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Amy Hempel does not enjoy interviews. She quotes her friend Patty Marx: “I’m not good at small talk; I’m not good at big talk; and medium talk just doesn’t come up.” Talking about the self is both unseemly and unnerving, she feels, and dissecting her own deliberate process of composition through, in her words, “pointy-headed questions,” tends to provoke her exasperation. This makes for an elusive interview. However, over a humid June weekend at her home last year, Hempel behaved as a polite and gracious host who pointed out the sights and chatted about movies, politics, and theories of pet care, but nonetheless wanted very much to be doing all of it away from the tape recorder. Talking about writing, in particular, meant noticing how Hempel loves to quote, at length, those friends and writers dearest to her—and how much she prefers their words to her own.
Born in 1951, Hempel grew up in Chicago and Denver before moving at sixteen to California, the inspiration for what would eventually become the extraordinary, unreal setting for her earliest fiction. She spent time in and around San Francisco until, over a two-year span, a series of significant events unfolded: her mother took her own life, her mother’s younger sister soon followed, she was injured in two massive auto accidents, and three years later, her best friend—a young woman who became well-known through Hempel’s most anthologized story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried”—died from leukemia.
In 1975, Hempel moved to New York City, worked through a couple of publishing jobs, then located a nighttime writing class at Columbia with Gordon Lish, a writer and editor at Knopf whose demanding workshops (Tactics of Fiction) became legendary. Their classes together would mark the start of a long professional relationship, resulting in the 1985 publication of her first book, a brilliantly stylized array of short pieces entitled Reasons to Live. At a time when short stories were a publishing standard, hers were an immediate success. She wrote for Vanity Fair and The New York Times Magazine. She taught classes across the country. In 1990, Hempel brought out her second collection, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. which, in her words, saw her “branching out from grief to fear.” Seven years later, confirming a pattern of taking a long time to write short stories, she returned with Tumble Home. a book that put her formal considerations—the packed sentence, the mutability of voice, the suggestive and highly condensed moment—to use in the title novella, her longest work to date.
Hempel recently returned to New York City after five years in Bridgehampton, New York; at the time of this interview she was temporarily in Cold Spring, New York, living in an isolated, modern, one-story wooden house near a lake. Around the house were photographs by William Wegman. Moving boxes. In a sunroom facing a corner was a handsome antique library table. On its surface were the following: a ceramic three-headed dog, a Southwestern lamp, a copy of the Star tabloid, books by Walter Kirn and Denis Johnson, fragments of dialogue written in longhand on typing paper, letters from writer friends, an empty silver box the size of a pickle, to-do notes, and a beautifully framed photo of Hempel raising a glass of wine with her two brothers, Gardiner and Peter. There in the country, her newly installed directv wasn’t working, and the only alternative, a VCR, was missing a cable.
There’s a theory I was curious if you agreed with, that writers invariably come from formative experiences where language, in some way, meant power.
Oh, I have a form of that, I’d say. I had a mother I could only seem to please with verbal accomplishments of some sort or another. She read constantly, so I read constantly. If I used words that might have seemed surprising at a young age, she would recognize that and it would please her. We could talk about what we read—that was safe territory. This was the way I had a chance of getting her approval. Language. Language and literature.
I can’t remember much of it. Jane Eyre. I read whatever you read when you’re a girl. The Brontës. The Secret Garden. I read the books in my parents’ library that were beyond me, just enjoying being a reader, acting the part the way, as a kid, you see yourself someday carrying a briefcase and going to an office and maybe picking up a paycheck, but you can’t quite see yourself working .
Was there a writer who alerted you to the fact that writing was an actual job?
No, no. It was just there. The two things that were always there were reading and animals. I wanted to be a veterinarian, but slipped up when I hit organic chemistry. I started writing by doing small related things but not the thing itself, circling it and getting closer. I had no idea how to write fiction. So I did journalism because there were rules I could learn. You can teach someone to write a news story. They might not write a great one, but you can teach that pretty easily. How to write a lead and so on. I had some kind of aptitude for that apparently. But fiction.
Yes, but I didn’t know any. And it didn’t occur to me that I could do it. It was intimidating.
There are connections between what became your style and journalism—a number of journalistic ideas.
Right. Moving to fiction was a straight transition—journalism was great training, as it turned out, because you have to grab readers instantly and keep them. I knew how to do that, and it happened to work very well in fiction. I hadn’t been a good reporter because I didn’t care about getting the story before the general public had it. I didn’t care about being the first one on the scene, the first one at the accident. I also started to feel the limitations. Obviously, in journalism, you’re confined to what happens. And the tendency to embellish, to mythologize, it’s in us. It makes things more interesting, a closer call. But journalism taught me how to write a sentence that would make someone want to read the next one. You are trained to get rid of anything nonessential. You go in, you start writing your article, assuming a person’s going to stop reading the minute you give them a reason. So the trick is: don’t give them one. Frontload and cut out everything extraneous. That’s why I like short stories. You’re always trying to keep the person interested. In fiction, you don’t need to have the facts up front, but you have to have something that will grab the reader right away. It can be your voice. Some writers feel that when they write, there are people out there who just can’t wait to hear everything they have to say. But I go in with the opposite attitude, the expectation that they’re just dying to get away from me.
