Amy Hempel's way of seeing inspires me. She conveys all that is going on inside someone's heart through a description of their gesture or noting where the person directs their glance. Even her use of punctuation—a weird exclamation point that says it all—conveys so much. Most of her stories are short, but reading them feels like getting hit in the face with a sandbag. I don't think I have ever read one of her stories and not whispered “Wow” when I got to the end, staring blindly at the open book while I recover. Or else I whisper “Yes” because she's described how it is, exactly, in a way I have never imagined, and in a situation I would never conceive of.
Here's an example of a weird situation that she treats like any other day of the week:
I did not spin out on a stretch of highway called Blood Alley or Hospital Curve. I lost it on a flat dry road—with no other car in sight. Here's why: In the desert I like to drive thorugh binoculars. What I like about it is that things are two ways at once. Things are far away and close with you still in the same place.
Here's an example of her lulling you with a familiar description, and then diving straight into your heart in the final, surprising clause (and notice the brilliant use of the colon):
Then the children went to bed, or at least went upstairs, and the men joined the women for a cigarette on the porch, absently picking ticks engorged like grapes off the sleeping dogs. And when the men kissed the women good night, and their weekend whiskers scratched the women's cheeks, the women did not think shave they thought: stay.
This is a random example of how she describes things. And the absence of a comma where one would normally be matters. She conveys so much with so little:
Jean said she thought she might still hear from Larry but that hoping he would call was like the praying you do after the bowling ball has left your hand.
Her stories are short—some just two pages—and worth keeping by your bed or chair to pick up when you want to have your breath taken away. I can't get enough of her.
About Susan Edsall
Writing is how I make my way through the thicket of what we’ve made of this planet we’re on. It takes me a long time and lots of words. Social media mystifies me. How do so many people have so much to say, so quickly, and with such resolute certainty? Read more about Susan >