Concise wording rivets a reader to the raw and recognizable intimacy of narrators’ interior voices that leapfrog from one thought to the next. The structure of these fifteen mirroring-life stories leaves one suspended without a safety net. 

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Five of Hempel’s one-page stories, (Sing To It, The Orphan Lamb, The Doll Tornado, The Second Seating and Equivalent), read like an entire novel while “Cloudland, the 62 page closing story, is a crafted artwork of resiliency that thrives within a cyclone of ever-present pain. Hovering above Sing To It’s shoreline of stories is the book’s dedication to Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper, who said, “Once you accept life is a tragedy then you can start living.”

Amy Hempel and I corresponded via email about what drove this collection — personal elements woven into fiction — and talked about the importance of associational thinking in her writing process.

Yvonne Conza: What drove this collection? And, how does it differ from your previous works?

Amy Hempel: Always, there is an image or a moment of illumination, or a wonderfully skewed sentence that comes to mind — these are the beginnings of the several short-short stories in the book. But that is not new for me. I think what is different from earlier work is the stance, a kind of attitude in the narrators. These narrators are more knowing, they’ve been around the block, as the expression goes, but they are still vulnerable. My friend Bret Anthony Johnston talks about the difference between vulnerability and victim; it’s a big difference, and I don’t feel these narrators are victims.

YC: How important is associational thinking in your writing process? Do you feel that the processing of information, through patterns, seemingly unrelated elements and contextual relationships, imparts greater layering and progression to the work?

AH: Associative thinking and memory are key to what I’ve done in this book. There is a leap of faith necessary as thoughts and recollections accrue — you have to trust that there is a reason they are occurring when they do, and you will, at some point, understand it. It’s an exciting way to work because of the discovery inherent in it. Patterns proceed from the accrual. It’s a humbling way to write, and it’s different from planning, something I’ve only done once, and that story, “The Chicane,” took thirty years to write.

Non-linear thinking is the only kind I do in real life, so it’s not surprising that it shows up on the page, as well. I don’t see life in terms of beginning, middle, end, though I suppose you can chart certain relationships in this way. Joe Brainard’s I Remember is a book that is close to my own way of thinking on the page, and of course Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever was, and still is, influential in its accretion of seemingly small, odd moments that turn out to be central and essential.

YC: In Reasons to Live, your first collection, followed seven years later by At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, you made reference to “branching out of grief to fear.” What is Sing To It branching out of?

AH: I think there is a larger concern with external threat — the threat to the natural world. So the stories, particularly “Cloudland,” fix a gaze towards the damage done and the damage to come unless current behavior, both individual and governmental, changes dramatically. There are many other serious threats, of course, notably the way people with power treat people without power. That is also present and addressed in“Cloudland”and other of the new stories.

The stories fix a gaze towards the damage done and the damage to come unless current behavior changes dramatically.

YC: The personal elements in your material — suicides, dogs, accidents, friendships — are cycled through a fictional transaction. In “The Dog of the Marriage” a doorman rings up to let a wife know that a beagle returned home without her husband who was hit by a car. This brought to mind the tragic experience of Abigail Thomas. (Full disclosure: I know Abigail.) In “A Full-Service Shelter,” reference is made to the narrator being afraid of the Presa Canarios, the molossers bred in the Canary Islands. That made me think of Diane Whipple’s murder by two Presa Canarios in 2001 and I thought that perhaps you had a personal connection to Whipple. Also, the woman of immeasurable kindness and talent in “Cloudland” suggests Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper. Are these elements representing both truth and fiction, or perhaps a kind of narrative toggle that morphs into the early metaphor in the opening story of Sing To It — working as “hammocks” for the stories?

AH: You are right to think of Abigail Thomas in the title story “The Dog of the Marriage.” In fact, Abby and her husband adopted the dog I called “Beagleman” in that story, with tragic consequences. I wrote that story as a prequel to Abby’s brilliant and shattering essays about what followed. And, yes, you’re right — I was referring to the Presa Canarios who killed Diane Whipple in San Francisco. Though in fact I did not know her, had just met her once. And the woman of immeasurable kindness and talent in “Cloudland”is Gloria Vanderbilt. I really like your idea of these facts in the fiction working as “hammocks” for the stories, after the image in the story Sing To It. I saw no reason to change certain facts just because they appeared in a work of fiction.

Sometimes there is no improving on what really happened. Though at the same time, a story will go where it needs to go, if you let it. I’m more interested in where something taken from experience veers off into a new mythology.Since the reader doesn’t usually know whether something in a story comes from something similar in the writer’s experience, I think that what matters is whether the story works or not on its own terms, convinces with no other input. On the other hand, there is certainly a tradition of readers thinking an “I” narrator is the author.

YC: In your 1996 interview with Sharon Olds you asked: “Do readers still ask if a poem about a father is about your father? Prior to the question, you quoted Galway Kinnell as saying, with regard to being daring, “going into the center of the intimate experience of a life, not just telling a story” is to “open yourself to interpretation of the poems as expositions of your personal life.” In interviews, your family and personal experiences get mentioned but never elaborated upon, yet both operated within the material. How do you feel about opening yourself up to interpretation that the stories in your collection expose your personal life?

AH: I do understand the interest in this aspect of writing fiction. I don’t much care what readers might think based on what they read. The people who know me know what’s what, and you can only go on record with what you want to say, to reveal, with no means or need to correct the views of other readers. It can be interesting to watch this play out. I often tell students about the reviews of a story in my first book that features a father and his children out for the day. There is no mention of the mother at all, yet some reviewers wrote of the “divorced father,” and others wrote of the “widowed father.”