I wanted to do something that involved books, I didn’t know what, but I knew you had to go to New York to do it. So I got an entry-level publishing job, and worked in a couple publishing houses. I booked author tours for Robin Cook and Hank Williams, Jr. I wrote press releases. I used to define a press release as what falls out of a reviewer’s copy on its way to the Strand.
Before New York City, you lived in California. What was that like?
I didn’t get it. I didn’t know how to navigate. I was on my own, didn’t understand anything, and didn’t know what to do with all of it. I first went to San Francisco, drove with a friend when I was fifteen and just graduated from high school outside Chicago. I went to join my family, which had moved there while I was a senior. San Francisco was odd. I was just sort of on my own in the late sixties. Wandered in and out of different “scenes,” the Haight-Ashbury stuff, concerts in Golden Gate Park, the Dead, Jefferson Airplane; all very beautiful. But it was difficult. A lot of very difficult things happened out there to the people around me, but the place was so beautiful. Such terrible things were happening in this beautiful place. There were serial murders, the Zodiac and Zebra murders happened when I was there. Harvey Milk was assassinated and Mayor Moscone. There was Jim Jones and the Peoples’ Temple; that led to the mass suicides in Jonestown, in Guyana. A bomb blew up in the Iranian consulate, around the corner from where I lived, on the two thousandth birthday of the Shah of Iran—it blew windows out for blocks.
Just journals. Things I didn’t want to forget. And some journalism. Not very much. I did a little medical reporting in L.A. I didn’t start writing fiction until I was in my late twenties when I took Gordon Lish’s workshop at Columbia.
At Esquire in the seventies and, later, at Knopf, he was publishing the voices that interested me most. I felt allied with his choices, so he was the one I wanted to work with. Writers like Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Mary Robison. These were the three who had the most effect on me when I started.
They didn’t sound like anyone else I had read. For me, they redefined what a story could be—the thing happening off to the side of the story other writers were telling; they would start where someone else would leave off, or stop where someone else would start. As Hannah said later in Boomerang. a lot of people have their overview, whereas he has his “underview,” scouting “under the bleachers, for what life has dropped.”
Vividly. The assignment was to write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon put it, “dismantles your own sense of yourself.” And everybody knew instantly what that thing, for them, was. We found out immediately that the stakes were very high, that we were expected to say something no one else had said, and to divulge much harder truths than we had ever told or ever thought to tell. No half-measures. He thought any of us could do it if we wanted it badly enough. And that, when I was starting out, was a great thing to hear from someone who would know.
What was, if you can say, your “worst secret”?
I failed my best friend when she was dying. It became the subject of the first story I wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.”
You stayed on in his workshop as a student for years. You must have been repeatedly humbled.
I felt humbled by realizing how hard the job was. How hard it is to write a moving, worthwhile, memorable story. But more often I was inspired. It turned out that one of the most helpful things I did without knowing it would be helpful later was hang out with stand-up comics in San Francisco. I went to their shows night after night after night. I watched them performing, working through the same material. I saw some nights it killed and other nights it bombed. All that time I was observing nuance, inflection, timing, how the slightest difference mattered. How the littlest leaning on a word—or leaning away from it—would get the laugh, and this lesson was so valuable. And the improv work—they called it “being human on purpose,” this falling back on the language in your mouth—was hugely important. Just listening to what you’re saying. I learned this when my late friend Morgan Upton, an actor and member of the Committee, took me to a Steve Martin show at the Boarding House in San Francisco. Back in the green room, Steve Martin was sick, but preparing to do his show anyway. I told him I admired that, I said I couldn’t go out there and make people laugh if I were sick. And he said, Don’t be silly—you couldn’t do it if you were well. A brilliant reply on any number of levels. I based an early story, “Three Popes Walk into a Bar,” on that night. Then I ran into him about twenty years later and reminded him of our exchange. He laughed and said, “It sounds mean!” But I thought it was great.
Can you talk more about your influences? Grace Paley, in particular, seems like a strong one, especially around the time of the early stories, like “In a Tub.”
It was important for me to know about Paley just before I started writing. To hear her voice. And that was thrilling. It wasn’t just about telling a story, it was about that voice. She’s one of the great voices, and one of the great hearts. “A Subject of Childhood.” God.
Her style is a clear antecedent to yours. What about someone like Tillie Olsen, whom you’ve described in similar terms?
