At the age of seven, I wrote my first story. There was a rabbit in it.

When I was eleven, my mother signed me up for a summer typing course. Every day, I took a city bus to downtown Berkeley, rode a rickety elevator to the fourth floor of what was then the Chamber of Commerce Building on Shattuck, and sat for four hours in a windowless room with old women (who were probably thirty), silently completing exercise after exercise on an ancient manual typewriter. I remember being aware that these women were training to be secretaries, and I was not.

Once able to type, I wrote ferociously. I was inspired by so many books I read as a kid, most notably Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh. Harriet was a different kind of protagonist. I never wanted to be Anne of Green Gables or Pippi Longstocking or Nancy Drew or (God forbid) Cherry Ames, Student Nurse. I wanted to be Harriet, who wanted to be a writer. I wrote obsessively in a notebook about my family and friends and typed long stories without structure or plot. I realized that adventure didn’t have to involve solving crimes or doing battle with pirates. There was something audacious about observing people who didn’t know they were being watched and then making up stories about them.

So many books informed what I like to write about, all these years later. I read Portnoy’s Complaint when I was twelve. (Berkeley parents with a big library and poor boundaries. It was the sixties. Don’t judge.) For the first time I realized that characters could be psychologically interesting. It was also the first time I realized that if you were going to write good stories, you had to be willing to anger people and embarrass yourself. Evan Connell’s Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge introduced me to the concept of the unreliable narrator. John Updike’s Rabbit Is Rich, read just after I finished college (and all the classical literature that a bachelor’s degree in English entailed), taught me that even a middle-aged guy who sold Toyotas could be a worthy, if flawed, hero. Lorrie Moore’s electrifying Birds of America, read when I was in the throes of child-rearing, was the first collection of short stories to make me understand the exquisite, surgical beauty of the form. Once discovered, Alice Munro became the writer of books I would choose to have in the unlikely event of that whole marooned-on-a-deserted-island thing.

For twenty or so years, I wrote children’s books, largely because I lived in a house with children. When they grew up, I started writing short stories. I like the precision required, the necessity of focusing on small moments and quiet revelations. I think Harriet (whom I imagine crouched in a dumbwaiter, eavesdropping on private conversations that are none of her business) would approve.