There is no mention of the mother at all, yet some reviewers wrote of the ‘divorced father,’ and others wrote of the ‘widowed father.’

YC: Bret Anthony Johnston stated in an interview: “To know a character, I have to understand what they want and what they’ve lost.” Do you feel similar to Bret?

AH: I agree with what Bret said about needing to know what characters have lost. It is some of the most defining information about anyone, both on and off the page. He said another thing I find accurate about writing: Don’t write what you know is true, write about what you’re afraid is true.” I also feel that knowing what someone can do without is useful, not only what they want.

YC: Since endings of your stories leave an advancement of new beginnings, is there a narrator within this collection that you might revisit in a future story? There’s a completion to your stories but never a bow-tie ending.

AH: Thank you for finding my story endings “leave an advancement for new beginnings” — I hope to convey that, so I’m glad you saw that in them. I patrol stories — my own and my students’ — for bow-tied endings. They always sound fake, and it’s never a goal to tie off what people are up against. I can’t predict what might happen in the stories I might write next, but my fundamental concerns are likely to be the same.

YC: How do you feel survivorship works within this collection as a theme? And, is performance a necessary quality or dynamic of survivorship?

AH: I feel it is crucial to most of the stories here. In some, there are people who do not survive, and one is left to reckon with how to continue in the face of this fact. In “A Full-Service Shelter,” there are dogs who do not survive, and suffer along the way to their end. How does someone who loves them go on without imploding? It’s why I read so many memoirs, the need to know how people manage, given what they have come up against.

Everyone survives something. Or they don’t. Some people are able to live a reconfigured life after trauma, and some are destroyed in one way or another. And is a stranger’s suffering available to us? I had an interesting talk about this question with Sharon Olds years ago for an interview in BOMB Magazine. She talked about how she found her way to be able to write about this, but she went through a process of giving herself permission. Sorry to sound like a dope, but I don’t understand “performative” in relation to it as a quality of survivorship. Can you say a bit more about this?

YC: I felt, that in your collection, performance does not mean “acting” but, for me, a kind of choreography linked to survivorship. For example, The “Cloudland” narrator’s day-to-day existence/choreography has a performative movement to it, with hovering information about her past and associational thinking that leads her from one thought to the next. She says: “I left the profession of teaching English in high school — a good, private school for girls in Manhattan — in a denouncement of ambition. That is the way I tell it.”The “that is the way I tell it” part captures what I’m referencing as performative quality to survivorship. She survives and knows what to say and what to leave out — how to keep alive and live within the world. I might be overly projecting — but I do think anyone that has lived through tragedy, especially someone like Gloria Vanderbilt Cooper, can appreciate and gain from the vulnerability crafted into this collection.

AH: Thank you for clarifying, by example — “That is the way I tell it” — the “performative” movement in a story. In “Cloudland” the memories are associative because that is what memory feels like to me — it’s never a linear progression of personal history. I always had Gloria much in mind while writing these stories, particularly “Cloudland.” Her resiliency is astonishing. Her many kinds of strength inspired a good deal of what is in this book. It goes behind surviving to become thriving, though of course with the pain ever present. To manage both of these conditions at once is instructive.

YC: Would you like your writing in this collection to be viewed as short fiction, prose, poetry, or something floating within a newer landmark of, say, associational fiction? Or, are you less interested in the “label” of genre?

AH: I am not that interested in labels for kinds of writing, one reason I so appreciate and admire Bernard Cooper’s first book, Maps To Anywhere. Parts of it turned up in Best American Essays, parts are anthologized as prose poems and short-short stories, parts are memoir, and it won the PEN/HEMINGWAY Award for best first fiction the year it was published.

I patrol stories for bow-tied endings. They always sound fake, and it’s never a goal to tie off what people are up against.

YC: Who are the emerging writers of short fiction that you reading?

AH: My favorite question! But I will open it up to favorite writers of memoir too, because I am filled with admiration for Casey Legler’s memoir, Godspeed, that came out this year. In fiction, there’s the debut collection of stories coming from Kimberly King Parsons, Black Light. And There There by Tommy Orange, and Friday Blackby Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, and individual stories by Dan McDermott and Nini Berndt, by Amber Caron and Karen Keats and Cally Fiedorek, Jane DeLury’s The Balcony, and A Key To Treehouse Livingby Elliot Reed, and This Is Where I Won’t Be Alone by Inez Tan, and my apologies for those I’m leaving out!

Of the newer writers I’m very keen on, most of them came to me through friends.A mutual friend gave me a galley of Casey Legler’s memoir, and another mutual friend sent me a photo of Kimberly King Parsons showing where she had tattooed a line from one of my stories on her arm! I’d liked a couple of her stories in literary magazines, and there was no way I was not going to read more after that! Sometimes reviews play a part, as with the widespread acclaim for Tommy Orange’s There There. I’ve also been reading for some prizes, and that is why I’ve fallen behind in reading literary magazines; I can’t stay current in both. Though I will certainly miss Tin House, a longtime favorite.

YC: Have you ever considered writing a memoir?

AH: The three or so personal essays I’ve written took too large a toll. There is not going to be a memoir.

YC: What is your hope for Sing To It?

AH: There is a charming story about Susan Sontag as a very young reader writing in the margins of book, “I too have had these thoughts.” I don’t know if it’s true, but I like that response.

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