Picks and Pans Review: Talking With...

updated 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/20/1995 AT 01:00 AM EST

>Jonathan Harr

AFTER LABORING NINE YEARS ON HIS HIGHLY ACCLAIMED new book, A Civil Action, Jonathan Harr, a National Book Award finalist (winners will be announced this week), thinks he has figured out what makes a compelling read. "If you hang around long enough with someone who has something personal at stake, you'll have a great story," he says. "A dull person never gets into situations that crucial." In 1986, Harr found such a subject in Boston lawyer Jan Schlichtmann, 44, the central player in A Civil Action, which chronicles the lawsuit brought by eight Woburn, Mass., families against Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace, corporations that owned facilities in the depressed town. Schlichtmann believed that industrial chemicals dumped into the town's well water by the two companies caused several cases of leukemia in the area. A committed environmentalist, he fought a lonely battle for 10 years against his better-funded opponents. "At one point," Harr notes, "he was forced to share a pay phone with a bookie."

Just as a jury was set to decide the case in 1986, Schlichtmann won an $8 million settlement. But he eventually went bankrupt trying to get the case reopened after uncovering last-minute evidence that the companies had destroyed damning documents before the trial. Like his subject, Harr often felt disconnected from the real world during the proceedings. "Everything changed," he says. "When I started the book, Reagan was president, the Berlin Wall was still standing and Larry Bird was playing for the Celtics." Harr, 47, who lives in Northampton, Mass., with his wife, Diane, an art teacher, asked his publisher for five extensions and spent his entire $80,000 advance. "In 1991," he says, "I took a part-time job at Smith College, earned a total of $4,400 and got audited by the IRS."

Luckily, Robert Redford was attracted to the story and bought film rights for $1.25 million this year. "It deals with issues of fairness versus the power of industry," says Red-ford. "This story can help people pay attention to matters that affect their lives."

Harr believes readers will share Redford's fascination: "It's the story of a man who found the truth, but not justice."

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