Short and economical describes the stories of Amy Hempel—and it might describe her output as well. She has published four story collections in over 20 years (and an additional Collected Stories). Fans of Hempel’s fiction may now rejoice in Sing To It, a slim volume of under 150 pages, but packed with Hempel’s mix of despair and warmth—even in the same story (and even the same sentence).
Human havoc causes trouble in our world and in Hempel’s fiction. Solace, however, may often be found among animals, whether pit bulls in the euphemistically named “A Full Service Shelter” (which means the capacity on site to put down dogs not adopted for rescue), the stray poodle in “The Chicane,” or the ghost of a deceased dog in “Moonbow.” Animals not only serve Hempel’s fiction, but also serve a longstanding need in her life. Hempel’s first family dog arrived when she started elementary school. She’s now had five Labs in her life: “There’s something so clean about loving animals. Their true nature is right there for you to see. There’s a constancy,” Hempel adds, “to their affection. If they disappoint us, we can’t hold them accountable. If my dog chews the molding in my apartment after being confined during the day, I can just get it repaired.”
Caring for others—even when so many people are egoists, selfish, and unreliable—is a refrain in these stories: friends caring for each other amid bad romances (“I Stay with Syd”) and recent deaths (“The Second Seating”), or service providers assisting the elderly in their routines (“Cloudland”). Hempel’s stories give voice to the displaced and the dispossessed, outlining human damage at both the personal and global level.
“There’s so much to pay attention to in the larger world these days,” Hempel says. “In ‘Cloudland,’ the narrator spins almost out of control about climate change. When I lived in Florida,” Hempel continues, “I remember driving by sinkholes. I remember a visit to Miami. After an hour’s rain, the water covered my sandals. These things are happening—what are we going to do about it? We must go on record as having done something.”
And many of the characters in these stories go on to do something, even as their youthful dreams fade. For example, the narrator of “Cloudland” has given up her writing ambition and lost her teaching job. And she has discovered that an event in her past may have been even more tragic than she imagined. “The way ambition changes in people interests me,” Hempel says. “Mine has changed in the last 20 years. Part of it is aging and part of it is a willingness to look outward rather than the constant inward gaze of youth. Twenty years ago, I don’t know if I could have written about that character in ‘Cloudland.’ I still want to accomplish things, but it’s less about me.”
Art figures in these stories (as well as in earlier fiction). The notes at the collection’s end mention a North Carolina art installation and reference paintings by William Wegman and Gloria Vanderbilt, among others. “Cloudland’s” title, for example, derives from Vanderbilt’s painting of the same title. Vanderbilt, Hempel explains, “is a dear friend and I love her paintings. They haunt and inspire a narrative—something her work has done to me for years. The first time I saw Cloudland, I had a physical chill. I wanted to scoop up those little girls in the painting to protect them, to keep them from the threatening cloud. Wegman’s painting,” she continues, “haunts as well. As a teacher of writing, how do you teach someone to haunt another person? I’m not sure you can teach that writing skill—but one can look at a canvas and perhaps perceive that feeling.”
References to music float in these stories, and Hempel demonstrates a real love of music. “I have all the old Stax and Verve singles, lots of blues and jazz. Joni Mitchell. Courtney Barnett. Indie rock. Dusty Springfield. Al Green. I write,” Hempel explains, “with music on—loud. I don’t want quiet. I need to be listening at a volume to call up something on the page. More than tone, certain music can create the rhythm of the sentences, certain phrasings akin to old soul singers. I always read my work aloud to hear the words. I know,” she chuckles, “when I’ve written a good sentence or paragraph, but not always if I’ve written a good story.”
Hempel sees her fiction as increasingly taking a larger world view. “But the stories still go back to language,” she offers. “Grace Paley is a hero for me. Someone once asked her about revision. She said you have to go back and make sure every word is true. That’s a goal for my work.”
J. W. Bonner writes regularly for Kirkus. He teaches writing and humanities at Asheville School in North Carolina.