2011 Morgan Writer-in-Residence: Amy Hempel

“Amy Hempel’s prose captures the beauty of the world as poetry does; it captures the wisdom of the world as theology does; and it captures the humanity of the world as our best comic geniuses do.”  With these high words of praise and keen appreciation, writer and professor Randall Kenan introduced our 2011 Morgan Writer-in-Residence at her public reading on March 16 in Carroll Hall.  Over 300 people from both the University and town communities gathered on that spring evening to hear Hempel read from works both published and newly written. They were delighted by her art, her gracious authenticity, and her ardor.

Writer and professor Pam Durban describes Hempel as “an influential prose stylist” who, with her first collection of short stories Reasons to Live in 1985, was “quickly recognized as a defining voice among a new generation of writers.”  Included in that collection was the first story she wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” which has been one of the most extensively anthologized stories of the last quarter century.  Describing her work, Durban points to her “spare, stylistic brilliance,” and her “unflinching courage and startling humor.”

As the 2011 Morgan Writer-in-Residence, Hempel spent a week at Carolina visiting classes, meeting with students in small groups, workshopping student drafts, giving interviews, and enjoying the collegiality of the faculty and fellow writers.  Students were challenged and inspired by their interactions with Hempel and her texts. 

Hempel also participated in a panel, “Getting to the Desk:  The Writing Life,” which explored the challenges and strategies writers use to find time to write while working in other fields.  Hempel herself currently teaches creative writing at Harvard University and in the Bennington College MFA program.  Published writers joining her were Michael Chitwood (Creative Writing faculty member and editor); Quinn Dalton (Creative Writing instructor and small business owner); and Terrence Holt (physician and teacher). 

As part of the week’s busy schedule, Hempel appeared on WUNC’s “The State of Things” with Frank Stasio.  To hear Hempel talk about reading, writing, and teaching, listen to the archived interview:   http://wunc.org/tsot/archive/Morgan_WriterInResidence.mp3/view

Since Reasons to Live, Hempel has published four more short story collections:At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Tumble Home, and The Dog of the Marriage. The New York Times named her most recent work, The Collected Stories, as one of the ten best books of 2007. Her stories have appeared in Harper's, GQ, Vanity Fair, and many other publications, and have been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction.

Hempel also has editorial credits.  Along with her friend Jim Shepherd, she co-edited Unleashed: Poems by Writers’ Dogs.  In tribute to her status as a master short story writer, she is the only northerner to have guest edited Algonquin Books’ “New Stories form the South,” the 2010 twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the annual short story collection. 

Eschewing the label of “minimalism” for her prose, Hempel describes herself as a “precisionist.”  And indeed, every word is carefully chosen, and every sentence does its work. As Kenan sums up, “I must tell you that Amy Hempel’s work may be brief but it is by no means small.  Indeed, it is all about the sentences . . . .” As Hempel herself has said, "My sense of life is more moment, moment, and moment. Looking back, they accrue. . . and maybe you don’t know why. . . but you make a leap of faith. You trust you can put these moments together and create story."

Hempel performed her Writer-in-Residence duties with great generosity, warmth, and enthusiasm.  Her efforts to connect personally with students, her forthrightness in addressing each question, and her spirited engagement in conversations throughout the week made her a popular guest—and made Morgan Week once again the literary highlight of the department’s academic year.

Established in 1993 by alumni Allen and Musette Morgan of Memphis, Tennessee, the Morgan Writer-in-Residence Program brings writers of distinction to campus each spring to teach courses, meet with students and faculty, and give lectures, readings, and symposia.  Their goals for the program are to help and inspire Carolina’s writing students and also to provide a way for the campus and town communities to join in a celebration of the literary arts.  Amy Hempel’s brilliance and generosity ensured those goals were resoundingly met this year.