A Conversation with Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel

The Stony Brook Southampton program in creative writing has scored two heavy-hitters to expand its graduate and undergraduate faculty this year: The prolific short story writer Amy Hempel, who has won many awards, has been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is also the co-founder of the Deja Foundation, which rescues dogs from kill shelters; and Pulitzer Prize-nominated Cornelius Eady, a decorated poet who is the co-founder of Cave Canem, a national organization for African American poetry and poets, and who is also a musician.

What drew you to apply for the position of faculty member in the Stony Brook Southampton program?

I already knew a few of the faculty members. I had taught at the summer conference before, and I admired them and I read their work. The quality of the faculty, obviously, and where it is located … that’s very important at a university and a writing program. I lived on the East End some years ago and it was an attractive thought that I could work with people that I liked and admired in this beautiful place.

What are you looking forward to sharing with the students in your classes? What is it within your expertise that you can use to help them become better writers?

That’s a whole semester or year’s worth of material! I don’t know that I have a quick answer. I taught for many years, I’ve written for many years, so I do have information that will be immensely useful and save people time. But more than saving people time, it’s about helping writers produce the effects they want in their readers and also encourage them to take bigger risks on the page.

What’s your opinion of Cornelius Eady, also a newly appointed faculty member in the Stony Brook Southampton program?

He’s great. He has an excellent, well-deserved reputation. It’s a real coup to have gotten him here. I am a fan of his poetry, and I admire how active he has been for a long time in the poetry community.

Having taught in other places, are you doing anything new or differently to prepare for teaching at Southampton?

I’m in the process of doing that, but it doesn’t have as much to do with the students per se, it is more to do with the state of the world and our country right now. We’re all aware of the unusual level of turbulence in the country right now. As we’re speaking Houston is still under water and North Korea is doing terrifying nuclear weapons tests, to just cite two things happening at the moment, so obviously this carries over into one’s work. So I find that I’m recalibrating what I say in my classes based more on the state of the nation and the world than on multiple points of view in a novel, for example.

What is the most important thing a creative writing MFA student can get out of a program such as Stony Brook Southampton’s?

They get a quality of attention to the work that matters most to them, attention that is respectful, honest and encouraging from the instructors and their classmates in workshops. They’ll also get a sense of what standards are worth having. They get exposure to international writing. They get time to write, that’s a pretty obvious answer. It still holds up. These are conditions with real deadlines and expectations you don’t have outside of a program like this.

What do you see as the role of a creative writing MFA program in the scope of literary culture today?

What it does has remained largely what it’s always been. It’s to find out where on a certain spectrum you locate yourself on perhaps subject matter, or competence. You will move along that system, you’ll get better ideally, but it’s testing yourself, it’s being exposed to what others who have done this work for a very long time have found valuable. It’s intensive. I go back to the idea of standards. You don’t want to quash creativity, but you don’t want a student writer to be too easily pleased with what they’ve done, either. It’s not necessary in the world of letters to have an MFA – I don’t have one – but it is a great boon.

Amy Hempel, the author of four short story collections, including the Ambassador Award-winning “Collected Stories” in 2006, has a piece in the forthcoming edition of “Best American Short Stories.” Ms. Hempel and Mr. Eady will be featured at the first “Writers Speak” program of the semester, on Wednesday, September 13, at 6:30 p.m. in the Radio Lounge in Chancellors Hall, to read from and talk about their work.