Amy Hempel is associated with minimalism, though she disparages the term, preferring that her short stories be referred to as “miniatures.” The daughter of Gardiner and Gloria Hempel, she has experienced much personal grief: the death of a close friend, her mother’s suicide, her father’s mental illness, and her own trauma in traffic accidents. Hempel once remarked in an interview that Gordon Lish, her creative writing instructor at Columbia University, greatly influenced her when he challenged students to strive for originality over creativity. Hempel maintained that creativity alone was not sufficient to produce art; for her, good writing must add something genuinely new to the world. Resisting pressure from publishers to write a novel, Hempel chose to write highly condensed, elliptical short fiction. Her short stories were published in important literary and cultural magazines and were widely anthologized.
Born in Chicago, when she was in third grade Hempel moved to Denver, Colorado, where she lived for eight years before moving to San Francisco. After living in California, she made her home in New York City. She attended Whittier College (1969-1971), San Francisco State University (1973-1974), and Columbia University (1981). She originally studied journalism and later worked as a contributing editor for several magazines. She also worked as a volunteer counselor for a crisis center. Hempel considered her twenties to be her “lost years,” though her friendships with actors in improvisational comedy groups during this period taught her about the aesthetic possibilities of using offbeat expression to render the absurd nature of human experience. She started writing short stories in her early thirties and taught in several prestigious writing programs.
Her first short-story collection, Reasons to Live, won both the Silver Medal for the Commonwealth Club of California and the Pushcart Prize. While not strictly autobiographical, the stories probed circumstances of unexpected pain and disaster that had parallels in Hempel’s...
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