With her sharp wit and poignant prose, Amy Hempel has captivated readers with her short stories for decades. Her latest collection, Sing to It, chronicles characters faced with adversity and longing for connection across its 15 works. We exchanged words with the former Harvard lecturer about her inspiration and influences ahead of her appearance at Harvard Book Store on March 27.
What is the inspiration behind Sing to It? A lot of it comes from the title, which is from an Arab proverb that goes: “When danger approaches, sing to it.” I’ve always loved that. The proverb is saying, it seems to me, that there are many things that threaten us, certainly these days, and they might look to new ways to respond—and the idea of singing to it is perhaps the way to disarm the threat. So most every story in the book has an element of that, of a perceived or present threat or danger and what someone might do or did in the face of it.
What writers and works have influenced you? I owe a great deal to Mary Robinson. Her work has long been a huge influence. Joy Williams, both her fiction and her essays. Grace Paley, of course. Honestly, I’m more and more excited by new writers coming out with debut collections or novels such as Kimberly King Parsons, who has a stunning short-story collection coming out soon called Black Light, and I certainly recommend that to everyone. I will reread certain sentences. I can pick up a favorite book and read a certain sentence from it and be moved to want to do something in return. So perhaps a line from a Denis Johnson story.
What appeals to you about short stories over novels? Everything. I like the compression. I like the focus on a defining moment in many stories that I revere. Always language. You find striking language in novels and poetry and nonfiction as well, of course, but the story is a visceral feeling, and I’ve always been drawn to that form, with reading and with writing.
How do you go about ordering stories in your collections? It’s possible I like to begin with a very, very short story to show a reader what I can do in a very short space. … I don’t believe I’ve ever put what I considered the biggest story first. I know a lot of writers like to put it last, that’s fine. This new collection has the longest story in the final position, and I start with the shortest story, so there’s a perfect example of my thinking.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing a short story? Trying to avoid anything I’ve heard before. Trying to make it something that will matter to another person, to someone I don’t even know.
Photo: F. Yang
■ Harvard grad Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing takes readers to the chilly depths of the Alaskan wilderness. With cascading sentences, the debut novel follows a Taiwanese immigrant family of six living near Anchorage, fighting to stay afloat on the father’s meager handyman’s salary. A deep rift forms when one child dies from a case of meningitis—the tension growing thicker when the father is sued. Grab a copy when the book hits shelves in May.
Photo: Aaron Jay Young
■ Detailing one of the most gruesome murders in Massachusetts’ history, Cara Robertson’s The Trial of Lizzie Borden, dropping in March, will send chills down your spine this spring. The book explores the aftermath of the 1892 killing of Andrew and Abby Borden by their ax-wielding youngest daughter—with Robertson using her background as a former Supreme Court clerk and legal adviser to shed light on overlooked details of the trial, such as Lizzie’s attempt to purchase poison.
Photo: Gulnara Niaz
■ Brookline native Tina Cassidy details the remarkable suffragist Alice Paul in Mr. President, How Long Must We Wait? Debuting in March, this timely work depicts Paul’s early influence on the fight for women’s voting rights beginning in March of 1913, when she drew crowds with a protest near where President Wilson arrived in D.C. for his oath of office. Her work spanned the inaugural picket she staged on the White House lawn to her time in mental institutions and face-to-face meetings with Wilson.
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