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Tag Archives: Amy Hempel

I Look Divine – Christopher Coe

Christopher Coe was a Columbia student of Lish’s and in the same class was Amy Hempel, David Leavitt, and Anderson Ferrell, who happen o blurb ths book. While Lish was able to publish books by Hempel, Leavitt and Ferrell, he could not get approval from Gottlieb to acquire I Look Divine.

Ever resourceful, Lish was instrument in getting Widenfield and Nicholson, an imprint of Houghton Miflin at the time (and a British publisher that opened a New York office in the 1980s).

I Look Divine is a 109 page novella, maybe 20,000 words with the big type and wide margins and slender trim cut. Chances are without Lish it would have never found its way to print, at least not by itself and not in a journal or as part of a longer collection. That is not saying this novella is bad…no, in fact, it is beautfully brilliant, a prose poem really, and maybe one of the most unfortuanately ignored works of prose, and a writer, from the 1980s, even with a paperback reprint from Vintage’s prized trade paperback imprint of hip young lit.

It is a fne portrait of two brothers, with one writing about another: Nicholas is rich and uncommonly handsome and very egotistical, obsessed with his own beauty that leads to his self-destruction. The narrator, the older brother, tries to understand his brother and wonders how much of the delusion of the priviledged divine is also in him…and what, of their upbringing, has made them both so disfunctional?

Nicholas had brown eyes which, in many lights, looked black, He had extravagant black eyelashes that looked false, and dar hair that even in those years he was allowed to grow so long that he could drag his fingers through it and take almost forever to come out at the end.


I told him brains develop in the womb, that by being born too soon he had probaby lost points […] he looked up at me and said what he always did when he had more of me than he could take.

He sighed, “Oh, go to your womb.”

Much later that night, I heard my brother through the door, whispering to himself.  He must have been studying is face in the mirror when I heard him whisper, “You are the smartest little boy in the world, and you also look like this.” (pp. 23-24)

In a way, this could be qute the annoying read of rich kid’s narcissim and the reader could feel, as we do, nothing about his eventual death. The  perfected sentences are to be admired, and in many ways Coe reminds us of a young Truman Capote.

In Lish’s Lilly archives, there are letters and manuscripts from Coe, all nearlt typed on strangely thick, textured brown paper, unusual for a manuscript.

What happened to Coe? He died from AIDS complications in 1994. He was 41. He published one other novel in 1993, Such Times, from Harcourt Brace in the US and Hamish Hamilton in the UK.

While I Look Divine is an example of tight minimalism, Such Times is a work of maxilamislm, a 100,000 word tme that could have used Lish’s pen, yet is also a fine piece of writing and an intimate view of gay male relationships.

Days – Mary Robison

We just happened to have in our possession the uncorrected bound galleys of Mary Robison’s (pronounced Robe-eh-son)  first collection with Knopf and Lish, Days.  She was 30.

And lo, what is inside, but a letter typed by Lish his own self, dated February 26, 1979, addressed to someone named Bill, whoever this Bill is, seeking a blurb for the cover of the actual future book.

In the letter, written in Lishism, Lish talks about (when he talks about) the hard work he put into promoting –raising a “rumpus” — Carver’s Will You Please be Quiet, Please? and Hannah’s Airships.…and here, he feels Robison’s Days is equally as good and important for American letters at the edge of the 1980s, which was the salad days for the minimalist school.

In Cynthia Whitney Hallet’s published dissertation, Minimalism and the Short Story — Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Mary Robison (Edwin Mellon Press, 2000), it is suggested that Lish did not press on Mary Robison his brand of minimalism, but that Robison influenced her style of minimalism onto Lish.

This could be — in Lish’s archives at the Lily, there are a number of memos from Esquire, Lish to Howard Hays, with Lish stating how much he admires Robison, worships her prose, and how he wishes he could publish her in Esquire…but: she has a first-look deal with The New Yorker and they have yet to reject the stories she send in; she can only offer Esquire a story if turned down by the editors at The New Yorker (a similar deal Carver would have there toward his end days).

Robison’s minimalism was intact, sans Lish, in The New Yorker pages, and those stories are presented in original form in Days…that is not to say Lish did not later start using the ink pen with her other collections for Knopf and her novel, Oh!

