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From the National Book Foundation Archives
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 you?
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 Ground?
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 reader?
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 families.

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 Ground?
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, Ronald Steel
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 Families (1985)
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

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