Authors astute observers of everyday life

By DONNA LIQUORI, Special to the Times Union
First published: Sunday, September 17, 2006

Details matter to writers Margot Livesey and Amy Hempel. It may be a Brit pondering the peculiarity of an American fire hydrant in a Livesey novel or the price of animal crackers at a highway rest area in a Hempel short story.

They're writers with different styles, who spend a lot of time absorbing everyday life and then knitting those details throughout their work to create texture and poignancy.

Livesey and Hempel will be the first writers to speak this fall at the New York State Writers Institute. They will participate in a joint reading at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the University at Albany in the Performing Arts Center at 1400 Washington Ave. Livesey also will conduct an informal seminar at 4:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Assembly Hall in the Campus Center.

Hempel is a renowned stylist often credited with defining minimalist fiction (there are 17 words in her shortest short story, "Memoir"). She builds her stories, profound sentence by profound sentence.

"They chose me," Hempel said of short stories. "It's the form that came naturally to me. Stories are what I always wanted to write. I never had a desire to write a novel, so I won't. I like everything a story can do. I like the focus, I like the way it can illuminate a defining moment. I like the shapes. It's what I most like to read, and what I have always loved writing." Livesey, a more traditional storyteller who has written five novels and a short story collection, propels her novels with complicated plots and fascinating characters via elegant, rolling sentences, often drawing on her native Scotland for material, history and rituals.

Both writers explore the painful reality of what it is like to be flawed and human. And both writers are astute observers of the details that otherwise go unnoticed.

"If it's good enough, if it interests me enough, I'll remember," said Hempel, who used to keep lists of trivia and pop culture references when she was first starting out. "If I forget, then it was forgettable."

She quoted the writer Barry Hannah to explain her fascination with the tidbits of pop culture and life: "He said sometimes he felt that other people and other writers were in the bleachers watching the big event and he was walking around under the bleachers scouting the things that got dropped through. The rest of the world had an overview and he had his underview. I kind of understand that.

"I like the small, quirky bits of information," Hempel said.

Turning to any story in "The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel," (Scribner; 403 pages; $27.50) and you might see Raisinets, Ping-Pong and learn that Petaluma is the chicken, egg and arm-wrestling capital of the nation, as in "Today Will Be a Quiet Day." Those details lead into a touching story about a father's relationship with his two kids. It begins as they are stranded on the Golden Gate Bridge in traffic on their way to a former gas station, renovated into a restaurant that names its burgers after cars.

Hempel gathers many of those bits as she drives, and this year she'll be commuting from New York City to Syracuse University to teach, taking over Mary Gaitskill's class temporarily. She also teaches at Bennington College's graduate writing program in Vermont.

"I do it for therapeutic reasons mostly," she said of driving. "I throw the dogs in the car and drive out to the ocean," said Hempel, whose passion for dogs is evident in a number of stories. "Restorative is a better word."

In "Jesus Is Waiting," a woman is driving through several states:

"The drive is determinedly a drive. Mostly it is just about the sounds of the car, of driving, of the fade-in and fade-out of the radio, the removal from everything but the moving body in a vehicle, of the is-ness of passing from here to there, of not being where you were, of Jesus waiting. Call it a meditation. Call it drone."

What really "sparks a novel" for Livesey, "is some intersection of my private obsessions and public interests."

In "Eva Moves the Furniture" (Picador, 2001), a personal longing helped Livesey construct a novel that took her over a decade to write. She used details about her mother, who died when the author was 2 1/2, to construct the story. She even gives the main character her mother's name.

Eva McEwen has the ability to see ghosts, which is based on stories about Livesey's mother. Two specters -- a woman and a young girl -- drop in on Eva in the story from time to time, often influencing the direction of the character's life.

"It was probably the most frustrating, most heartbreaking thing I wanted to write. It was a story I very much wanted to tell," she said. "In some small sense I wanted to bring her back to life."

Livesey, who grew up in the Scottish Highlands, finds many details while walking in Boston, where she is the writer in residence at Emerson College. Having lived in the United States for a number of years, she had grown used to the American terrain, so she asked friends who were visiting from Britain to point out what struck them as unusual when they first arrived in the United States. She used that American peculiarity in her most recent book, "Banishing Verona," (Picador, 2004) when Zeke, a British man, notices fire hydrants.

"He was outside a book shop when he spotted a metal effigy like the one he had seen from the taxi the day before. He bent down to examine the silver body and faded orange helmet with its snout and two stocky arms; even on closer inspection it seemed to have no obvious use. He stopped a passing boy and asked what it was."

Fire hydrants aren't the only things Livesey is on the lookout for -- overheard conversations drift past her own characters. Comments by sarcastic hotel clerks and even pesky ghosts float through Livesey's novels, adding texture and humor.

"I have always had my antennae out for things that might find their way into fiction. I'm often struck how interesting the world (is) and how sitting at one's desk it's easy for my imagination to become a bit impoverished," Livesey said.

"Walking down the street and going to a hardware shop or a cafe, I'm sort of reminded of how various and richly peopled the world is. So I do spend quite a bit of time -- I hope not being a voyeur -- but sort of being an observer."

Donna Liquori is a freelance writer from Delmar and a frequent contributor to the Times Union.

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Amy Hempel & Margot Livesey