Amy Hempel’s stories breathe with wit and light and play. Her voice is the giver of secrets, as well as the jokes which mask those secrets. The laughter cuts through what’s bitter, making any pill she gives us easy to swallow. Her characters are damaged goods—they walk through life with the lens of loss tinting their view. These losses—whether they be the death of a best friend, an unborn baby, a mother, a house—never defeat those in mourning. They become stronger, their scars a complexity, inevitably becoming beauty. In her new collection, Tumble Home, Hempel stretches the “miniaturist” inclinations of her stories to include a novella, where through a lengthy letter to an artist, a woman in a private sanitarium attempts to reconnect with the world, finding a home in the most unlikely of places. Tumble Home is a point of departure from Hempel’s earlier collections, Reasons to Live and At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. Her new work dwells less on the losses, focusing more on the celebration of what’s good, even in the simplest of terms, of being in the here and now.
Suzan Sherman You’re training a puppy to be a seeing-eye dog.
Amy Hempel I’m what’s called a puppy raiser. My husband and I are raising the puppy as if it were our own dog, and doing all the basic obedience training that any dog would have to know. But unlike our own dog Audie, they have to be able to behave in a restaurant, to not grab food off another table. They can’t just jump up on couches and chairs. After a year or so we return her to the school (Guiding Eyes for the Blind) where they’ll complete the four months of specialized training, and the matching with the blind partner.
SS I wonder how it will feel for you, to eventually have to give away this animal that you’ve adopted for a short period of time.
AH Well the joke around our house is that when the year’s up my husband will be leading a blind person around for the rest of his life. Nobody who knows me believes I’m going to be able to give this dog up. I’m not thinking about the end of it though, the built-in heartbreak. What I’m already feeling after only one month is that it’s a kind of heightened appreciation because I know we will only have one year.
SS The narrator in your novella Tumble Home is traumatized by the fact that as a child her mother gave away her dog without asking. And now you, as an author, will be giving away a dog yourself. But it’s your choice.
AH And that makes all the difference in the world. I knew it going in, and I signed a contract agreeing to it. I won’t come home from school one day and find a dog gone, as I once did. Maybe there’s some sort of repair in the fact of doing it over on my own terms. I don’t know, we’ll see.
SS In the conclusion of your story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” the chimp who knows sign language and whose baby just died, expresses her grief incredibly honestly in the signs, “’Baby, come hug, baby, come hug,’ fluent now in the language of grief." This chimp has the ability, more than the narrator of the story whose best friend is dying, to fully express her emotions to the one that she loves, and stands by the dead and dying when it’s needed the most. It’s as though the animal is more compassionate than the human being is. With your love for dogs and other animals, do you think of them as being more humane than people in some ways?
AH I think there’s a purity of feeling there that humans can connect with if we’re lucky, or if we’re looking for it. And in that story, you got it exactly, the animal is capable of the response the human might have liked to have but is incapable of.
SS Animals don’t have any walls that have been built up, boundaries, for protection.
AH Right, and to my knowledge animals don’t hide from real feeling behind sarcasm or irony.
SS Do you have a particular affinity to people who have lost one or more of their senses? This theme is present in your earlier work and is continued in Tumble Home, when the narrator writes to the artist asking him . . .
AH If you had to lose your sight or your hearing, which one would you choose? That’s a game we always used to play. It’s funny, I haven’t thought about it before in terms of a lost sense, so much as a loss. In my first book all of the stories have to do with loss of one kind or another, a loss of life, a job, a home. I’ve always been interested in people who have gone through something, and maybe come out the other side not intact. It raises the issue of compensation, if compensation is possible. In the opening of the novella there’s this line about how things seem to matter less when your life has been tipped over and poured out. It’s just another way of saying that, that maybe you find it freeing to lose something. You don’t have to be so careful anymore. Instead of being more careful, you’re less careful.
