Amy Hempel thinks she got a late start.
The renowned short story author wrote her first piece in her mid-twenties while taking a writing class at Columbia University.
SEE AMY HEMPEL READ HER WORK
Time: 6 p.m. Wednesday
Location: Carroll Hall, Room 111
Tickets: Admission is free
“The assignment was to write your worst secret,” Hempel, 59, said. “I felt that I had failed my best friend when she was dying.”
From the assignment came “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried,” which is now one of the most widely anthologized stories of the last 30 years.
Hempel said she would not have written about her secret otherwise.
Hempel will be at UNC this week as a part of the Morgan Writer-in-Residence program, which brings an influential author to campus each year.
Founded in 1993 by Allen and Musette Morgan, the program allows students to work with a professional writer and gives the community a chance to celebrate literary arts.
Hempel specializes in short stories and — more recently — short-short stories.
“I like what the short story can do,” Hempel said. “I have a natural feel for it.”
Hempel said she has had many influences, including fellow short story writers Mary Robison and Barry Hannah.
Lately, she said she has been gravitating toward poets, especially Detroit native John Rybicki.
“He is one of the most electrifying poets out there,” Hempel said.
Author Daniel Wallace, a professor in the comparative literature and English departments at UNC, said that Hempel’s poetic influence shines through in her work.
“She has a poetic intensity that is embedded in a cohesive narrative,” Wallace said. “It is difficult for writers to write beautifully and simply while also telling a story.”
Wallace said that Hempel does this with eloquence.
“She is untouchable,” he said.
Although Hempel calls herself her own worst critic, she said that many challenges that face aspiring writers are external, rather than internal.
“Writers are competing with real life, which is ever more dramatic and urgent,” Hempel said. “It is a challenge for writers to replace real life with their own mythology, even briefly.”
UNC English professor Randall Kenan, a long-time friend and colleague of Hempel, said that her personality and her compassion are evident in her writing.
Wallace said Hempel’s reading on Wednesday is not to be missed.
“Some students look at these readings as dull events and, honestly, sometimes they are,” Wallace said.
“Going to see Amy read is going to be like seeing an extremely literary stand-up comic.”
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