When Amy Hempel asks the host at Island, a mostly empty Madison Avenue bistro, for his quietest table, he shrugs and flings his arm out: here, his gesture says, every table is a quiet table. But it's a reasonable request; Hempel is soft-spoken, and Sarabeth's, her first choice of venue, was about as tranquil as a high school cafeteria. Safely ensconced in the dimly lit back room, the acclaimed short story writer orders a Diet Coke and sets aside the book she's been carrying—not a galley of her fourth collection, The Dog of the Marriage, published this month, but an intimidating-looking tome called Crime and Criminals.Like her previous books (Reasons to Live; At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom; Tumble Home), The Dog of the Marriage is gorgeous, idiosyncratic and devastating. While the stories are primarily concerned with loss—with marriages that fall apart, lovers who leave, dogs who run away—they leaven that preoccupation with fierce wit and moments of startling beauty. In the title story, a newly single woman who helps train guide dogs for the blind finds an abused stray whose trust she hopes to earn, "having dispatched that of my husband."
Hempel, 53, is well known for taking time with her craft. ("If she wrote enough," confessed Chuck Palahniuk in an essay in LA Weekly, "I'd just stay home and read in bed all day.") "I think this newest book took me seven years," Hempel says. "And it's slender!" She also takes at least a year off from fiction writing when she finishes a book. After completing 1997's Tumble Home, she worked, like the aforementioned narrator, pre-training seeing-eye dogs.
This time around, though, "I'm going to crime school!" she says giddily, as if she can't quite believe it herself. She puts her hand on Crime and Criminals. "This is one of my textbooks." After several years of devouring books about crime and wondering "not why we do it, but why all of us aren't doing it," she has enrolled at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (sports team: the Bloodhounds), where she plans to get a master's in forensic psychology.
Between taking classes, volunteering at an East Harlem animal shelter and preparing for her book's publication, Hempel is teaching a writing workshop at Columbia University; for many years she has taught in Bennington College's low-residency MFA program. "It's wonderful," she says. "We can bring our dogs."
After a "very nonlinear education" at five California colleges, where she studied journalism and pre-med, Hempel moved from California to New York "to work in publishing, for, like, this long." She holds out her finger and a thumb about an inch apart. Briefly a Putnam publicity assistant (she took a walk one day at lunch and never returned to the office), she later worked as an editorial assistant at Crown. When her boss wouldn't let her take time off to attend the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, she quit.
Of her writing education, she says, "I did a kind of old-fashioned thing. I apprenticed myself to a master." That master was editor Gordon Lish; fellow students in his famed private workshops included her friends Mark Richard ("the one who dazzled us every week") and National Book Award winner Lily Tuck.
Lish, then an editor at Knopf, published Hempel's first two collections (in 1985 and 1990) and, several years later, HarperCollins's then editor-in-chief, the late Robert Jones, published new editions: "He was a very dear friend who wanted the books back in print." By the time Tumble Home was finished, Lish had left Knopf, so Hempel's long-time agent, Liz Darhansoff, sent the manuscript to Nan Graham at Scribner. "I was very keen on her for a long time," Hempel says. "So I've been very lucky in that respect, having two really first-rate editors."
While Hempel's fiction draws on her own experiences, it does not come across as autobiographical, in part because "you can't help but mythologize as you go" and in part because of its remarkable craft, most apparent in its lean, unflinching sentences. "There's a lot of content from my life and some of my friends' lives in my stories and always has been, but that's more the point of departure." One story in The Dog of the Marriage was written solely to get to its final line—"Nothing is a long time ago"—which a friend once said to her.
It is this kind of attention to small, extraordinary moments that informs not just Hempel's stories but her reason for writing them. In a talk her friend and fellow Lish author Barry Hannah once gave, he explained that "he wanted to write something that would say... 'This was life, and we were all here." She pauses. "I also think often about what Maxine Kumin said, which is that contemporary life demands elegy from us. I agree with that. A lot of my writing takes the form of an elegy—for a person, for a place, for a marriage—for so many things that were there or were good and aren't there now or aren't good now. That's a huge motivation of mine."
But she isn't writing fiction—at least not right now. "I feel like, okay, I know how to write a short story by now, so let's go learn something really different." Poor Chuck Palahniuk—he might have to wait another seven years for Hempel's next book. But Hempel seems thrilled by her freedom. "Not writing when you want to be writing is a horrible feeling," she says. "Not writing when you're not wanting to is fabulous!"