Hempel, Amy 1951-

views updated

Hempel, Amy 1951-


Born December 14, 1951, in Chicago, IL; daughter of Gardiner and Gloria Hempel. Education: Attended Whittier College, 1969-71, San Francisco State University, 1973-74, and Columbia University, 1981; John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


Home—New York, NY.


Writer. Worked briefly at Putnam Books and Crown Books, New York, NY. Bennington College, Bennington, VT, teacher in the low-residency M.F.A. program; Columbia University, New York, NY, writing workshop teacher. Has taught writing at New York University, New York, NY; Saint Mary's College; and the University of Missouri, Columbia, MO.


Silver Medal, Commonwealth Club of California, 1986, for Reasons to Live; Pushcart Prize.


Reasons to Live (stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1985.

At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (stories), Knopf (New York, NY), 1990.

(Editor, compiler and contributor) Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs, Crown (New York, NY), 1995.

Tumble Home: A Novella and Short Stories, Scribner (New York, NY), 1997.

The Dog of the Marriage: Stories, Scribner (New York, NY), 2005.

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel (introduction by Rick Moody), Scribner (New York, NY), 2006.

Works represented in anthologies, including Best American Short Stories, 1986, and Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Contributor to periodicals, including Vanity Fair, Harper's, Mother Jones, Triquarterly, Vogue, Interview, and the New York Times Magazine. Contributing editor, Vanity Fair, 1985-86.


Amy Hempel has earned widespread distinction as the author of several acclaimed collections of short stories. Her first, Reasons to Live, is a rather brief volume of nearly one hundred thirty pages, yet it is comprised of fifteen tales. Critics have observed that these narratives, some numbering only one page in length, are written in an economical manner that nonetheless succeeds in conveying Hempel's quirky humor as well as her bleak worldview. Hempel's fictional realm is one of sadness and bittersweet consolations, and it is a world of natural catastrophe, automobile accidents, madness, and death. Among the more distinguished stories in Reasons to Live is "In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried," where a woman desperately tries to distract her terminally ill friend by reciting various facts; "Tonight Is a Favor to Holly," which depicts the ironic existence of a woman devoted to what she calls "the beach life"; and "Nashville Gone to Ashes," about a veterinarian's widow who must take care of the animals she always resented in the wake of her husband's demise.

Upon its publication in 1985, Reasons to Live received attention as a provocative and disturbing story collection. Sheila Ballantyne, writing in the New York Times Book Review, declared that "at their best these stories are tough-minded, original and fully felt." Noting Hempel's minimalist technique, Ballantyne added, "In most of the stories that make up this collection, Amy Hempel has succeeded in revealing both the substance and intelligence beneath the surface of a spare, elliptical prose." More effusively, James Kaufmann reported in the Washington Post that "Hempel makes small and cryptic moments explode with suggestion." New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani, who described Reasons to Live as a volume of "astringent" stories, affirmed that for Hempel "even the smallest act, the tiniest gesture … can be an act of courage." Kakutani also noted that Hempel portrays her characters "with charity and understanding."

In her next story collection, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Hempel further refined her stylistically spare, narratively brief technique, thus prompting New York Times Book Review contributor Robert Towers to cast Hempel as a miniaturist rather than a minimalist. Hempel's fiction, Towers maintained, is marked "by an almost miraculous exactitude of observation and execution." Like the earlier book, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom is concerned with people coping—or, at least, surviving—in a world of sadness and mayhem. "The Harvest," for instance, concerns a woman maimed in a motorcycle accident, and "The Day I Had Everything" relates the activities within an organization of women who lament the loss of loved ones and the unrelenting nature of physical decay. In still another tale, "Lead Us Not into Penn Station," a narrator merely relates a day's observations and events in New York City—a wino bleeds, a man recalls fornicating with a household appliance, a blind man enters a bank and orders a sandwich—and then expresses their cumulatively overwhelming nature.

At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, which appeared in 1990, confirmed Hempel's stature as a unique storyteller. "The stories," Elizabeth Tallent wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review, "are … smartly observed, cryptically titled, the prose as tight as if it fears spilling a single drop." Robert Towers, in a New York Times Book Review assessment, lauded "the elegance and compactness" of Hempel's style, and added: "What one cherishes in Amy Hempel are … her quirky sensibility and the beautifully honed verbal craft she brings to bear on the situations and themes that have attracted her amused and rueful eye." Towers acknowledged that Hempel manages to produce stories of both humor and sadness. He declared that in At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom: "The combination of comedy and loss is pervasive." Philip Gourevitch made a similar observation in the Washington Post, commenting that "it is Hempel's great achievement in these stories that she always maintains compassion and keeps the laugh lines coming."

Hempel's minimalist style was again showcased in Tumble Home: A Novella and Short Stories. The slim volume, which also contained stories as short as one paragraph long, gained the attention of New York Times reviewer Elizabeth Gleick, who found that "each story is written as if assembled from fragments of conversations or snatches of melody." Gleick singled out pieces such as "Weekend," which examined the group dynamics of families vacationing at the beach, as fiction that "has much in common with poetry. Using only a few phrases, [Hempel] succeeds in evoking a mood or … even an entire summer at the shore." In "Housewife," the tale of an unfaithful married woman is told in a single sentence, prompting critic Claire Messud to declare in the Washington Post Book World that the author "unsettles our uncomfortable conceptions of ‘story.’" On the other hand, a Kirkus Reviews writer found the one-sentence story "just short and rather silly."

