A few months ago I sat down with Amy Hempel, to talk about her new collection The Dog of the Marriage. As might be expected, we talked mostly about dogs. “It’s crucial for me to have a life outside of writing,” she said. And for quite a while, that life has included training seeing eye dogs. She talks about training dogs and teaching writers in the following excerpt from the piece I wrote for the Westchester Journal News:
“In the stories,” she adds, “there’s the one story that has a lot of the guide dog training in it, but I hadn’t started the training with the intention of writing about it.” Part of the power of Hempel’s deceptively simple work on the page is that the details of her character’s lives seem so casual and familiar, it’s hard not to believe that every word is utterly true. But Hempel never loses track of the boundaries between life and art.
“I know where one ends and the other begins. I use a lot of real places to literally ground the work,” she explains. “I use a lot of things I know, that have happened to me or to friends. There’s also a huge element of each story that is imagined. The only thing I worry about—which is what I’ve worried about since the beginning—is ‘Is the writing good?’ I don’t worry about ‘revealing’ something personal because there’s nothing I could write about that would not be familiar to a million other people. The concern really is just ‘Is the writing good?’”
It’s a lesson she shares with students at The New School, Bennington and, for the spring semester, Columbia University. Asked if there are any comparisons to be made teaching writing and training dogs, Hempel pauses for just a moment, considering her words. “With dog training, you’re never supposed to issue a command until you’ve gotten the dog’s full attention. I think that my human students come in with their attention more focused than puppy students.” Hempel considers herself a late bloomer in the writing game—“I was thirty-three, I think, when my first book came out”—and actually suffered the humiliation of being cut from an anthology of writers under thirty when it was discovered she had just passed the qualifying age. No regrets. “It’s not a bad thing, is it,” she asks, “to have done a few things—and then write?”