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October 5, 2010.
Is it fair to say that Scott Turow has
made the law sexy and dangerous?
Well, perhaps that is a
bit of a stretch. However, over the past two decades lawyer and
novelist Turow has fostered the reputation as the finest writer of legal
thrillers, creating exciting and complex stories based on
trials and the lives of
In fact, his 1987 best
selling debut novel Presumed Innocent pretty much jump started
the genre, making mysteries built around the legal
system a literary staple.
Twenty-three years later, after many years of telling himself and anyone
else who asked that he would never do a sequel to that classic, the
characters insinuated themselves back into his mind and would not be
The result is Innocent,
a supremely twisty and slightly twisted legal drama which returns such
legendary characters as Judge Rusty Sabich, his damaged wife Barbara,
determined prosecuting attorney Tommy Molto and suave defender Sandy
Stern to our bookshelves.
The funny thing is, by
all rights, none of these characters may have existed at all. Turow had
a successful career as a lawyer even when he was writing Presumed
Innocent – and he continues practicing to this day. Everybody knows
the extraordinary schedule and workload lawyers have. Add to this the
massive amount of time and effort that it takes to write a book and no
one would have blamed Turow for not following his muse. There are only
so many hours in the day, after all.
Nonetheless, since his
college days Turow knew that he wanted to follow both career paths.
“My dream was to be a
novelist from the time I was eleven or twelve years old,” Turow
recalls. “After becoming a writing fellow at Stanford, I became a
lecturer in the English Department, teaching creative writing to
However, teaching never
felt like the right fit for the young writer.
“Teaching was simply a way to make a living and I
decided to go to Law School,” Turow continues. “One, I’d concluded
that I was not really cut out for academic life.
no slam of people who are good at it, but I was just there for the
paycheck. Second, I was far more interested in the law than I
expected. My father was a doctor, and as I say, he hated lawyers long
before it was fashionable for doctors. I had little exposure to law
until my college roommates went to law school and started practices. By
then I found that I was making friends with lawyers in San Francisco.
It seemed that I was far more interested in law than academic English.”
The two interests may
seem like a bit of a contradiction, but Turow does not see it that way
at all. In fact, he feels there is a great symmetry to the fields.
“For the most part,
practicing law is writing: writing briefs, writing contracts, writing
letters, writing memos. The voices are different, but the law is an
intensely verbal profession and the law itself is, in the end, really
just about words.”
Turow also found quickly
that he had a talent at both types of writing. In fact, in 1977, a
whole decade before his literary breakout with Presumed Innocent,
while he was still at Harvard Law School, Turow published his first
book: a memoir on his first year at law school called One L. The
book is still in print and considered a staple for young law students.
However, as much as he
enjoyed the experience of writing his memoirs, Turow still felt the
siren’s call of the novelist. His legal career was picking up serious
traction – by the 1980s he had gotten on a very busy career track with
the US Attorney’s office. Still, the idea of writing a novel haunted
him and he found that the legal cases he was handling in his job were
just fueling his imagination.
“My vow when I went to
law school was that I would not give up on my dream of writing fiction,”
Turow says. “Although I decided to practice law, notwithstanding the
success of One L, I still had that vow in mind.”
Therefore, he took to
writing his first fictional book – the story that would become
Presumed Innocent – whenever he could find the free time.
“When I started as an
AUSA [Assistant United States Attorney], I used to write on the morning commuter train,” Turow
recalls. “It was sometimes no more than a paragraph a day, but it kept
the candle burning. The plot of Presumed Innocent suggested
itself to me over a number of years. I started the book, based on
experiences I had in the Suffolk County DA’s office, which had been my
clinical placement in the trial practice class taught by Gary Bellow at
Harvard. But that took me only about 120 pages into the book that
ultimately resulted. I took two years off and wrote other things while
I figured out the rest of the plot.”
The rest – as they say –
was history. Presumed Innocent was released in 1987 to wonderful
reviews and became a runaway bestseller. The story of Rusty Sabich, a
prosecuting attorney in the fictional Kindle County who is accused of killing his
lover, the novel was particularly lauded for its surprising ending. It
also spawned a 1990 film version starring Harrison Ford, which
became a huge hit.
In the years that
followed, Turow has written several other acclaimed books, including
The Burden of Proof, Pleading Guilty, Personal Injuries and The
Laws of Our Fathers. Many of these also took place in Kindle County
– and quite often had characters recurring from his earlier books.
“There was never a
conscious decision to write this skein of books that are tied together
like a kite tail,” Turow says. “I got interested in Sandy Stern while
writing Presumed Innocent; I got interested in Sonny Klonsky
while writing Burden [of Proof] and that led to Laws of Our
Fathers. It really has been a question of following my
imagination while it leads me around by the nose.”
