Your story in this week’s issue, “The Rise and Rise of Annie Clark,” tells the tale of a pious but narcissistic woman who struggles to be acknowledged by her family and by God. What drew you to Annie Clark?

I’m about to turn eighty-four and as I lurch and stumble toward the end I find myself intrigued by the ways in which people facing death look back on their lives and how, when prompted, they sum them up. Annie Clark is not going to wait for death; she is interested in a summing-up right now. She sees it this way: she prays constantly, she is a devoted wife and mother, she is Catholic with a capital “C.” She has done her part. Now, if God would just give her a sign that she is pleasing to him, perhaps even some evidence that she’s on track for sanctity, she thinks she would be content.

Without that assurance, her discontent is what gives shape to her life. Like most people, Annie wants to be good and to do good and, despite her intolerance and her judgmental nature, there are moments when she acknowledges—privately, secretly—how badly she has failed. This combination of glutinous piety and spiritual blindness is common enough, but in Annie there is an added phenomenon: she demands God’s approval and, alas, we know how He feels about that. I recall God to Job: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? / Who settled its dimensions? Surely you should know.” Is there a touch of divine sarcasm here? In any case, Annie, in her small way, is as impertinent as Job. She wants to know.

Your last story in the magazine, “The Long Black Line,” drew on your own time as a Jesuit novice. Were you thinking of those days when you wrote about Annie’s experiences at the convent?

You’re referring, I think, to the peculiar trials of obedience in “The Long Black Line,” when novices are assigned to weed the tomatoes—though, in fact, there are no weeds— and in this story when Annie Clark is repeatedly made to lug a bag of sugar up and down the cellar stairs. These would be extreme moments in any novice’s training. Still, even as late as the nineteen-fifties, the novitiate offered this kind of well-intentioned mind control, which would prepare novices to accept without question the sometimes arbitrary—and, on rare occasions, irrational—demands of the vow of obedience. Not by chance was it called “blind” obedience. In my experience, though, most novices accepted this concept of obedience cheerfully, as part of the self-devouring religious enterprise they had undertaken.

You position the story, in 1950, at a moment when women are “taking charge of their lives.” But was that actually the case? Annie seems an unlikely feminist.

Annie is, indeed, an unlikely feminist. She would reject the principles and the actions of feminism; she would be appalled by #MeToo. It was in the fifties, however, that many middle-class women who’d expected to live out their lives as wives and mothers found these expectations radically changed. The Second World War and the consequent man shortage had given women the opportunity to step into men’s jobs. They drove trucks; they worked triple shifts in factories producing munitions, building ships, assembling airplane engines. After the war, many of these women missed having their own paychecks and the independence that implied. Some of them, even when discouraged by their husbands, went back to work and took charge of their own lives. Some—like Annie—walked out of conventional family life and set off to discover who they were. I personally knew a woman who left her four children and her husband in just this way: leaving a note on the kitchen table that said merely, “Going away to find myself,” a sentiment not greatly appreciated by her friends and neighbors. I have no information as to whether or not she found herself, but for these reasons the fifties seemed to me a good place to situate Annie Clark.

Why, when she levitates, does Annie rise exactly three feet two inches? Is there some significance to that number?

Annie Clark wants to measure God’s favors and she wants precision, as if height mattered or as if divine grace were a thing to be commandeered. She wants to know the details of an “ordinary” levitation, because a two-inch difference might diminish or increase her perceived degree of holiness. Above all, she does not want to be stuck with a lesser levitation. And she gets what she wants, up to a point. Annie levitates in a church, but is asleep at the time, so the only witness to this wonder is Father O’Malley, blind in one eye and dim in the other. He is not even surprised. He knows well that grace is given freely, it is not some kind of celestial merit badge, and in any case—as a man experienced in traffic with the divine—he has found it unwise to look too closely into God’s sense of humor. He is simply grateful to have participated in the event.

When Annie levitates at the end of the story, is it a miracle? Has God sent her a sign? Or have you, since you’re essentially the God of this story?

I would be pleased if readers considered Annie’s levitation merely a literary sleight of hand, a sort of late-stage magic realism. Or they might consider her levitation the result of religious hysteria. Or, more generously, a flat-out mystical gift. As the God of this story (thank you for that celestial appointment), I join Father O’Malley in considering her levitation a fit of whimsy on God’s part, His sense of humor mixed with that levelling irony we often see in His gifts.

You recently put together a collection of new and selected stories, which you divided into four groups: Mysteries, Marriages, Doubts, and Certainties. “The Rise and Rise of Annie Clark” falls into the Mysteries category. What is the mystery here?

I put it in Mysteries because, to my mind, it deals with the mystery of grace: grace offered and grace denied. Grace, we are told, cannot be earned. It is given with no strings attached. Grace is, I suppose, the ultimate mystery in God’s dealings with men and women. Annie’s determination to strong-arm God, to elicit verifiable evidence of her sanctity, not only makes a mockery of grace; it also makes genuine spirituality impossible for her.

Did you find, when going through your stories, that your approach to storytelling has changed over the years?

I suppose my approach to storytelling has changed over the past forty-five years as much as I have myself, though it strikes me that any story I set out to tell is a mystery to me at the start and, if it turns out well, it’s mysterious at the end, too. And this has always been the case.

A story usually begins for me as something interesting or provoking that I can’t quite grasp. It may be a problem I’ve become freshly aware of (say, a false accusation) or a person who has that problem (a priest accused of molestation?), and it’s something I need to think about. There’s a world that the person must inhabit (the isolated community of men who are meant to be holy) and other people whose lives bear on his problem (his confessor, the molested child)—and at some point I decide to jump in and start writing to see what comes of this. “A person with a problem in a world I must create”—it sounds mechanical. It sounds easy. But, in fact, it’s a matter of writing blindly into the unknown, in the hope that characters will reveal themselves in a complex way that makes a story possible.

I have worked like this from the beginning, when writing was a lot easier for me. The gods of fiction lure you in; they make writing easy at the start. The words come easily. The characters leap off the page. Who knew that writing fiction could be this much fun? It’s only after you’re hooked that the real work sets in.

What has changed in my writing, perhaps, is the material I deal with and the characters who interest me. My wife tells me the difference is that, in my late stories, I find it easier to forgive my characters, that I extend mercy where I used to dispense hard justice. That may be true, and she is rarely mistaken . . . about fiction.

It seems to me, though, that in my early stories I tried to explore the world around me: a senile old man rejected by his family, the delusions of a high-school girl in love with her teacher, and—for variety—a semi-crazed nun killed by a falling cow. Now, after many years writing novels, I deal with subject matter that is more personal. My story “Three Short Moments in a Long Life”—dealing with my death—is unabashedly so. (After it was published, a friend told another of my friends about my sudden death. Yes, she said, she was certain I was dead because she had read about it in The New Yorker.) In “The Long Black Line,” I investigated a single dismal year in the life of a Jesuit novice. Alas, the experience was mine, mostly, though in fact I remained a Jesuit for seventeen years.

It may be that old age makes writers drift into a kind of reminiscence that they pass off as fiction. Or it may be that memory offers rich possibilities to explore. Or it may be that this move toward the personal represents the last gasp of a fading imagination—but even if that is the case, I’m enjoying it greatly. Please note, however, that I disclaim any autobiographical elements in “The Rise and Rise of Annie Clark.” Annie would be outraged to have her story passed off as mine.