Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Amy Hempel on Sentimentality and When a Story is "Done"

The recent double issue of Folio has a great interview with Amy Hempel, short story writer and author of one of my favorite short stories, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.”  I couldn’t find the interview online, so I typed this with my own fingers:

FOLIO:  Can you expand on your “fear of sentimentality”? What is it that scares you? How do you define sentimentality? Conversely, how do you tune in to those tremors of emotional resonance, that humanity, without straying into excess?

AH: I think that sentimentality is usually defined as unearned emotion, and I see it as pleading—pleading for the reader to feel something without actually making them feel it.  Just the word “little” is sometimes enough to make me grit my teeth:  “The little boy was lost,” for example.  I’d rather see “The boy was lost.”  I’ve heard people say, “Cut it in half,” when you’re getting into dicey territory, right on the edge of sentimentality.  Also, if I fear I’m getting close to something like that, I make an extra effort to avoid saying what a character feels, and focus instead on what that character is doing or observing.

FOLIO:  How do you decide or know when a story is “complete”?....

AH: I know when a story is finished when there is not a single thing more I can think to do to it.  And since I know at the start what the last line will be, I know when I’ve reached that point as logically as I can that it’s finished.  As for the rewriting—it’s not foolproof, of course, but if you’re honest about having thought of every possibility and you still come back to what you have, what more can you do? …

FOLIO:  It is sort of terrifying, as a young writer, to read “In the Cemetery…”  What do you say to your students as they struggle forward?

AH:  You have to look at what is most compelling to you for a story, instead of trying to second-guess the “marketplace.”  It’s too hard to do it any other way.  You’d be wasting your time.  What is the thing that only you can say?  Or that only you can say in that particular way?—that’s a better question.  Presumably no one is standing over you and ordering you to write a short story, so the desire/compulsion comes from within.  It’s better to attempt something that matters to you than complete something that is, as Sam Michel once memorably said, “just another made-up thing.”


By the way, way back in my ancient life, I was one of the founding editors of Folio—scrounging money to pay the printing bills, correcting copy and fighting with my co-editor over commas, posting flyers begging for submissions.  I’m so pleased to see that the tradition is still being carried on all these years later.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.