From the archives: An interview with Amy Hempel, on the occasion of her judging the 2012 Tennessee Williams Literary Festival Fiction Contest

Short story aficionado Amy Hempel will judge the 2012 Tennessee Williams Literary Festival Fiction Contest (entries due Nov. 15!) and will appear as a participant in the festival, which takes place March 21 – 25. I had the pleasure of interviewing Hempel last year about her editorship of the 2010 New Stories from the South anthology, published, as always, by Algonquin Books. Since not long has passed, and the interview is mostly about Hempel’s relationship with the South, I thought it would be appropriate for Room 220 to republish the interview, which originally appeared in Gigantic Magazine. We conducted it via email over three days last July, while the hole left in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico by the explosion of British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig had been spewing tens of thousands of barrels of oil a day into the gulf for nearly three months.

READING DIXIE: an interview with Amy Hempel by Nathan C. Martin
Amy Hempel is the first Northerner to edit New Stories from the South, but it’s not as if she had to get out a map to find Chapel Hill when Algonquin approached her about the project. Hempel is something of a secret Southerner, in fact. The reading lists she teaches are top-heavy with Southern fiction, and friendships with the likes of Barry Hannah, Frederick Barthelme, Mary Robison, and Nancy Lemann have kept her in close touch with Mississippi, Florida, and Louisiana.
The stories in this year’s anthology abound with animals, and not merely the dogs that often populate Hempel’s life and work: There’s a dead deer in a pond, a dead moose in a boat, a live caiman as a pet, and a giant catfish kept moist and breathing on land with a hose. And the people—they birth and die all over the place, amid calamities and sadness, humor and hope. What New Orleans native and novelist Nancy Lemann said about the South is true of the stories in this book: There’s a lot of human condition going around.
Editor Louis Rubin founded Algonquin Books in 1991 to function as an outlet for emerging writers who had no connections in the New York publishing industry. Algonquin’s location in North Carolina meant word of it spread among Southern writers more widely and quickly than in the rest of the nation, and although it was not intended to have a regional focus, that’s what it ended up with. Algonquin is known today largely in two respects: as the foremost publisher of contemporary Southern literary fiction; and for its New Stories from the South series, which was for years the product of editor Shannon Ravenel’s efforts, but which is now overseen by Kathy Pories. The anthology has published stories by Barry Hannah, Robert Olen Butler, Jill McCorkle, Allan Gurganus, Nanci Kincaid, Steve Almond, Madison Smartt Bell, Mary Hood, and many others. The authors in this 25th edition include Rick Bass, Wendell Berry, George Singleton, Ann Pancake, Padgett Powell, Marjorie Kemper, and Wells Tower.
NATHAN C. MARTIN: You wrote in “The Afterlife” that water is your “place on earth, not swimming pools at small hotels, but lakes, the ocean, a lazy-waved bay, ponds ringed with willows, and me the girl swimming under low-hanging branches brushed by leaves for the rest of my days.” How do you feel when you see water being treated as it is in the Gulf with the oil spill?
AMY HEMPEL: I feel the way every other person who cares about LIFE feels about the situation there—it’s criminal, devastating, and I’m sickened, furious, and anguished. It is hard to believe what has happened—is STILL happening—in the Gulf.  I have lovely memories of the Gulf Coast and I am going back later this summer to look for myself. Water is very important in my life, as in my fiction—the Gulf Coast, certain lakes in Maine, the Caribbean, Venice Beach, the pond in Illinois that is described in the quote from “The Afterlife.”
NCM:  Do you have a particularly fond memory of being on the Gulf that you could relate?

AH: Every time I was in Hattiesburg visiting the University of Southern Mississippi’s writing program with Rick Barthelme, Rie Fortenberry, Mary Robison, et al. Going out to the casinos!—before they were blown away.

NCM: I assume you know about Barthelme’s removal from that program.

AH: Yes, it’s unbelievably awful.  I’d known of this for some time, and there are MANY writers across the country writing to the dean about this, me included. Disgusting…


NCM: When you’re writing, you pay strict attention to the individual sentence. Is the same true while you’re reading—especially when you’re reading for a purpose?

AH: I DO read at the sentence level, even when I am not reading for a project like this. Language is always the first requirement. If I find myself stopping to say a sentence aloud—that’s a very good sign. I also want a sense that the author is not holding anything back.

NCM: A story can be called “Southern” for a number of reasons—its author’s place of origin or residence, its content or tone—but I was wondering if perhaps Southern stories are simply made of Southern sentences. What do you think?

AH: This is an interesting question!  There are Southern words, certainly, and Southern idioms. I like the idea of a Southern sentence, but I don’t know of one to give you.

NCM: I guess when I was thinking about Southern sentences, I was thinking mostly about Barry Hannah. I believe his book Ray is composed almost exclusively of them. You knew Hannah personally, and this anthology is dedicated to him. But I was wondering if you could talk about your relationship with him in another regard—with you as a reader, and him as a writer, Southern or otherwise.

AH: Barry Hannah’s sentences are indelible. Once I was remembering a favorite one, and I unconsciously substituted a word that made it truer for me. It’s the line, “I live in so many centuries.”  I remembered it as “I live in so many sentences.”  Well, I do—I live in so many of HIS sentences. The line after that, of course, is, “Everybody is still alive.” I can’t think of another writer whose sentences I cherish as much as his. When I read Airships, I felt my sense of story and language open up in a profound way. Same with everything after that. I read him just before I started to write. He was always one of the four or five people I wrote for. I met him just before my first book came out, went to Oxford to meet him back in 1984. He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known, and he was capable of so much surprise on the page. You can learn pretty much everything you’d ever need to know about “voice” by reading Barry. He is noble on the page. He told me, “Beckett would be a downer in a bar, but he was noble on the page.” Beloved Barry.

