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Arts & Entertainment
09/16/06

By JACK RIGHTMYER, Staff Writer

An Interview with Amy Hempel


When the debate comes up about who is the best short story writer living today the name of Amy Hempel is always mentioned.

"I like everything about the form of the short story," said Hempel in a recent phone interview from her home in New York City. "I love the focus that's required to write a good story. I write stories with a poet's consciousness. I wish I could write poetry, but many people think my stories have a poetic feel to them. I also love the short story because I like completing things."

Hempel's newest book is "The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel," which brings together four volumes of her earlier collections consisting of forty-eight stories spanning more than twenty years of work.

On Wednesday she will read, with fellow short story writer Margot Livesey, from her new collection at 8 p.m. in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center at the University at Albany's uptown campus. Margot Livesey will also lead an informal afternoon seminar at 4:15 p.m. in the Assembly Hall of the Campus Center. The free events are part of the New York State Writers Institute.

What makes Hempel such a master short story writer is her ability to deliver such emotional power in only a few pages, usually not more than ten or twelve. She is regarded as one of the defining stylists of contemporary minimalist fiction.

"All of my stories begin with language," she said. "Sometimes it's something a friend has said, maybe a line in a speech, sometimes it's an image I get from something I've heard."

She has never tried writing a novel although she has written a novella. "I think about a story before I begin writing it," said Hempel. "When I begin a story I know it's set to go. I always begin with the first and last lines. That never changes. Some writers work on a story to see where it will go, what will happen to the characters, but I always know everything about the story before I begin writing it."

Novels are usually about big events, but Hempel said she's interested in writing about what happens after the big event. "I'm not interested in the big picture," she said. "I like the little moments."

She often credits author and teacher Gordon Lish for helping her discover her writing talent. "He taught me when I was at Columbia University," she said, "and he made writing a possibility not only for me, but also for so many others."

Hempel said Lish was a master teacher who had the ability to pull the talent out of you. "He didn't necessarily see any talent in us, but he set standards for our work and if we had the nerve to try and attain them, then that's what he was interested in. That will to succeed was more important than talent."

Hempel has taught at a variety of colleges through the years. "I'm currently taking over Mary Gaitskill's class at Syracuse University," she said, "while Mary completes her story collection. I love teaching not because of how it helps me as a writer, but because it helps me as a reader. My students keep me timely about all the new authors I should be reading."

She admits that reading contemporary writers like Mary Robison and Barry Hannah always get her motivated to write. "I appreciate the classic writers, but when I find a new, exciting, cool writing voice that's what gets me to the computer to write."

Many of her stories are known for their offbeat sense of humor. "I've always put a premium on humor," she said. "I'm drawn to funny people. Funny people are highly intelligent so if my stories seem funny, I guess it's a compliment."

She's looking forward to the reading at the Writers Institute. "For many summers I've taught at the Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore," she said. "The writers I work with there, like Bill Kennedy, are my friends, so I'm looking forward to seeing some of them up in Albany."

Even though many major magazines are cutting way back on the fiction they publish, Amy Hempel thinks it's still a great time to write short stories. "There's definitely a readership out there," she said, "and there's some really cool literary magazines so the short story is definitely not dead by any means."

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