In fact, every time he
starts a new project, it is something of an adventure for him, Turow
admits. He never quite knows where it will lead.
“It really depends on
what I’m writing, but I think the early stages of a novel – when you’re
finding voice and characters – is probably the hardest kind of writing
The popularity of
Presumed Innocent spawned a whole rush of legal novelists who may
arguably be less talented as writers – such as John Grisham and James
Patterson – but who became even more popular than Turow by churning out
slightly more simplistic books. However, Turow has no hard feelings.
Nor does he feel that throwing together a book just to be commercial
would work for him.
“We are all the writers
we can be,” he states. “They can’t write my books, but I can’t write
theirs. There is plenty of room in the room for all of us. Grisham is
a friend. I’d love to have his sales. He’d love to have my reviews.”
Beyond the popular
film version of Presumed Innocent, Turow has also seen two of his
other books turned into television productions – The Burden of Proof
and Reversible Errors. Some authors cringe when they see how
their work looks through the prism of Hollywood, but Turow is mostly
content with the results.
“It’s a strange process,”
Turow admits. “On the set for Reversible Errors, which was a
mini-series on CBS, I looked around the set and realized that hundreds
of people were working to make real something that had lived for years
in the privacy of my mind. On the other hand, there are always
differences between my vision and the filmmakers. Overall, my
experiences have been good.”
In 2003, Turow also
returned to non-fiction books, publishing Ultimate
Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty.
After so much time working in fiction, Turow admits it’s an adjustment
as a writing process.
“Very different,” Turow
asserts, “although Ultimate Punishment, an expansion of an essay
I’d done for The New Yorker, is different by itself from One L, a
memoir. Ultimate Punishment, which has some memoir to it, is a
little like the Op-Eds I occasionally write for American dailies.”
So, now, twenty-three
years on from the book that made him something of a household name, why
did Turow decide it was time to return to the characters of Presumed
Innocent for his latest novel, Innocent?
“It’s a subset of what I
said before,” Turow explains. “Somehow, my imagination decided it was
time. I can look back and say it was related to things going on in my
personal life, but all I can say for sure is that Rusty started to force
himself back into my imagination. For some months, I had had a post-it
sitting on my desk, reading ‘A man is sitting on a bed in which the body
of a dead woman lies.’ It was a story idea I had no clue what to do
with. Then one morning I realized that the man sitting on the bed was
Rusty and that I was about to write the sequel I’d declined to write for
Innocent is considered to be such a classic, there must have been a
little intimidation that with the second story that the new book may
somehow not live up to the original.
“To be honest, I thought
for many years that I never would write a sequel,” Turow says. “I
always thought self-imitation is an inherently limiting thing for a
writer, and I was afraid of trying to equal a book whose success at the
time depended in part on breaking new ground. But at this stage, I was
no longer worried about constraining myself. And, by now, enough time
has passed that I thought many people would be curious about Rusty –
starting first of all with me. But yes, I was intimidated. I used to
say that it was like writing with a vulture on my shoulder.”
Much like the original
book, everything that happens in Innocent is essentially set in
motion when Rusty Sabich falls into a sexual affair with a female
co-worker – leading to a mysterious death and Sabich being put on trial
for the murder.
In the book, Rusty is
tortured by the fact that after all these years in a essentially
loveless marriage and after getting such a dramatic wake-up call after
his first affair that he would be weak enough to fall into another one.
Amongst all other things, it certainly destroyed his political career
and potentially took away his freedom. Turow admits even he is somewhat
baffled by what would lead a powerful man to take such a risk.
“I think one of the
deepest truths about life is that people are sometimes compelled for
reasons they don’t understand to keep repeating the same mistakes,”
Turow says. “So I regarded the parallel circumstances as deeply
revealing of the character, and full of a meaning that wasn’t as clearly
there the first time around. All the characters in Innocent are
informed by the experience of the first book, and are trying
desperately, in a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes, not to step in the same
“Why Rusty – and Bill
Clinton and Eliot Spitzer and dozens of others – do these things,
notwithstanding the astonishing stakes, is hard to answer. But
certainly there has to be a self-destructive and even self-loathing
component involved. In this book, Rusty has absolutely no hope that
things are going to turn out well once he becomes involved with Anna.”
Still, Turow enjoyed
revisiting old characters and seeing how they had grown and changed over
the years. For example, prosecutor Tommy Molto has definitely become a
much deeper character and smarter lawyer over time. On the other hand,
the suave and cultured defense attorney Sandy Stern (who was the main
character of the novel The Burden of Proof as well as his
important role in Presumed Innocent) has been laid low by
illness. His brain is still functioning on the same level, but his body
is betraying him.
