Reasons to Live, 1985
At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, 1990
Tumble Home: A Novella and Short Stories, 1997
Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs, 1995 (with Jim Shepard)
Amy Hempel is associated with minimalism, though she disparages the term, preferring that her short stories be referred to as “miniatures.” The daughter of Gardiner and Gloria Hempel, she has experienced much personal grief: the death of a close friend, her mother’s suicide, her father’s mental illness, and her own trauma in traffic accidents. Hempel once remarked in an interview that Gordon Lish, her creative writing instructor at Columbia University, greatly influenced her when he challenged students to strive for originality over creativity. Hempel maintained that creativity alone was not sufficient to produce art; for her, good writing must add something genuinely new to the world. Resisting pressure from publishers to write a novel, Hempel chose to write highly condensed, elliptical short fiction. Her short stories were published in important literary and cultural magazines and were widely anthologized.
Born in Chicago, when she was in third grade Hempel moved to Denver, Colorado, where she lived for eight years before moving to San Francisco. After living in California, she made her home in New York City. She attended Whittier College (1969-1971), San Francisco State University (1973-1974), and Columbia University (1981). She originally studied journalism and later worked as a contributing editor for several magazines. She also worked as a volunteer counselor for a crisis center. Hempel considered her twenties to be her “lost years,” though her friendships with actors in improvisational comedy groups during this period taught her about the aesthetic possibilities of using offbeat expression to render the absurd nature of human experience. She started writing short stories in her early thirties and taught in several prestigious writing programs.
Her first short-story collection, Reasons to Live, won both the Silver Medal for the Commonwealth Club of California and the Pushcart Prize. While not strictly autobiographical, the stories probed circumstances of unexpected pain and disaster that had parallels in Hempel’s life. Their sparse, seemingly idiosyncratic use of detail prompted many scholars and reviewers to identify Hempel’s work with minimalism, a style of writing that was not a movement as much as an attitude toward prose, shared by writers such as Raymond Carver and Mary Robison. Each of these authors’ fiction omitted explanatory detail in favor of creating moods that communicated the weird displacements of ordinary life.
The most famous story in Reasons to Live, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” was a direct response to a workshop exercise overseen by Lish: Students were to investigate a personal event that made them feel guilty, an event for which they believed they would never be absolved. The root of Hempel’s story was her perceived failure to respond adequately to the needs of a dying friend. Bound together with the common theme of loss, the stories in Reasons to Live established Hempel as an important new American writer.
Hempel often took some time away from fiction after completing a book, and during the late 1980’s she wrote journalistic pieces, many for The New York Times. One such newspaper article was a piece on the artist William Wegman and his dog Fay, whom he used as a model for his photography. Throughout her life, Hempel has had a strong love for animals and an intense interest in how they live their lives. In her youth, she worked as a veterinarian’s assistant; later, in her forties, she trained seeing-eye dogs for the blind. Hempel’s stories often pivot on animals or how humans react to them. After developing a rapport with Koko, a gorilla who used sign language to communicate, Hempel incorporated discoveries made by The Gorilla Language Project into her fiction.
Hempel’s second collection, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, continued her experimentation with very brief fiction. She considered the title story, which features a woman who constantly receives mental images of animal abuse from across the globe, to be her most overtly political text. One frequently anthologized story from the collection, “Harvest,” loosely based on an event in Hempel’s life, is a highly self-conscious treatment of what it means to fictionalize personal experience. At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom consolidated Hempel’s position as a major American writer of short fiction.
Tumble Home contains the longest piece of fiction Hempel has published to date, the novella which gives the collection its title. According to the author, the novella was paradoxically the most purely invented and the most deeply personal writing she had published. Taking the form of a letter from a young institutionalized woman (whose mother has committed suicide) written to a distinguished painter, the novella includes details that resonate with Hempel’s personal experience. Although the painter in the novel is fictional, Hempel drew upon artist Robert Motherwell’s writing to describe her created painter’s aesthetic philosophy. Hempel had met the celebrated American abstract expressionist when she was nineteen, an encounter that influenced her profoundly. Reviewers considered Tumble Home to exhibit a widening and maturation of Hempel’s style. Hempel won the Mary Frances Hobson Award for Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Letters in 2000.