Who is Mary Robison? Robison was born to an attorney and a child psychologist in Columbus, Ohio. She has seven brothers and sisters as well as a half brother. From an early age she was interested in writing and as a child kept journals and wrote poetry as a teenager. She once ran away from home and journeyed to Florida in search of Jack Kerouac.  Funny, because Lish also moved from NY to San Francisco in search of Dean Moriarty from On the Road, thinking he was real — and then of course later befriending Neal Cassady and a lot of the beats.

While Days is not as canonical as Carver or Hannah’s Airships and Ray, and Robison has not attained their status (even Hempel seems to be above her)  it is a fine collection worth any bookshelf. As is her work as a whole.

Her latest books, however, seem to lack something that Days and Oh! do…wonder, youth…

Cardinal Numbers – Hob Broun

Hob Broun is a curious case of the forgotten writer and book, yet one that must be discussed and remembered.  Hailing from Portland, he published three books: the novels Odditorium and Inner Tube, and the collection, Cardinal Numbers. The later two were written while the author was paralyzed from the neck down due to a complicated surgery on his spine.

The New York Times published this obituary:

Hob Broun, a Novelist, Dies as Respirator Fails

Published: December 24, 1987

Hob Broun, a writer, died of asphyxiation Dec. 16 when his respirator broke down in his home in Portland, Ore. He was 37 years old.

Seven years ago, Mr. Broun underwent surgery to remove a spinal tumor, resulting in paralysis. He was dependent on a respirator, which, along with an alarm system, failed.

Mr. Broun wrote two books by expelling air through a catheter that activated the keyboard of a computer. In this way, he wrote a novel, ”Inner Tube,” and a collection of short stories, to be published in May. The publisher of both books, along with his first novel, ”Odditorium,” is Alfred A. Knopf.

Mr. Broun was born in Manhattan and graduated from the Dalton School. He attended Reed College in Portland. He is survived by his father, Heywood Hale Broun, the writer and broadcaster, and his mother, Jane Broun, of Woodstock, N.Y, and Manhattan.

Lish acquired and edited his last two books and the collection was published a year after Brown’s passing.  The Hob Broun Prize was established through the family and handed out through The Quarterly. Janet Mitchell was one winner, whose debut The Creepy Girl was recently released from Starcherone Books. Another winner was William Tester, who published a novel, Darling, with Lish and Knopf, and later won the Saraband Books Fiction Prize for Head, a collection chosen by judge Amy Hempel — fellow Lish writer and classmate at Columbia with Tester…we will talk about that sneaky nepotism later, and how writers who know the judge aren’t supposed to enter contests….meanwhile, what we’re talking about is talking about Hob Broun, unfairly taken from us at age 37, unfairly overlooked today.

The 19 stories are terse, minimal, funny, sad, and some appeared in The Q, of course. One must remember, when reading Broun, that he was composing these sentences via an air tube (which makes us wonder how the editing process went).

Riley eats out all the time because it is less sad. She moved out on him in December; plane trees are now tipped with early April green, but sweeping, matching socks, heating stew — these things are still sad for him. (“Cycling Posture,” p. 49)

We have not yet read Inner Tube but we will (Lish did not edit his first novel). It is too easy to wonder what Broun would have written had he lived (he was half-way through his third novel) and whether or not he would be known and respected today, and not relegated to a footnote in 20th Century American fiction.

The Minimalist Sentences of Amy Hempel: A Flash Essay

[originally published in the 02/2009 issue of elimae]

There are two aspects of Hempel’s fiction that stand out: their brevity and their unique and powerful sentences. Hempel is not only the mistress of under-2000-word story, but her sentences glorify the teachings of Gordon Lish, for whom she was a star student — they are near-perfect and build upon one another like pieces of a Lego set, until the final product is a nifty toy to play with.
Hempel’s fiction is indeed playful — with words, with scenes, with intent and style: “the playfulness of your heart” (Reasons to Live 4). “The Harvest,” from her second book, is an example of her textual mischievousness. “The year I began to say vhaz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me” (9) the story begins, and then lists a series of unfortunate events that happen to the narrator, as if the decision to alter the pronunciation of a word in an uppity manner is the result of bad luck. Half-way through the story, we are told: “I leave a lot out when I tell the truth” (13) and informed that artistic license was taken in the previous telling of events. The story becomes metatextual: “I’m going to start now to tell you what I left out in “The Harvest,” and maybe begin to wonder why I had to leave it out” (13). Hempel lists the “truths” she left out or altered because “the awkward syllables when you have to say motorcycle” (13) and “it is something you might not have accepted in ‘The Harvest'” (13). In an interview with Dave Welch at, Hempel admits that she wrote “The Harvest”

with a real accident in mind, one that changed my life. And when I finished it, I thought, Isn’t it curious? Look at everything I changed or embellished or left out to make it a story that works. I hadn’t planned to, but I wrote the kind of addendum or deconstruction, after a space break, playing with the whole idea of personal mythmaking, which we all do — we’re mythologizing our lives every day when we talk about ourselves.

