Jesse Ball's second novel, The Way Through Doors, comprises a series of stories within stories told by a municipal inspector who has to keep the woman he loves awake all night so she doesn't slip into a coma.

Why are you so taken with characters who have odd occupations—a municipal inspector, a guess artist, someone whose job it is to deliver messages on a tray?

In the U.S. right now, status is based on money and what you own, less on what you do. In Europe, there's an identification with what you do that goes beyond what you own. For instance, in a small provincial restaurant in France, they'll have waiters who are men in their 50s and 60s who have enormous dignity as they're going around doing their job. They're proud of their job, and they're not making a million bucks. They're proud because they're exercising a position with dignity and receiving commendation in the form of reciprocal dignity from the people they deal with. So I think there's something really nice about that idea of positions that are peculiar, but that carry a self-enforced aura of dignity around them.

In a way, the characters in this book encounter no resistance. It's as if they're playing a game or solving a puzzle, and as long as they're willing to make the next move, they get the next clue.

They have a map, which Selah drew after having dreamt it as a child, and it shows what his entire life will be. He kind of knows the important events that are coming up. Also, the problem per se is that the tale should continue at all, that the material should exist for the man who's reciting his story to the girl he doesn't want to go into a coma, so the main obstacle is for Selah to think of more material which fits seamlessly with what's gone before.

Why do you number the paragraphs in this book rather than the pages?

Page numbers don't really reflect the movement of the book, or the units that I'm working with. The paragraph is the main storytelling unit—a breath is drawn and let out.

You're also a poet. Is that a very separate practice from the writing of fiction?

Prose has the burden to entertain. The poem, on the other hand, is the place, of all places, even more than philosophy, where you can get the sharpest look into what thought forms are, without the burden to entertain. To me, a book of poems is a manual on thinking, on stripping away weakness from your thought and having the sharpest, clearest perception. I don't think it's necessarily a difference of style or content—in a certain way, good writing is good writing; it's the clearest transmission of thought.