Yes. I love “I Stand Here Ironing,” and I always use it when I teach because it’s such a technical feat—the way the story keeps opening up, following directly from the first line, from what is troubling this child, to her family, to many struggling families, to a nation in the Depression, and back to the original child, the last line answering the first line. It’s so well made. There are many stories I admire or keep rereading because they are technical feats in addition to the tremendous emotional power they have over me. That was one of them. But the writer who did that the most for me when I started, who really turned on the lights, was Mary Robison.
Yes. I think the most recent, brilliant use of breaks and selectivity and many other things is in her novel Why Did I Ever. I think you can learn almost everything you need to know about writing from that novel.
The whole book is an example. The whole book is it. But I can point to things in other work that stand out. In terms of selectivity, I think of her story “Pretty Ice.” Where a lesser writer would describe a character by saying, He had brown hair and was six foot five, Mary’s character says, My father had been dead for fourteen years, but I resented my mother’s buying a car in which he would not have fitted. This tells you the kind of person the narrator is, how she sees the world. I’m very partial to this idea of defining a person from outside, through the action of another. In an early story I wrote, “Pool Night,” I was trying to find a way to convey a boy’s appeal. Instead of saying something about him, I pointed to his effect on the girls who knew him. So that the point was made like this: “I knew girls who saved his chewed gum.”
You’ve said that one of your commitments in writing is strict attention to the individual sentence.
Yes. Writing conducted at the sentence level has always made perfect sense to me. Allan Gurganus put it very well. He was sitting on a panel on the novel with Stanley Elkin and several others, and there was all this talk about theories of novels and he said, There are those of us who are still loyal at the level of the sentence. That’s the great attraction and motivation. That’s what gets me in, writing or reading. Though it’s unlikely you’ll write something nobody has ever heard of, the way you have a chance to compete is in the way you say it. Now I’ve been writing for almost twenty years, and I still feel the same way. That is how I assemble stories—me and a hundred million other people—at the sentence level. Not by coming up with a sweeping story line.
You’ve said you can’t bear to have a bad sentence in front of you.
I always have in mind certain sentences friends have written, and I try to pull myself up with them. There is the extraordinary large-heartedness of the late Christopher Coe, dying of AIDS when he wrote, “It was possible to love life, without loving your life.” Or a similar construction from Jim Shepard, “It was possible to have kinds of homecoming without home.” I think of Gary Lutz’s all-new sentences; for example, where a lesser writer might have a divorced narrator say he has custody of his son twice a month, Gary writes, “I was in receipt of the mothered-down version of the kid every other Saturday.” I think of Rick Barthelme using a natural wonder turned tourist attraction as a verb, saying that a place in the desert had been Carlsbad Caverned. I think of Rick Moody’s italics retrieving trash language; Pearson Marx amplifying musings on romance to the level of philosophy—“It is as cruel to deprive a person of doubt as it is to deprive a person of hope”—Julia Slavin reviving metaphors and clichés by taking them literally, so that a “consuming passion” becomes a woman who swallows the lawn boy. I think of the first sentence of Gordon Lish’s story “Frank Sinatra or Carleton Carpenter,” and the incantatory effects of repetition: “The man who stood, who stood on sidewalks, who stood facing streets, who stood with his back against store windows or against the walls of buildings, never asked for money, never begged, never put his hand out.”
That must create an agonizing standard, moment to moment, at the desk. Don’t you ever fall back on ordinary, connective-tissue language?
Oh, sometimes you just want to, you know, “talk it out.” Everything must not be fussed over. Sometimes a flat-footed sentence is what serves, so you don’t get all writerly: “He opened the door.” There, it’s open .
One thing I have learned is that I can get interesting results if I start at the point of most contentment, the most satisfying moment, instead of the most jeopardy. The idea is to overturn an expectation, maybe the expectation of drama, of coming up against something. So the question becomes: what does calm feel like? And how can you make it compelling? In these cases the writing becomes sensate in a different way—you put a slight polish on what is ordinary. The first story I ended up doing that way was “The Rest of God” in At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. I was just describing a happy day. But then, of course, I couldn’t completely get away from habits; the story contains a close call. A couple almost drowns. But they don’t drown. And they go on to have a very lovely picnic. The sculptor Elyn Zimmerman did this in her Palisades Project in 1981. She proposed putting a huge strip of polished granite on the west bank of the Hudson River, over the craggy stone of the palisades. In the proposal, you see the palisades as we know them, divided by a ribbon of stone polished to reflect the sky above and water below. It’s simple, beautiful, thrilling.
You once said that place was probably the most important aspect of your writing. Has that changed?
I’m not sure why, but I’ve felt most comfortable the last few years being in motion. Not one place, not another, but in-between. I’ve put a hundred thousand miles on my car in just under two years. Just back and forth. Some people make transitions very easily, and I apparently don’t. I have to work up to them. There’s a poem by Yevtushenko that reads:
Let my nerves be strained
between the city of No
That’s a pretty good description of my life the past few years.
