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"Go ahead."

"I'm afraid to talk to writers about their work. It's so easy to say something stupid. Don't drop your chin. Good, that's better, I like that. There's a secret language I haven't learned to speak. I spend a great deal of time with writers. I love writers. But this gift you have, which for me is total delight, makes me feel that I'm an outsider, not able to converse in the private language, the language that will mean something to you."

"The only private language I know is self-exaggeration. I think I've grown a second self in this room. It's the self-important fool that keeps the writer going. I exaggerate the pain of writing, the pain of solitude, the failure, the rage, the confusion, the helplessness, the fear, the humiliation. The narrower the boundaries of my life, the more I exaggerate myself. If the pain is real, why do I inflate it? Maybe this is the only pleasure I'm allowed."

"Raise your chin."

"Raise my chin."

"Frankly I didn't expect such speeches."

"I've been saving it up."

"I expected you to stand here a few minutes and then get restless and walk off."

"One of my failings is that I say things to strangers, women passing by, that I've never said to a wife or child, a close friend."

"You talk candidly to Scott."

"I talk to Scott. But it becomes less necessary all the time. He already knows. He's at my brainstem like a surgeon with a bright knife."

She finished the roll and went to her case for another. Bill stood by the desk shaking a cigarette out of the pack. There was mud crust and bent weed stuck to his shoes. He didn't seem to be putting across his own picture, his idea of what he wanted to look like or who he wanted to be for the next hour or two. It was clear he hadn't bothered to think it out. She liked the feel of the room with him in it. It was his room in a way in which this wasn't his house. She asked him to stand near one of the wall charts and when he didn't object she moved the lamp and adjusted focus and started shooting. He smoked and talked. He thought he was suffering like the rest of them. They all thought they were bungling and desolate and tormented but none of them ever wanted to do anything else but write and each believed that the only person who might possibly be worse off was another writer somewhere and when one of them mixed too many brandies and little violet pills or placed the nozzle of a revolver just behind the ear, the others felt both sorry and acknowledged.

"I'll tell you what I don't exaggerate. The doubt. Every minute of every day. It's what I smell in my bed. Loss of faith. That's what this is all about."

Space was closing in the way it did when a session went well. Time and light were narrowed to automatic choices. Bill stood before the odd notations on his chart and she knew she had everything she might want or need. Here was the old, marked and melancholy head, the lost man of letters, and there was the early alphabet on the wall, the plan of his missing book in the form of lopsided boxes and felt-tipped scrawls and sets of directional signs like arrows scratched out by a child with a pencil in his fist. And he was animated, leaning and jabbing as he talked. His hands were blunt and nicked. There was a doggedness to him, a sense of all the limits he'd needed to exceed, getting on top of work that always came hard. She was trying to place him in context, fit the voice and body to the books. The first thing she'd thought, entering the room, was wait a minute, no, this can't be him. She'd expected someone lean and drawn, with eyes like hex signs on an Amish barn. But Bill was slowly beginning to make sense to her, to look reasonably like his work.

"I'm forced to steal one of your cigarettes," she said. "I've been giving up cigarettes for twenty-five years and I've made a lot of progress in that time. Okay? But then I see the little glisten of the package."

"Tell me about New York," he said. "I don't get there anymore. When I think of cities where I lived, I see great cubist paintings."

"I'll tell you what I see."

"That edginess and density and those old brownish tones and how cities age and stain in the mind like Roman walls."

"Where I live, okay, there's a rooftop chaos, a jumble, four, five, six, seven storeys, and it's water tanks, laundry lines, antennas, belfries, pigeon lofts, chimney pots, everything human about the lower island-little crouched gardens, statuary, painted signs. And I wake up to this and love it and depend on it. But it's all being flattened and hauled away so they can build their towers."

"Eventually the towers will seem human and local and quirky. Give them time."

"I'll go and hit my head against the wall. You tell me when to stop."

"You'll wonder what made you mad."

"I already have the World Trade Center."

"And it's already harmless and ageless. Forgotten-looking. And think how much worse."

"What?" she said.

"If there was only one tower instead of two."

"You mean they interact. There is a play of light."

"Wouldn't a single tower be much worse?"

"No, because my big complaint is only partly size. The size is deadly. But having two of them is like a comment, it's like a dialogue, only I don't know what they're saying."

"They're saying, 'Have a nice day.'

"Someday, go walk those streets," she said. "Sick and dying people with nowhere to live and there are bigger and bigger towers all the time, fantastic buildings with miles of rentable space. All the space is inside. Am I exaggerating?"

"I'm the one who exaggerates."

"This is strange but I feel I know you."

"It is strange, isn't it? We're managing to have a real talk while you bob and weave with a camera and I stand here looking stiff and cloddish."

"I don't usually talk, you see. I ask a question and let the writer talk, let the tension drain out a little."

"Let the fool babble on."

"All right if you put it that way. And I listen only vaguely as a rule because I'm working. I'm detached, I'm working, I'm listening at the edges."

"And you travel all the time. You seek us out."

"You're dropping your chin," she said.

"You cross continents and oceans to take pictures of ordinary faces, to make a record of a thousand faces, ten thousand faces."

"It's crazy. I'm devoting my life to a gesture. Yes, I travel. Which means there is no moment on certain days when I'm not thinking terror. They have us in their power. In boarding areas I never sit near windows in case of flying glass. I carry a Swedish passport so that's okay unless you believe that terrorists killed the prime minister. Then maybe it's not so good. And I use codes in my address book for names and addresses of writers because how can you tell if the name of a certain writer is dangerous to carry, some dissident, some Jew or blasphemer. I'm careful about reading matter. Nothing religious comes with me, no books with religious symbols on the jacket and no pictures of guns or sexy women. That's on the one hand. On the other hand I know in my heart I'm going to die of some dreadful slow disease so you're safe with me on a plane."

She inserted another roll. She was sure she already had what she'd come for but a hundred times in her life she thought she had the cluster of shots she wanted and then found better work deep in the contact sheets. She liked working past the feeling of this is it. Important to keep going, obliterate the sure thing and come upon a moment of stealthy blessing.

"Do you ask your writers how it feels to be painted dummies?"

"What do you mean?"

"You've got me talking, Brita."

"Anything that's animated I love it."

"You don't care what I say."

"Speak Swahili."

"There's a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence. Do you ask your writers how they feel about this? Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated."