In February 1986, Jonathan Harr was considering writing about a lawsuit that had been brought by eight families in Woburn, Massachusetts. They alleged that their children (several of whom died) had gotten leukemia by drinking water polluted by a nearby tannery and a factory owned. The case had been running for four years and had yet to go before a jury and had already generated 196 volumes of sworn depositions. A number of Harr's friends, such as Pulitzer Prize–winning author Tracy Kidder, thought the Woburn case was a good opportunity for Harr. Others, like Dan Okrent, the editor of New England Monthly, where Harr was a staff writer, had severe doubts. "Don't do this book," Okrent warned. The case was so complex and the trial was likely to be so protracted that Okrent feared Harr would be left poor and miserable long before the project was completed. "You'll be digging out quarters from behind the car seat," Okrent warned.
In the end, both Kidder and Okrent were right. A Civil Action was a hit, although writing it nearly destroyed Harr's life. Eight years and five extensions later, long since having spent his $80,000 advance, Harr submitted the eight-hundred-page manuscript to his editor at Random House. After a slow start, the book sold one hundred thousand copies in hardcover and sat on the paperback bestseller list for two years. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction and the film rights were purchased by Robert Redford for $1.25 million.
Harr was born in Beloit, Wisconsin, in 1948, the son of a Foreign Service officer whose assignments took the family to France, Germany, Israel, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Harr attended the College of William and Mary, but left in 1968 to serve as a VISTA volunteer in Appalachia. He later attended Marshall University.
Driving a New York City cab to support himself, he wrote short stories and dreamed of becoming a novelist. He held a succession of brief jobs— at ABC News, at a literary agency—before moving to New Haven where his wife-to-be was living. Harr worked briefly for the New Haven Register before getting a job at the local alternative paper, the New Haven Advocate, which allowed him to write lengthy stories with literary style.
In 1984, Harr was hired as a staff writer by the New England Monthly, a newly founded journal that published long-form non- fiction by writers—Joseph Nocera, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Susan Orlean, Barry Werth—who went on to write important books of their own.
Harr began his work on A Civil Action by taking a three-month paid leave of absence from the New England Monthly, after which he agreed either to write an article for the magazine, or pursue a book, which the magazine would excerpt on publication.
He contracted with Random House to deliver the manuscript in two years, but it quickly became apparent that the task before him was enormous. He accumulated twenty-seven feet of depositions and transcripts with which to re-create the four years of events that occurred before he began following the case. The court proceedings (which lasted for nine months) generated seventy-eight days of trial testimony, and fifty-seven volumes of pre- and post-trial hearings. Three years into the project, Harr had spent a large part of his advance, but was far from finishing the book. Harr's economic circumstances mirrored those of his main character, who eventually filed for bankruptcy. He worked part-time teaching writing at Smith College to make ends meet, and had it not been for his wife's job as an art teacher he probably would have had to declare personal bankruptcy, too. Two serious bicycle accidents delayed him by another six months.
With A Civil Action behind him, Harr turned to three very different stories. On August 5, 1996, the week after a TWA airliner exploded on its way from New York to Paris, The New Yorker published "The Crash Detectives," Harr's investigation into the stillunsolved crash of USAir flight 427 in 1994. In "The Burial," Harr was back in the courtroom, with the story of Willie Gary, a flamboyant Mississippi lawyer who won one of the largest civil settlements in American history.
Harr also wrote about a lost Caravaggio painting that was found hanging in a small monastery in Dublin ("A Hunch, An Obsession, A Caravaggio," The New York Times Magazine, December 25, 1994), which he is currently expanding into a book.
The Lost Painting, Random House, 2005
A Civil Action, Random House, 1995
Unless otherwise noted, all were published in New England Monthly.
"A Reporter At Large: Lives of the Saints", The New Yorker, January 5, 2009
"The Burial", The New Yorker, November 1, 1999
"The Crash Detectives", The New Yorker, August 5, 1995
"A Hunch, an Obsession, a Caravaggio", The New York Times Magazine, December 25, 1994
"Squids, Pre-Med Students…", April 1986
"Sideshow: A Murder in New Hampshire", January 1986
"Secrets: United Technologies and the Ministry of Fear", October 1985
"I’m In It for the Profit…", June 1985
"The New Cities", March 1985
"Yale’s Elusive Sort of Valor", January 1985
"The Golden Road", December 1984
"Living with the Death", December 1984
"The World of Ideas", November 1984
"A Death in the Family", September 1984
"Looking for Victor", July 1984
"The Fiery Crash of a Self-Made Man", June 1984
"It was a Real Medical High", June 1984
"The Sins of the Fathers", June 1984
"Down and Out in Fairfield County", June 1984
"Doc Tells Docs: Phooey", May 1984
"The Admissions Circus", April 1984
Interviews and Reviews
Beyond A Civil Action,
Article on original case/film adaptation Boston Phoenix, Kennedy, Dan, “Take Two,” January 1, 1998
Interview, Zheutlin, Barbara, “Trial By Success,” Salon, February 5, 1997