NEW YORK — Amy Hempel, short story writer, is spending a rainy morning at a Madison Avenue diner.
She is 56 years old. Her flowing hair is silvery-white. Her speech is clear, but careful. She sometimes edits herself as she talks or advances her thoughts as if placing one foot slowly before the other.
For more than 20 years, she has been creating stories, short stories. She takes her time, writing out sentences in longhand, revising constantly in her head, scrubbing out excess like so many smudges on a mirror. "I'm not on deadline," she jokes during a recent interview.
Her total work covers barely 400 pages, but the reward, beyond its own completion, has been admiration from critics and fellow writers and a growing general audience. Her "Collected Stories" came out a year ago and have sold well enough -- there have been nine printings, 36,000 copies in all -- that a paperback has been pushed back from this spring until at least the fall.
"Publishing her collected stories has made such a difference," says Hempel's editor, Nan Graham, editor in chief of Scribner. "She never sold more than 10,000 copies of a book before. Having 36,000 in print may seem pretty modest, but it's actually pretty amazing for an author of literary short stories."
Life in a Hempel story can seem as stark as a Hempel sentence. She writes of accidents, death, broken marriages, lives in which dogs are the most trusted companions, the kinds of stories that make you wonder how the narrators lived to tell them.
"Nothing interests me more than finding out how someone got through something, usually a big, hard thing, but sometimes a small awkward thing," says Hempel, who lives near the diner, on Manhattan's Upper East Side. "You come up right against yourself."
Hempel's career has been a long process of recovery and self-discovery. Some people are born writers, others, such as Hempel, were driven to it. For Hempel, writing is the expression and collection of a life she once feared was coming apart.
One of three siblings, she was born in Chicago and grew up in Denver and the San Francisco Bay Area. Her father was a business executive. Her mother, who worked occasionally as a guide in art museums, kept the house filled with books and became Hempel's first proving ground as a storyteller.
"The way I got my mother's attention when I was a kid was by putting words together in an interesting way, or a funny way -- what she found amusing," Hempel says. "Since that [her attention] was what I wanted more than anything, and as kid was very hard to get, that's what I did."
Hempel didn't plan to be an author growing up, but instead studied journalism and premed "until I hit chemistry." Life drove her to the page. When Hempel turned 19, her mother killed herself and within a year her mother's sister did the same. In her 20s, Hempel was in two bad auto accidents, later writing in the story "The Harvest" that she "moved through days like a severed head that finishes a sentence."
Her luck changed after she moved to New York and sought out the Columbia University writing workshop taught by Gordon Lish, a former editor at Esquire and Alfred A. Knopf known for mentoring such authors as Raymond Carver and Richard Ford. For Hempel, it was if she were staggering up the steps of a church.
"She was shy and she was nervous and she blushed a great deal," Lish recalls. "She was desperate, desperate in every respect a human being could be -- desperate, grappling, struggling, striving to get a hold on her experience."
Lish thinks writers don't succeed because of talent, but because of will: You become a great writer by wanting to be one. Drive, will, character, "all of which Amy has," Lish says. Hempel remembers how hard it was at the beginning, how she wondered if she should even be writing.
"And then I think of a sentence I really like," she says, "that I'm proud of having worked really hard on.
"Emily Dickinson once said that when a poem works, it felt like the top of her head was coming off. My own personal way -- wait that's three words for one word," Hempel says, stopping, correcting herself. "My way of knowing the sentence just really lands is if I get a little bit teary. Not that it's sad, but something is struck just right. And it can be funny and I get teary."
She begins each story knowing the first and last sentence, but many of her sentences read like the beginning, or the end:
"I leave out a lot when I tell the truth."
"The annex is for when the cemetery fills up."
"On the last night of the marriage, my husband and I went to the ballet."
Some Hempel lines seem to come from nowhere, but their origins are well- mapped. Attacks of tachycardia, a rapid heartbeat, led to her first two lines of "In a Tub": "My heart -- I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God." A crush on a man who kept the "cremains" of his dog on his desk helped inspire "Nashville Gone to Ashes," which begins: "After the dog's cremation, I lie in my husband's bed and watch the Academy Awards for animals."
Irony in a Hempel story may seem as common as a question mark, but what drives the author is not revenge or bitter humor but a yearning to connect past and present, to move ahead and retrieve something lost. "Nothing is a long time ago," she writes in "The Afterlife," the story of a man coping with his wife's death, inspired by her own father.