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I enjoyed, I said, that Mabry was a conservator. "I like in novels for the narrators to have occupations about which I don't know much."

"I agree. I must admit I've committed a writer novel but I won't do that again. But it's my conviction, between you and me, that there is a Van Gogh underneath that boy's picture. And it may not be a fully executed thing. I don't think it is. I think it's a sketch, an oil sketch. But sooner or later, I think they're going to find a way to reclaim the Van Gogh that's under there.

"And then there's that whole question about who's it going to belong to, because the lawyer gets killed in the World Trade Center and nobody knows whether he's got any family or not." Mr. Price paused. "I don't know the answer to all the questions about my book."

"When you lay awake at night do you dawdle in your novels, and think about them and dream them?"

"I don't so much do it at night as I do keep a very active notebook going while I'm working on the novel. I'll type down a lot of what I call feasibility studies. What happens if so-and-so gets the job, then the following things will happen. I'll try to work out what seems like the most feasible or certainly the more fictionally promising strategy to follow. Usually by the time I get in bed at night I am ready to fall asleep."

"Do you ever feel when you're working on a novel that you're living two lives -- your own and that of your characters?"

"I do. I don't. But I can get haunted by the action. And in the one case, which was a novel that I published in 1986 called Kate Vaiden, I certainly did. That was the period in my life when I was dealing with spinal cancer and becoming paraplegic. I must say two or three years earlier, before the trouble hit me, I had chosen to write this novel, from the female first person, from a person who's very different from me as a human being. I think that while I was so ill, that I could go into my study and literally become somebody else, really was hugely helpful for me, psychically and physically and spiritually and in all sorts of other ways.

"I didn't feel as though I was Kate, but I certainly felt that I could go in my office and lay aside my own plans for 'x' number of hours a day, and be deeply involved in her life. That was a huge help. I think that was the main time in my life when that hauntedness was most helpful and significant for me."

Mr. Price paused, then added, "I love to work. Very early in my life, writing was hard for me. I was teaching myself how to do it. I took one writing course in my life when I was a senior in college and I never went near another one. It was useful but it certainly wasn't transforming. It didn't teach me how to write."

"Do you talk with people about your work while you're working on it?"

"I'm the writer who does talk. I try not to talk to the point of boring anybody. But of course as you know, it's probably more usual for writers not to want to talk about it at all."

I asked about some names in the book. The name "Tasker," said Mr. Price, is a name in his hometown. "Tasker Polk was a big, famous lawyer in the town and there are some of his descendants who keep the Tasker name. I suspect it's one of the Southern cases of someone's last name becoming someone else's first name. Like Reynolds being my name.

"I love Tasker. If I had to pick an absolute favorite person as a novelist, probably it would be he. I don't know where he came from exactly. I decided that, when I realized that maybe Mabry had nowhere to go, that he couldn't get back to Manhattan because his loft was going to be littered up. I thought, 'Well, okay, he's from eastern North Carolina where I'm from, and he's going to go back home for a little while, he'll be interesting there.'

"I started making notes. What is he going to be? How about a retired Episcopal priest? I know that if I go back right now and looked at my notes, I could find, you know, 15 pages of preparatory material that led up to my discovery that he was going to be that, but that's the way it happened."

"Is Tasker low church or high?"

"He was low church. The southern Episcopal churches are pretty low. Certainly the ones that I went to as a boy. I was christened in the Episcopal Church. My father's father was an Episcopalian. I spent a lot of my childhood thinking I was going to become Episcopalian, and then I finally became a Methodist with my mother. Now I'm heathen." Mr. Price laughed. "No, I'm not a heathen at all, but I don't go to church.

"Heathen is a good word. We have this standard southern thing, which was my father was Baptist. He had become Baptist with his mother. My mother was Methodist. And although they really adored each other and I think had a very good marriage, neither one would cave in and join the other's church.

"So my brother and I went through childhood thinking which parent's feelings are we going to hurt? I tried to split it down the middle by becoming Episcopalian. But, as an adolescent, I decided, 'I'm going with my mother,' which is a fairly standard thing for a boy to do."

"What made Mabry such a womanizer?"

"I don't know. There are an awful lot of them in the world, as you've probably learned, by listening to Oprah, if nothing else. Well, I didn't want him to be a saint. I definitely didn't want him to be someone who had no bad qualities whatever. Womanizing seemed inevitable from the side of that."

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