The story stands out from the rest of Hempel’s work; postmodern turns of narrative are not her typical style. Her stories are mainly told in the first person and are plotless — from one or two page prose poems to longer works that are a series of scenes and vignettes that build on each other; while they do not tell a traditional beginning-mid-end story, they create an atmosphere of emotions and thoughts as if one were gazing at a photo essay of a person’s life. “In a Tub” and “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” from Reasons to Live are examples of both.
“In a Tub” is two pages long. The narrator — who has no name or defined gender (typical of not only Hempel’s work, but many minimalist writers, as if it does not matter, only the words and sentences matter) — is lost in the world, looking for meaning:

My heart — I thought it stopped. So I got in my car and headed for God. I passed two churches with cars parked in front. Then I stopped at the third because no one else had (3).

The narrator is a loner, does not want to commune with the deity with other people, alone. In fact, loneliness permeates the atmosphere of the text — “I thought about the feeling of the long missed beat” (3). The narrator returns home to a cat and an empty house, thinks about the past, and reveals a gender: “When I was a girl I sneaked out at night” (3). Seeing that “the birdbath is shaped like a tub” (4) she decides to take a bath and seems to find the peace of mind that the church did not afford: “You ease yourself into a tub of water, you ease yourself down [É] Then you take a deep breath, and slide your head under” (4). The water is a good place for her to hide and feel safe. And that is it, that is the story — no plot, no dialogue, poem more than narrative. Yet it acts as curtain opener for the rest of the collection, layering the book’s overall feeling of people who are lost and dealing with loss, grief, loneliness; Hempel’s narrators are uncertain of their place in the world.
“In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” is Hempel’s best-known story, widely anthologized and used in college courses as an example of, along with Raymond Carver and Mary Robison, 1980s minimalist fiction. This was also Hempel’s first effort at writing, composed in Lish’s class at Columbia, as she tells “We were told to write up our worst secret: the thing that would dismantle my sense of myself, as he [Lish] put it.” The story was published in TriQuarterly and began her new career (she was previously a journalist at the Los Angeles branch of CBS) as a storywriter. Again, essentially plotless and a series of moments and conversations, opening with:

Tell me things I won’t mind forgetting,” she said. “Make it useless stuff or forget it.”
I began. I told her insects fly through rain, missing every drop, never getting wet. I told her no one in America owned a tape recorder before Bing Crosby did. I told her the shape of a room is like a banana — you see it looking full, you’re seeing it end-on (39).

Hempel’s first sentences are forcibly striking and hard to forget, despite the request of forgetfulness above. “Tonight is a Favor to Holly” opens with: “A blind date is coming to pick me up, and unless my hair grows an inch by seven o’clock, I am not going to answer the door” (Reasons 7). Others: “There is a typo on the hospital menu this morning” (Reasons, “Going” 71). “Things turned around after I saw the Breathing Jesus” (Reasons, “Breathing Jesus” 125). From these first sentences, Hempel creates a second, a third, a fourth sentence just as remarkable with the use of language and rhetoric, building, eschewing plot and symbol and foreshadow and any other conventions of fiction, painting on the canvas page. This sort of writing style is not for everyone, just as Carver’s style was not appreciated by all. Critical reception for Hempel’s work was, and still is, mixed and varied. She has created a niche for herself in contemporary American fiction, however, and like her sentences, her place in minimalist canon cannot be denied.


Hempel, Amy. Reasons to Live. NY: Knopf, 1985.
—–. At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. NY: Knopf, 1990.
Welch, Dave. “Forty-Eight Ways of Looking at Amy Hempel.” Retrieved June 17, 2008 at html

[This essay is excerpted from Gordon Lish and His Influence on Twentieth Century American Literature: Life and Times of Captain Fiction, forthcoming from Routledge]