I found Amy Hempel by accident. This last year I have been slowly courting short fiction, reading collections voraciously as the relationship moves beyond simple dating to something altogether more serious. Along the way I have been reading the usual suspects (Chekhov, Carver, Joyce most notably) along with younger, more contemporary turks (Ali Smith, Wells Tower, Michel Faber, Tania Hershman). I found Amy Hempel by accident, in a recommendation from one of my favourite novelists, Chuck Palahniuk. Both in his essays on writing found at chuckpalahniuk.net and elsewhere on the web, Chuck waxes lyrical about Amy Hempel’s power to break you heart. In his essay on Hempel’s ‘The Harvest,’ She Breaks Your Heart he writes:
At first, The Harvest looks like a laundry list of details. You have no idea why you’re almost weeping by the end of seven pages. You’re a little confused and disoriented. It’s just a simple list of facts presented in the first person, but somehow it adds up to more than the sum of its parts. Most of the facts are funny as hell, but at the last moment, when you’re disarmed by laughter, it breaks your heart.
I read this recommendation with great interest and then tried to track down a collection. Unable to find her work on most of the major UK book e-tailers I tried to find a digital copy. That too proved a dead end as the only place I could purchase her digital collection required an American credit card. So I ordered the Collected Stories from an Amazon seller, which pained me a bit as I am pretty sure that not one penny of what I paid found its way to Amy Hempel herself, but in the absence of any other option I figured, hey, at least she gets another reader.*
My complete collection of her published work made its way from the States and last week, while on holiday, I treated myself to reading her first collection of stories, ‘Reasons To Live.’ I was amazed by her control of the short form and blown away too many times to list. ‘In The Cemetary Where Al Jolson Is Buried’ I have since learned is regularly anthologized in the US, and may be familiar to many of you reading this post. Indeed, I hope it is as that story was the one that at the last moment broke my heart. In that story Hempel manages to mask the heavy impact until the very last image, then the narrator gives a final fact to the reader that brings the whole story crashing down upon them.
So many of the stories in ‘Reasons To Live’ are worth shouting about, ‘Beg. Sl Tog, Inc, Cont, Rep’ actually got me to care about knitting, ‘The Man in Bogota’ has to be one of the finest pieces of flash fiction ever written, while my favourite from this collection, ‘When It’s Human Instead Of When It’s Dog,’ features one of the most subtly beautiful fictional relationships I have ever read. And all these great stories and many more make up her DEBUT collection. There are three more collections in the weighty paperback I was sent from the States, each one featuring stories by a more experienced Amy Hempel. I can’t wait to read them. But I will.
I decided to take a break from the collection at the end of the first set, leaving the rest of her work for a later date, not because I tired of her prose, in fact, quite the opposite. I want to savour reading these stories and as such will take my time with them. In the meantime I have been dipping back into ‘Reasons To Live’ to try and figure out how she is doing what she is doing. And each time I am swept away by the precision of the prose.
All of which brings me to the title of this post. How on earth did I only manage to discover Amy Hempel now? I really can’t believe that not one of my friends, not one of my virtual writing buddies, not one of my teachers or colleagues over the years recommended her to me. I can’t believe that somehow I managed to make it through the 24 years or so Amy Hempel has been publishing her work without hearing her name, reading a review, seeing a book in a shop. I suppose it has something to do with being from the UK. If I were American I might well have found her sooner.
To those of you familiar with her work I commend you for your excellent taste. For those of you yet to have the pleasure, I suggest you see about plugging that gap asap. Her stories, ‘The Harvest,’ ‘Offertory,’ and ‘Today will Be A Quiet Day’ can all be found online. But really, you should get your hands on a collection and settle down for some quality reading time.
While you wait for your copy to arrive, why not pop down to the comments and tell me about the author that had you kicking yourself for not finding them sooner.
*I am happy to say, when I checked Amazon.co.uk while writing this post, that they seem to have rectified their mistake and have a number of Amy Hempel collections available now.
Amy Hempel on the web: