“Displacedis the story of a sixteen-year-old boy in Jackson, Mississippi, in the late fifties. You were also a teen-ager in Jackson in those years. Did you draw on specific memories of your own while writing this?

I hesitate to say yes—that I did draw on memories of mine—because that might deceive readers into concluding the story’s merely autobiographical. It’s not. My father did die when I was sixteen, but my mother and he were profoundly in love. My mother did become intensely protective of me, but we did not live at that time in such a house in Jackson, as the story portrays. There was a “dial house” across the street from a house where we once lived, but I knew no Irish people there or anywhere—other than my grandmother. And there was a complicated, but much more unequivocal, sexual approach to me by a school classmate—at a drive-in movie.

Your most recent book, “Between Them,” was a memoir about your parents. Was it writing that book that led you back to this time and place?

In truth, I didn’t need to be brought back to those times in the fifties. For better or worse, I’m one of those people who, I sometimes think, revisits everything that ever happened to him every day of his life. I had some of this story’s real-life details tucked in my memory for fifty-plus years, without ever thinking I’d “use” them in fiction. But then “suddenly” last fall, in Billings, where my wife, Kristina, and I have a house, that drive-in movie event just presented itself as submissible to being somehow integrated into a larger story. For the last couple of years, I’ve been writing stories about Irish people in America. And I think that it was the chance to combine those “Irish concerns” (mostly fictive) with the memory of real-life events that sprung the narrative that became “Displaced” into existence. Ruskin says that composition is the arrangement of unequal things. For me, stories often become possible when I put myself to the task of creating verbal ligatures for events—real and imagined—that didn’t formerly go together.

I also think that roiling around those real-life events—which included my father’s death, my mother’s grief, my youth, our familial precariousness, my schoolmate’s confused wish to console me ( . . . and seduce me)—there was what Katherine Anne Porter calls a “commotion”; some agitation in my mind that doesn’t necessarily call out to be expressed per se but gives rise to some form of expression. It’s just not pure autobiography. That’s, in fact, the essence of where and how imaginative writing originates.

The story revolves around a friendship between Henry, the sixteen-year-old, and a seventeen-year-old Irish boy, Niall, who lives across the street. Niall pursues a friendship with Henry—ostensibly as a kindness because Henry’s lost his father. Do you think that’s the reason? Or is there some other dynamic that Niall is chasing?

I wrote this story not to display or exemplify things I already knew but to put into play things that interested me, in order then to see what I’d write. I can’t comment about Niall’s motives in the manner one would comment about a real person’s motives. I made Niall up out of words and shards of memory and projections and God knows what else.

Speaking of humans, however, I think we often behave on the strength of such a complicated set of motives that a conventional vocabulary for describing them simply isn’t adequate. Which is where fiction and poetry become useful. The vocabulary that properly defines Niall’s motives in approaching Henry in the complex way he does is nothing less than the entire vocabulary of the story itself. The story is the only true and unparaphrasable connector between the reader and those motives. And even then, as Henry says, what the story manages to articulate is probably still somewhat incomplete. The way we humans reduce fiercely complicated human logics to clichés and conventional wisdoms is what literature proposes an antidote for.

Both boys are at a transitional age—adolescents, not yet men—and both have, in a sense, lost a home. They both feel like aliens in the society they’re living in. Why do you think their responses are so different?

Their responses are so different because Richard made them different. No other reason. Again, these characters are not people I analyze; they’re pieces of verbal artifice I invent, and whose almost limitless complications I try—again, using words—to make reconcilable. It’s not much different from how it works in real life, when we encounter seemingly irreconcilable conflicts in the people we meet. We invent narratives that make sense to us.

Is it difficult, from a distance of decades, to reimagine yourself in the mind of a teen-age boy?

No, it’s not difficult to imagine myself as a teen-ager—at age seventy-four. Perhaps I haven’t gotten very far in fifty-eight years. This has been suggested. And it’s not difficult to imagine other teen-agers who are not me. It’s a dramatic period of life—for boys and for girls (or for young women and young men)—for which I maintain considerable empathy. Perhaps it’s also because, when I was sixteen, the goings on in my life were sufficiently complex to require another source of explanation and consolation and possibility—that is, literary expression.

At day’s end, what do you like best about this story?

I like a couple of things. I like that it’s set in the South—in Mississippi—but isn’t “Southern” in the traditional sense of Southern—that is, Faulknerian or O’Connor-ish. It’s a long-held aspiration of mine to be able to set stories in the South, and to have them operate according to my own sentence rhythms, my own sense of how Southern “sounds,” and my own sense of what “Southern” stories can be about. “Displaced,” in my view, could be set in many American locations—which makes it better and more resonant. And I like that the story forges an emotional and intellectual (albeit provisional) “unity” between modern Irish social upheavals and American social upheavals. This unity was quite fortuitously stumbled upon in the writing, but that’s the beauty, I suppose, of imaginative writing. The unexpected can always occur.

You mentioned to me that you were spending the summer working on a new novel. Can you say anything about it? Is it related to this story in any way?

I’m trying to advance on two fronts at once—which I did when I wrote “Rock Springs” and “The Sportswriter,” in the nineteen-eighties. I just agreed with my publisher, Daniel Halpern at the Ecco Press, to carry on writing a comic novel, set in Michigan (something I’ve been accumulating material for during the last three-plus years); and at the same time I’ve got about eight stories in the bag for a themed collection called “The Irish in America.” “Displaced” is one of these stories.