You may be one of the few to admit not having read it cover to cover, though not the first person to—
...have actually done so! Yes, it's true.
But I should also mention Chekhov. All short story writers say Chekhov, but really, he was terribly important to me. All kinds of writers of short stories come into this. William Maxwell's my favorite North American writer, I think. And an Irish writer who used to write for The New Yorker called Maeve Brennan, and Mary Lavin, another Irish writer. There were a lot of writers that I found in The New Yorker in the fifties who wrote about the same type of material I did—about emotions and places. There were so many other people who I'm just not thinking about right now. I read all the time, and I'm often struck by something I'm reading.
You once wrote a wonderful descriptive essay about how you read stories. You said, "A story is not like a road to follow ... it's more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows...."
That's true. I wrote that piece as an introduction, I think, or an essay for a friend of mine. At first, I didn't know what to write about at all, because I hadn't really thought about what a story was. But then I thought about the way that I read, which, as I said in that essay, is going into the story anywhere. I can tell in a couple of sentences how I feel about a story. Then, I go on reading, and I read frontwards, backwards, all over. It is just like being enclosed in the story and seeing things outside the story in a different way—through the windows of that house. And it's not at all like following a path to see what happens. Quite often, I know what happens as soon as I start reading it. Maybe not the twists the plot will take, but the real story. In my story "Hateship, Friendship..." the plot is rather important, but often in a story the plot really isn't the most important element.
I suppose this speaks not only to how you read, but to the way you write. Your stories tend to be less plot-driven, with "Hateship, Friendship..." perhaps being an exception.
Yes, but even there, when I started to write it, I began with the girls writing letters. That's the way the whole thing started originally. But then, when I picked it up later and looked at it the second time, I just wanted to start it somewhere else—which I did in the final version.
I'd like to talk a bit about the form and structure of your writing. You are one of the few successful writers on the continent to make your name by publishing only short stories. What draws you to the short-story format?
I did write Lives of Girls and Women, which is kind of a novel, but it's in sections like stories. So why do I like to write short stories? Well, I certainly didn't intend to. I was going to write a novel. And still! I still come up with ideas for novels. And I even start novels. But something happens to them. They break up. I look at what I really want to do with the material, and it never turns out to be a novel. But when I was younger, it was simply a matter of expediency. I had small children, I didn't have any help. Some of this was before the days of automatic washing machines, if you can actually believe it. There was no way I could get that kind of time. I couldn't look ahead and say, this is going to take me a year, because I thought every moment something might happen that would take all time away from me. So I wrote in bits and pieces with a limited time expectation. Perhaps I got used to thinking of my material in terms of things that worked that way. And then when I got a little more time, I started writing these odder stories, which branch out a lot. But I still didn't write a novel, in spite of good intentions.