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AN INTERVIEW WITH AMY HEMPEL Amy Hempel O Bill Hayward Amy Hempel is the author of two coUections of short stories, Reasons to Live (Knopf, 1985) and At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom (Knopf, 1990). Individual stories have been pubUshed in such magazines as Mother Jones, Grand Street, The Missouri Review, and Vanity Fair, where she later became a contributing editor. Her stories have been translated into twelve languages and anthologized in this country and abroad, and have been included in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize, the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, and T7ie Best of the Missouri Review: Fiction, among others. Her nonfiction regularly appears in Vanity Fair, the New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Interview, and elsewhere. This interview was conducted for The Missouri Review, in cooperation with the American Audio Prose Library, on November 6, 1991, by Jo Sapp in Columbia, MO. An Interview with Amy Hempel/Jo Sapp Interviewer: Many of our readers know your work, but not much about your life. Can you fiU us in on your background? Hempel: I was born in Chicago in 1951, and Uved in and around the dty till third grade, I think. After that I Uved in Denver for eight years, then moved to San Frandsco for about twelve years, then to New York where I Uve now. I was happy to leave California because I was traumatized by the earthquakes. On the positive side, I moved to work in pubUshing. Interviewer: Where did you go to coUege? Hempel: I had a nonlinear coUege education. I went to five different coUeges and universities in California, where I majored in journaUsm and took many incompletes. My coUege time was interrupted by accidents and any number of things going on that took precedence over sitting in class. I went from accident to accident, hospital to hospital; I'd walk out of the house in the morning and half look up to see when the Mosler safe was going to faU out of the sky and smash me into the sidewalk. I used to refer to my twenties as "the lost years," and then I reaUzed it was research. During this time I kept journals, as I had for a long time. My impulse was to note and save things that struck me. It wasn't, "Today I did this, today I did that." It was a journal of things people said. When I started writing fiction in my early thirties, I found myself cannibalizing the journals from my twenties. My first book, Reasons to Live, came from aU of that turmoU. Ifs no secret that pain teaches. It makes you think, "How can I get myself through this? And this. And this." Interviewer: Did you find the same kind of solution that your characters often do? Did you laugh? The Missouri Review · 77 Hempel: I didn't do a lot of laughing at the time. I looked for smaU victories. The stories in Reasons to Live—my god, what a lofty title—but reaUy, the reasons in many of the stories are pretty smaU. That's okay. It doesn't have to be any big deal as long as it wiU puU you through. Interviewer: Your narrators and central characters have wonderful defense systems. Quite often they're placed in situations where they're either going to laugh or cry, and end up doing a Uttle of both. Hempel: Doctors often have the darkest senses of humor. They have to, don't they? I spent a lot of time in hospitals where I picked some of that up. There's a way in which you can make the readers laugh until suddenly they're crying, and they don't know what hit them. Ifs a very purposeful kind of manipulation. Interviewer: One critic has characterized the worldview in your fiction as "detached and absurd." Would you agree with that assessment? Hempel: Not with the "detached" part, but in my twenties in San Frandsco, the people I hung around with most were members of improvisational comedy groups. The whole thrust of that is to seize on the odd, or the turned-around take on things. I wrote about some of...


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