By Abby Wargo
In Amy Hempel’s writing process, she writes the last line of a story first. This system has proved to work for her; in a career spanning 30 years, she has never ended up with a different last sentence than she started with.
Hempel came to read at the Rose O’Neill Literary House on Tuesday, March 27. She read multiple pieces of her short-short fiction, including “Doll Tornado,” “The Correct Grip,” “The Man in Bogotá,” and “Sing to It,” which is the titular work of her upcoming book.
In introducing Hempel, Dr. James Allen Hall, director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House and associate professor of English, said, “I always learn so much from an Amy Hempel story.”
Hempel, the author of four story collections and the editor of two anthologies, has been published in the New York Times Magazine, BOMB Magazine, and Tin House, among other places. She is the recipient of the Hobson Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship, and she is a newly elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Currently, she teaches at Stony Brook University, and has previously taught at Harvard, Princeton, NYU, Sarah Lawrence, and Bennington.
In addition to her creative work, Hempel helped found the Deja Foundation, which, according to their mission statement, offers direct assistance to support sustainable adoptions of dogs from high kill shelters.
The Literary House sold broadsides with an excerpt from Hempel’s short story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” and 100 percent of the proceeds went towards the Deja Foundation. Hempel promised to email contributors to the cause a photo of a dog who was saved via the foundation.
Hempel’s current project is geared towards writing post-collection stories. Within the last month, she has finished her second collection of stories.
“Which feels odd, because having collected stories is like, well, they’re good, so I don’t have to write any more,” she said.
After Hempel read from her fiction, she took questions from the audience and gave writing tips.
The way to know that you are finished with a piece, she said, is to go back to the beginning.
“You have to look at where you started and think, did I use that? What’s different now?”
She also addressed how she uses the first person in her fiction. Hempel’s narrators do not give personal details, but rather, “the ‘I’ narrator reveals herself by what she chooses to observe,” she said.
Hempel said that, when she is writing, she likes to re-read things that she loves for inspiration rather than looking to something new.
“I like to re-read things that will un-glue me,” she said.
Most of her main inspirations while writing her fiction are contemporary poets and poetry.
While her writing deals with emotions and uncomfortable themes sometimes, Hempel’s story “Full Service Dog Shelter” was the hardest story for her to write.
“It was excruciating, and hard not to become sentimental,” she said.
Eventually, she revised the point of view of the story, and then the rest flowed from there.
She ended by saying that writing was a cycle of repeating mistakes and then evolving and learning from them.