SS In your story “Why I’m Here” the narrator speaks of constantly moving from place to place, and in the process weans herself of things, and in losing those things she’s able to get to the core, the purity, of who she is.
AH When I lived in California I had a friend whose way of life I envied. She had a small apartment in Berkeley with nothing in it except cream colored spotless carpeting . . .
SS Very California.
AH Yes, light coming in through the windows, and maybe a single calla lily in a plain crystal vase on the table. It was a place for her meditation. She worked half of each year with Mother Teresa in India and then she came back to California to recharge. She had this simple life. Everything extraneous was omitted, and that meant just about everything. I aspire to that, though I never come anywhere near it.
SS Well maybe you do in your stories, in figuring out what to leave in and take out.
AH Well, actually, thank you for that connection. Maybe that is where I have a chance of making that happen, of leaving the extraneous and trying to get to the essential, because it sure isn’t happening in my apartment.
SS Do you meticulously revise your work or are you closer to the idea of a freshness, that your first thought is your best thought?
AH It’s not quite either. It’s more that I’ll turn a sentence over endlessly in my head before it hits the page. By the time it’s on the page, it’s pretty likely to stay there. So much revision happens before the writing starts. That can really trip a person up. I think I would find it more gratifying to write a lot just to be able to see something I had done more than a few sentences at a time and then go tidy up, but I’ve never been able to work that way. I don’t like to see a bad sentence written down. And I have a superstitious fear, which is to put it in type or in handwriting on the page is to freeze it and make it indestructible, and I won’t be able to see it another way.
SS Was your family surprised that you wanted to be a writer? Was it hard for you to define yourself that way, or were they supportive?
AH I did it so late. I didn’t start writing fiction until I was about 30. I’d done a little bit of journalism before that. So I think that my family was just more relieved than surprised, relieved that I’d found something that I could do.
SS So Tumble Home is your third book, you’ll be reading at the 92nd Street Y, and yet I don’t sense any pretensions from you. It seems like you approach your work and the world with a refreshing modesty. How do you maintain that in literary New York, which can be so cutthroat?
AH Whenever I come across a writer who is truly arrogant I recoil. I find that so deeply unattractive. I’m not promoting false modesty, I don’t think people should underplay their stuff, but it isn’t seemly. We’ve all attended so many readings of poetry and fiction over the years, and when I think of the writers who were in love with every word that they read versus the writers, like Raymond Carver—hearing Ray Carver read and the almost matter of fact quality of his presentation. He had reason to be one of those arrogant performers and he wasn’t at all. Carver said a wonderful thing. Barry Hannah told me this story. Somebody complimented Carver on something he had written and Carver said, “It’s what I can do.” And it just brought tears to my eyes when I first heard that. Still does. The simplicity, the humility, the respect inherent in a comment like that. I think that was just a wonderful way to put it. And he would say that, you know what I mean?
SS Yeah. Nowadays it seems like the novel with a capital N is what everyone holds in such high regard as opposed to short stories. There’s so much pressure for young writers’ first books to be novels instead of a collection of stories. Have you ever felt this pressure?
AH I was lucky. I was never pressured. But it wasn’t luck, it was Gordon [Lish]. And it was Knopf at the time when I was first writing and publishing. Money wasn’t the first priority. They were more interested in making names. They would take a chance, and with a small advance do a collection. My agent didn’t pressure me. Editor, publisher, nobody pressured me to write a novel, and there are wonderful writers that I like so much that just never wrote novels. Who’s mourning the lost novels of Grace Paley? Those are fabulous stories. It would be silly to urge me to write a novel. It’s not what I do.
SS When you were writing your novella did you feel that that process of writing was different than with your stories?
AH It was different. It was really hard. I had no interest in writing a conventional novella.
SS What does conventional mean to you?
