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Did Mr. Harr study writing?

"I never took a single class in writing in my life. You learn by doing and by reading."

"And by needing money."

Mr. Harr agreed, "That's true."

Mr. Harr's mother lives, now, in San Diego. He has visited the city several times. What is Mr. Harr doing now?

"I'm in the midst of writing just to occupy time. To have fun with short stories. I wish I could interview people, but I take these from the newspapers; they usually involve some sort of tragedy. Then I start inventing."

"Were you surprised that your first book did so well?"

"Shocked. Absolutely shocked. I finished the book, and before I finished the book I needed money, and I wrote a story for The New York Times Magazine because they offered me $10,000. It came out before I'd finished the book. It took me almost eight years to finish the book. Contractually I was supposed to finish within two years, which was utterly preposterous.

"I was constantly delayed. It didn't seem to make any difference if I took some time off to make money. By then I'd used the entire advance for the book. I needed money. I'm married. My wife was a schoolteacher and didn't make a lot of money.

"She was teaching in the Smith laboratory school, so she was teaching children, and she was teaching Smith students who wanted to become art teachers. She was working half-time, and she was getting paid at the level, not of the professorial staff, but at the level of regular teaching staff. So it was not much money."

"You must have been thrilled to no longer worry about whether you could pay the light bill."

"It was incredible. I did this story for The New York Times Magazine and then the editor of the Times left for The New Yorker and asked me to write a story for them, which I did -- a story that I'd suggested. I was working on it, having finished A Civil Action and not expecting that it would do very well. I had never had any success in explaining it to people. They'd ask me what the book was about and nobody got it.

"Eyes would glaze over and they'd turn to another subject when I started talking about it. I didn't like talking about it anyway. It was a long book about a lawsuit that lasted almost a decade and involved dead children and toxic waste. Now, who could reasonably expect that is going to be a commercial success? I didn't."

"No, I would not have. But then I think you should write what you want to write and let what happens happen."

"I think that's true, but as you said a moment ago, money can be a great incentive. I never did a calculation with A Civil Action. I did more of a calculation with this book."

"Caravaggio," I said, "reminds me of Francis Bacon."

Mr. Harr was not disinclined to compare the two painters. "Francis Bacon created lots of outrage with his paintings. I mean they were new and they were startling and they were twisted. I think Caravaggio is that. Bacon threw away much of his early work and was hugely self-critical, which I don't think Caravaggio necessarily was."

"How did you happen to become interested in painting?"

"I don't know that I am. I'm not an art historian. I never studied art history until I began this. Now I'm quite fascinated by it. It's sort of like...I wasn't a lawyer and I wrote A Civil Action. Stories in the law are fascinating. That's one of the great pleasures of being a writer. Go where you want to go."

"When you interview people you can ask almost anything."

"That's true. Within reason. Because you want to draw them out. So you have to be careful not to offend them at the beginning by asking certain questions. There's a certain art to getting the material that you want."

"When I started reading The Lost Painting, I thought it was a novel. I felt as if I'd dropped into a dream."

"That's wonderful. That was my intention, essentially."

"Did you spend a lot of time with Francesca and Laura?"

"With Francesca, endless. I have 44 printed pages typed up into my computer of interviews with her. We became friends. I'd see her for coffee. I always had questions for her, and she was always responsive."

Francesca is portrayed as a careless driver. "I hope," I said, "you didn't drive with her."

"No, I didn't. I never drove with her. I don't drive in Italy. I rely on decent drivers."

"Did you show the book's principals the text?"

"Yes. Francesca liked it. She thought it was pretty good. But it's always a difficult thing for a nonfiction writer to do, to give the book to the character. She had small things she wanted me to change -- mostly her comments or thoughts about other people. I did make a few of these changes."

A reader learns in The Lost Painting much about painting restoration. I complimented Mr. Harr on the interest of this information.

"I'm glad you liked it. I was afraid that I'd gone on too long. You can bore readers. I was afraid that there was too much technical stuff. So I tried to abbreviate that. I tried to write cleanly. But that can become ba bump, ba bump, repetitive -- 'He did this and then did that. And then he did that.'"

The life story of Caravaggio is neatly folded into the story of the search for the lost painting. About that "folding-in," Mr. Harr said, "That was another sort of technical challenge. I wanted to maintain the two narratives: the large one, or the contemporary narrative, and the small one of Caravaggio and his time and history."

Mr. Harr explained that the creation of a life story of someone like Caravaggio, who lived 400 years ago, focused him intently on the painter. "I wanted to sit with him for half an hour and ask him questions. There are things that we will never know. If somebody had interviewed him for 30 minutes, think what we might know."

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