Where do you get your story ideas?

When I become curious about something-What is string theory? How can someone paint a visually lucid mural with a spray can?-I research it and then write about a scientist who is testing string theory or a graffiti artist who is piecing on alley walls. Often when I read newspaper articles, essays or even short stories I'll find small kernels of unexplored potential, ideas or images that generate a character, or a scene or, when I'm lucky, an entire story.

Are your characters people that you know?

No. I will often "borrow" something interesting from people I know-an accent or dialect, an obsessive fear of butterflies, the experience of being a crisis hot line operator-but I never model characters after people I know for fear of undermining the story.

Do you prefer to write short stories or novels?

The sense of closure or completion that most writers find almost euphoric comes much more quickly with short stories. Of course, nothing is ever "complete," but when a story has been "worked over" so much that the author can no longer bear to look at it, she can then send it out into the world and hope an overworked editor somewhere will realize and appreciate her effort. So, in that sense I prefer to write short stories. I'm in the process of writing my first novel now, and while it's much more forgiving than a short story-there is room for meandering, veering from the story's main point to allow characters to think and to feel and to grow-the process is long and arduous, though there is a small high at the close of each chapter.

How do you write in so many different voices?

I used to say that I heard voices in my head until people stopped inviting me back to dinner parties and cocktail hours. But the truth is, I hear voices in my head. I think this is because I'm very curious about people, all people, from the wealthy socialite to the street thug who are, after all, both humans trying to navigate their complex lives. When I find myself thinking about a character as I stand in a grocery line or wait to have my teeth cleaned, I know it won't be long before he or she starts talking to me.

How often do you write?

Like most writers, I try to write every day or, in my case, night. My typical writing schedule is from 11 p.m. until 2 or 3 in the morning and then for a couple of hours each afternoon. Like running or doing multiplication tables, a daily routine pays off not only in page count but also in keeping the writing mind flexible and creative.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I have some really horrible poetry from elementary school and some worse short stories from middle school. What amazes me isn't the quality so much as the quantity of bad writing I'd amassed by the time I'd entered high school. Clearly there was no discouraging me, so I guess I knew when I was around seven.