I just realized how often your stories begin in motion and dispense with transitions. Why is that?
Transitions are usually not that interesting. I use space breaks instead, and a lot of them. A space break makes a clean segue whereas some segues you try to write sound convenient, contrived. The white space sets off, underscores, the writing presented, and you have to be sure it deserves to be highlighted this way. If used honestly and not as a gimmick, these spaces can signify the way the mind really works, noting moments and assembling them in such a way that a kind of logic or pattern comes forward, until the accretion of moments forms a whole experience, observation, state of being. The connective tissue of a story is often the white space, which is not empty. There’s nothing new here, but what you don’t say can be as important as what you do say. I think my favorite compliment that I got from a writer early on was someone saying to me, You leave out all the right things. That was wonderful to hear. To know you’ve given your reader credit for being able to understand without you having to say it. In “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” when the narrator heads for the gift shop to buy her dying friend a gift, the sick girl says to get her anything, anything but a magazine subscription. No need to explain why.
That story was in your first collection, Reasons to Live. When it came out in 1985, you got lumped with writers who had a certain tag on them—minimalist. Did you mind?
The term had meaning in the art world, but quickly became meaningless and pejorative when applied to literature. It came to denote what certain reviewers felt was missing in fiction—conventional plot or obvious emotion, for example. I had the sense that these reviewers who leaned on the term felt that certain ones of us were getting away with something. Some of these critics had a very limited sense of what story could be.
Years ago, Lenny Michaels was publishing some really fine short-short paragraph-long stories in good literary magazines. And I asked him if he took some heat from people who thought they weren’t really stories. He said, “You tell them what a story is. They don’t know.” This corroborated what I already suspected. It harkens back to the way you examine experience. Some writers have a more defined sense of cause and effect. Plot. My sense of life is more moment, moment, and moment. Looking back, they accrue and occur to you at a certain time and maybe you don’t know why, but you trust that they are coming back to you now for a reason. And you make a leap of faith. You trust you can put these moments together and create story.
Doesn’t that leap imply a good deal of mystery? If you begin with something small, a line or an object, and if neither you nor the reader knows what’s behind it, doesn’t mystery become the point of writing the story?
But I do know what’s behind it. Only I don’t like having anything spelled out. Of course, mystery is not vagueness. Mystery is controlled. It involves information meted out only as needed. Tim O’Brien used to say that stories are not explanations. Certainly if you teach writing you see that some students think they are. They feel they haven’t made their point clearly enough so near the end of the story there will come an extremely spelled-out emblematic section. I not only don’t want the explanation, I want the mystery. I wrote a very short story called “Celia Is Back,” in which a man comes unglued in front of his two children while filling out sweepstakes applications. His unraveling assumes an initially benign form—he gets carried away answering the sweepstakes questionnaire, making less and less sense—until his children get frustrated and then alarmed, and then angry. Anger is stronger than fear, so you typically get angry at the thing that frightens you. At the end, when he is en route to his “appointment,” presumably a doctor, he finds assurance that all will be well in a sign in a beauty salon that he passes, announcing the return of one of their hairdressers. What’s wrong with him? What will happen to him and his children? That is left open at the end; that doesn’t interest me. I wanted to show what a breakdown might look like to children, where the deviation is just off center, and by underplaying it, it became more menacing.
When Reasons to Live came out, the so-called renaissance of the short story was taking place. There was an atmosphere of writers emerging from behind an experimental school of fiction that was fully aware of its own exhaustion. Critics compared what you were doing with the lost generation of the twenties. I was curious about any connection you might see in philosophy or style.
Carver was a Hemingway fan and Carver became a great influence in the eighties and into the nineties on almost everything. I admired him, hugely, but that’s the only connection I make myself. I can never speak for other writers, except to say simply that good writers are always trying to get to something clearer, deeper, not said this way before. Gordon used to ask us in class, Why would you want to add to what’s already in the world? We didn’t and that was the job. Ultimately you write the way you can write. Someone once complimented Carver on a story, and he modestly said, It’s what I can do. I always thought that was a lovely thing to say, and accurate. Barry Hannah’s version was, Be master of such as you have.
Was your novella, “Tumble Home,” an intentional broadening of scope? Did you know as you wrote it that it was going to be, by your standards, long?
I’d written a sentence. Then I wrote a second sentence. Instantly I knew this would be something much longer. It’s not the sentence that appears first in the novella, but the first one after the space break: “The trees are all on crutches.” That line. I knew it had a feel to it that was longer, and bigger, and my heart sank.
It was never a goal of mine to write a novel. I thought the demands of a novel were beyond me, and that I would not be up to it. And I wasn’t! I wrote a novella. I was perfectly happy continuing to do stories.
