By Amanda Dahill-Moore – The Guilfordian
Amy Hempel is a magician who is willing to give up her tricks.
Her reading of short fiction in the Carnegie Room of Hege Library on Saturday, March 19 had the small audience laughing out loud at her dry and acerbic turns of wit. The final story — a largely autobiographical work Hempel called an “elegy,” written for the shelter dogs she works with in Harlem, N.Y. — left few dry eyes, and many people wiping tears from their chins.
“She was amazing — amazing,” said sophomore Giovanna Selvaggio-Stix. “My mind is so blown right now.”
Hempel is the recipient of numerous awards including the Hobson Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship for her short fiction. Despite her status, Hempel was personable and accommodating.
“Amy is one of the most important short story writers of this and the last century,” said Traci Connor, assistant professor of English. “To have her here, and the compassion that comes through in her writing, was so perfect for this campus and an incredible gift to the writing community.”
She began her reading with a story, not written, but gleaned from her experience on Guilford’s campus just a few hours before.
“I have a new dog that I brought with me,” Hempel said. “She is very excited to meet people. I saw a man walking on the campus and so I called out to him ‘Very friendly dog,’ to warn him. He replied, ‘Very friendly president.'” Hempel paused, smiling, and brushed her hair from her face. “It was the president of the college. What was his name again?”
The first stories Hempel read were what she called “short shorts.” After the first short — a story which on the surface is about a woman looking for a lost dog, but is more deeply propelled by the loss of a husband — Hempel held up the single copier sheet of paper and waved it for the audience to see.
“Those of you who have written in this form know how satisfying it is to write something this size and have it be finished.”
This is what Hempel has become known for: devastating works of fiction as full of depth and longing as a full-length novel, that are sometimes only a page long.
“Amy’s greatest strength is her sentences,” said senior English major Meredith Luby, who organized the event with the support of Guilford’s literary magazine, The Greenleaf Review. “She labors over each one so that there is nothing extraneous, so that each one is supporting its own weight.”
When members of the audience asked Hempel for advice about the craft of writing, she obliged.
“The idea of recursive writing was a huge revelation to me,” Hempel said. “Here is the big discovery — you don’t look ‘out there,’ you look backwards at what you have already written.”
Death is a recurrent theme of Hempel’s work; so too is love — love lost and occasionally regained, most often through the connection with animals.
“It struck me that (Hempel) seems to know her grief really well and her loneliness,” said junior Margot Andress. “It was so familiar to her. And somehow, in the end, that seemed to be okay.”
When asked by the audience how she endures through the overwhelming sadness at the heart of much of her work, Hempel responded, “It’s a good question. How do you attempt to do anything that has beauty in it, or usefulness, in the face of this — this earthquake? People ask me how I work at the shelter. It is heartbreaking, but I have to do it. How much exposure is enough to galvanize you, to motivate you to do something, and how much will shut you down? It’s a question.”
Luby recognizes the shattering nature of Hempel’s work but identifies a parallel element.
“The themes of fear and grief and love and betrayal all drew me in of course, but there is a wonderfully redemptive quality to her work,” said Luby. “Even though her characters don’t always win, or don’t usually win, they keep going and keep living in the face of sometimes tragic odds.”