AH A lot of background on the characters, and what Nancy Lemann calls “plottistic.” That doesn’t interest me to read and I certainly wouldn’t want to write like that. It has to be a kind of dreamy vignette, a mosaic, made a different way. Something more like Noy Holland’s “Orbit,” or Edna O’Brien’s Night, or Barry Hannah’s incomparable Ray. I don’t experience life in a linear fashion, in any kind of continuum. It’s moment, moment, moment, moment. Piece them together and you get some sort of whole. That’s how I process experience. But it was hard doing that over the length of a hundred plus pages. Just having to trust that the little vignettes accumulate, that there is a reason why they work together in some way. But there are a lot of writers who make me look completely conventional, and I’m all for it. I think that’s great. You know, Carole Maso’s novel Ava or David Markson’s novel, Reader’s Block. And especially story writers, like Ben Marcus and Gary Lutz. I’m still kind of distressed by critics who will just tear into you for not writing within their antiquated definitions of what a story or a novel is. They’re out-of-date, and yet these critics have no problem condemning a lot of new work, saying this isn’t a story or this isn’t a novel because it’s not something they recognize. And it goes on all the time. Sort of boring.
SS Are you going to read what people say about your book?
AH Yeah, yeah. I can’t not read it.
AH Morbid curiosity. I mean, do you want to know what people say when you’ve written something?
SS It depends who the person is. But I’ve never had a book published, so I don’t know how it would feel. When I show people what I write, I choose those people.
AH Right. It’s different, and when you’re published you’re no longer choosing.
SS Last semester I showed my students your story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” and the last day of class one of my students told me that your story was her favorite that we’d read, and we’d also studied The Metamorphosis and The Hunger Artist as well as Carver, Munro, and Paley among others. But some of the students were not quite as comfortable with your more experimental writing. They didn’t understand remarks such as “What does Kübler-Ross say comes after denial?” Is it important to you that a reader understand every sentence of your work, that they get every joke, or is it more that they simply get a feeling when they reach the end of it, of the emotions that you were trying to figure out and convey?
AH Well I don’t think my references are so esoteric. Kübler-Ross is pretty well known, and I’m not trying to stump anybody with references. But more in terms of leaping over things, or leaving out things that the reader can fill in . . . I hope people know what I was saying, but if they don’t I’m not going to accommodate them. I wouldn’t dumb it down as it were, or I wouldn’t spell the thing out because that would put off the smart reader I want. That might sound kind of nasty, but I don’t mean it that way. It comes back to the question, whom are you writing for? Who are the readers you want? Who are the people you want to engage with the things that matter most to you? And for me, it’s people who don’t need it all spelled out because they know it, they understand it. That’s why there’s so much I can’t read because I get so exasperated. Someone starts describing the character boarding the plane and pulling the seat back. And I just want to say, Babe, I have been downtown. (laughter) I have been up in a plane. Give me some credit.
SS Have you read anything lately you really like?
AH Mark Richard’s book Charity, which is coming out next year. I don’t think stories get better than his. I teach his stories all the time and this new collection is really a stunner. And John Rybicki’s new collection of poetry, Traveling at High Speeds. I re-read more. I re-read things that have knocked me out in the past; I’m always going back to, say, Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson’s collection, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver, Mary Robison, Barry Hannah. I know I’ll leave people out.
SS I wonder if re-reading is different for you than reading. Is it like you’re trying to figure something out, as opposed to reading and riding with the pleasure of being lost in the words?
AH You may be right, that in the re-reading you want to recapture the initial effect it had on you, but you’re also trying to de-code it. How did he make this? How did she do that to me? How can I do it to somebody else? There are poems and certain stories, certain lines of stories, last lines, I’ve read them countless times. I know what’s coming, and still I come undone each time. This is what gets me ready to write, where I feel smarter for having read it. I’ll make better choices on the page because I have been in this company.
SS How do you know when a piece of writing is successful?
AH I know in visceral terms. If I read something and get teary, or get a chill, or realize I’ve been holding my breath. I trust the body. You can admire something intellectually, but how much better if you respond to it bodily!
