Much like the characters in his novels, Brian Morton is a self-effacing guy. He acts like a man who didn't expect too much out of life and is somewhat bemused at the good fortune of having three books published to critical acclaim. Like his characters, he's part of the New York literary scene in a marginal way: don't look for his name in boldface at any of the celebrity parties. And don't look for a man as old as Schiller, the elderly character he captured so well in his last book, Starting Out in the Evening (1998). No. What you have in Brian Morton is someone closer in appearance to the 40-ish Isaac Mitchell in his new novel, A Window Across the River. Yet in person Morton speaks softly and paces himself not unlike Schiller, taking his time to pause and choose his words.

Such tricks of voice and appearance, age and time, are the themes permeating Morton's fiction. In The Window Across the River, two erstwhile lovers are reunited as each is facing a career crisis. Nora's gift as a writer is to intuit the fears and frailties of the people she knows and produce short stories that cut to the bone. "When she wrote, she became a cannibal, feeding off the lives of acquaintances, friends and lovers." Heartsick at the ruthlessness of her perceptions, Nora has avoided writing fiction for some time, but when she gets back together with Isaac, she feels a rush of creativity, and begins a story that shows Isaac's timidity and failure of nerve, stripping him naked to the reader. Isaac, meanwhile, has just been compelled to realize that he will never fulfill his promise as a photographer; he is forced to confront the cold reality of his failed hopes and the emptiness of his life. That such a story can end on a note of affirmation is one of Morton's strengths. Isaac's epiphany is touching: "the thing that was missing from his life now, the bright thread of meaning, wasn't art, it was love, love and family."

Like his characters, Morton feels he got a late start. At 46, he's in the early stages of family life with his partner, Heather Harpham. He spoke to PW in San Raphael, Calif., at the end of a yearlong sabbatical, before moving back to New York where he teaches creative writing at New York University. With Gabriel, six months old, strapped to his chest, and Amelia-Grace, two, following him down the hall to the elevator, he admits to feeling slightly overwhelmed by parenthood, something he avoided earlier in his life. "I didn't think I wanted children because I was committed to the writing life," he says. "Then I met Heather, and I'm thrilled that wasn't true."

Early on, from around his mid-20s, he realized that writing was a calling that demands total fealty. The son of social activists who believed if you weren't helping others you weren't fully alive, Morton has created narratives in which people try to find meaning in the arts they pursue. The conviction that they have been failures casts long shadows. They wonder: is it worth it to keep making your art even if others will never see it? Even if it has no redeeming social value? Although his themes are ambitious and philosophical, he writes with humor and tenderness and infuses his characters into the popular culture, with inside jokes and quirky language.

His writing has been called lyrical, elegant, elegiac and wise. Critics praise his subtle characterizations and the authenticity of his voices: male and female, young and old. He was in his 30s when he created 70-year-old Schiller in Starting Out, and critics marveled at his mastery of Schiller's voice. "Maybe I was born a 70-year-old man," he says with obvious pleasure.

Indeed, for a man just approaching middle age, Morton seems to be preoccupied with the misery of aging. Schiller is repulsed by his broken-down body and is mortified that he has to sit on the toilet and pee "like a woman." He worries that he won't finish his last novel before he dies. The younger generation, represented by Heather, the graduate student who interviews Schiller for her thesis while hiding her true objective, and by the budding photographer Renee in Window, carries the promise of talent fulfilled. Watching Renee breeze in with her energy and ambition, Isaac is struck with a pang of longing, for "just a grain of recognition for his work," but he knows it's too late.

The character of Renee came from Morton's experience of teaching, which he started after publishing his first novel, The Dylanist (1991). "I came across students more gifted than I am," Morton says. "The question becomes what kind of attitude to take. There are two kinds of teachers, one who wants to find ways to discourage or crush that talent, and the kind who wants to help it blossom."

Morton himself seems to have reservations about the extent of his talent, perhaps due to his relatively late start in being published. He was born into a middle-class family in Teaneck, N.J., to an Irish-Catholic father who was a union organizer and a Jewish mother who taught school. His older sister wrote stories that were praised by his parents and grandparents. "Maybe that's what made me want to be a writer," he says. (His sister yielded to her parents' lead and became a social worker.) When he was enrolled in a creative writing course at Sarah Lawrence, he showed a story to his father, who signaled his pride by suggesting that Brian go to journalism school. Morton worried that he let his father down by not joining him in his union work, but overheard him tell a colleague, "Brian's just having a cup of coffee in the labor movement. He's basically a Jewish intellectual." He took this as a liberating moment, hoping that he interpreted his father's tone correctly.