My first trip to Oxford, I asked Barry what he felt when people referred to him as a “Southern writer,” and he said, “You like to be called a woman writer?”

NCM: “Southern fiction” doesn’t seem to me quite as obnoxious as “African-American poetry” or “women’s lit,” but any time you use a qualifier like that, I feel like there’s a bit of degrading effect. What do you think?

AH: I agree that labeling writing or writers by region has the effect of suggesting limitation. I’d rather just say that someone is a writer from the South.  I don’t think there is a single story in the anthology I put together that would not appeal to readers anywhere. That was my experience with NSFTS for many years as a reader— I knew I was guaranteed to find stories I would adore, and that my students would too. I didn’t go looking for “Southern” stories, you know?

NCM: You’ve said that you want in a story things that could only happen in the place in which it’s set. How does this relate to finding stories from a particular region?

AH: I’m thinking of a recent story that came up in a workshop at Bennington. It was set in a town in Colorado where beer is brewed because of the special qualities of the water there, so the town has a yeasty smell to newcomers. I look for smaller defining aspects, in the South or anywhere—town by town.

NCM:  Those sentences of Hannah’s you mention—about living in so many centuries and everyone is still alive—echo the Faulkner quote you included in the introduction to the anthology: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” How important do you think a sense of the past is to good fiction writing?

AH: I don’t feel one way or another about a sense of the past as an important element in fiction. It’s important for some writers, not important for others. I am probably more interested in an accurate rendering of the here and now.

NCM:  You said Barry Hannah was one of four or five people you wrote for. Who are the others?

AH: I always wrote “for” or with these people in mind: Barry Hannah, Mary Robison, Gordon Lish for many years. The other one or two people in this category change over the years.


NCM: In your introduction, you mentioned a criterion you had heard from Gary Lutz as one that helped you determine whether you would include a story in this collection: You wanted whatever you could never expect to get from anyone else. NOON editor Diane Williams recently cited a speech Lutz gave in 2008 as “one of the most important contributions to 21st century American letters.” Is it a coincidental product of my reading habits, or are Lutz’s opinions on fiction writing becoming increasingly influential?

AH: That talk that Gary Lutz gave a couple of years ago is every bit as important as Diane said. Gary has been an extraordinary “writer’s writer” for years, and as more people read and listen to him, his influence grows. Gary Lutz sounds like nobody else. He is one of the most precise and daring writers I can think of. There are no half-measures in his stance regarding fiction. You can set a course by some of the things he said in that talk, which I think was also published in the Believer. He is always worth reading, and re-reading!

NCM: The spaces in a story—between sentences or images, long breaths in dialogue—are often as important as the words themselves. When you’re compiling an anthology, do you think about the spaces between the stories, and what effects the gaps between one and the next might create?

AH: I do think about the spaces between stories in the anthology. I can’t know if they’ll have the effects on other readers that they had on me, but I started with the first and last stories, of course, and filled in on either side moving towards the center. Some coincidences occurred as a result: George Singleton is placed on one side of Megan Mayhew-Bergman, and I later found out that he had been her teacher. I tried not to put a very sad story after a funny one, because a reader conditioned to laugh might keep on laughing, but that said, I probably did this very thing.

NCM: Besides selecting the stories for this anthology, I know you’ve also judged a contest or two for the Mississippi Review. What other things have you done that are Southern-lit related?

AH: In addition to judging the Mississippi Review Prize Issue, I was a regular visitor to the Center for Writers there in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Rick Barthelme and company made it a remarkable place. A few years ago I judged the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction for Sarabande Books in Louisville, Kentucky. I picked a collection titled Head, by William Tester, who is from Florida. There are writers from the South in the current issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review that I guest-edited, such as Patricia Lear (her story “After Memphis” was in the Best of the South anthology edited by Shannon Ravenel), also new writers such as Jamie Quatro down in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, and again, Megan Mayhew-Bergman.

NCM:  Who are five fiction writers from the South whom you might recommend who do not appear in this year’s anthology?

AH:  I’ll give you six fiction writers from the South that I’d recommend who are not present in this anthology: All of them are well-known, and some not included only because, as I say in the introduction, they did not publish short fiction in 2009. I’d say Rick Barthelme, William Gay, Allan Gurganus, Nancy Lemann, Jill McCorkle, and Mark Richard. Mark Richard has an extraordinary memoir coming out in February, Jill McCorkle had two stories out in 2009 that were exempt from consideration because they’d already appeared in her collection Going Away Shoes. Allan Gurganus can do no wrong, as far as I’m concerned. William Gay didn’t publish short fiction in ‘09; I heard he’s working on a novel. Nancy Lemann is a novelist, not a story writer, so there would not be a chance to have her in such an anthology, but her work is singularly funny and filled with yearning. Rick Barthelme doesn’t make a misstep either, and everyone should re-read his novel Waveland, given what’s going on in the Gulf.

NCM:  What types of satisfaction do you get out of compiling anthologies? What are your favorite things about projects like this?

AH: The best part is finding new writers that you want others to read—that is always worth the time. And selfishly, it’s good to feel—for that year, at least—that you’ve read more than you might have without the guest-editor position.

NCM:  What are you up to, writing-wise?

AH: For the last year, I’ve mostly been writing half-page biographies of dogs on death row, trying to get them adopted from the “kill shelter” in Spanish Harlem. It’s the most important writing I do. It’s part of a program I’m a part of there, volunteers who tend to the dogs who are scheduled to be put down … very grim, but such wonderful dogs, and such a great feeling when they are rescued and given another chance. (Also, Harper’s is running a new short-short story, in its August issue, I think.)