Both of the characters in “The Frog King,” the American narrator, an English teacher living in Bulgaria, and his Portuguese boyfriend, R., have appeared in your earlier work. The narrator is the central figure in your novel, “What Belongs to You,” in which he first meets R., as he is in your story “An Evening Out,” which appeared in The New Yorker last year. What’s it like to return to characters you’ve already created?

It doesn’t feel like returning, really, since I’ve never left them. R. plays a crucial role in “What Belongs to You,” but he appears on relatively few pages—in part because I knew he would be a central character in the book from which “Frog King” is taken. I’m attracted to writers whose books are at once satisfying, formally complete things, and also in some sense like chapters in an ongoing book. This is true of someone like Sebald, say, and obviously Proust; it’s also true of a poet like Frank Bidart or George Oppen. (Maybe it’s more typically true of poets.) I don’t have any idea what I’ll want to write in ten years, but for now I like the sense of an unfolding, single work, even as I hope each book is a satisfyingly autonomous, well-made thing. I like the idea that books can overlap one another, intermingle; the events of “Frog King,” for instance, take place before the third section of “What Belongs to You.”

The story opens in Sofia, where the narrator and R. celebrate Christmas. The holidays alone change the daily tenor of their relationship, and they then travel to Italy, where they are able to leave the unspoken social rules of Sofia behind. How liberating do you want that journey to feel?

I wanted the whole story to feel like an idyll for these characters, who are sometimes treated roughly—by each other, by the world. Taking them out of Sofia, where they’re each constrained by various kinds of commitment and drudgery—work, school, R.’s closetedness—allows them access to new ways of relating to each other. The holiday is a kind of magic circle, maybe; they can be more free with each other, more vulnerable, precisely because there’s such a clear limit to their freedom. This freedom comes in part from shifting from a quite homophobic place to a somewhat less homophobic one; it also comes from feeling like they’re in a certain kind of story together, the story of a romantic holiday. It’s a story they write together, a shared fiction, a bit of playacting; and in the weird way of fiction it gives them access to certain truths.

The story captures the potential disappointment that comes with any vacation—“It’s not exactly a dream of Italy,” the narrator says of the cheap hotel he has booked on the outskirts of Bologna—and the perpetual risk of disagreement over what to see next (“The dilemma of vacations, the exhaustion of the last chance,” he thinks). But the narrator and R. always manage to pull themselves back from the brink of vacation despair. Is it their relationship or Italy that saves them?

I think each of them at certain moments opens a door for the other; each gives the other a way out of himself. This is another sense in which they’re constantly engaged in a sort of art-making, trying to author a particular kind of story together. (This is what all relationships are, I think.) R. has more ready access to delight than the narrator does, and offers that access to the narrator; but R. has his own miseries, too. Part of their mutual care is to lead each other back to the story they want to be in together, a story of shared delight.

At one stage, R. persuades the narrator to go to a small museum, dedicated to a painter who spent his life in Bologna. The narrator’s a reluctant visitor, barely looking at the paintings, but then one pulls him in and he stops to look more carefully. From the description, it sounds as though he must be looking at a painting by Giorgio Morandi. Why did you want to leave the painter unnamed?

I’m not sure I have a good answer. I was aware that anyone who knew Morandi’s work would recognize it from the description. But I think I felt that naming him would make the paintings too present in the story, and would impose a greater responsibility on my description of them than I wanted the story to bear. I didn’t want the narrator’s meditation to be beholden to the reality of the paintings, as such thoughts would be in an essay on Morandi; what’s important, I think, is the use the narrator makes of Morandi’s art, the way it clarifies a possibility his relationship with R. has begun to make available to him.

You write about the presence the narrator senses in the work—“I could sense it humming at a frequency I wanted to tune myself to catch.” Are you trying to catch that frequency in this story, too?

