Jonathan Harr, author of The Lost Painting
A compelling account of one community's quest for environmental justice, Jonathan Harr's 1995 best-seller, A Civil Action, won a National Book Critics Circle Award and is a cornerstone of the 2006 Wisconsin Book Festival's program track devoted to "A More Perfect Union: To Establish Justice." An epic narrative of corporate negligence, its environmental consequences and costs to human health, A Civil Action took a profound toll on Harr, who devoted nine years of his life to researching and writing it.
He is, more recently, the author of The Lost Painting, which tells the story of a painting by the Baroque master Caravaggio that went missing for 200 years. Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz introduces Harr for his appearance at the Wisconsin Book Festival at 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, in the Overture Center's Promenade Hall, where the author will discuss "A Civil Action & A More Perfect Union."
The Daily Page: You're scheduled to appear as part of the festival's program track devoted to "A More Perfect Union," which this year takes as its theme "To Establish Justice." Based on your experience researching and writing A Civil Action, how do you define justice? And how is it established?
Harr: That's one of the great philosophical questions of all time, akin to asking what is the nature of truth. Tomes have been written about it, and I suspect it's probably impossible to answer in one paragraph. But let me attempt to be succinct. Often justice is in the eye of the beholder. In a lawsuit, for example, especially a civil one, both parties usually believe they have justice on their side.
In A Civil Action, when Schlichtmann pounded on the table and demanded justice for his clients, Judge Skinner finally got tired of this refrain. He said -- this is a paraphrase -- that Schlichtmann should know by now that lawsuits are not about truth or justice, they're about resolving disputes. So if you have a system that can resolve, in the fairest manner possible, as openly as possible, any given dispute, that's about as close to justice as one could hope to get in an imperfect world.
Out of all the countless environmental crimes in all the world, what was it about this one that grabbed you and didn't let go?
Very simple to answer: The lawyers agreed to give me access behind the scenes. I was going where journalists almost never get to go, to see it first hand. I decided to write about this case solely for that reason.
Where were you and what were you doing when you first got wind of this case?
I was working at a magazine, New England Monthly, searching for a book to write. My friend, the writer Tracy Kidder, got a call from the Harvard Law professor Charlie Nesson, who asked if he, Kidder, wanted to follow the case from inside. Tracy was busy at the time, and he suggested that I might be interested.
At what point in your coverage of the Woburn case did you recognize it would sustain a book? And how far along were you before you realized you had committed yourself to a Homeric undertaking?
I had a back-up plan. If it didn't work as a book, I'd turn it into a magazine article. I think I realized, to a certainty, I could make it into a book by the summer of the negotiation with W. R. Grace in New York, and by that time I'd been working on it for more than six months.
Toward the beginning, did you view this as an environmental story or a social or legal story? And how do you view it now?
I viewed it as neither an environmental nor a legal story. I simply viewed it as a story, with something important at stake, lots of conflict, and a cast of characters who were pushed to their mental, financial, and physical extremes.
In terms of professional gratification, how did the appearance of A Civil Action on the best-seller lists compare to the National Book Critics Award? And in terms of personal closure, how did either of those recognitions compare to seeing the movie adaptation?
The bestseller list is the most valuable award of them all. After that comes the National Book Critics Award, because it is the consensus award of 50 or 60 (or more, I'm not sure) reviewers, people who read books professionally, for a living. I served on the National Book Award panel as a judge (I was also a finalist for that, by the way) and I see how the small group of five people, who have other obligations in their lives, get overwhelmed by receiving 150 or more books. Impossible to read them all. Fundamentally, I think awards are nonsensical anyhow. It's a little absurd to choose the "best" book. In any given year, there are probably 15 or 20 or more "best" books.
As for the movie, it was a great experience in every way. I became close friends with Steve Zaillain, I read every adaptation of the screenplay, and I had an open invitation onto the set. Other writers, I've heard, haven't been treated as kindly. So I was fortunate. The movie is its own thing, it succeeds or fails on its own terms, and it's much different from the book. It would take you at least three days of steady reading to finish a 500-page book; the constraints of a movie, two hours, make it a different experience, a different animal. I liked the movie, by the way.
More than 10 years after A Civil Action was published, how would you qualify or quantify the extent to which justice was done in the Woburn case?
Imperfectly. But the families did get their day in court, and they did receive a substantial sum of money. The East Woburn aquifer is being cleaned up. The biggest miscarriage, to my mind, was the fact that the second phase of the trial -- Did the contaminants in the water cause this cluster of leukemia? -- never got heard.
To what extent is the general public culpable in socio-environmental abuses?
We are all products of the society we have created. In an open, democratic society, there are constant adjustments, via lawsuits, for one, and of course laws enacted by our representatives in government, to remedy the wrongs, perceived or otherwise, in the social fabric.
During the nine years you spent researching and writing A Civil Action, how many times did you consider walking away from the project? And where did you find the resolve to continue?
It was actually eight years, and I didn't ever consider walking away. For one thing, I had taken a small advance from Random House, after I'd written a proposal, and I'd spent it. If I did not finish the book, I'd be obligated to repay it, and I didn't have the means to do so. So I had to finish. More than that, I was convinced I had a good story. I doubted that it would be commercially successful, but I knew it was good. So it was a matter of pride not to abandon it.
