Brevity's Also the Soul of Lit

 

Award-winning short story writer Amy Hempel teaches budding authors how to be selective observers.
It's been more than 20 years since the American short story was at the height of its popularity, but pity not Amy Hempel, who burst on the scene in 1985 and remains one of the form's brighter lights and more committed practitioners.

 

"Some people in publishing will still ask, 'Hey, great story, but have you got a novel?' " says Hempel, the coordinator of Brooklyn College's M.F.A. program in fiction. "I don't have any interest in writing a novel. You can't write to the marketplace. You just do what you do."

What Hempel does, what she's been doing for nearly three decades, is write some of the more luminous short fiction to be penned — minimalist, unsentimental, painfully observant — while teaching younger writers to find their own voices. She taught at Sarah Lawrence, Bennington and Princeton before taking over the graduate fiction program at Brooklyn last fall, succeeding Michael Cunningham, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Hours. No sooner had she settled into her new office in Boylan Hall than did Hempel find herself the recipient of the 2008 Rea Award for the Short Story, an annual $30,000 prize whose prior winners have included John Updike, Eudora Welty, Cynthia Ozick and Tobias Wolff.

Since her first collection, Reasons to Live, Hempel has published three more, followed by a volume of all her work that The New York Times Book Review named one of the 10 best books of 2006. "Hempel, I'd argue, knows as much as anyone since Kafka about the tendency of human beings to do much better at dreaming than living," the novelist Rick Moody wrote in an introduction to that collection.

The Rea Award jurors went Moody one better, comparing Hempel's work to Chekhov's. "Amy Hempel," they wrote, " is one of our masters of the dire emotional state rendered with an off-handedness that, combined with tenderness, results in fiction that's at once dispassionate and compassionate."

Hempel says her writing comes from the thing that's always interested her: "How do people get through things? How do you get through your life? I look for the same things, moments of great beauty, moments of great sadness that stick in your memory. And I'm interested in obsession, quite honestly. Extremes of behavior. There are so many kinds — some good, some damaging. That powers some of the best writing I can think of."

Hempel finds it easy to connect with her young students, despite the personal nature of what she teaches, or perhaps because of it. "I still have the same questions they have when I sit down to write," she says. "I have to remind myself of the very things I'm telling them. It's like we're all in this together. We're all trying to see better and hear better — to amplify the senses, which is an adjunct to good writing. 'Here's what anyone on the street might notice in this situation. Here's what novelist Don DeLillo noticed in this situation.' You can teach selectivity — don't report everything you see, report the single thing that tells you everything about it. There are ways to refine imagination. At the same time, you don't want to remove all the mysteries from it. There's something ineffable that you can't transfer."

What seems to transfer easily is the appeal of the short story among aspiring writers—whatever the state of the market for their work. "I think people continue to love stories," Hempel says. "I always find more students interested in writing stories than novels. There's the gratification — not quite instant, but quicker than a novel. Simple completion is important."

An Excerpt: Weekend

 

The game was called on account of dogs — Hunter in the infield, Tucker in the infield, Bosco and Boone at first base. First-grader Donald sat down on second base, and Kirsten grabbed her brother's arm and wouldn't let him have third to make his first run.

 

"Unfair!" her brother screamed, and the dogs, roving umpires, ran to third.

"Good power!" their uncle yelled, when Joy, in a leg cast, swung the bat and missed. "Now put some wood to it."

And when she did, Joy's designated runner, Cousin Zeke, ran to first, the ice cubes in his gin and tonic clacking like dog tags in the glass.

And when Kelly broke free from Kirsten and this time came in to make the run, members of the Kelly team made Tucker in the infield dance on his hind legs.

"It's not who wins — "their coach began, and was shouted down by one of the boys, "There's first and there's forget it."

Then Hunter retrieved a foul ball and carried it off in the direction of the river.

The other dogs followed — barking, mutinous.

 

* * *

Dinner was a simple picnic on the porch, paper plates in laps, the only conversation a debate as to which was the better grip for throwing shoes.

After dinner, the horseshoes were handed out, the post pounded in, the rules reviewed with a new rule added due to falling-down shorts. The new rule: Have attire.

The women smoked on the porch, the smoke repelling mosquitoes, and the men and children played on even after dusk when it got so dark that a candle was rigged to balance on top of the post, and was knocked off and blown out by every single almost-ringer.

Then the children went to bed, or at least went upstairs, and the men joined the women for a cigarette on the porch, absently picking ticks engorged like grapes off the sleeping dogs. And when the men kissed the women good night, and their weekend whiskers scratched the women's cheeks, the women did not think shave, they thought: stay.