But why do you think the demands of a novel are greater than what you do? I think the short form is incredibly demanding.
I do too. But I understand it. And I don’t understand the novel. The amount of stuff to hold in mind, the number of things you have to keep bringing forward over time I found entirely daunting. How do you keep everything a novel requires in your head? A friend of mine was about three-fourths done with her novel when she realized she had two characters named Bob in it. That’s the kind of thing that would happen to me.
The structure of “Tumble Home” breaks away from a strictly logical progression to a more intuitive, emotional movement. Was it freeing, at all?
Well—yes. I’d never quite worked that way before, never trusted that things would connect on such a large scale. In Eric Pankey’s poem “Sortilege” there’s a line that goes, “He opens a book at random and consults randomness.” Or remember that popular book years ago, Future Shock. by Alvin Toffler? There’s one line that I remember: only the flexible will survive. When I was younger in San Francisco and moved something like twenty-six times in four years—now I seem in danger of doing it again—the way I characterized it was “activity without action.” It’s a waste of time. It doesn’t get you anywhere. Mine was an extreme exercise in flexibility, I guess. But these kinds of moves go to the heart of how I defined myself, and what I needed around myself to know who I was. You look back with perspective and see a pattern. It was like that with “Tumble Home.”
I’ve always had three or four actual people in mind that I would want to win over: my editors—Nan Graham published Tumble Home and her involvement had a profound effect on my work—Mary Robison, Grace Paley, for example. It’s different for everyone. If you have a reader in mind, fine. If you don’t, fine. It helps me to think of actual people I would love to entertain or surprise. In the beginning, I think maybe I started trying to reach people who didn’t take me seriously (and I’m going way back in time). Later, that ceased to be a motivation. When I started taking myself seriously.
I think when the first book, Reasons to Live. came out. But in a way, it didn’t change anything. You’re still you with your life, book or no book. But it did give me an object to point to and say, I did that.
At the time I was using it somewhat ironically, because the reasons were, you know, small. And then as time passed I came to feel differently. It’s a very satisfying title, without irony.
In that book you began a kind of signature, using the peripheral figure, one commenting on the action between others and detached from the goings-on.
No, no—the peripheral figure is anything but detached. On the periphery you feel a little more because you’re on the edge. I remember going to these huge rock concerts in San Francisco in the seventies and I’d be on the edge, not watching the performer but the people watching the performer. Much more interesting.
Observation is clearly a big part of your working process.
I don’t feel I have a particularly large imagination, but I do have some powers of observation. Part of it stems from training as a reporter, when you’re trained to see the salient points of any situation and see them fast. I can select the one thing that will tell you the most about a character, but this is just from looking around, not from thinking it up. Recently I overheard someone say that she had given a friend of hers a ladder. The gift of a ladder. The reason was that the friend was a woman who’d just been widowed, and her late husband had been very tall. I’m sure I made a note of that.
Early on, yes, I made notes of things, scraps, sentences I heard and might want to do something with. As time passed, I pretty much stopped doing that because I just figured if it was good enough, I’d remember it. And if I didn’t, that was that.
Your stories often approach a topic sideways, or through humor. It’s like asking yourself, Well, as long as I can see the absurdity, how bad can it truly be?
There’s something to that. It’s certainly a gift to see irony in things. George Plimpton once asked Philip Roth if his work was influenced by the stand-up comedy of Lenny Bruce. Roth said it was more influenced by a sit-down comic named Franz Kafka and a funny bit he did called “The Metamorphosis.” A friend pointed out—shortly after September 11—that now every apartment building in New York City could truthfully advertise itself as “prewar.” A mind that is trained, or tuned, to see that side of things will keep finding it no matter what happens.
Stanley Elkin said humor tends to come from helplessness.
I don’t know how to answer that because I don’t feel detached doing it. It doesn’t make sense to me. If anything, it seems highly engaged. When Barry Hannah describes the feelings of a man for his wife as “an embattled apathy each morning goaded into mere courtesy,” you see that he has an intimate understanding of that marriage. A more extreme version is “Mr. and Mrs. North,” a story by Gordon in which a husband and wife wake up each morning and enact the “connubial symphony” of vomiting into mixing bowls at the side of their bed.
But there’s a delay in many of your stories that seems to suggest a certain pressure, a genuine dread or unwillingness to get to the point. The thing you must speak of but can’t just yet.
I would call this a narrative strategy. Gordon used to say in workshop that there are two kinds of pressure. “I have to tell you this,” or “whatever I do, I can’t tell you this.” It’s like if you have a secret you’re dying to tell somebody, you almost want the person to pull it out of you. That can propel a story.
