Interview with J. Anthony Lukas
A winner of the 1985 National Book Award for Common Ground: A
Turbulent Decade In the Lives of Three American Families, J. Anthony
Lukas graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1955 and
studied as an Adenauer Fellow at the Free University of Berlin before
becoming a journalist. He began his career at the Baltimore
Sun, covering the police, City Hall and urban renewal before
joining the staff of The New York Times. During his nine-year
tenure at the Times, he served as a roving national
correspondent and staff writer for the New York Times Magazine,
in addition to reporting stories from the Congo, India, Pakistan, Japan
and South Africa. In 1968, he received five awards for his reportage,
including the Pulitzer Prize for Special Local Reporting and the George
Polk Memorial Award. He is a regular contributor to national magazines
and an Editorial Advisor to the Columbia Journalism Review.
Lukas published his first book, The Barnyard Epithet and Other
Obscenities: Notes on the Chicago Conspiracy Trial in 1970; three
other books have followed, including Common Ground, which also
won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, the National Book
Critics' Circle Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award and the
Political Book of the Year Award. Writing in The Nation, Mark Zanger
observed that Lukas’ reporting "takes on the force of good historical
fiction, with the added power that it is all true, that this is the
psychohistory of Boston's real dance at the edge of an actual race war.
The great strength of the book is its use of multiple viewpoints, its
ability to apply the methods of modern literature to our understanding
of political events."
Did you always want to be a writer?
No. Initially, I dreamed of becoming an actor. My mother was an
actress. She used to direct my brother and me in playlets -- which I
ultimately began to write -- on the window seats of our house in White
Plains. But my most important theatrical influence was my second cousin
Paul Lukas -- we called him Uncle Paul -- who had won the Academy Award
and had been to the White House to perform his great hit, "Watch on the
Rhine," for the Roosevelts. He was a compelling figure; I hankered to
follow in his footsteps.
In the summer after my junior year in high school I went to the Bass
Rocks Summer Theater, near Gloucester, Massachusetts, as assistant
stage manager. The theater got into bad financial shape in mid-summer
and began casting young interns like me in significant roles. I drew a
part in one of the worst clinkers in the entire theatrical repertory, a
play called "Pappa is All." After opening night The Gloucester
Times said, "Young Mr. Lukas took the audience by storm last night.
He has a great future in the American theater." I called my father, a
New York lawyer, and read him the review. He feigned enthusiasm: he had
a thing for actresses (he married two of them), but he did not want his
son on the stage. So he called Uncle Paul in Hollywood and said, in
effect, "You got us into this, you get us out of this."
Paul flew up to Gloucester to see the show. For that occasion, I put on
my most bravura performance. Afterwards, he took me down to a lobster
restaurant on the Gloucester waterfront. Here I was, seventeen years
old, having dinner with my idol, the Academy Award-winner, fresh from
my own theatrical "triumph," and still with my makeup on because I
hoped that some women at adjoining tables would say, "My, who is that
handsome young actor with Paul Lukas?" Paul bought me my first dry
martini ever. Then, leaning across the table, he said in his deep
Hungarian matinee idol's voice, "Tony, you are vonderful" -- pause --
"but not good enough." He went on to explain to me that I might find
some decent roles now and then, but I'd never be a star—like him. I
gave up the theater that night.
Within months I'd switched careers -- I was extremely purposeful, much
too purposeful, I think now -- and plunged immediately into journalism.
If I couldn't be center stage, I thought, then why not take a seat in
the fourth row on the aisle, why not be a reporter of the great theater
of events? Indeed, it has occurred to me of late that most of the
subjects I've chosen to concentrate on -- in long magazine pieces or
books, at least -- are highly theatrical. That's not bad, I suppose,
because theatrical events, by definition, lend themselves to compelling
retelling. It is bad, I suppose, because a great many important
stories in our society are not naturally theatrical. I'm a firm
believer that journalism needs people to write searchingly about such
subjects, but I can't be one of them. Although -- come to think of it
-- I imagine many people would have said in 1976 that school
desegregation in Boston was not an inherently theatrical subject. That
brings us to Common Ground. I confess I enjoyed the challenge of
writing a compelling, indeed a theatrical, book on a subject that some
people frankly found tedious.