SS Is there a particular story of yours that’s your favorite?
AH There’s a story that’s one of the first that I ever wrote. I wouldn’t say favorite, but it’s representative of everything I’ve done since then. It’s a short, called “The Man in Bogota,” about the man who was kidnapped and held for ransom, but had a heart condition and had to be kept alive.
SS And he comes out healthier as a result, just like the narrator that moved, and some of the flood victims. Your characters are incredibly aware of their mortality. The narrator in “The Annex” lives across the street from a graveyard, and the narrator in Tumble Home says “I can be a graveyard.” I wonder if the characters’ seemingly conscious awareness of their own mortality makes you yourself more alive, more appreciative of life and of others. Do you ever think of yourself that way, compared to other people?
AH I don’t know, but as we said when we first sat down in talking about the dog, it’s having a focus and knowing it’s finite. This focuses your attention in the moment.
SS When you’re with a person that is dying it seems as if there are these heightened moments of being that are just so rich.
AH Because it all signifies, doesn’t it?
SS Your narrator in Tumble Home asks what the difference is between originality and creativity, and I wonder how you yourself would answer this question.
AH That’s an idea from a conversation with an artist many, many years ago. There is a difference, isn’t there? You can write a story where you’ve created something but it’s like a million other stories. Gordon [Lish] used to ask us in his workshop, why would you want to add to what’s already in the world? Don’t we want to make something new? Of course you want to do something new. That’s originality. It’s not enough to be creative. Anybody can be creative.
SS A teacher of mine once defined a story as a situation where a character goes about some sort of change. Do you have a particular definition, if there is any one definition, which could encompass it all?
AH There are some definitions I like. My favorite comment in that regard is something Leonard Michaels said to me a long time ago. At the time he published some very, very short stories in literary magazines and I said something like, I guess you take a lot of heat for those, calling them stories. He said, you tell them what a story is—they don’t know. That was a great thing to hear when I was starting to write. One of the most useful things in teaching I’ve ever heard was from Tim O’Brien. We’ve taught workshops together at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference over the years, and he would say over and over again, "Stories are not explanations." It’s true and useful.
SS Much of your writing seems to be based, at least partly, on some aspect of your life experience. Many writers, such as Sharon Olds, create such a strong distance between the narrator and the author. Some do this to protect themselves and their families’ privacy, and others do it, I think, because writers generally have a greater respect for fiction, that you’re a better writer if you can make it up. Do you feel a similar sensitivity and separation between the author and the narrator of your stories?
AH I’ve never had a problem with saying this story came out of this thing that did happen. Because again, it can’t help but be changed in the making. This new book, the novella, is both the most completely made up and the most personal thing I’ve ever written. There’s distance whether you try for it or not because it’s never the same thing that gets to the page. It’s not what happened. You can’t keep yourself from altering it to make it a better story. If you’re a real writer.
SS In your story “The Harvest,” at the halfway point the narrator says, well actually the character isn’t a reporter, he’s a journalism student. Actually it wasn’t a car crash. You’re making the reader aware of the fictional element.
AH People think that the second version is the real version, the way it really happened, but I could have written a third version that would have revealed everything I changed or made up in the “true” version. It’s an infinite deal. Tim O’Brien used to talk about changing the facts to get at the truth. I think it’s like that.
SS Is that how it came about with Tumble Home? It’s less about you in terms of what you’ve done, but in changing the facts you were able to get closer, without fear or inhibitions.
AH Yeah. The primary concerns of the people in the institution, some of them are primary concerns of mine. But there’s a real way in which I am more absent from this piece of work, and yet I have more invested in it in other ways than in anything before.
SS Why more?
AH Part of it’s the form. Because it’s the first time I’ve written a novella. I feel as though I know how to write a short story. So no sooner do you feel that then you seek to undo yourself by trying to do something you don’t know how to do. From the beginning it seemed to have a completely different kind of pacing and sense of time than a story. It seemed bigger and longer to me almost immediately.
