“Sing to It” — Amy Hempel

“Sing to It”  by Amy Hempel

At the end, he said, No Metaphors! Nothing is like anything else.

Except he said to me before he said that, Make your hands a hammock for me. So there was one.

He said, Not even the rain—he quoted the poet—not even the rain has such small hands. So there was another.

At the end, I wanted to comfort him. But what I said was, Sing to it. The Arabian proverb: When danger approaches, sing to it.

Except I said to him before I said that, No metaphors! No one is like anyone else. And he said, Please.

So—at the end, I made my hands a hammock for him.

My arms the trees.


I Review Object Lessons, Where 20 Contemporary Authors Select and Introduce 20 Short Stories from The Paris Review


Object Lessons anthologizes 20 stories published in the Paris Review over the past fifty years. “It is not a greatest hits anthology,” advises the brief editor’s note, “Instead, we asked twenty masters of the genre to choose a story from the Paris Review archives—a personal favorite—and to describe the key to its success as a work of fiction.” Hence, we get Ann Beattie introducing Craig Nova’s “Another Drunk Gambler,” Amy Hempel introducing Bernard Cooper’s “Old Birds,” and Sam Lipsyte introducing Mary Robinson’s “Likely Lake.”

Most of the introductions are short—most are fewer than three pages—and each author approaches his or her selection differently. Ben Marcus, prefacing “Several Garlic Tales,” tells us that, “Donald Barthelme was a magician of language, and it would be most respectful, perhaps even ethical, not to look too closely into the workings of his magic.” Marcus proposes a few approaches to find meaning in Barthelme’s surreal tale, but never over-explicates. In contrast, Lydia Davis’s surprisingly long intro to Jane Bowles’s “Emmy Moore’s Journal” is a sentence-to-paragraph close reading; Davis interrogates Bowles’s diction and syntax and concludes her little essay by situating Bowles’s (underappreciated) place in the canon. Davis’s insights are compelling, but one wonders if they wouldn’t be better appreciated after reading the story.

Davis also appears as author of one of the selected stories—Ali Smith picks Davis’s excellent number “Ten Stories from Flaubert.” Smith’s intro is wonderful, explaining the genesis of “Ten Stories,” which “came about when Davis (who is also a translator) was working on a a new translation of Madame Bovary and reading through Flaubert’s letters to his friend and lover Louise Colet.” I’m a huge fan of Lydia Davis, whose work defies easy definition. Smith wonders about her selection: “Are they translations? Are they by Flaubert? Are they by Davis?” The questions are better than answers.

Occasionally an author veers close to spoiling the story he introduces, as does Jeffrey Eugenides when he gracelessly steps all over Denis Johnson’s already-much-anthologized classic “Car Crash While Hitch Hiking.” Elsewhere, Jonathan Lethem mashes and minces misplaced metaphors in his confusing and forgettable introduction to Thomas Glynn’s story “Except for the Sickness I’m Quite Healthy Now. You Can Believe That.” Lethem’s sloppy, unrestrained attempt to dazzle is regrettable. He’s like the warm-up act that tries too hard to show up the headliner and winds up falling on his face.

For the most part though, the introductions simply allow readers new ways to see a story they’ve perhaps read before, as in Aleksandar Hemon’s preface to Jorge Luis Borges’s “Funes the Memorious” or David Means’s preface to Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance.” Means suggests that “A great story is like an itch that has to be scratched eternally . . . We’re left with more questions than answers, and more answers than questions; therefore, the paradoxical quality of a good story is that it seems to give us everything we need and yet not quite enough to fulfill a sense of having been shown a full life.” Surprisingly good is Dave Eggers’s intro to James Salter’s “Bangkok,” which reads almost like a loose riff of notes that a harried but talented adjunct might bring to his Creative Writing 101 workshop. Eggers showcases keen intuition about Salter’s narrative coupled with an eagerness that makes one want to read the story.

And what about those stories? If I’ve focused more on the introductions than the stories themselves, it’s perhaps because I’ve taken for granted that the selections are solid for an anthology. Sure, any reader might have his or her gripes, but the range of talent here is undeniable, and the spectrum of stories is satisfying. Object Lessons would make a fine addition to the syllabus of any beginning writing course, and any young person interested in honing her craft could do worse than attending the examples collected here. To be clear, Object Lessons is in no way some master course in How to Write a Short Story, but it does provide the most valuable writer’s tool—good reading.

Amy Hempel on Gordon Lish and Steve Martin

Amy Hempel talks about studying under Gordon Lish (and how Steve Martin influenced her) in her 2003 interview with The Paris Review


Why Lish?


