“I came late to tattoos, but I have to show you,” Amy Hempel says while pulling up the hem of her pants to reveal a line of Arabic script across her calf. Hempel teaches at Stony Brook University on Long Island, but she met me at a café in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to discuss Sing to It (Scribner, Mar.), her first story collection to be published in over a decade.
The show-and-tell portion of the chat is already phenomenal. “I got the title of the book tattooed on my leg next to a big old scar from a motorcycle accident I was in as a teenager,” Hempel says. The title comes from an Arabic proverb: “When danger approaches, sing to it.” What better way to reclaim one’s leg from injury than to make it appear physically beautiful? Sing to it. “It’s a stance for how to deal with life,” she says. “When there’s danger coming your way, you disarm it. It has a better result than meeting threat with threat. We see how well that goes all the time.” She laughs.
One of the most masterful writers of short stories in American literature today, Hempel has long written about people in distress and the moments in which crises distill characters down to their most basic nuts and bolts, sometimes in the space of just a few sentences. Such is the path of Sing to It, which collects stories of varying lengths about confronting danger: a novella about a home health aide in Florida who learns some terrible truths about the maternity home where she gave birth as a teenager, some resonant short stories, and a handful of very short stories that convey whole worlds within a couple of lines, including one in which a self-centered man repeatedly calls his ex. “You can’t run from danger,” Hempel says. “That makes sense to me as a way to try to deal with all that’s going on today.”
“All that’s going on today,” of course, refers to the turmoil of the Trump presidency. Hempel, who is known for her precise and deliberate word choices, includes in the collection a new two-page story that refers to “the president” just once, but it’s enough to convey a certain level of disgust. “Well, I can’t say the name,” she says. “But what else can I think of? I went for a physical a couple of weeks ago, and the doctor goes, ‘Hmmm.’ My blood pressure is suddenly way higher than it’s ever been. And then I realized that Fox News had been on in the waiting room. ‘Oh!’, I thought. ‘This has effects.’ ”
As a result, Hempel is considering how she can personally make a difference. “I’m about to start taking Spanish lessons because of the border situation,” she says. “Does this mean I’m heading to the border to do some translating? I don’t know what form it will take. But I asked a friend who works at the UN what I could do, and she asked, ‘Why don’t you learn Spanish for starters?’ And I thought, ‘Yes, I could! I know words!’ ”
Another friend asked Hempel what she’d be willing to sacrifice, noting that perhaps giving up material objects would make her more flexible. “It’s really fun to cull and give things away, and to be able to manage with less,” she says. When she left her teaching position at the University of Florida to come back north, she bequeathed much of her furniture to her grad students. “That felt great. I don’t regret any of this. Regret is one of those words of high danger. It’s a terrible feeling, because what can you do about it? Nothing.”
So is Hempel the Marie Kondo of the literary world? I ask what she does with her books in the culling process. “Books are always the hard part,” she says. “Some things I would never part with, but my compromise with some is I’ll just tear out the inscription page and just keep that.”
We look out the window and coo at a few dogs walking by the café, which is a convenient segue. That Hempel is a dog lover is a key feature of her work, right up to the cover of The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, a volume that contains her four previous story collections, in which she’s pictured posing with a very good boy. “I’m trying to resist showing you a picture of my current dog,” she says, and then she pulls out her phone to show me photos of Ghandi, a pit bull she adopted six years ago, proudly dressed up as the pope for Halloween. “He wore the costume around for an hour and a half. He really dug it.”
Hempel has written about dogs and grief exquisitely before, but Sing to It contains a particularly harrowing, lovely story about facing danger in a way that is a feat for any dog lover: a fictionalized version of her experience working as a volunteer at a shelter where dogs are euthanized. “The shelter story is very harsh but it’s all true,” she says. “Why didn’t I write it as a nonfiction piece? Well, it’s told from the perspective of the dogs, so that was the most fictive leap.” I ask whether it’s true that, as in the story, volunteers at “full service” shelters use superglue to close dog-bite wounds, rather than going to the hospital for stitches and having to report their injuries. In response, she pulls up her sleeve and shows me a faint, tooth-shaped scar on her arm.
I ask Hempel how she summoned the emotional strength to both volunteer and write about the shelter, which sounds gut-wrenching. “When I was working I just reminded myself of one thing: my feelings don’t matter,” she says. “I can have them later. I’m here to make the dogs feel better.” Still, the work was difficult: “The constant outrage and despair were something to reckon with. But I think the volunteers buoyed each other up. One thinks of the old drops in a bucket analogy, but it was always such a high to get somebody out of there and into a good home. On some nights, I’d walk out with dogs on the euth list, thinking, ‘I can’t stand it, you’re great. You’re my dog now.’ When I’ve had room, I’ve fostered as many as four at a time. Then it gets tricky.”
As well as championing dogs, Hempel is also a teacher who champions her writing students, having taught at Bennington’s low-res MFA program for nearly 25 years and held other teaching positions. “People know I’m partial to short, short stories, and there are a fair number of them in this collection,” she says when I ask what kind of advice students seek out from her. “So students know, everywhere I’ve taught, that they could submit short short pieces and I’d be happy to work with them in this form.”
I mention that, “with all that’s going on today,” political books have been outselling fiction in the past year, but Hempel isn’t having it. “I will always read fiction,” she says. “Because I’m teaching and judging prizes, most of what I read is by new writers. I read many debuts, which can be so exciting.” As an example, she pulls a galley out of her bag: Black Light, a debut story collection by Kimberly King Parsons. “She’s funny and badass.”
Hempel appreciates that new writers have new ways of expressing themselves. “They’re saying things differently, which I love,” she says. “I really liked Tommy Orange’s novel, There There. I know Oakland well from living in the East Bay many years ago, but I didn’t know that Oakland. So that was new to me.”
That Hempel is inspired by students and constantly open to new points of view is apparent both in her work and in the way she chooses to live. As for tattoos, she says she may not be done just yet. “It’s true what they say: once you do one, you think of many many more.”
Maris Kreizman’s writing has appeared in Esquire, GQ, the L.A. Times, the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and elsewhere.