So, as a novelist, how
interesting was it for Turow to slip back into their world and see where
the characters had gone in life?
“Extremely,” Turow says.
“Much like life itself. I am one of those people who loves hearing
about how things are going for virtually every person I ever met.”
Like in Presumed
Innocent, the character which resonates most in Innocent is
Rusty’s disturbed wife Barbara. This is quite an interesting trick
because she is the dead body in the bed from Turow’s original post-it
idea. However, even though Barbara is already dead on the opening page,
she looms large over all of the action.
A recent review of
Innocent said that Barbara Sabich was one of the great villains of
modern literature. While this may be true in the first book, in the
second book while she did many horrible things, the reader can’t help
but feel some sympathy for Barbara. In the long run, she lost
everything for a bit of petty revenge that she would never actually
Turow agrees that it is a
little simplistic to look at Barbara as a villain or even a victim.
She is just a very complex, brilliant and troubled woman.
“Personally, I think it
is one of the achievements of Innocent that at the end,
notwithstanding the ultimate plot twist, that many readers, including
the author, feel quite a bit of empathy and sorrow for Barbara. [Her]
final hours are, in my view, somewhat noble.”
As Innocent hit
the book stores in 2010, Turow has written twelve books – ten of which
are novels. Some have been huge successes. Most have been critically
acclaimed. Yet Turow could never look at one of them as his penultimate
accomplishment as a writer.
“I always reply when
people ask that question, ‘Do you have a favorite among your children?’”
Turow says. “It’s hard for me to imagine picking one over the other.
The experience of writing each of the books retains an intense place in
my memory. There are things I am immensely proud of in each of them,
and, of course, things that I wish I’d thought about twice.”
Yet, over the years, even
as his career as a writer has flourished, Turow has continued practicing
law. At this point Turow could be self-sufficient as both a lawyer and
as an author. In fact, the legal cases he takes on currently are done
pro bono (with no payment – pro bono is from the Latin
term pro bono publico which means “for the public good”).
“I continue as a lawyer
mostly because I can do some good in the practical way that lawyers do.”
However, as a man, why is
it so important to him to stick with both vocations?
“I always say that the
great break of my literary career was going to Law School,” Turow
explains. “It was one of the most fortuitous decisions of my life.
I was a lecturer in the English Department at Stanford, and for me going
to law school meant giving up a teaching career. But I realized I
was passionate about the law and the questions it asks, about deciding
right from wrong for an entire society, fashioning rules that are firm
yet flexible enough to fit the multitude of human circumstances.
Those questions continue to preoccupy me. The truth is that I
became not only a much more successful writer when I started writing
about the law, but also a much better one as well, because I was writing
about things that gripped me to the core.”
Turow has also dabbled in
politics over the years, often writing on the subject and appearing on
shows such as Real Time with Bill Maher. He was also a member of
the US Senate Nominations Committee, which helps to choose judicial
nominees. However, despite an interest in the subject, he does not have
any plans to run for public office.
“No runs in me, but I
write about political issues often,” Turow says. “Take a look at my
recent Op-Ed in the New York Times about Blagojevich to get the
flavor. I love politics as an observer, but I don’t have the stuff for
full contact sports.”
Besides, between Turow’s
legal work and writing, he is also the President of the Author’s Guild.
If he took on yet another job, when could he possibly find time to
sleep? Turow admits good-naturedly that his schedule is not quite as
out of control as it may seem from the outside.
“I practice only part time,” he says. “I prefer to write
in the mornings, when possible, and then turn to legal work in the
afternoons. I tend to go into the office one or two afternoons every
week and do the rest remotely.”
And on off days?
“I like to golf.”
If Turow had to give
either the law or writing up, would he be able to choose?
“Both can be enormous
fun, and a pain in the ass,” he acknowledges. “There is more
exhilaration in writing and more drudgery in the law, but they each have
their shares of both qualities. My dream from childhood was to be a
novelist, so there is a deep satisfaction in that life.”
Luckily for millions of
readers, that is not a choice that Turow has to make. He is able to
show us that a man can be defined in many ways – to follow his muse as
well as thrive in his career. However, does not do any of this to
define himself as a person. It is what he loves and what he is drawn to
do. While wearing the writer hat, Turow is not trying to one-up himself
every time. He simply hopes that his novels are successful in a more
primal, basic way.
“As fulfilling the
function of art that Aristotle described: To enlighten and entertain.”
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