SS And did you know who the narrator was writing to when you were writing Tumble Home?
AH Not at first. The fact of it being a letter actually came fairly late, but it answered a lot of questions, it tied up a lot of problems. In fact, the minute I realized it should be a letter, I thought God, of course. Why didn’t I see that? I’d been stalled out for a couple of years with it. I’d gone too far with it to throw it out, but I just didn’t know what to do with it. And when the possibility of making it a letter occurred to me I shot ahead to the end. That happened when I was at Yaddo. It would have been nice if it had occurred sooner but . . .
SS Are you a letter writer?
AH That’s what I mean, why didn’t I think of that sooner? It was the thing that was right in front of me, because what I do to stall, is I write letters. I write tons of letters to people, all the time. So why was this the last thing to occur to me as a solution to the novella? Life’s perverse.
SS So the artist the narrator is writing to is Robert Motherwell?
AH No, it’s not Robert Motherwell. You saw the notes at the end?
AH He’s been an important person in our family from afar, before we ever met him. There had been a visit with him when I was 19. One of those turning points in one’s life. We had a weekend and long talks with him, and it sparked a lot. This letter is not to him, but there are things that he had said to me that I had kept in my journal. And things that I later read in some of his collected writings sparked a fair amount. But the letter’s not to him.
SS Do you know what your next book is going to be?
AH In the past, I haven’t written for at least a year after finishing a book and I think I’ll have no trouble keeping that up this time because I got this dog. I’ll be training a dog instead of writing. I don’t know what’ll happen next. By the time I finish a book I really feel as though I don’t have a single thought in my head. I lose or use everything I know, which is kind of scary.
SS You have to fill up. You quoted James Dickey at the beginning of your second collection At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom: “hoping only the irrelevancies one thinks of when trying to pray are the prayer.” Many of your characters are preoccupied with trivialities, the seemingly irrelevant. Do you think of your writing as a form of prayer?
AH I don’t think so. I like that Dickey quote a lot because it seems accurate. That’s what happens when you write. You think you’re going to write one kind of story but you end up writing another, and you hope that that’s what you’re meant to be doing, that that’s what counts. I don’t know what a prayer is like really.
SS In “Tom Rock Through the Eels” the narrator’s grandmother sleeps beneath a portrait of her daughter who has passed away. In California—earthquake territory—to sleep beneath anything is to have the potential to be crushed, to be crushed by grief or natural disasters. So many characters in your work have the potential to be destroyed by death, floods, abortion, car accidents, and other tragedies and yet they somehow overcome it. What do they learn that makes them able to do this? How has tragedy changed them?
AH There was a sermon I attended when I was a little girl. It turns up in the novella. It was called “The Blessing of Dailiness.” I think that’s what they find, that the answer is in dailiness. It’s not in big life-changing things, it’s in getting up and brushing your teeth. When I started writing stories it was all about starting from the point of the most pain, of the most fear, of the most jeopardy. I still think that’s a valid way to proceed, but more recently I started to say to myself, all right, it’s a departure, instead of some big, dark thing, what if I wrote about people who had everything they needed and were happy in normal ways? What would that be like? I’ve been getting away from all the painful stuff, the heavier things.
SS The play of your details, the biting off of the candy corn: yellow—orange—white, the play of where your stories end, are some of the aspects of your writing that I cherish. When you’re writing do you too feel these elements of surprise that the reader does, and do you consider writing as a form of play, or work, or both?
AH It’s never been play. I’ve never been able to quite believe the few writers I’ve heard who describe it as play. Play? There’s no play to it at all. I mean, I’m glad it can read that way sometimes. It’s hard work.
SS Do you know where they’re going to end?
AH I actually do. I always know where the thing ends when I start.