What else attracted you to the subject?
My last book before Common Ground dealt with another theatrical
subject -- Watergate. But after I finished I realized that I'd been
looking at it from long distance: I wanted to get closer to my next
subject. Yet I didn't know what I wanted to write about. Most writers,
I think, want to write the kind of books they like to read. So, not
having read about anything much except Richard Nixon for a couple of
years -- what a depressing thought! -- I went down to a bookstore on
Fifth Avenue and picked out seven brand new hardcover books that looked
compelling. The second book I read was Friendly Fire and I was so taken
by the way C.D.B. Bryan seemed to be at the breakfast table with the
Iowa farm family that he wrote about, I decided then and there that I
wanted to do a book with a family -- or several families -- at the
center of it.
The precise arena came a few months later when I read a news story
about an angry crowd that drove Teddy Kennedy off a speaker's stand in
Boston and into the Federal Building which bore his brother's name,
just as school desegregation was beginning there. I remember asking
myself, "What in the world is going on when Ted Kennedy is driven to
shelter by his 'own people,' Boston's Irish Catholics?" When a reporter
asks himself, "What in the world is going on?" that's generally a
pretty good starting place for a story -- or a book. In fact, absent
that kind of obsessive curiosity, I can't produce a successful book.
Why was the notion of writing about families so compelling to
All writers, I think, are, to one extent or another, damaged people.
Writing is our way of repairing ourselves. In my own case, I was
filling a hole in my life which opened at the age of eight, when my
mother killed herself, throwing our family into utter disarray. My
father quickly developed tuberculosis -- psychosomatically triggered,
the doctors thought -- forcing him to seek treatment in an Arizona
sanitarium. We sold our house and my brother and I were shipped off to
boarding school. Effectively, from the age of eight, I had no family,
and certainly no community. That's one reason the book worked: I wasn't
just writing a book about busing. I was filling a hole in myself.
How did you find the three families at the center of Common
The first of the three families I found in Charlestown, the site of the
Battle of Bunker Hill. I decided to set some of the book there when I
went one day to the top of Bunker Hill -- it's actually Breed's Hill,
the soldiers got confused -- and stood looking down at the wharves that
ring the peninsula, and across the harbor to the golden dome of the
State House. Above me towered the Bunker Hill Monument; in its shadow
crouched Charlestown High School. Everywhere I looked I saw history. I
wanted to capture that in my book. So I set out to find a Charlestown
family that sent their kid to the high school and a black family that
sent their kid to the same class.
To find the Irish family, I spent a whole evening drinking beer with
Moe Gillen, a leader of the moderate wing of Charlestown's anti-busing
movement. My hunch was that a lot of families I might go after would be
reluctant to participate in the book without his imprimatur. He led me
to one family and I worked with them for four years, until I finally
concluded they wouldn't work in the book I wanted to write. They were
fanatics, which was interesting, but the appropriate author for that
book would have been not me, but Dostoevsky. Four years seems like a
long time to waste -- but it wasn't a waste. Through that first family
I'd learned an awful lot about Charlestown. The family I ultimately
chose -- the McGoffs -- were fish who swam in that same sea.
I found the black family, the Twymons, through a social worker in
Boston's South End. They were the second black family he introduced me
to. Rachel Twymon was so articulate and her children were so obviously
eager to be in the book that I felt they'd be good to work with. Some
members of Boston's black community didn't agree with my choice. They
thought it was the "wrong family." One of Rachel's sons turned out to
be a rapist. Two of her other sons had briefly turned their hand to
mugging. But one uncle had a master's degree in social work; Rachel
herself was chair-woman of the local community center. Troubled by that
disjuncture, I consulted a black psychologist I knew in Cambridge and
asked him if he thought I should drop the Twymons. He said: "Absolutely
not. That kind of diversity is a very common pattern among blacks
today, indeed among all ethnic groups as they come of age in America."
