As a fiction writer, Amy Hempel has been called dazzling, eerie, unsettling, and always original. Rachel Pastan has a word for her too: “In the literary world she is a superstar.” The superstar will illuminate our community and its savvy fiction fans with her visit next Wednesday to the Swarthmore College campus. Welcomed by Pastan and her colleagues in Swarthmore’s English Department, Hempel will read from her witty, moving work in the Scheuer Room of Kohlberg Hall, from 7:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., with a reception to follow. All are invited to this free event.
Pastan, who has taught with Hempel at the Bennington Writing Seminars MFA program in Vermont, eagerly sought her out as a speaker for this spring, as both a deeply fulfilling writer, and an inspiration for the undergraduates in her fiction workshop at the college. “For me, Amy isn’t someone who writes fancy, lyrical sentences. She’s someone who writes very clean but unusual sentences, and when they hit you, they really hit you hard.”
In a Paris Review interview, Hempel said, “Good writers are always trying to get to something clearer, deeper, not said this way before.” Her short stories — some only a few paragraphs long — challenge before rewarding the reader. Pastan said, “Sometimes she jumps over things and you have to really interpolate. I’d rather have the gaps be a little bigger than [read work by] someone who tells you every little thing … you have to have some sense of uncertainty; it’s more electric if you have to fill in by yourself.”
Pastan found insight into the varied responses Hempel’s work provokes at the Swarthmore Public Library, which through director Amber Osborne was one of several local book clubs tackling Hempel’s 2006 landmark Collected Stories in advance of the April 5 event. “Some members said ‘I don’t get this book’ but some said ‘It’s amazing.’ Part of my job is to bring a writer to campus … and part is to get people onto campus, get reading groups in town to read the book, to get them invested.”
Like Hempel, Pastan is an author, a novelist rather than a short fiction writer. Her last novel, Alena, came out in 2014; her next is in the works. “Alena was set in the contemporary art world,” Pastan said, “and in this next one I’m writing about a woman scientist in the middle of the 20th century struggling to make her way in the world … the kinds of things she had to do to get recognition, and the way that her mind worked, and the way she worked with other people, was interesting to me. A lot of my writing is about women and work.”
Amy Hempel, a woman at the top of her work, reads Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. at Scheuer. Join Rachel Pastan, Swarthmore’s sizeable contingent of fiction writers, students, and other workers of the word in united appreciation.