Your story in this summer’s Fiction Issue, Fungus,” is about a father and his six-year-old daughter who, as the story opens, are heading to a Subaru dealership to buy a new car. When did you first think about setting a story (at least partially) in a car salesroom?

Last night, I dreamt I went to the car dealership again—no, but seriously, in terms of this story, pretty much from the beginning. I knew there was going to be this hazy backdrop of intense tragedy, and I wanted to explore those relatively mundane acts that take place within a heightened state of emotion, particularly if the mundane act had a direct correlation with the tragedy. What would that mean? How would that play? The energy of crosscurrents. The charged meaning. Plus the normal stresses of buying a new car, which buffs all my doubts and insecurities into a terrible shine—how I’m obviously doing this wrong and getting screwed in the process, that there’s a secret language I have no access to, a guidebook no one has ever pressed into my sweaty palms.

At the dealership, the story sometimes has a ruefully humorous tone. Yet the events underlying the purchase of the car are tragic. Andrew’s wife and his older daughter died in a car crash several months earlier. The story touches on the accident, but goes into very little detail. Why did you decide to hold back here—and did you always know the point at which you’d introduce this information?

Initially, I wrote the whole thing without once mentioning those deaths. That was the challenge I gave myself: to see how much I could communicate under the surface and perhaps tell an emotional story through just the sense of the loss—Subarus like white elephants. I was hoping it would have this dreamlike quality loaded with uncanny meaning, where all these charged molecules might coalesce beyond atmosphere and achieve a surprising catharsis. We know without knowing. We give into feeling without understanding why. But it didn’t work. Nope. Not at all. It was just too coy and distracting. I needed some indication of what had happened in order to free up space for the story to breathe, without me sitting on its chest. And so I gave the minimum amount of information, a microdose of melodrama.

Grief seems to be a constant presence for Andrew, embodied, in particular, in obsessive middle-of-the-night Wikipedia searches. For Willa, it appears more distant, and the loss of her family a contained narrative. The story is told mainly from Andrew’s perspective. How much does he know about what’s going through her mind, and how much is he projecting onto her? What memories do you think Willa will have from this period when she’s older?

I think Andrew carries this overarching responsibility of memory while Willa in many ways will forget, though the feelings will linger, mysterious, like clouds persisting around an extinct planet. Or that’s just my impression, having no experience with a tragedy like this. But Willa is a bit unknowable to Andrew, especially in light of this terrible event. How to understand how she’s feeling without reminding her she should be feeling something, without dictating the narrative of his own mourning. Because the feelings are so different, between the adult and the child. I think of her living more in the present with a clearer line to the future, while Andrew grapples with the end of things, seeking meaning in the world around him. Perhaps the past seems worthier because that’s where his wife and daughter still exist, whereas Willa naturally carries these people within her body, more physical than intellectual. I wanted Willa’s eating of dirt at the end of the story to reflect this idea—she’s ingesting the facts of the loss and creating a new landscape for them to exist. If that makes any sense. I also had heard this story on the radio that featured a tree biologist who as a child had a habit of eating dirt so she could be closer to her beloved trees. That image stayed with me (and in my mind she became the dead wife/mother).

A refrain runs through the story: “In the darkness before the dawn—the dawn.” It’s a line that comes to Andrew as he’s shopping at Whole Foods. It’s a refrain that could either be seen as full of meaning or, paradoxically, emptied of meaning. Why did you want to use it throughout the story?

I think of this as a shorthand glimpse into Andrew’s mind, how he’s trying to craft some literary comfort from these deaths, perhaps steer the loss toward some kind of beauty—which can be a fool’s errand. There is no poetry here. No saving metaphor. No meaning, no matter how much we desire meaning. And so it’s a tick, a verse-like twitch, perhaps another part of Andrew’s pretentious armor. As though he can shortcut to hope rather than move through the process of suffering. At Whole Foods, no less. Because Andrew is affected. For God’s sake, he watches “L’Avventura” for relaxation. He’s a fan of Kraftwerk. He’s a visitor to poets’ graves. He depends on these intellectual markers to guide him through life, mainly because he’s insecure about how life operates (like so many of us). So he’s pleased with the line. But deep down in the earth of the story I know it was cribbed from the music leaking down from above: a Coldplay song, “Midnight.”

While Andrew’s driving, he’s listening to music: Little Feat’s “Waiting for Columbus”; Yes’s “I’ve Seen All Good People.” Why did you choose those songs? How important are they in conjuring up Andrew’s past, and what’s it like to capture the feeling of a song in words?

Well, songs can give you that peculiar emotional relief, where you’re crying and you don’t know why you’re crying, which was the effect I wanted from this story. And I decided to do the whole live album thing mainly because of my own childhood nostalgia concerning the live albums of the seventies. It always seemed a big deal when a band released their live album. My friends and I would debate the merits of the studio version versus the live version, would imagine being there, in the arena, with the cool kids, instead of absorbed in a beanbag chair, covered in flecks of potato chip. I think I gravitated here toward Little Feat because I remember loving them as an older-brother-worshipping ten-year-old, but by the time I hit twenty the band was pretty much scrubbed from my listening habits. I had moved on (to Kate Bush and Roxy Music). But, regardless, I know that album so well, practically know every yell and squeal from the audience. So when Andrew listens to “Waiting for Columbus,” he has that experience of odd intimate recall, the remembrance stronger for having been forgotten for so long. I wanted that vibe. Sort of the same for Yes, though Yes is a different animal altogether and is worthy of a thousand words. But I initially loved them because of their album covers; they were just so cool and otherworldly, trippy places I was desperate to experience. The music came second. “I’ve Seen All Good People” is still a song I can get behind—for maybe three minutes, and then I want to shuffle all those good people out the door and talk shit about them.

The story’s called “Fungus,” and one of Andrew’s early-morning Wikipedia odysseys started with Geico and finished with the nineteenth-century German mycologist Robert Hartig. At that stage, did you know that the story would close with Willa in the forest, digging her hands into the dirt? Were fungi always on your mind, or did the subject emerge as you were writing?

From the beginning, I knew it would end with Willa eating dirt. It seemed both mournful and hopeful. (Pregnant women have been known to have a craving for it.) And, like I said above, I had heard this tree biologist speak about how she had the habit as a child, and, in the same program, she went on to discuss the ways in which trees communicated in the forest, how they had this active social network via fungi. All that sharing beneath the surface. Unseen. Strange and mysterious and more complicated than we can imagine. The same way a good short story operates, deep down in the dirt.