They’re such strange little things, Simon Van Booy’s short stories. Beautiful little things but fragile, full of musicians and rain and children and ice skating in cities as diverse as Stockholm and Quebec and Los Angeles. If they weren’t made of words, these stories would be made of lace and paper and ambergris; they’re so spindly, delicate and curiously perfumed. As it is, the words tend towards the aphoristic and nervily intense. In that they’re more than a bit like their author.

Edinburgh in August. In Charlotte Square, Simon Van Booy is wearing white trousers. White trousers, a blazer with gold buttons and tortoiseshell glasses. “We’re in Edinburgh,” he explains. “Any minute now I could be asked on to someone’s yacht.” There speaks an unrealistic romantic. And someone who’s obviously not visited Leith.

The name’s Dutch, by the way. Van Booy was born in London and grew up in Wales, but his mum’s Irish, “from Wicklow, from real rural poverty”. He now lives in New York City with his four-year-old daughter. In the past he’s stayed in Paris and Athens, where he tells me he was once almost killed in an earthquake. He is in life as peripatetic as the settings for his stories. Tomorrow he will learn if he has won the richest prize the world gives short story writers (worth €35,000), the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, for his collection Love Begins in Winter, when the award is announced in Cork.

“These stories are what I would like to be,” he tells me when I ask of their origins. “They develop out of a sense of compassion. The person who writes these stories – not me – treats everyone with importance, as if they’re the last person on Earth. If the guy selling the Big Issue was the last person on Earth you’d become best friends. In real life it’s hard for me to do that because I’m shy and I’m a little afraid of people, but by being a writer I’m able to transcend all those neuroses and be who I wish I could be.”

He continues by telling me a story about his daughter Madeleine. They were both in a church a few days before and she decided to light a candle. “It’s a ritual we have. She lights candles for relatives who are dead. And she said, ‘Do you want to pray?’ And I said, ‘Okay, why not? It can’t hurt.’ It’s like eating kosher food. It’s been blessed by a Rabbi. It can’t hurt. So I start to pray, and she said, ‘No, dad, it’s just quiet wishing.’ And I thought what a lovely thing to say. She said it doesn’t even have to come true but wishing makes you feel better and I thought, ‘That’s how I feel about writing. Doing it makes me feel better.’”

He has plenty of reasons to want to feel better, it should be said. All afternoon we tiptoe around the hole in the centre of his life. Not so long ago his wife Lorilee died very suddenly and unexpectedly, “an undiagnosed disorder, a suspected case of Marfan syndrome,” he explained in a piece about being a single parent in the New York Times last July. “Most people I know have never heard of it.” In the title story of his book he writes: “Grief is a country where it rains and rains but nothing grows.”

I’m nervous of asking him about his loss. How do you even phrase a question about the impact of such a thing. I hum and haw and he takes pity on me. On a practical level, he says, learning to be a single parent has been challenging. “There’s no-one to turn to for advice. Do you have children?” I do, I say. “If one of your children has a cough, you can ask your wife, ‘Well, what do we do now?’. And being practical, being a woman, she’ll say, ‘If it’s not better in the morning or if she’s got a temperature we’ll call the doctor.’ There’s a strange banging in the wall. What’s that? Being a creative person tends to amplify things.”

But those are just the day-to-day things. There are deeper currents. “Until someone very close to you dies ...” he starts and then starts again. “I realised I didn’t really understand music and literature and art until someone had died. Until birth and death. When my daughter was born I would listen to a piece of music and I would understand it or I would feel it on a deeper level. And I’d realise why people create things.”

Van Booy had started creating by writing “little books at school”, inspired by reading Stephen King and Frederick Forsyth (their influences are difficult to detect in Love Begins in Winter, but he says he has no snobbery about what’s on his bookcase). School was a boarding school where he felt like an exile, alienated from the world he grew up in – north Wales “where you learned to swim in lakes and rockpools and you were always cold and you learned to live with insects” – and the world he now found himself in. “I made friends with Americans because they were living in exile too. And they were so generous: ‘try this, try that,

eat this ...’”

At the start of his teens he started playing rugby seriously, even turning out for Milton Keynes. “I was going to make that my career,” he says,which I’m a little sceptical of until he points out his position was on the wing. “I started playing American football in the off-season and a college in the US offered me a scholarship. They said, ‘We want your balance and speed and your agility. We could train you to play this game.’ I didn’t understand it then, but they said in two or three years they were going to need a third-string tailback.” In other words, a reserve for the reserve. He went for a year but the college was way too

religious and, he says, he was drinking too much.

Eventually he changed direction, and writing turned out to be the career. He had already written a book of short stories, The Secret Lives of People in Love (five years in the making), before Love Begins in Winter. There’s a theme developing. His stories are full of love – the gaining and the losing of it. He’s writing a series of philosophy books to come out next year. One of them is called Why We Need Love.

I wonder, though, why we need stories? “A zoologist I read said we need stories to keep the pair bond together. Through stories we are able to see what could happen if we did these things, go through some of the feelings but not risk the pair bond by leaving to do these things.” He thinks there may be something in that, but more than that, he says: “It’s to give us some sense of how valuable life is. To give us some sense of our existence outside our immediate visceral needs.”

He talks about the stories you can find in the Bible, the Koran and the Torah, and how similar they are. “That’s our childhood as a modern people.” When he lived in Kentucky he was amazed at how literally people took the story of Adam and Eve. But there’s something in it, he thinks. “The idea that the more knowledge you get, the harder life is. But there comes a point where you have to eat from the tree of knowledge.”

And anyway, he says, what’s the alternative? “I’ve thought about this. The alternative is not to have any human contact, not to get emotionally involved with anyone, and then die. You won’t have someone screaming on the phone ‘You bastard!’. You’ll never have to deal with anyone losing their temper. You’ll not have to deal with someone crying. The alternative is to live a life where there’s nothing worth living for. So it’s worth taking a risk. James Joyce said every bond is a bond to sorrow, and that’s the happiest thing I’ve ever heard because it makes the bond mean something.”

Simon Van Booy lives in an apartment in New York with a glass wall. His daughter will sit looking out on the world, watching people walking their dogs, the homeless sitting around talking about the weather, Spanish neighbours spending all day in the park around the barbecue because their apartments are so tiny. “We live there,” her father tells me, “because I wanted her to always look out and see life so that she might never feel lonely.”

Maybe stories can do the same thing. Because they are – his are – so full of love and loss and longing, maybe we can read them and feel less alone.

Love Begins in Winter, by Simon Van Booy, Beautiful Books, priced £7.99.