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10-11_bingham_reader_1“The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.” This opening line of Amy Hempel’s story “The Harvest” is indicative of her award-winning writing: “destabilizing… and at once funny and devastating,” describes faculty member Lisa Baker.

On November 3, students heard Ms. Hempel read from her body of work as this fall’s Bingham Visiting Reader. Known for her fiction and non-fiction, Ms. Hempel’s stories have appeared in Vanity Fair, Harper’s, Yale Review and the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction. Since publishing her first collection of stories, Reason to Live, she has won several prestigious literary awards, including the Hobson Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Introducing the speaker, Lisa Baker recalled her first time reading Ms. Hempel’s work: “Up until then, the short fiction I knew achieved its power through more conventional strategies of character and conflict development. In contrast, Amy Hempel’s stories, some so compact and distilled as to look innocuous, tackled the same subjects—our intimacies, our dyings—word by word, phrase by phrase: factoids and quips and snippets of popular culture commingling with her narrators’ longings and fears—the collision of these bits like shrapnel lodged dangerously close to a heart. Back then, her stories seemed subversive to me, intentionally unhinging our relationships to her characters and their various accidents; now, her fiction seems to me truer to how we actually experience our lives: as a collection of incongruous moments.”

Ms. Hempel’s Collected Stories, published in 2007, assembles her four story collections written over the course of more than 20 years. The first story she ever wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” is now one of the most anthologized stories of the last quarter century. The New York Times named her Collected Stories one of the ten best books of the year; it also earned the Ambassador Award for Best Fiction of the Year. In 2008, Ms. Hempel won the prestigious REA Award for the Short Story, and in 2009 she received the PEN/Malamud Award. She teaches at Harvard University and Bennington College.

After her reading, Ms. Hempel met with students in Straus Library to continue the discussion, answering questions about fiction, her work, and the process of writing.