It takes me getting a line—and if it interests me enough I come back to it. A line or a highly charged image, or an unusual realization. At one time in my life I knew five people who had all been pronounced clinically dead. I was working as a volunteer counselor for people who were dying or had just lost someone. And I thought, What if they formed a club?—these people who had died. This was the start of “The Day I Had Everything,” featuring a woman who “died ten years ago; she can’t stop talking about it.” I included the man I had met who “died” on the operating table and sheepishly admitted he couldn’t remember what it was like, saying, I slept right through it!
You’ve quoted an opening line by Mark Richard in his story “Strays” as an example of what first lines can dictate. It begins, “At night, stray dogs come up underneath our house to lick our leaking pipes.”
Yes. Everything he’s going to talk about in that story is in that first line. Our. Dogs. House. There’s a version of that in “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” The opener contains the whole story: “Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting.” Why? Because I’m not going to be around, so what do we talk about? Trivia. The whole time trying to forget the fact of what’s happening. Or the first line in “Tom-Rock Through the Eels”: “Are you here for all the things that I don’t have?” This because I went into a hardware store in San Francisco shortly after my mother died and the clerk had a sale advertised and sold out of everything quickly. People kept coming in to ask him for things he didn’t have any more. He came up and asked me that very question and it was one of these bolts—that was the whole story of my mother and me.
That rules out the labor of piling up pages in order to locate a topic.
If you don’t have anything to say, then I think you shouldn’t say it. Oddly, I’ve always known the first and last lines when I start—I didn’t set out to do that, it just happened—and I needed to know where the story ended. Those few times I tried starting without the last line in mind, it didn’t work.
If you know the first and last lines, the bookends, then the obvious question is: What pulls you through? How do you build the stuff in the middle?
I can’t analyze a lot of it past a certain point. I don’t even want to. It should promote mystery and it’s boring if you can take something apart all the way. It’s partly intuitive, trusting the reader, and that’s a strange thing if you’re teaching, since students always want to know how you made this thing—but stories are logical. It’s one of the useful things to keep in mind. Stories. Are. Logical. I was working on a story, “Weekend,” in which a guy is playing baseball, running the bases with his gin and tonic, and the game is getting interrupted all the time by dogs. I had written “the ice cubes in his gin and tonic clacking like castanets in his glass.” I liked the assonance of clacking , castanets , glass. but I remember my editor circled the word castanets. The minute he circled it I blurted out, Dog tags! Because they’re playing baseball with roaming dogs, it’s much more pleasing. If I’d been paying attention, I might have hit upon that one before castanets. It’s the principle of recursion, something I learned in the Columbia workshop years ago: You do what you do because of what is prior.
In “Tom-Rock Through the Eels,” there’s an unusual stylistic device: a litany of different mothers that pops up near the end as an extension of the first line.
You’re right, but it’s twofold. “Are you here for all the things that I don’t have” was my relationship with my mother. Not that she withheld things from me; they just weren’t there to give. That was sort of a sad but interesting thing. A story. My mother had killed herself, and one year later her younger sister killed herself. Their mother, not surprisingly, went into a depression and had electroshock therapy, which helped, but which knocked out some of her memory. So my grandmother called me and asked me to help her remember the “good times” with my mother. In fact, I didn’t have any. So instead I called on things I liked about my friends’ mothers. I gave them to her as though they were memories of her daughter. At the moment she asked me to do this I was fully aware of what an amazing thing was being presented to me. So I was there for all the things she didn’t have. And my grandmother wanted all the things I didn’t have, the good memories. That’s where that came from.
And you were fully aware your grandmother couldn’t tell the difference between real and invented memories?
You don’t speak a great deal about your family. But the subject inspires some curiosity if only because you pull so much from observation, and often use as a starting point something drawn from real life. Is the sibling set-up in many of your stories, like “The Lady Will Have the Slug Louie” or “Today Will Be a Quiet Day” drawn from real life?
If there’s a brother in a story of mine, and that brother says something witty, chances are one of my real brothers said it. The cool father in “Today Will Be a Quiet Day”—my father.
The running joke with my brothers is that my books should come with an eight hundred number. 1-800-find-out. The idea being that they have no idea what I’m talking about.
Does structuring a story that takes its departure from real life pose some technical problems? Doesn’t the real event impose its own parameters?
Of course. And also because if you’re writing about something that actually happened, you tend to include things that have no place in the story, until you let it do what it needs to do. My favorite illustration of this process comes from the artist William Wegman. Years ago I wrote about his work for The New York Times Magazine. I went up to one of his studios, just built in the Hudson Valley. The floors were of light-colored wood covered in a kind of abstract floral pattern in green. They looked very striking and I asked how he had achieved the effect. He told me that his dog Fay kept getting in the way of the workmen so he had tied her outside on the deck. But she would break free and go back inside and get in the way again. After this had happened a couple of times, he stopped trying to impose his will and direct the course of events. Instead, he painted the bottoms of her feet green and let her loose inside. He let her do what she needed to do, instead of insisting on the form he felt it should take. And he achieved a successful result.