SS How do you know when you’re finished?
AH When I get to the line that I had when I started. It would seem that this would preclude the element of being surprised. It doesn’t, believe me, because I don’t know anything else in between.
SS In your story “Tom Rock Through the Eels,” the narrator wakes up every morning in the same position her mother had died in. The same holds true for the narrator in Tumble Home, and actually some of the paragraphs in these stories are the same, as well as the feeling of anger and dissatisfaction with the mother. Raymond Carver initially wrote “The Bath,” and then went on to revise it as “A Small, Good Thing.”
AH And Rough Strife, a story which Lynne Sharon Schwartz expanded into a novel as well. There are a lot of incidents of that.
SS Do you consider Tumble Home a revision?
SS Is it like in the first paragraph of Tumble Home, when you say, “. . . asking the same question over again."
AH Yeah, it is more like that. It’s definitely not a revision. I included verbatim three paragraphs from that story simply because they also belonged in the novella. They needed to be there and I didn’t see the point in re-doing it just to make it different, when I liked the way they were.
SS Your narrators are unnamed; when I’m reading them consecutively there’s a feeling of melding worlds.
AH That’s also intentional. There are more possibilities when you don’t pin down a person with a name and an age and a background because then people can bring something to them or take something from them. I like when that happens.
SS Kafka wrote The Judgement in one sitting and had the same hopes for The Metamorphosis, but he was constantly interrupted because of his day job. (laughter) Many of your stories are quite short, in the most recent collection your story “Housewife” is comprised of a paragraph. One wonders if you write your stories in one sitting, or, like Elizabeth Bishop who sometimes took years to complete a poem, working and waiting for it to ripen. What is your process?
AH Slow. Slow. Slow. I think maybe one story in my life has come quickly, maybe two short ones. Gordon used to say, one of the paradoxes in writing is that the story ideally has the feeling of just bursting forth in the instant, but of course you’ve labored and labored to try and create that feeling. And by the way, there’s a much shorter story by Gertrude Stein. It’s titled “Longer”: “She stayed away longer.”
SS Your work never reads as painstaking.
AH A writer friend once said that the inability to move ahead quickly is a crisis of confidence, which I thought was an interesting way to look at it. And Gordon used the term “writer’s search,” instead of writer’s block. It makes it a more active experience.
SS In Tumble Home, as well as “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” the sense of place is at first mysterious to the reader. In reading “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried”, until I got more deeply into the story, I thought it was taking place in a mental institution as opposed to a hospital. And I found that same sort of tension in Tumble Home. Were you aware of this when you were writing the stories?
AH I was certainly aware of it in the new work, and again, I don’t want to spell things out. I don’t want to limit what the thing can be. It means people do bring their own stuff to it. I find this in reviews. One reviewer refers to the widowed father in a story I wrote. Another reviewer refers to the divorced father. Well I never say he’s widowed or divorced. He’s just always the father. There’s no mention of the mother. So people make their own mythology out of what you’ve done.
SS In Tumble Home some of the characters in the rest home walk the dogs from the shelter nearby. Both the humans and the dogs reside in homes which are not solid, true “homes.” And there’s this image of the narrator and the kennel dog, the two of them standing outside of the dog run, the two of them just watching, together, but apart from everyone else. Do they parallel each other?
AH Oh sure. For both comfort and company, on pretty clean terms. The thought that goes through my head is the clean way a dog enlists your heart. I like that cleanliness, their purity. They’re also standing in for people, in the best sense, in the stuff that I do. It’s like the other epigraph I used in Animal Kingdom. The Vicki Hearne poem. It’s a Q & A. It’s somebody asking Vicki, "What are all those horses doing in your poems. I mean, what do they stand for?" And Vicki says, "Horses. They stand for horses. The way I stand for you."