Finding those two families took some doing, but in many ways the most
difficult choice was the third family: the white, middle-class family.
I felt very strongly that the book needed a family from a different
social class, who connected to school desegregation in a different way.
Over a period of three months, I must have seen 25 such families, none
of whom seemed quite right. Then a professor of law at Harvard sent me
to see his friends, the Divers. After an evening with them, I knew they
were the family I'd been looking for.
For me, reading Common Ground was like reading a terrific
mystery. Were you conscious of creating suspense for the
Yes, in the sense that I never wanted the reader to know whose drama I
was more caught up in. We don't normally think of an author trying to
sow confusion in his readers, but I did. I didn't want to lay out any
lessons for the reader. Whatever lessons a reader might find in my
book, I wanted them to seep out through the interstices of the three
There may not be any "truths" -- as conventionally understood -- in
Common Ground. People often ask me how the experience of writing
the book changed me, and I finally developed an answer which may seem
flip, but it's what I felt. I said the book didn't take me from left to
right or right to left, but from the party of simplicity to the party
of complexity. If once I had read plain moral lessons in the school
desegregation battle, I no longer found it so easy to say who was right
and who was wrong. Moreover, I came to feel that none of these three
families could be understood outside the context of a very complex
past. Each individual in each family trailed behind him or her a long
train of history: that individual's own history, their family history,
and what I called their "tribal" history.
What was your greatest challenge in shaping the book?
Organization. It was guided by three principles. First, I wanted to
braid the families' stories through one another, but without a
mechanical rotation. Second, I wanted the book to move ahead
chronologically: I wanted it to be a yarn -- an instructive yarn, but a
yarn nonetheless. Third -- and this was the real killer -- I wanted
each of the 30 or so chapters to not only advance a family's story
chronologically, but to address a different aspect of their lives.
Was it difficult to gain their confidence?
That wasn't a tremendous feat. We all enjoy talking about ourselves to
a sympathetic listener. I also struck an unusual agreement with the
families. To get them to open up to me the way I hoped they would, I
realized I couldn't ask them to live in total suspense about what I
would do with their lives. So I let each family read the nine chapters
about themselves, correct any matter of verifiable fact, and argue with
me about matters of interpretation, so long as they understood that
final interpretation was my responsibility. This agreement, by the way,
did not apply to public figures -- the mayor, the judge, etc. -- in
Common Ground. They were people who had plenty of experience in
dealing with the press, as the three families did not. This arrangement
permitted us to catch about 70 small errors -- a misspelling here, a
wrong date there. None of the families ever charged me with betraying
them. Indeed, I think all three of them were reasonably satisfied with
the portrait I drew of them.
What were some of the special pleasures of writing Common
By the time I started the book, I was feeling increasingly dissatisfied
with the heavily-attributed style I had learned on The Baltimore
Sun and New York Times. I was experimenting with a narrative
style in which, chapter by chapter, I saw these events through the eyes
of each family. The secret of this technique was that I knew I always
had the families themselves as a back stop. If I went too far afield --
I called it "flying" -- they'd bring me back to earth.
Ironically, four decades after that summer in Gloucester, I find myself
back in the theater, as Common Ground is turned into a
two-evening play for the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the same
people who developed "Angels in America." I'm not writing it, but I'm
working very closely with the playwright. If we succeed in getting this
play on to the stage -- in Los Angeles and ultimately in New York -- it
will be the ripening of an old and cherished dream.
Readers who want to learn more about J. Anthony Lukas are encouraged
to seek out some of the books that shaped his writing life:
Friendly Fire, C.D.B. Bryan
Newspaper Days, H.L. Mencken
Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer
Walter Lippmann and the American Century,
The Paper, Richard Kluger
The Path Between the Seas, David McCullough
Books by J. Anthony Lukas:
Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American
Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years (1976)
Don't Shoot -- We Are Your Children! (1971)
The Barnyard Epithet and Other Obscenities: Notes on the Chicago
Conspiracy Trial (1970)
-- Interview by Diane Osen