The title novella of Tumble Home is a sort of free-association conversation in the form of a letter from young woman in a mental institution to the famous artist whom she may or may not have once met. In this longer work Chicago Tribune writer Andy Solomon found Hempel to be "at her most enigmatic and most lyrical." Solomon went on to note that "people attempting to find a plot in her fiction will be shocked. Even those attempting to find fiction in it will discover themselves in an exquisite but mysterious territory where, although the lines extend to the right margin, we sense ourselves in the presence of a poet."

Hempel moved from poetry-like fiction to poetry proper as editor of the 1995 collection Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs, featuring works credited to the animal companions of such luminaries as Edward Albee, Maxine Kumin, John Irving, and Hempel herself. In Hempel's hands what "might have been nothing more than, well, doggerel—just another of those self-consciously cute cat and dog books that crowd the bookstore shelves" instead becomes "a summer treat, by turns endearingly funny and achingly tender," according to Polly Paddock in her Chicago Tribune review. Equally impressed was New York Times guest reviewer "Jacques," identified as the dog of novelist Daniel Pinkwater. While the critical canine noticed "a measure of contamination discernible in some of the selections, dogs talking about things no sensible [pooch] would ever think about," Jacques ultimately gave a paws-up to Unleashed: "I had a barking good time with this book. The compilers deserve to be given a croissant and have their ears scratched."

Hempel's next collection, The Dog of the Marriage: Stories, is a slim volume of tales that deals primarily with loss, whether it be the end of a marriage, breaking up with a lover, or a dog that has run off. Some of the stories touch on heartbreaking pain, as with "The Uninvited," in which the protagonist, a fifty-year-old rape victim, awaits the results of her pregnancy test. In the case of one story in the collection, Hempel wrote it entirely to reach the final line, which she had determined at the start of the story: "Nothing is a long time ago." Emily Chenoworth, writing for Publishers Weekly commented: "It is this kind of attention to small, extraordinary moments that informs not just Hempel's stories but her reason for writing them." Chenoworth cited the volume for its "fierce wit and moments of startling beauty." In a review for O, The Oprah Magazine, contributor Vince Passaro counted Hempel among a cadre of "writers who, sentence by sentence, cause you to stop breathing," and noted in her writing "an emotional honesty and force that makes each new collection of her stories a literary event." Debi Lewis, in a review for Booklist, wrote: "If this were music, it would be played in a modal tuning, dark and timeless." A contributor for Publishers Weekly remarked: "Hempel paints a fictional world that is sharp and lonely but also marked by beauty and unexpected generosity."

The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel gathers the works of four of Hempel's previous collections into a single volume: Reasons to Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Tumble Home, and The Dog of the Marriage. Erica Wagner, writing for the New York Times Book Review, noted that this collection is designed to be savored, rather than read at a single sitting or over a short period of time. Wagner said of the tales: "They are eerie, unsettling, always original and perfectly expressed. Each one sets itself off like a depth charge in the reader's head. Each deserves time—quite a lot of time—to be allowed to do its work." Benjamin Strong, writing for the Village Voice Online, remarked that The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel was "nothing less than the literary event of the year."



Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 39, Thomson Gale (Detroit, MI), 1986.


Booklist, January 1, 2005, Debi Lewis, review of The Dog of the Marriage: Stories, p. 820.

Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1997, review of Tumble Home: A Novella, p. 402.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 11, 1990, Elizabeth Tallent, review of At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, pp. 2, 11.

New York Times, April 13, 1985, Michiko Kakutani, review of Reasons to Live, p. 14; June 4, 1995, Jacques, review of Unleashed: Poems by Writers' Dogs, p. 16; July 27, 1997, Elizabeth Gleick, review of Tumble Home, p. 64.

New York Times Book Review, April 28, 1985, Sheila Ballantyne, review of Reasons to Live, p. 9; March 11, 1990, Robert Towers, review of At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, p. 11; May 21, 2006, Erica Wagner, "Little Earthquakes," review of The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel, p. 20; December 10, 2006, "The 10 Best Books of 2006," p. 11.

O, The Oprah Magazine, March, 2005, Vince Passaro, "Caution: Adult's at Play," review of The Dog of the Marriage, p. 170.

Publishers Weekly, February 14, 2005, review of The Dog of the Marriage, p. 52; March 14, 2005, Emily Chenoworth, "Amy Hempel: Hounding Loss," p. 41.

Tribune Books (Chicago, IL), June 30, 1995, Polly Paddock, review of Unleashed; June 22, 1997, Andy Solomon, review of Tumble Home, p. 3.

Washington Post, March 8, 1990, Philip Gourevitch, review of At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom.

Washington Post Book World, April 13, 1997, Claire Messud, review of Tumble Home.


Village Voice Online,http://www.villagevoice.com/ (April 7, 2007), Benjamin Strong, review of The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel.