Gone to the Dogs

For fictionist Amy Hempel, life in the liminal exists among writing, teaching, and animal rescue.

By Shayna Tanen ’15

In her fourth floor Turlington Hall Office — she’s still unsure of the exact number — Amy Hempel sits half cast in shadow. The white filtered light simultaneously illuminates her long silvery-white hair and hides her face in darkness. In her third semester as a professor of creative writing in the Department of English, Hempel is still deciding which books she’d like to have close by. She hasn’t even brought them into the office — they’re sitting in boxes at home. The only items around her on a warm March afternoon are a large purse, an unread book, a few pieces of paper (so out of place that she thinks they don’t belong to her), and her phone. Each time it buzzes, she checks to see if it’s the vet confirming she can board her dogs.

“There are three parts of my life,” Hempel says. “Writing, teaching, and working with dog rescues.”

Hempel is best known for her short stories, but she began writing as a journalist doing “creative mind” pieces for big magazines, such as the New York Times Magazine and Esquire. She profiled artists such as William Wegman — artists she wanted to get to know.

Her first published and most celebrated work of fiction, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” was published in 1983. Since then, she has published four short-story collections: Reasons to Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, Tumble Home, and The Dog of the Marriage.

Hempel’s newest work is The Hand that Feeds You, a thriller coauthored with colleague Jill Ciment, under the pseudonym A.J. Rich. It was written for a friend of theirs who passed away and was unable to tell her story about a man who wooed her and asked to marry her, all while doing the same to other women across the globe.

Hempel has taught creative writing at Columbia University, New York University, Princeton, Duke, Bennington College, and most recently, Harvard. In spring 2015, while still at Harvard, Hempel was offered a professorship at UF. Hempel knew the good reputation of the MFA program and also knew the campus from visiting friends who are faculty of the MFA@FLA — Jill Ciment, David Leavitt, and Padgett Powell — and reading at the Florida Writers Festival. She loved Harvard, she says, but the commute from New York City to Cambridge “was kind of killing me.” She was ready for a change.

“My mantra was, you don’t have to dislike a place to leave it,” she says. “You can just opt for a new experience.” And her UF experience has been positive. The students here are, in her words, “open for business.” She’s surrounded by engaged students and faculty, which, to her, is refreshing in any teaching environment.

A key concept in Hempel’s teaching is to instill in students what standards are worth having. She is not pretentious. She says anyone can write fiction, and she truly means it. She simply wants her students to raise the bar and not be too pleased with their work. They should always strive to improve, because “it’s thrilling to see what’s possible if you push yourself.” To her, good writing is strictly a matter of will.

“Anyone who really, really wants to write a good story — I can get them there,” she says. “It’s not always the most talented person who succeeds, it’s the person who wants it the most.”

Perhaps it is this determination that led Hempel into the third (but not least important) aspect of her life: dog rescue. Hempel is an avid, compassionate dog lover, and she is a founding board member of two dog rescue shelters in the Northeast, one in New York, and one in Connecticut. She still works with them, even from Gainesville.

“That’s where I’m happiest in my life, with dogs, especially rescues,” she says. Hempel has two dogs, Wanita and Gandhi, who have an endearing sense of spirituality and nobility about them, she says. It is the upfront, true personalities of dogs that draw her in. They are unapologetic in who they are.

This purity of emotion and spirit reminds Hempel of the best moments in her classroom. When students start to laugh or cry in a workshop, Hempel knows that they are writing about the right things.

“They’ve gone to a place that matters or a place of jeopardy in their lives,” she says. “And that’s a pretty good signal they’re looking in the right place for their stories.”

Place — an actual physical place — is something that Hempel responds to on a cellular level. In Gainesville and at UF, Hempel doesn’t have to worry about the stimuli of NYC consuming her thoughts. She can walk around the campus or go to Paynes Prairie and just think. She’ll think about stories she wants to write, and, probably, dogs.