Amy Hempel (b. 1951) was born in Chicago and spent her early years in California. Some of her unhappy experiences as a struggling writer in New York as well as the deaths of family members provide much of the material for Reasons to Live, a collection of stories set in California, which grew out of a fiction workshop she attended at Columbia University in 1982. In many of these stories, her protagonists struggle against the alienating culture of California. Her collections of stories include At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom and Tumble Home. She has edited, with Jim Shepard, Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs.

"I am really interested in resilience," Hempel recently told an interviewer. "Dr. Christiaan Barnard said, 'Suffering isn't ennobling, recovery is.' If I have a motto for this particular bunch of stories, that's what it is."

The first time you read Amy Hempel you say to yourself, “Wow, she is awfully good at writing. I wish I could write the way she does.” Her metaphors make you reread sentences, whole paragraphs, in an attempt to discover exactly where the narrative left you floundering for the meaning which is so richly presented. The sentences weave together like a ball of fine string – you try to trace just one strand from end to end, but just when you think you have it you pull too tight and lose everything in a jumble.

The second time you read Amy Hempel you say to yourself, “You know, self, I bet if you worked really hard for four to six hours a day for a month or so you could write that well. Let’s try it!” Amy Hempel’s works read so easy that it’s particularly tempting to call it “easy work” creating it. A well trained eye can slice through a Hempel paragraph like a hot knife through a pad of butter, until it hits the shard of granite hidden in the middle. In The Harvest the main character narrates: “I moved through the days like a severed head that finishes a sentence.” Hempel makes sure her readers pace themselves with her stories, if they ever try to rush in too fast she makes her words rise up like a wave in the otherwise calm Atlantic to knock them down and stun them. Her newest collection of short stories, The Dog of the Marriage, has a short story titled Memoir. The story consists of seventeen words and three instances of punctuation. And then it leaves you sitting there chasing after its meaning as if you were chasing a kite flying away at the beach, as if you were again young and chasing a childhood sweetheart.

The third time you read Amy Hempel you become enraged. “She’s cheating!” you roar in your barbaric yawp, “She doesn’t write about fiction, she’s writing about life!” And sure enough Amy Hempel is writing about life – about emotions and barbeques, rapes and afternoon weeding sessions; she’s writing about life, death, and birthday parties in short intense capsules meant for single setting reading, and an evening of digestion. Amy Hempel is so vivid a writer that after reading her stories, as Chuck Palahniuk said once in an article about her work, “almost every other book you ever read will suck… after Amy Hempel, you'll save yourself a lot of time and money.”

The fourth time you read Amy Hempel, and every time thereafter, you learn from your past mistakes. You take the phone off the hook, you order out so you don’t need to cook dinner for yourself. You turn off the 6 o’clock news and put on some quiet music, sit in your favorite chair, and get lost in the worlds of her characters that shine and glisten on the page as they live brighter than fireflies, but for a fraction of the time. The fourth time you read Amy Hempel is probably the luckiest as well, because it means you have tracked down At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Hempel's most fascinating, and least printed, collection. I remember blanching and turning white while looking at textbook prices my first semster of college and seeing price tages reading $120 and $150 USD. I would leap at the opportunity to buy Gates for that little, based on existing market prices.

Biographically, Amy was born in Chicago in 1951 and went on to spend many years in California, eventually attending Whittier College and San Francisco State College. After school, Amy moved to New York to pursue a career in writing which included jobs at both Vanity Fair and later Bomb Magazine. Hempel has also taught at a number of colleges and universities across the country, including New York University, Saint Mary's College, and the University of Missouri. She is currently a faculty member in the graduate writing programs of Bennington College in Vermont and The New School University in New York City.

Versions of Hempel’s works have appeared in Elle, Esquire, Bomb Magazine, GQ, Vanity Fair, Harper's, The Quarterly, The Yale Review, Playboy, Best American Short Stories, The Pushcart Prize and The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction.

Body of Work

Reasons to Live – 1985
At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom – 1990
Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs – 1995 (editor with Jim Shepard)
Tumble Home – 1997
The Dog of the Marriage – 2005


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