How would you qualify and quantify the personal costs you incurred while researching and writing A Civil Action?
Personal costs? I went deep into debt, but I assume you mean the psychic struggle? It was dreadful. After I'd finished much of the reporting, I was alone most of the time, struggling to get a grasp on the ocean of material, struggling to figure out how to present it in an interesting way.
What advice do you have for other dogged reporters out there who might be inspired by A Civil Action to devote nine years of their life to researching and writing a book-length non-fiction narrative?
It's a long time to spend on one project, and the risks of spending so much time and getting a decent payback are substantial. On that basis, I wouldn't recommend it. But it's not necessarily an undertaking you calculate on a risk/reward basis. You have to be slightly obsessed, I guess. And there are plenty of others who have done it -- Tony Lukas in Common Ground, Neil Sheehan in A Bright Shining Lie (he took 16 years); and there are many, I'm sure, who have done it and we've never heard about them, because their books either failed or didn't get the attention they deserved.
To what extent do you continue to monitor the whereabouts and well-being of the book's central figures, such as the plaintiffs' attorney, Schlichtmann, or the plaintiffs themselves, or the hydrogeologist who testified on their behalf but may have blown their case?
At first we all stayed in close touch. The movie was being made -- it came out in 1998, three years after the book -- and many of them were involved in that to one extent or another. I've been in Italy for the last five years, so I haven't seen much of them, but I'm still in contact with a few -- Donna Robbins, Kevin Conway, and others.
What lessons from researching and writing A Civil Action did you apply to your work on The Lost Painting?
I was basically learning how to write a book, how to hold dozens of strands in my head and hand and weave them together. I was at a very rudimentary stage back then, so every lesson I learned got applied to the next book. They were quite different to write, however, and not just in subject matter. In A Civil Action, I was following the events as they happened. In The Lost Painting, I was trying to recreate them from interviews. I prefer to follow -- it gives you richer material to work with. But in The Lost Painting that simply wasn't possible.
How extensive was your knowledge of art history before you started researching The Lost Painting?
Not very extensive. I'd seen the Caravaggio exhibition in 1986 at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, so I knew a bit about him. My wife is an artist, and was once a teacher of art, so I was more or less familiar with modern -- that is, from Impressionism on -- art. But I really didn't know much about the Baroque. One of the pleasures of my job is that you get to immerse yourself in subjects and learn about them.
The long-lost painting in question, Caravaggio's "The Taking of Christ," was rediscovered while you were still working on A Civil Action. How, when and where did you learn of the find?
The discovery of the painting was announced in November 1993, and I had another year of work to do on Civil Action. I read about the discovery in a small article, maybe four paragraphs long, in the Arts section of the The New York Times. It intrigued me -- most anything was more interesting to me than A Civil Action by that time -- so I clipped it and put it aside. When an editor at the The New York Times magazine asked if I had an idea for a story, I mentioned this one. I did the reporting for it before I'd finished all of A Civil Action.
As you were starting the project, did you find the painting itself compelling, or were you more fascinated by the circumstances surrounding its disappearance, misattribution as a copy and eventual rediscovery and validation as the original?
The circumstances are what most intrigued me. There are other paintings by Caravaggio that I like better, although this one is exceptional.
Both A Civil Action and The Lost Painting required an enormous commitment to research. To what extent do you find research more appealing than the writing?
Writing is the hardest part of what I do. Research is potentially endless, and for that reason I tend to put off writing to do more research. Writing is potentially endless, too, because the words on the page never quite match the perfection of the idea that you have.
Where, when and how do you prefer to write?
I say I like to write in the morning, but I don't seem to get much done then. Afternoons, around four, seem to be best. Maybe because I'm struck with guilt for how little I accomplished during the day.
Has anyone taken a movie option on The Lost Painting? In your mind's eye, who do you see in the roles of Francesca, Sergio and other central figures?
It's been optioned by Miramax. The producer likes the idea of Natalie Portman as Francesca.
What will your next book be about?
I wish I knew by now. I'm still looking. Difficult to pull the trigger when you know it means a commitment of many years.
Among the other presenters at this year's Wisconsin Book Festival, who might you be most eager to see and hear?
I haven't read the other books, but after reading the brief descriptions, I'd like to read them all.
What was the last book you read that you would recommend to Wisconsin Book Festival audiences, and why would you recommend it?
I just read The Road by Cormac McCarthy, an exceptionally powerful book. Probably not to everyone's taste. In nonfiction, I just finished A Woman in Berlin, by Anonymous, the diary of a young woman who lived in Berlin at the end of World War II, when the Russians arrived. Their weapon of choice, in the civilian population, was rape. Also a very powerful book, but leavened with a sense of humor, a survivalist's wit.
Why do you live where you live?
Time is divided between two places. Northampton, Massachusetts, for 25 years, largely by accident -- I got a job on a newspaper there -- but a wonderful, small, vital town in which to live -- good restaurants, bookstores, movie theaters, three hours to New York. And still in Rome, where we rent an apartment near the Piazza di Spagna.
Do you have any tattoos?
Nope. No rings or piercings, either.