In the form of your story “The Harvest” that was published you wrote about the motorcycle accident that left you hospitalized; you placed the “true” account alongside the fictional account.
Yes. In the case of “The Harvest” I wrote the first part as fiction. Then in the aftermath I wondered why, in fact, I’d changed what actually happened when writing it as a story. A few weeks later I gave Gordon, who was then editor of The Quarterly. an addendum that he published in the “Letters to the Editor” section. It deconstructed the story, pointed to everything I had changed from the way it really happened, and why. When it came time to put the collection together, we simply felt they belonged together. Now—I could have written a third version about everything I had modified in the “real” version. Point being, you can’t help mythologizing your own experience. It comes naturally. Even when you’re not trying, you keep asking why a huge, dramatic event can’t be told the same way and work on the page. Like Degas saying he didn’t paint what he saw, but painted what enabled another to see what he saw. That’s from a Jack Gilbert poem.
No, I do most of it in my head, before a sentence hits the page. There’s no method. There’s no formula. If you really proceed a sentence at a time, if you pay attention to the sentence you just wrote and look to it for the clue for what to do to the next sentence, you can inch your way along to what may be a story. This wouldn’t have occurred to me starting out, for example, when I thought you wrote one sentence, then just looked out to the world trying to snag the next one. That’s not how it works. You look back at what you gave yourself to work with. Sharon Olds said something beautiful about sometimes thinking of her poems as instructions for how to put the world back together if it were destroyed. Or another way of doing it—to live in the “two landscapes” of that Charles Wright poem. “One that is eternal and divine / and one that’s just the back yard.”
You’ve said if you weren’t doing this, you’d rather be a poet.
If I could, I would. Really, I think I’m “influenced” by certain poets more than fiction writers. Sharon Olds, Jack Gilbert. I like Billy Collins. Mark Doty and James Dickey. John Rybicki. Dean Young, Marie Howe, Edward Hirsch, Richard Howard, Russell Edson.
Is it part of your impulse to make stories strive for cohesion, from language to logic, to how an image develops?
I think so. An influence, too—on that topic—is music. Often I’ve started a story knowing the beat, the rhythm of the first line or first paragraph, but without knowing what the words are. I’ll be doing the equivalent of humming a tune over and over again and then this tune will be translated into a sentence. So I might be thinking, da -da-da -da-da -da-dada da, that’ll become, “Tell me things I won’t mind forget ting,” which is the first line of “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.” And I trust that. There’s something visceral about the musical quality of a sentence. I often end stories that way too. I’ll know what sound I want, and know what I don’t want. Not gentle, maybe something else, and I’ll go at it that way, which is a lot of fun. It can be about where the stress falls. If you get a masculine ending in a sentence where the stress hits the final syllable of the word, it just holds more strongly to the page. So that you get “and wait ” instead of “and waiting .” There’s less trailing off.
You can call up emotions with the sound of words, no matter what the words mean. You can really get under someone’s skin that way, especially if you’re writing about something upsetting in words that soothe. There’s the famous Philip Larkin poem that gets a good deal if its impact from a rhythm like children jumping rope, jarringly contrasting with the words: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. ”
Is music still an influence? What do you listen to?
I have a great tape of old blues singers recorded in Yazoo City, Mississippi, that I got down in Oxford at the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at Ole Miss. It’s called Bothered All the Time. I like Jimmy Reed, Big Maybelle, Dorothy Love Coates, a lot of singers from the old Stax/Volt series, the early Verve recordings, a lot of Southern blues, Chicago blues. What I like about this music, well, it’s the difference between holding a note longer than a commercial singer would hold it or putting the stress on it in a place where a commercial singer wouldn’t. An unexpected place. Barry Hannah has this great comment about how Bob Dylan can’t sing but he has the desperation of not being able to sing, which is better than Glenn Campbell, who can sing. That’s what it is. What affects you is hearing the attempt at a note, it’s more moving than someone hitting the note perfectly. So you feel in writing maybe you can create a certain effect by going for a certain kind of language and not making it. In my short-short story “In a Tub,” the narrator goes to a church and says, “It was as quiet as a church.” Instead of making the reach and doing the writerly thing, you just say, You know what, it’s as quiet as a church.
Because I don’t understand the line. The sentence, yes, but not the line or line breaks. The last time I tried to write a poem, it sounded better as a paragraph of prose. That paragraph is in my first published story, and it pleased me enormously that this paragraph was often quoted in reviews and, to my knowledge, every reviewer who quoted it did so in its entirety—so I felt it was recognized as something. But it’s as close as I’ve come. And it was better as prose. I was talking to Sharon Olds a few years ago, writing a piece about her. We were in a restaurant in downtown New York, and she looked at the building across the street. “I look at that,” she said, “and I see wall window wall win dow, wall. ” She saw metric apartments. I mean, this wasn’t something she set out to do. seeing this way; it was just so much a part of her.
