‘‘Some writers say, ‘I’m driven to write. I have all these stories to tell.’ I have none of that, and I’m always skeptical when I hear other say it. What I do is have a certain creative urge. When I was in my twenties, I expressed this by creating a bookshop, but when the business side was stronger than the creative side, then it stopped being good. So now that urge is finding itself in writing.”

‘‘I’ve had some people tell me things about my own writing, and after they’d told me I thought, ‘Oh, you’re right!’ Once I was taking a walk with another writer who had read most of what I’d written, and she said, ‘You know, the biggest emotion in all of your writing, no matter what you do, is yearning.’ She was right. Here’s an interesting thing: there’s no word for yearning in French. You have to use a whole sentence to describe the feeling, and even then you don’t get the whole range. Often, thinking about my characters in a story, I ask myself, ‘What do they want most of all?’ (Though it goes beyond want.) Germanic concepts like awe and yearning are central to my writing, in fact – all these words for a rich inner life!

‘‘A lot of my stories are built around ritual, though not always explicitly. I think that’s partly because, as an atheist, I believe in the power of ritual as a social bonding agent. The problem is, as an atheist I am troubled by the dogma attached to rituals which we could have without any dogma. They could simply be rites of passage, without any supernatural gobbledygook – simply rituals to mark important social moments, in a way that would imbue them with meaning. The meaning need not be superstitious; it could simply be human. It’s obvious that, as social animals, we need these rituals. But the way most of them have become coded over the years (dogma, right and wrong, all these arbitrary rules) seems problematic.

‘‘As a writer, I’m always interested in things I don’t understand. One of the worst pieces of advice ever given to writers is, ‘Write what you know.’ That’s terrible, awful! It’s very important for me to feel that I’m writing about something other. If I already understand things, why would I want to write about them? I try to write about characters who are very different from me – teenage girls, gay married men, forgotten Jews. And I just try to get into the mindset of somebody other than me. That’s where it becomes fiction, where it becomes something that is beyond self-expression, which I sneer at. Fiction is an attempt at communing with the world, trying to bridge some gap.”

‘‘I do always have five projects on the go, and never know when anything is going to be finished. I’m very much a short fiction writer. A lot of people think of short fiction as a training ground for novels, but they are two very different forms. Kelly Link, for example, is amazing; she is a great short fiction writer. But what she is great at doesn’t work at the novel level. I like to end my stories at the moment of transformation. It’s like I just wrote the prologue, and that’s it. But that can be fantastic. Farmer did that, sometimes successfully, sometimes not. He didn’t care if he wasn’t quite able to do what he was trying for; he was always stretching his muscles, doing something beyond himself. I’ve had a couple of agents approach me, saying they want to represent me, but they always back down when they learn I don’t have a novel. I might write one. I’m not saying no. But right now I don’t see it.”

‘‘I actually think the entirety of the human experience is there for us to plunder. Really plunder. I feel no compunction that I have to be respectful. I don’t think that is the artist’s job. And I do think in these extra-sensitive, extra-PC times, we’ve kind of lost track of the fact that all artists are shit-disturbers; that’s what we’re supposed to do. We’re supposed to question things, supposed to make people uncomfortable, we’re not there to answer, we’re there to question. Sometimes that question will mean shaking something up so that it’s really offensive, and that will make us think.’’