His mother's family was full of artists; her brother was a composer, her father an actor in the Yiddish theater. Being an artist in her family was valued even if it wasn't financially rewarding. Though Morton's aspirations were writerly, initially no creative fires burned for Morton. During college, he was more interested in trying to act like a writer (figuring out how to smoke cigarettes in a particularly cool way, he says) than actually writing. Like the character Owen in The Dylanist, Morton spent his early years smoking pot, listening to Dylan tunes, sleeping and socializing. But after graduation, at 23, he felt old for the first time and knew he needed to be more disciplined. Taking a job as a proofreader for a law firm from 5 p.m. to midnight helped, since it made an active social life impossible. Morton still struggles to make time for what he calls the habit of writing and believes that there is no "writer's personality." A writer is someone who simply puts in the hours, he says.

Months after his father died, in 1984, Morton began a portrait of him. "It was easy to idealize him in the character of [Francis Xavier] Burke because he was so distant and also now that he was gone." The narrative of The Dylanist follows Sally Burke, Morton's alter ego, through youth and college, and implicitly charts Morton's lost, wandering years. In 1988, when he had finished the novel, he was working as co-editor of the book review at Dissent magazine (he became executive editor in 1995). Through connections there, he found an agent, Harvey Klinger, who loved the novel, admitting that he didn't know whether its author was 28 or 60. Ted Solotaroff at HarperCollins bought it, but by the time the book was issued he had left the house. Although the novel garnered critical praise, "it went out of print like that," Morton says, snapping his fingers.

He started writing Starting Out in the Evening with trepidation, thinking that a second novel's chance of success after disappointing sales of a debut were slight. Editor Ann Patty at Crown got behind the book, however, and after the New York Times called it "a triumph," this novel about a forgotten writer whose work and interest in life is revived by a devoted acolyte went on to receive the Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Koret Jewish Book Award for Fiction and the Guggenheim Foundation Award. It was also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Yet self-doubt seems to be Morton's stock in trade, as well as the source of his characters' introspection. He worries that his work is too contained. When he was writing Starting Out, he realized that the grad student Heather was beginning to have more devious motives and more reprehensible behavior than he was comfortable with. "I asked myself, What am I? A novelist or a social worker? I preferred to understand her, give a context for what she was doing," he says. But he still wants his characters to be liked. When PW suggests a link between Renee and the wolfish Heather, he looks up and says, "Really? I like Renee. She's not that bad." His characters struggle with ambition and ruthlessness versus comfort and caretaking. Nora, in The Window Across the River, reluctantly gives up a coveted artist's residency to take care of her dying Aunt Billie. On the other hand, a character in Starting Out says, "If you want to write, you have to be willing to be a son of a bitch sometimes."

Morton remembers talking to a fellow professor about how he wanted his students to respect the language. The colleague said, "Respect? I want them to fuck the language!" Morton's characters could be having the same conversation. Three male characters in his novels—Ben, Schiller and Isaac—are kind, decent human beings, but they must struggle with women who seem to want more energy, more passion from them. In The Dylanist, Ben's kisses are too genteel and Sally leaves him. In Starting Out, Schiller's work is too tame and Heather decides not to write a book about him. In Window, Nora writes about Isaac not being wild enough. Ambition seems to be at odds with kindness and respect in all these relationships.

Although all his novels have love affairs, there is little titillation. "I always think they are like 1950s movies that end with a kiss," he says. His lovers are preoccupied and introspective even when they're engaged in sex. In all three novels, a couple breaks up and then gets back together years later. "It's a kind of narrative shortcut," Morton says. "I don't have to go through all of the background stuff, but I can get the intensity of new love with the comfort of old love. I wanted to write about both of those things."

Despite Morton's reserve, his path to publishing has been fairly easy each time. It's a good thing, too, since self-glorification will never be his style. In several hilarious passages in Window, he takes aim at the self-aggrandizement that some New York writers shamelessly pursue. PW wants to ask him if the portraits of pompous, jealousy-ridden literary types are based on real people, but given the satire's jabbing wit, maybe it's best not to tread on that ground. However, Morton is more than game. "If people notice my work closely enough to produce a backlash, then I'll be happy to have it."

Writing has never come easy to Morton, and he feels envious of writers like Roth and Updike who are both fluent and prolific. His characters reflect his angst. Nora stops writing fiction, but in the end can't resist its lure. Schiller tries to walk away from writing, but can't, because, he finds, it's necessary to help him make sense of the world.

Morton's characters have a hold on him as well. Both Sally Burke from The Dylanist and Heather Wolfe from Starting Out in the Evening are mentioned briefly in Window Across the River. Morton claims this is the influence of reading Balzac, who also had recurring characters. In fact, on his deathbed, Balzac called out for the doctor from one of his books. Morton says these characters are alive in his imagination. One name he wants to clear is that of Heather, his partner's. He had already written Starting Out, where the character Heather Wolfe appears, before he met Heather Harpham, his partner. There is no connection. As for the name Ben appearing in two books: "People just turn up and those are their names. You can't change your friends' names. But that goes for a character too."