SS Tumble Home takes place in what we call, euphemistically, a rest home. The word home is such a loaded one. And here, you have home in the title of your work. In the novella this “home” acts as a place to go to heal the mind, so that one can then enter back into society, if they so choose. I wonder what your definition of home is. Is it where nothing else can touch you? And though “tumble home” is a boating term, tumbling suggests a fall from something.
AH It’s significant that the word home is in the title, and this place where everyone is living isn’t their home. But as you say, it’s where they’re trying to re-group so they can go home. The narrator says at some point that the truth is, this is the place where she feels the way you feel when you’re at home. Maybe home isn’t what you thought it was going to be, or it isn’t what you wished it were.
SS Is it where nothing else can touch you?
AH Well I think in the ideal it’s protection. But of course, in fact, it’s often the most dangerous place where anything can happen. So what do you do about that? And maybe it’s okay that you feel at home in a place that isn’t your home.
SS Where is your home if you’re constantly moving? Is it within yourself?
AH I went through a period in San Francisco. I think it was a four year period, I moved something like 24 times. This was not a great time in my life, clearly, but it makes you re-examine. Again, there are no conclusions here, there’s just, what is this? A friend of mine read Tumble Home. He’s since stopped drinking. He said that if I called it “Stumble Home” it would be about his last year in New York, before he quit drinking. I love that term, “tumble home,” that ship building term. I love what it means. That place at the bow of a ship where water cuts to one side or the other.
SS Parting the waves.
SS Miracle. Tumbling is playing. Or like falling.
AH Or like falling, which isn’t necessarily playful or benign. It’s all those things . . .
SS The characters in your stories, the way they talk to one another is so smart in the back and forth. Does your germ for a story usually begin with over-hearing something, or is it something somebody says to you?
AH It’s often overhearing something. One of the things that I always make my students do is eavesdrop, and come in with things that they’ve heard that aren’t bizarre or wacky, but just slightly off center. Tumble Home is dedicated to both of my brothers and I’ve used a lot of things that they’ve said. And a few friends, Pearson Marx and Mark Richard and Jim Shepard. They’re represented here; they know where they are.
SS There are the funny things that people say in your stories, and yet they are paired with so much grief and the overcoming of loss, the connection between laughter and crying. You’re killing me with laughter. Or laugh until you cry.
AH In a couple of weeks I’m giving a lecture on humor in fiction at Bennington with one of my colleagues, Jill McCorkle. I’m concentrating on the mix of humor and horror that you find, say, in that great Toby Wolff story “Bullet in the Brain.” Or in “Emergency,” by Denis Johnson about the drugged orderlies and the guy with the knife in his eye. You get this mix, and somehow at the end there’s an astonishing grace note. Something can happen when you’re mixing the humor and the horror, and if you’re lucky, it yields something completely other. Look at the endings of those stories. They’re gorgeous. Jill McCorkle told me the other day, she’s from North Carolina, that a cousin of hers brought a date to her father’s funeral. A date. And Jill said, Betty Lynn, did you bring a date to daddy’s funeral? And Betty Lynn’s like, well I thought he could meet the family. (laughter) That’s her normal life, but to me it’s just ahh! No wonder she’s a writer if that’s her normal life.
SS What do you mean when you say that’s her normal life, she’s a writer?
AH I mean how lucky for her. That kind of thing happening in her life is a given. I mean, I couldn’t make up something that good. Anderson Ferrell, who’s also a novelist and also from the South, has this story I’ve always loved. There’s a family retainer on his farm in North Carolina. And whenever you’d ask her a question she didn’t know the answer to she wouldn’t say I don’t know, she’d say, you asked me too soon. I could envy growing up with somebody like that at your side every day. Also, they’re paying attention. She knew and he knew that those things were gold. With another person it might have gone unremarked. It’s recognizing what on a daily basis is good. I love that question of Gordon’s. Why would you want to add to what’s already in the world? That’s the challenge. What can I bring to your attention that’s not out there already? Now that’s a thrill, if you can do it.