The Mark Blog

Bookmark This: Amy Hempel Interviewed in the Atlantic

Below we've excerpted an Atlantic interview with Amy Hempel. The full interview can be found here.


If you’re taking your time with this sentence-by-sentence construction, do you have very little revision by the time you’re done?

I probably have less revision than those who have that wonderful rush of story to tell—you know, I can’t wait to tell you what happened the other day. It comes tumbling out and maybe then they go back and refine. I kind of envy that way of working, but I just have never done it.

Is your focus on the sentence one reason you are a short story writer rather than a novelist?

It’s partly that, and it’s partly the way I live, or the way I make sense of what happens on a daily basis. That is, I don’t have the big overview, or as Barry Hannah once wrote, the “underview.” He wrote something about people in the bleachers, watching the main event, and he’s under the bleachers—his underview—picking everything that’s been dropped and left behind. I think that’s more of what I do, too. But part of it is just maybe registering more of the peripheral, the lingering after-effects, than the main subject that other writers might be able to write about.

How was the experience of writing your novella, “Tumble Home,” different from writing your short stories?

Just for one thing, having to keep so much in my head at once. I honestly don’t know how anyone writes a novel. I don’t know how it’s possible. I really don’t. The only way that this novella could get done was because I wrote it in vignettes—in “takes”—and then assembled them. The form of it was crucial to completion. I’ve written stories in vignettes, but I didn’t have as many elements to keep pulling forward, to keep intersecting as the thing went on. It was hard. It was really hard.

You have a couple of one-sentence stories. Did you start by saying, Okay I’m going to give myself this challenge of writing a story that will happen in one sentence, or do you write the sentence and realize, This is all I wanted to say?

The second. I wrote the sentence in each case and saw that that was the whole thing. Sadly, the first time I did it I didn’t see that for two-and-a-half years. In “Housewife,” I thought, Oh, this is the first line of a story, and two and a half years later I’m like, Nope, that is the story. The second time I did it, in The Dog of the Marriage with “Memoir,” that was it. I knew that was it.

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I wanted to ask you about endings. How do you know when a story is finished?

I’ve always known when I start a story what the last line is. It’s always been the case, since the first story I ever wrote. I don’t know how it’s going to get there, but I seem to need the destination. I need to know where I end up. It never changes, ever. So that’s kind of curious, but that’s how I know.

Do you know the first line?

Yeah, I have the first and the last. Nothing in between. Grace Paley once said a very long time ago that as soon as she has a first line, she knows she has a story. Which is different from writing a first line, and thinking, Okay, now I’ll just go to work. She knows. She said she knew with the first line, and I seem to know with the first and the last line.

One thing that’s very nervy and fascinating that I’m reading right now: have you seen on Slate that Walter Kirn is writing a novel in real time and posting installments? Which is just an incredible experiment. He’s one of my very, very favorite writers. It’s just quite thrilling to see someone do, work this way, and work well this way.

I read that Miles Davis once said “You have to play a long time before you sound like yourself.” When reading your collection, there’s definitely a voice that sounds like Amy Hempel’s voice. Was it a long time in the coming?

Not a long time in the coming. The curious thing is that it’s nothing like my “voice” in life. It’s just not. If you talk to Grace Paley, to use a brilliant example, she does not sound so unlike herself on the page. The voice on the page is extremely artful, but I don’t see such a wide gap there; whereas my voice, or the way I sound on the page is quite different. It’s much tighter, and more compressed, and maybe savvier sometimes than I am. So I think it’s a kind of idealized self or idealized voice on the page.

Read the rest of the interview here.