At Esquire in the seventies and, later, at Knopf, he was publishing the voices that interested me most. I felt allied with his choices, so he was the one I wanted to work with. Writers like Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Mary Robison. These were the three who had the most effect on me when I started.


What about their work interested you?


They didn’t sound like anyone else I had read. For me, they redefined what a story could be—the thing happening off to the side of the story other writers were telling; they would start where someone else would leave off, or stop where someone else would start. As Hannah said later in Boomerang, a lot of people have their overview, whereas he has his “underview,” scouting “under the bleachers, for what life has dropped.”


Do you remember the first class?


Vividly. The assignment was to write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that, as Gordon put it, “dismantles your own sense of yourself.” And everybody knew instantly what that thing, for them, was. We found out immediately that the stakes were very high, that we were expected to say something no one else had said, and to divulge much harder truths than we had ever told or ever thought to tell. No half-measures. He thought any of us could do it if we wanted it badly enough. And that, when I was starting out, was a great thing to hear from someone who would know.


What was, if you can say, your “worst secret”?


I failed my best friend when she was dying. It became the subject of the first story I wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.”


You stayed on in his workshop as a student for years. You must have been repeatedly humbled.


I felt humbled by realizing how hard the job was. How hard it is to write a moving, worthwhile, memorable story. But more often I was inspired. It turned out that one of the most helpful things I did without knowing it would be helpful later was hang out with stand-up comics in San Francisco. I went to their shows night after night after night. I watched them performing, working through the same material. I saw some nights it killed and other nights it bombed. All that time I was observing nuance, inflection, timing, how the slightest difference mattered. How the littlest leaning on a word—or leaning away from it—would get the laugh, and this lesson was so valuable. And the improv work—they called it “being human on purpose,” this falling back on the language in your mouth—was hugely important. Just listening to what you’re saying. I learned this when my late friend Morgan Upton, an actor and member of the Committee, took me to a Steve Martin show at the Boarding House in San Francisco. Back in the green room, Steve Martin was sick, but preparing to do his show anyway. I told him I admired that, I said I couldn’t go out there and make people laugh if I were sick. And he said, Don’t be silly—you couldn’t do it if you were well. A brilliant reply on any number of levels. I based an early story, “Three Popes Walk into a Bar,” on that night. Then I ran into him about twenty years later and reminded him of our exchange. He laughed and said, “It sounds mean!” But I thought it was great.


Amy Hempel Reads “The Orphan Lamb”

The Lost Books of the Odyssey — Zachary Mason

In his preface to The Lost Books of the Odyssey, author Zachary Mason tells us that before the story we now know as the Odyssey was organized by the poet Homer, the “material was formless, fluid, its elements shuffled into new narratives like cards in a deck.” Mason’s goal in The Lost Books is to echo these older versions of the story of Odysseus, omitting “stock epic formulae in favor of honing a single trope or image down to extreme clarity.” He succeeds admirably — Lost Books is an engaging and perplexing work that challenges our assumptions about one of the most foundational stories of Western literature. Mason’s “novel” (it is not really a novel, of course) strikes a wonderfully resonant and deeply upsetting chord, disrupting our sense of narrative satisfaction, breaking us away from the outcomes we thought we knew. I’ll share an example. Here’s chapter 14, “Fragment,” in its entirety–

A single fragment is all that survives of the forty-fifth book of the Odyssey:

Odysseus, finding that his reputation for trickery preceded, started inventing histories for himself and disseminating them wherever he went. This had the intended effect of clouding perception and distorting expectation, making it easier for him to work as he was wont, and the unexpected effect that one of his lies became, with minor variations, the Odyssey of Homer.

Lies with minor variations is a pretty good definition for storytelling. As the fragment above may skew a bit too academic for some readers, a bit too meta-textual, I’ll hasten to point out that Mason’s primary concern is storytelling. We get all the old characters: Penelope and Telemachus, Agamemnon and Achilles, Circe and Cassandra, and so on. Mason’s take is programmatic from the example above though — he works by “clouding perception and distorting expectation.” The opening chapter, “Sad Revelation,” begins with Odysseus returning home to find that Penelope is an old woman, and remarried at that. This revelation turns false, a “vengeful illusion, the deception of some malevolent god. The real Ithaca is elsewhere, somewhere on the sea-roads, hidden. Giddy, Odysseus turns and flees the tormenting shadows.” Hence, the real joy here is in movement and adventure. The journey is the telos, not Ithaca itself. Homecoming is always a deferral.