Was “Housewife”—your shortest piece, a single sentence—written as a poem? “She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, ‘French film, French film.’”
Oh, no—I had the line. And I thought it was the first line of a story for about two years. Then I thought, Either I’m really dumb and can’t think of anything else to say, or it’s done. Dumb or done.
You volunteer at Guiding Eyes for the Blind. How many dogs have you owned in your life?
I’ve had six of my own. And many, many, many foster dogs. I started working at Guiding Eyes because dogs were my great passion, and that had nothing to do with writing—part of why it was so appealing at that time, and naturally it became the next thing I did write about, both in fiction and nonfiction, because the people involved in this world, as well as the dogs, I found tremendously moving and funny and inspiring. There’s a book I’m very fond of, a memoir by an Australian woman of the last century, Elizabeth Von Arnim, called All the Dogs of My Life. She said, Looking back, how was it that there were such long periods during which I wasn’t making some good dog happy? That’s exactly how I feel.
In 1995 you co-edited the anthology Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs. where somehow you got people like Arthur Miller and Edward Albee to write poems in the voices of their dogs. How exactly did this happen?
It grew out of something friends and I were doing to entertain ourselves. Mark Richard started everything with Bob Shacochis, writing poems for their dogs one New Year’s Eve fishing in the Florida Keys. We traded them back and forth; Mark sent them to me, I’d write one and send it to Jim Shepard, who’d write one for his dog, they’d circulate and then at some point, Jim and I said, These are pretty funny, we should solicit some and collect them. We did, and gave half the profits from the book to animal-welfare agencies.
The title story in At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom has to do with a problem that afflicts many people who work as advocates for animals. That was the only story I wrote that was in any way political at the outset. I really mistrust that, going into a piece to get something across, a message; it can be the kiss of death. Good idea for an essay, lousy idea for a story. I remember reading The Paris Review interview with Francine du Plessix Gray. She was asked if writers have an obligation to be political. She said writers have an obligation to write well. So I went in there with an idea, which I never do. But I was terribly upset about the mistreatment of animals around the world and belonged to all these organizations and signed petitions and mailed checks—it was never enough. A) I wanted that known in fiction and B) I did not have an answer to the question: What do you do when your own knowledge of terrible situations starts to sink you? Because it is not useful. It does not help. How can you possibly crawl out from being paralyzed by the scale of something like that, and do what you can? Without being destroyed by the horror of what you know? I used to go to animal-rights conventions. Invariably there would be somebody in the audience who would ask a version of that question, since it was what we all wondered. Coming unglued from sympathy, covering your eyes, bursting into tears at this photograph doesn’t help. It doesn’t help get anything done.
You teach a fair amount, at the Bennington Writing Seminars and at Sewanee. Do you find it helpful to your own work? Is it settling?
It doesn’t facilitate my writing, but it probably keeps me reading more than I might otherwise. I like the matchmaking aspect of teaching, pointing people to the books they didn’t know they needed; I like dispatching limited notions of what a story can be; I like seeing someone get it—suddenly, finally—and the charge of that.
I used to write only at night. All night, with a Walkman on. Did that for the first book. Much of the second book. Now there’s too much I have to get done in the day. You try not to be precious about it. An average day includes around two hours of writing writing, about six miles of dog walking (which also counts as writing), a lot of time on E-mail, a movie, some forensics shows, and CNN to see what I missed.
So is there a process where you store up, gestate, let something build?
Yes. And that’s writing. Staying open for business, as Gordon used to say. Listening for story, as Eudora Welty put it. My Bennington colleague Jill McCorkle, who’s from Lumberton, North Carolina, can’t help but find stories in her own immediate experience. I remember her saying to me by way of trying to recall when something had happened, “That was the year the urologist who misdiagnosed my uncle’s prostate cancer invited us all to a swan bake.” A couple years ago when I taught for a week on an Apache reservation in Arizona, the great icebreaker was giving them the assignment of writing a page that began, “That was the year. ”
The two things I want are interesting language and genuine feeling. And one other thing: Years and years ago I knew a very wise woman who was tremendously accomplished and who had excelled at many things, a lifetime achievement for anybody else, and I asked what was her goal now? And she didn’t hesitate for a second. “To love deeply.” A lesson there.
So what is it you give a reader? Are you here to “help” people?
“Wear your heart on the page, and people will read to find out how you solved being alive.” That was Gordon twenty years ago, and that’s what I’m still trying to do.
I misquoted Barry Hannah to a friend once, and in so doing said the truest thing I’ve said about my own relation to writing. I meant to cite my favorite two lines from his novel Ray. “I live in so many centuries. Everybody is still alive.” But what I said was, “I live in so many sentences.”