Your story “When We Were Happy We Had Other Names” is about a mother, Jiayu, whose son has recently died. “Death brought a new routine. There were grief support groups to join, letters from friends and relatives to attend to,” the story explains. “Grief? What is grief?” it asks, at another point. Do those two aspects—the new routine and a fundamental question—function in tandem, or does one interrupt the other?

I was thinking a lot about the etymology of the word “grieve”—from the Latin gravare, meaning “to burden,” from gravis, meaning “heavy, grave”—when I started the story. It is hard to imagine that we should call the death of a child, or that of any loved one, a burden; if grief is heaviness, one’s hope is that it doesn’t just vanish, as if the dead could easily be forgotten.

The beginning of the story, I suppose, reflects my struggle to get a good grasp of the word “grief.” A routine is to put life on an autopilot mode and to make time pass with less difficulty. To ask a fundamental question is to abolish that autopilot mode and to stop time. Perhaps only by interrupting each other do the two aspects offer a frame for grieving—at least that is the case for the characters in the story.

Jiayu and her husband have no idea why their son decided to take his own life. “ ‘Not knowing is hard,’ ” one of them says. “ ‘It’s so hard,’ ” the other replies. “ ‘The hardest,’ ” the first responds. You don’t differentiate between the voices here, as if either of the characters could have said these lines many times over. Why did you want this sense of a repeated conversation?

Indeed, the two characters have repeated the conversation many times—to each other, and to themselves, when alone. They know each other’s lines by heart and speak each other’s lines, which reminds me how, when a catastrophe strikes, we turn our voices into a Greek chorus.

This is very much Jiayu’s story. Her husband is a presence here, but we don’t know as much about him. Could you imagine telling the story from his point of view? Would it be very different?

I could imagine telling the story from his point of view, and the story would retain its essence. At one point, Jiayu thinks, “If many deaths could not produce an effective antidote to one death, what difference would many lives make?” That, I think, would be the story, too, if told from her husband’s point of view.

Jiayu says little about her son’s death, but, as a way of grieving, she starts to keep a spreadsheet in which she lists all the people she’s known who have died and what she remembers of them. Memory is a haystack, she thinks. Why is it so important to her to immerse herself in it?

I visited a gift shop around the time I was working on the story. There were some postcards made from photographs that were more than a hundred years old. It struck me as terrifying that one postcard was not much different from the next. Jiayu refuses to let the dead become “generally and generically dead,” and her only way to fight that, for her son as well as for all the other people who have departed, is to immerse herself in that haystack of memory.

She recalls details from her childhood in Beijing and remembers one period of time, in particular, when her grandfather used to visit, and they would often run into a woman and her young daughters in the park. It’s only now that she realizes the full implication of what was happening. Did you know when you started writing the story that you would use these memories from Jiayu’s childhood?

I did not know that Jiayu’s childhood would come into the story. I thought the story was going to be about the present moment in her life: here is a colossal loss, which refuses to be turned into the past tense. But then the story ran into a dilemma: in the all-encompassing present, feelings can take as much air as there is and suffocate thinking. I strongly believe that thoughts are equally important as emotions in a story, if not more important. Jiayu realizes, at one point in the story, “Thinking, like remembering, was an action of retrospect.” And that action of retrospect is almost an antidote to the deepest grief, so the story takes a turn to the past, looking for clarity.

There’s something very powerful about the way that Jiayu’s understanding of her grandfather deepens, and the fact that she is now able to grieve his death in a different way. Do you want this to feel liberating? Do you think it answers the question about grief that the story poses at the outset?

At the beginning of the story, Jiayu has made a gesture of defiance: “She said to the ceiling, Grief, I don’t know who you are, so don’t pretend you know who I am.” It is perhaps the only irrational statement she makes—otherwise she stays stoic and logical throughout the story. In the end, she finds an answer to the question about grief, but she also arrives at a point where she is no longer insisting that she and grief be strangers. I don’t know if I want this to feel liberating, but I am a little in awe of her in the end. It feels to me as though she were revising herself and saying, “Yes, grief, you’ve caught me in life, and I won’t pretend I don’t know you.”

The title, “When We Were Happy We Had Other Names,” is very striking. Jiayu recalls reading the line when she was a student but cannot remember the context. What is that forgotten context? Why did you choose this as the story’s title?

The line comes from Shakespeare’s “King John.” I was reading it at the time for a different reason, and Queen Constance speaks some of the most impassioned lines of grief in the play, about Arthur, her dead son. Toward the end, after the defeats and deaths of many characters, Salisbury says, on a lost battlefield, “When we were happy we had other names.” You mentioned, Cressida, that the line just sits there by itself, in a way, in the scene, feeling much more modern. And I was similarly startled when I read it. By then I had almost finished the story, and it seemed only natural that the line should become the title.