Some kinds of art impose themselves on us: the Ninth Symphony or Picasso’s “Guernica” have a kind of greatness that’s overwhelming, undeniable, coercive. But much of the art I love best has a greatness that’s different in quality: it’s less demonstrative, it can be easy to miss. It allows us greater freedom—the freedom not to recognize it—and so relies upon our willingness to attend to it, upon a free effort of attention. That effort does often feel to me like bringing oneself into tune with something. I often felt this teaching Elizabeth Bishop’s poems to high-school students, even very sophisticated high-school students, who would nearly always read “At the Fishhouses” or “In the Waiting Room” without seeing anything extraordinary in them, without feeling that much of anything happens in the poems at all. The best way to teach those poems, I found, wasn’t to try to unlock some paraphrasable meaning in them, but instead to coax the students to read more deliberately, to attend more carefully, to slow themselves down enough to catch Bishop’s particular frequency. It’s not that those poems are minor! Once you do catch their frequency, once they open up, they’re overwhelming, transformative; they have a greatness that is decidedly major in scope. I feel something similar about Morandi’s paintings of everyday objects that are transfigured by the quality of his attention. In the story, Morandi’s aesthetic clarifies for the narrator something he has felt in his relationship with R.: that the banal, everyday forms of intimacy and shared life can be transformed and made revelatory by the exercise of attention, by attention understood as a kind of tenderness.

When the narrator and R. get back to Sofia, there’s an acknowledgment of how hard it is to return to one’s ordinary life—and to the complications of their relationship. But, once again, as on the vacation, any disagreement is averted, and the story takes us back to the possibility of profound happiness. The penultimate section is made up of a long, unbroken scene of the two men in bed together. Did you know from the outset that the story would take us here?

I did have a particular goal for this story: I wanted to challenge myself to write happiness. In part this is because I love these characters, and as I say above, elsewhere—not least in “What Belongs to You”—they’re treated quite roughly. The book this story is taken from, “Cleanness,” is in nine sections; “Frog King” is the fifth. I wanted this central story to extend something like grace to the characters, to fully dramatize a moment in which each achieves a kind of happiness for and with the other. It isn’t that suffering or discord are eradicated in that moment, but I do think they are consolidated in, or made intelligible by, an overarching happiness. I knew that there would be a scene of intimacy in the story, but I was surprised by the form that intimacy took.

I wanted a respite for these characters, then, a moment of happiness; but writing happiness was also an aesthetic challenge. To a certain kind of temperament—my temperament, I guess—the assumption that happiness is less interesting than suffering (“happy families are all alike,” etc.) and therefore a less worthy subject for art, seems natural, self-evident. But I think that assumption is wrong. It’s an aesthetic failing but also a moral one, it seems to me now, to see happiness, even very ordinary happiness, as somehow less profound, variegated, interesting, less accommodating of insight, than other kinds of experience. I worry sometimes, in contemporary fiction, that we assume trauma is the most interesting story we have to tell. (Again, I’m speaking of my own assumptions here, not attacking a foreign view.) I wanted to write a story without trauma; I wanted to challenge myself to take happiness seriously. The surprise for me was how painful it was to write it. “And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips, / Bidding adieu,” Keats writes, and I felt the truth of his claim that images or narratives of happiness are the best conduit for melancholy. Maybe it’s just that one never escapes one’s temperament. I hope that “Frog King” is a genuinely happy story, that the happiness the characters find with one another is genuine. It was devastating to write.

The story’s title, “The Frog King,” refers to a wooden sculpture, which is going to be burned on New Year’s Eve, in the Piazza Maggiore, in Bologna. That burning forms the final scene of the story. Most of the story is told chronologically. Why did you want to pull this moment out of time?

Almost all of the chapters of “What Belongs to You,” and almost all of the sections of the new book, “Cleanness,” are written in very long takes, single scenes that more or less obey the unities of place and time. But “Frog King” is a story in fragments, and they were not at all written in the order in which they appear. That order was the result of a great deal of experimentation. It was hell to put the story together, actually: for several weeks I had the story hanging up in my studio, each fragment clipped to a ribbon I strung around the room, so I could easily change their order. It helped to be able to walk around them in physical space, somehow; it let me see them in a way I couldn’t otherwise. It’s really accidental that they ended up being in a more or less chronological order; I just put the pieces where they seemed to feel right. I’m not sure how much I can rationalize about why the story had to break chronology and end with the scene of the frog king burning. The simple truth is pragmatic: the story didn’t work with that scene anywhere else. (Once I realized this, I also had the story’s title.) Maybe it’s that I wanted to end in the optative mood, that space of wishing that I think best characterizes the narrator’s stance toward the vision of stability and longevity his relationship with R. allows him to imagine, which is so different from anything else he has experienced in his erotic life. I don’t think he quite believes in it—but even to be able to hope for it makes evident the revolution R. has been for him.