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"So many people," I proposed, "think that because, for instance, a poem is beautiful that the poet leads a beautiful life, and is kind to his wife and good to his children. And often the fact is he's just a bombastic bastard. Who's enormously talented. That's somewhat the story of Caravaggio, isn't it?"

"Right. He was a son of a bitch, but he sure could paint. He was the first modern painter. Caravaggio painted poor people, ragged clothes and dirty feet. He knew this part of life. The question is whether he intended it to be a social commentary. Nobody can answer that; all you can do is make suppositions by looking at the painting. We don't have direct information."

"Who is your editor?"

"Bob Loomis, Random House. Without him and Tracy Kidder, I would be a lost soul. Bob is now 76 or 77 years old. I hope he doesn't retire any time soon. I don't know what I'd do without him. When I send him something and he doesn't like it, he tells me. When I send him something and he does like it, he tells me. I have a harder time believing that he likes things than that he doesn't like things. But I've learned to trust him."

"I can work only without ever showing anything to anyone until it's all done."

"That's also my preference. I couldn't do it in this case because I was also late with this book. Bob Loomis insisted on seeing some of it. When I know there are things that I want to make better, or mistakes, I want to correct them. I don't want somebody else to impose their method of operation. So I prefer to correct and make better the things that I want to make better, and then give the book. Then if there are other things that don't work and I was oblivious to it, I'm happy to hear about them."

Does Mr. Harr speak Italian?

"I didn't when I arrived in 2000. I had to learn Italian to interview. That took a while. I'm still not perfect at it. But that was one of the other great pleasures -- I decided to do this book, I had to interview these people, I had to learn Italian to do it, and it was fun."

"Are you shy?"

"Yes, I am. But by the time you've reached my age you have to face who you are. I don't know if that's a change one could make. I think there are certain things you're given; the color of eyes that you have and essentially the fundamental personal attributes."

"I bet you're a hard worker."

"I'm pretty diligent when I set myself to it. But the other problem is, especially with writing, you can never know if you've done it right. It's not like answering questions or doing a crossword puzzle, which I like to do. I'm pretty good at getting to the table and taking out the pen, but I'm also full of doubt and anxiety and fear, so it keeps me from working at the writing."

"Doubt, anxiety, and fear."

"Yes."

"There's a lovely thing that Kerouac wrote when he was young, back in the '40s when his father was dying, and Jack was taking care of him while his mother worked at the shoe factory. Kerouac wrote in one of his notebooks, 'Strike me God, and I'll ring like a bell.'"

"'Strike me God, and I'll ring like a bell.' I would wish the same thing except I don't believe in God."

"But do you like the idea?"

"Yes. Take me, take me. Inspiration is greatly overrated. Sometimes it actually happens. You start writing as if it were coming from nowhere. But with nonfiction, it's a bit more difficult. But sometimes I've assimilated so much that I can sit down and it starts pouring out. It's not often. I wish somebody would strike me and it would come out like that. Of course, real writing is rewriting. That's when you make it good. But just to get it out the first time is such a great achievement. Then you can have even more fun. Then I have my best time."

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