The opening chapter’s theme of an illusory home and wife repeats throughout the text, as Mason suggests again and again that notions of a stable, fixed identity will always prove untrue. Odysseus, through a clerical error, is ordered to carry out his own assassination. Later, he seems to swap souls with a Trojan enemy, living out another person’s life entirely. In another episode, we see that Odysseus never really escapes Hades, that he is simply always travelling through it, catching glimpses of another, older life.

While many of Mason’s pieces are short — one to three pages — there is a richness here that taps into the history of Western literature. What’s striking is how alienating it can all be: how dark, how cold, how scary. We are reminded that Odysseus can trace his lineage to lycanthropes, an odd call to Scandinavian myth, one reinforced later on a beach with three witches, a tale that echoes (or prefigures) the horror of Macbeth. Mason shows us (or, perhaps more accurately reminds us) that the Odyssey uncannily permeates more of our literature than we might readily recall.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey is post-modern through and through, fragmentary and elliptical, meta-textual and highly ironized. There’s of course a rich tradition of reinterpreting the Odyssey, from Tennyson’s poem to Joyce’s classic, from the Coen brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou? to Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, and Mason’s book will not disappoint those who are interested int the subject (although admittedly, some readers may find too much academic commentary in his work — not me though). In his brevity and frank humor, but most of all in the seemingly unclassifiableness of his work, Mason’s writing reminds me of Lydia Davis or Amy Hempel, but also Borges and Calvino. These are stories that might not be stories in a novel that might not be a novel. Highly recommended.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey is new in trade paperback from Picador.

Amy Hempel on Gordon Lish and Barry Hannah

Amy Hempel talks Gordon Lish and Barry Hannah (among other things) in a new interview with Vice. A taste–

Do you think about readers when you’re writing? Do you personify them?
I do. I always have, and it’s always been a handful of other writers. Sometimes it has changed, but yes, I really do think of a few actual people. It makes it a little bit easier since I know them, and I know that, well, if this person will find it funny, then I’ve succeeded, or some such thing. It makes it more like trading confidences. I think it’s daunting to think of writing for one’s readers, whoever they may be, so I bring it down to something manageable—a few people whose standards I know and whose work I very much admire—and that makes it more like, almost, a letter to the person. That helps me set the course.

So do you think like, “I’m going to change this here. I’m sure Gordon Lish would love it”?
[laughs] Well, I often have in mind Barry Hannah, and in fact when you phoned me just now, I was working on some remarks I’m going to make at a sort of memorial tribute to Barry, who died last March. This is something that will be held just outside Boston, two nights from now. A bunch of writers who adored him, just paying tribute to him. Barry Hannah was always on my list of people I knew, writers I admired immensely, and just thinking, you know, Barry Hannah might read this, it seemed to focus me when I was writing.

Writing is an extremely solitary activity, but at the same time it’s also very intense. One analogy that I always think of is swimming—it’s something that you do on your own, and the only standard of success you have is your last lap.
I agree 100 percent. And yet there are writers who hold themselves up and compare themselves to other writers. I think that’s useless. As you say, you’re only trying to beat your own best time. That’s the only relevant competition as far as I’m concerned.

Is your past with Lish something that still has an influence on you?
You know, it was a long time ago. I was a student of his at Columbia and then privately and then his author back in the early 80s. I did two books with him. Working with him was a crucial formative experience, but it was a long time ago. There are other writers who have sort of stepped in. Interestingly, Barry Hannah was one and Mary Robison is another, and they are both his authors, too, and were at the time that I was being published by him. So, yes, [Lish] had a terrific impact on my writing very early on. I don’t think he’s writing any more, but he’s still present among writers who really do care about writing at the sentence level. His impact there has certainly endured.

What about the so-called golden age of American short stories? I don’t really know if it’s accurate, or even intelligent, to define it that way.
Well, I think it was a phenomenon in publishing, with a lot of critics rightly going to Raymond Carver—who was also Gordon’s author—and people like Mary Robison. You know—some of the story writers who really, really opened things up again for stories as a commercially viable kind of writing as well as something that was important to a lot of readers.

“Housewife” — Amy Hempel

“Housewife,” a very short story by Amy Hempel

She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, “French film, French film.”

(From Micro Fiction, edited by Jerome Stern).

“Hostess” — Amy Hempel

“Hostess” by Amy Hempel–

She swallowed Gore Vidal. Then she swallowed Donald Trump. She took a blue capsule and a gold spansule–a B-complex and an E–and put them on the tablecloth a few inches apart. She pointed the one at the other. “Martha Stewart,” she said, “meet Oprah Winfrey.” She swallowed them both without water.

(From Micro Fiction, edited by Jerome Stern).