The title story of her new collection opens like this:
On the last night of the marriage, my husband and I went to the ballet. We sat behind a blind man; his guide dog, in harness, lay beside him in the aisle of the theater. I could not keep my attention on the performance; instead, I watched the guide dog watch the performance. Throughout the evening, the dog's head moved, following the dancers across the stage. Every so often the dog would whimper slightly. "Because he can hear high notes we can't?" my husband said. "No," I said, "because he was disappointed in the choreography."Funny yet tragic moments cascade off the page unencumbered by torturous transitions or improbable plot lines. "That's what I think anybody can recognize - moments," she said in our interview, "a moment that stands out for a particular reason, where the light shifted."
She's been blessed and cursed under the rubric of Minimalism, a style with its roots in the work of Poe and Chekhov, in the short stories of James Joyce and the early work of Hemingway. Contemporary writers like Raymond Carver, Mary Robison, Chuck Palahniuk and the remarkable Craig Clevenger (The Contortionist's Handbook) write in a similar style - all spiritual children of literary Minimalism's godfather, Gordon Lish. "Somebody said its like a Pointillist painting," said Amy, "point, point, point, point...moment, moment, moment...you stand back and it adds up to something."
Something that defies much of the conventional wisdom about writing, provoking critics like Sven Birkets in the New Republic to accuse Amy of abrogating "literary responsibility" altogether.
Whatever the fuck that means.
For all of their spare prose, her stories are imbued with a palpable sense of depth, a hulking shadow under the waves. As Hemingway said:
If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
This sense of depth is the product of recursion. Each sentence is the product of the ones that came before. Amy said, "Gordon [Lish] used to talk about 'recursive writing' - you go back to what you did before and you veer from it. You can't help but create a feeling - not of just layering - but of going deeper and deeper down -- amplifying the thing each time you hit it. Really it's about a kind of logical writing where what you did before tells you what to do next."
Amy shirks the Minimalist label. "Minimalism carries a pejorative quality to it because it was hurled at some of us over a period of time," she said. She prefers the label Carver put on her and Robison: Precisionist. But Dr. Cynthia Hallett, author of Minimalism and the Short Story--Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Mary Robison, told me that we are seeing "a Renaissance in the study of Minimalism in literature both in Europe and the US. We are getting to a point where Minimalism is being seen as a valid form and people have quit being so hurt by the term."
The Dog of the Marriage is Amy's fourth collection. Reasons to Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom and Tumble Home were all equally impressive. Her first story, In the Cemetery where Al Jolson is Buried -- a deeply touching story about the death of her best friend -- has been translated into over seventeen languages and has been widely anthologized.
With Animal Kingdom long out of print and available used starting at $120, along with the tendency of loaned out Hempel books to never come back, it was a relief to hear from Amy -- exclusively -- that all of her collected stories will be coming out in a single volume this time next year.
For aspiring writers, Minimalist or otherwise, Amy has simple advice: "Get better friends. I just have such amazingly wonderful, inspiring friends who are extremely quotable. It's really wonderful to be in the company of people you love to listen to. And read! You read these things that make you want to respond, something that gets me to that place where I feel smarter and brave enough to try and say something back."
Brave enough to ruin you. Brave enough to break your heart.