Ray Carver called Amy Hempel some pretty good names, including “a precisionist.” Praised by the New York Times as a “miniaturist…whose fiction is marked by an almost miraculous exactitude of observation and execution,” Amy is known far and wide for her luminous, perfectly crafted short stories. Her first story collection, Reasons to Live (1985) was celebrated by Rick Moody as a landmark of its era’s short story renaissance. If you are new to the world of Amy Hempel, beg, borrow, steal, or buy a copy of Amy’s Collected Stories (2007). Here is what Amy had to say about “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” now on Fictionaut:

I wrote this story, my first, as a workshop assignment in Gordon Lish’s “Tactics of Fiction” class at Columbia in the late ’70s or early ’80s (I have no sense of time). The assignment, the only one we were ever given, was to write our worst secret, the thing we would never live down, the thing that dismantled our sense of ourselves, as he put it. My worst secret was that I felt I had failed my best friend when she was dying. And this is the story I wrote. I sent it to Triquarterly, and returned home to San Francisco. Which is where the editor, Reg Gibbons, reached me to say they wanted to publish it. I sent a copy to the mother of my friend who had died, and asked her to tell me if the story seemed in any way exploitative. I was prepared to pull it. But she gave me the go-ahead. This story, the first I wrote and the first I published, has been translated into more than 20 languages, and I feel certain I would not have written it had I not been assigned to look in the place I didn’t want to look.

Line Breaks is a regular feature in which accomplished authors introduce and share their first published stories with the Fictionaut community. Line Breaks is edited by Gary Percesepe.

  1. Rosie Sultan

    This is just about the best short story every. I read it for the first time maybe ten years ago; it is as startlingly fresh, as piercingly beautiful as ever. It just lifts off the page. Thank you for writing this.

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