The most immediately unusual thing about your stories is their brevity. Why so short? When did you first realize you could write—were allowed to write—such short, short stories?

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Although I had read Kafka's Parables and Paradoxes in college, I never thought of trying such short forms, as though this "classic" were enclosed in an untouchable box. The only form I seriously considered was the traditional short story. Then, at a time when I was stuck in my writing, a few years later, I happened to read the stories—what he calls poems—of Russell Edson. The volume of his that I read contains short, mostly domestic tales in which not all the protagonists are human. It also helped me that not all the pieces were successful—I could see how to attempt something and not mind failing. I set myself the exercise of writing two paragraph-long stories each day. Although I've written many longer things since then, including a novel, I still find the short form wonderfully flexible and effective.

Many of your stories have to do with characters or narrators watching themselves think. Kurt Vonnegut called this "the existential hum" and once wrote about a friend who described the seductive power of heroin: "For the first time in his life, he was not annoyed by the existential hum." So. (a) Any ideas about the existential hum in your stories? (b) Any ideas about the existential hum in general? (c) Any thoughts about heroin and/or addiction?

(a) I had a very talented student once who decided to give up writing because she couldn't stand that existential hum. I was sorry for the loss, but I understood. I don't actually suffer from it all the time, only when I'm "open" to writing. Sometimes it figures in the stories, but often, maybe increasingly, it doesn't. In the latest volume, for instance, there is the very long story "Helen and Vi," about two old ladies. And most recently, I have written a piece about the cows across the road, and it is mostly pure observation of the cows, with very little about me. (b) Not today. (c) Not now.

Lots of allusions to Buddhism and "enlightenment" in your stories—what is your relationship to Buddhism and/or "enlightenment"?

Oh, I have attempted over the years to study and even practice some form of Buddhism, which seems to me one of the better choices of beliefs or disciplines in the world. I like everything I know about it, though I'm not in any way a deep scholar of it. As I do with other books, I accumulate books about it and read a little in them. I meditate sometimes. I think I should meditate more, because it has good effects.

But I think that scolding oneself for not meditating enough would not be in keeping with Buddhist thought. In fact, I find Buddhist thought—what I know of it, anyway—intellectually fascinating too.

What have you been doing/eating/seeing in the past few days? (To play fair: I have mostly been in a damp newspaper office; tonight I've made some rice and beans and collards, though my diet is usually less virtuous.)

Rice and beans and collards would be one of my favorite kinds of meals. I'm teaching, these days, and even though it's only one class, meeting once a week, with only seven students, I tend to orient my week around that—noticing things in my reading and daily life that would feed into our discussions in class. I'm reading for a book club I belong to in the neighborhood, and for the class. There's a wonderful book I discovered last spring called Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style by Virginia Tufte that methodically and exhaustively examines different sentence structures, taking all its examples from published work of a wonderful variety of writers. I'm making my way through that.

I'm also on the home stretch of my translation of Madame Bovary. I will read it through one more time and hope I'm not too surprised by the choices I made a year ago, when I started the second draft.

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Are you near a window? What's outside your window?

I'm near a window, but the windows here are set fairly high up in the wall. So from where I sit, I see the top of a beech hedge, the tops of some trees, the top of a hill, the upper part of an old white house, and the roof of an old red barn (where the cows live). recommended