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Jonathan Harr: I'm doing fine, looking forward to this chat.
Jonathan Harr: I don't see him that much, but we talk all the time, especially now that the movie is about to come out. During the case -- and while I was writing the book -- I regarded him as a subject of my scrutiny, which perhaps sounds cold and clinical but is nonetheless true. Since the book's publication, I've relaxed a bit, and we've become friends. I should add that I consider myself friendly with just about everyone I wrote about, the possible exception being Judge Skinner. I certainly bear the judge no animus; but we haven't communicated since the book came out.
Jonathan Harr: I saw an early cut of the movie last July, and two weeks ago, in L.A., saw the final cut three times in four days. I think Steve Zaillian did a superb job with complicated and difficult material. I honestly think it's a great movie. I had no formal involvement in making it, although I met Steve and we became friends before he started working on the screenplay (he both wrote and directed), and he sent me each draft of the screenplay. We'd talk about the screenplays, but I never wrote a word. I also spent time on the movie set, simply because I was curious, and it's a seductive business -- cameras, lights, movie stars, et cetera. And watching other people work is a lot easier than writing.
Jonathan Harr: I'm unaware of any backlash, although God knows, something might be afoot in some quarter. Actually, the reception from the legal community has been very gratifying. It seems that many law schools are using the book in Torts, Civil Procedure, Ethics, Trial Practice, et cetera. I gave a talk at Yale Law School last week, and I'm asked frequently by state bar associations to talk. I've been doing a fair amount of it, but the more I do it, the more I feel writers (this one, at least) should stick to writing and not speaking. I made a conscious effort in writing the book to avoid the authorial voice and pontification. I wanted readers to come to their own conclusions. Thanks for your kind words, by the way.
Jonathan Harr: Was justice served? That's a complicated question to which I usually give a long answer. The short answer: In part yes, in part no. The Woburn families, after all, did get their case into the courtroom, and there are few countries on this planet where that would have happened. And they got a substantial sum of money (although no sum could possibly compensate a mother for her child). But the system also failed, miserably in my opinion, when suppression and misconduct was brought to the surface by Schlichtmann and then both the judge and the appeals court shrugged their shoulders, so to speak. The movie follows closely the arc of the story as I saw it and depicted it in the book. Hollywood does like happy endings, but Steve Zaillian doesn't.
Jonathan Harr: As Jan Schlichtmann would say: Better John Travolta than Danny DeVito. Actually, John's a good choice; he can play the selfish rogue and yet you can see compassion beneath the surface. Check him out in this movie -- he really is good. I think he deserves an Oscar, although Duvall is getting the attention; he got nominated for best supporting actor for the Golden Globes.
Jonathan Harr: I'm working on a New Yorker story, due last June, I think. I have lots of ideas for another book, but ideas are cheap. I'm looking specifically at medical research and hope to have something underway by March. Will the second one be easier? I don't know, but the learning curve on the first was sure steep.
Jonathan Harr: I read Scott Turow's first book, PRESUMED INNOCENT, which I thought was superb; I've read a few of John Grisham's.... That's about it for legal fiction.
Jonathan Harr: Courtroom dramas are perfect narratives. All narratives require conflict and resolution, and a case -- a lawsuit -- by its nature has both.
Jonathan Harr: I don't use a tape recorder. I find you get too much dross, and transcribing them is incredibly laborious (and I didn't have enough money to pay for transcription). I take notes on a reporter's notebook, and I try to type up those notes every evening. I write fast, using my own shorthand. I'm scared of tape recorders anyhow; I'm always afraid the battery will die or I'll flip the tape over and record over what I just recorded. I got great access from Schlichtmann and his firm and the Woburn families. Jerry Facher was quite open, too; so was Bill Cheeseman, personally, but he was hamstrung by his client, W. R. Grace, to an extent that Facher was not. I describe briefly in the endnotes of the book how I went about reporting. For the most part, everyone was accommodating. In 20 years of reporting, I'm always surprised by that. But in my experience, people generally like to talk about what they do and about themselves if they've got a genuinely interested listener
Jonathan Harr: My first thought is gratitude that you found the book worth your while.... On the matter of environmental contamination in America, it is altogether too common, I've learned. I've gotten calls from people from Seattle to Miami, from L.A. to Maine, who've got problems similar to those in Woburn. My heart goes out to them; some of their stories are incredibly poignant and full of desperation for a remedy. On balance, I think the courts are not the place where we'll find solutions. That will come with an increased awareness of the fact that without clean air to breathe and clean water to drink, we cannot exist as a society.
Jonathan Harr: I wish that Judge Skinner could have found it possible, in one way or another, without violating judicial ethics, to spend time talking to me. Purely from a narrative standpoint, I would have liked to see the world through his eyes. A valuable writing technique is to see one's characters through the eyes of another, and I would have liked to depict Jan Schlichtmann as the judge saw him. For reasons not wholly clear to me the judge felt he couldn't give me that insight. If I'd had it, I think my depiction of him would have been more expansive and perhaps more understanding. I consider him a good judge who, nonetheless, I believe, made a mistake in this case.
Jonathan Harr: Overall the case was a horrible experience for him. He lost all his worldly goods (and he did care about that stuff, too!) and his faith in the judicial system that he cared about and believed in. He's experienced sort of a "second coming" with the book and the movie, though. I used to think it had changed him quite dramatically, much for the worse, but I think now it was a spell of clinical depression that seemed to go on for several years. My feeling now is that he's back, the same old Jan -- somewhat older, somewhat wiser, somewhat less willing to gamble everything. He is, however, a truly unique character. In that sense, I was blessed as a writer.
Jonathan Harr: He's a guy with incredible energy, the sort of person who, when he walks into a room, turns heads. He's smart; he genuinely cares about issues like the environment; he's quite funny; he's generous. He's also unrelentingly persistent, which is both a virtue and a flaw, egotistical, a megalomaniac. What can I say? He's become my friend, and I like him in spite of -- maybe because of -- his flaws as well as his virtues.
Jonathan Harr: Only that I enjoyed this quite a bit. I guess I like talking about myself and my work as much as the subjects of my reporting like talking about themselves. My thanks for some provocative questions.