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Presumed Impossible: Author and Attorney Scott Turow Speaks at the Adler Theatre, January 26 PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Literature
Written by Mike Schulz   
Thursday, 14 January 2010 06:00

Scott TurowYou might think that the art of writing fiction would have little in common with the art of practicing law. Scott Turow would beg to differ.

"They're actually very similar tasks," says Turow, the bestselling author who is also a partner at the Chicago law firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal. "You know, you've got to shape characters and shape witness testimony ... . You are an author in both venues to a great extent, and particularly as a prosecutor, you really do need to keep your eye on the narrative, and make sure it's compelling."

To be sure, Turow knows his way around a compelling narrative, as the author of 1987's Presumed Innocent - which spent nearly a year on the New York Times bestseller list - and such acclaimed legal thrillers as The Burden of Proof, The Laws of Our Fathers, and Personal Injuries. Collectively, Turow's courtroom-themed novels and nonfictions have been translated into more than 25 languages and have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide.

And on January 26, at Davenport's Adler Theatre, Turow will offer insight into how he's managed to find success in - and a balance between - two intensely time-consuming vocations, when he speaks as the latest guest in the Eastern Iowa Community College District's "Viewpoint Distinguished Speakers Series."

"My friends who were in law school," says Turow during a recent phone interview, "they all kept telling me that you can't write and do this [practice law] at the same time. But I was smart enough to figure out at 24 or 25 that if you don't try to have the life you want, you're never gonna have it. So I made the decision to try, and obviously it ended up working out really well for me."


Scott TurowAll a Discovery

Born in Chicago in 1949, Turow says that "certainly by the time I was 11 or 12, I decided that I wanted to be a writer," especially after reading Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo. "I read that when I was malingering from school, over probably two or three days, and I had never been happier to have tonsillitis in my life. It was costumes, sword-fighting, and revenge. I loved it."

The future author of mysteries also loved whodunits ("I read all the way through Sherlock Holmes"), and says that after much writing in high school and his position as the editor for New Trier High School's student newspaper, "the plan from the time I got to college was to be a novelist. Much to the chagrin of my parents, who thought medical school sounded like a much better idea."

Turow attended Amherst College, where he majored in American Studies, and subsequently received an Edith Mirrielees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center. In 1972, he began a three-year tenure as a creative-writing instructor and lecturer in the school's English department. And then, in 1975, his nascent career moved in a rather unusual direction - to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Turow enrolled in Harvard Law School.

"That," he says, "was purely an inspiration because my career as a writer of fiction was not exactly off to a rocket start, and I saw myself drifting into a life as an English professor. And it really wasn't something that I wanted to do. So I said, you know, 'I've got to figure out something else, some way to support myself, so I can write.'

"I considered advertising," he continues, "or going to Hollywood and taking a studio writing job, which used to exist in those days. But I had a lot of friends who were lawyers, and what they were doing just seemed extremely exciting to me. I knew nothing about the law or lawyers at that stage in my life, so it was all a discovery."

And a discovery that readers would also be privy to, as Turow's experiences were the subject of his first book-length nonfiction: 1977's One L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School.

As its author tells it, the writing of One L "was kind of an accident." Prior to his Harvard Law enrollment, says Turow, "I sent a letter to my agent - she'd been trying to sell a novel I wrote - and I said, 'You know, somebody ought to write a book about what it's like to be a law student, because there isn't anything like that out there.'"

His agent, in turn, brought the idea up during a lunch with a lawyer acquaintance and editor Ned Chase - the father of Chevy - and by the meal's end, says Turow, "Ned said, 'This kid can write. Why don't we commission this book?' And that's what they did."

Scheduled to deliver the manuscript after completing his first year at Harvard Law, Turow says that the juggling of a class schedule, study time, and writing was made more bearable through a valuable discovery.

Presumed Innocent"Obviously," he says, "a trial lawyer doesn't care how timeworn his tactics are as long as they work for a jury. And at the end of the day, that was an important lesson to me - I needed to think more about what was going to work for readers than being the new James Joyce."

It may not have been Joyce, but the warts-and-all One L was still an enormous success with critics, with Business Week calling it "compelling and even suspenseful reading," and The New York Times stating, "It should be read by anyone who has ever contemplated going to law school. Or anyone who has ever worried about being human." The nonfiction continues to show up on law-school syllabuses worldwide, even if it wasn't met with universal praise by Turow's fellow first-year students.

"I always say that the reaction to One L was in direct proportion to the way people thought they'd been portrayed," he says. "The people who thought they were favorably portrayed thought it was a work of near-genius, and the people who didn't think they were favorably portrayed ... had other opinions, you know? Let's just say that the anger level was high."

After One L's publication, however, it took another 10 years for a new Turow book to arrive, as he followed his 1978 Harvard Law graduation (with honors) with an eight-year tenure as an assistant United States attorney in Chicago, followed by his 1986 partnership in the Chicago office of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal.

"I never really stopped writing," says Turow, "but it was hard while I was a prosecutor. That's a very demanding job. But I wrote every morning on the train, on my morning commute, once I moved to Chicago - that was the time I had - and sometimes on Sunday nights I would take the time. And that's where Presumed Innocent was begun.

"Finally," he continues, "I bought a used portable computer - it was 1984, so the thing weighed 40 pounds - and I took a three-week vacation and said I was gonna write. I started writing a series of essays about the criminal-justice system, but then I became caught up in what I suddenly realized would be the end of Presumed Innocent. So I wrote the end on this PC, and went back and typed in the first 120 pages that I'd written by hand. And by the summer of 1986, when I left the U.S. attorney's office, I was ready to finish the book."

"So," Turow understates, "there was nothing fast about the process."

Yet good things often come to those who (are forced to) wait. Following the 1987 publication of Turow's career-making novel, which finds middle-aged prosecutor Rusty Sabich accused of the rape and murder of his former lover, critics were effusive - The New York Times called Presumed Innocent "spellbinding" and "the work of a profoundly gifted writer" - and readers were hooked. To date, more than 700,000 hardcover and 4 million paperback copies of the book have been sold in the United States alone.

"I was shocked beyond easy description," says Turow of the book's success. "It was, certainly, the most startling thing that's ever happened in my life."


Scott TurowPart of a Cultural Conversation

However, despite Presumed Innocent's emergence as a pop-culture phenomenon, Turow says he had no intention of giving up his career as a lawyer in favor of that of a writer.

"By the time the paperback came out in '88," he says, "I continued to practice law full-time, and I began to think, you know, 'I'm never gonna write another book.' I was very lucky to sort of put my finger on a nerve that had sort of been laid bare by a lot of events in the culture, starting with Watergate, frankly. People just had an evolving view of the law, and were just far more interested in it."

Yet Turow still had numerous ideas for novels that he wanted to write, and was happily able to reach a compromise between his two vocations.

"I was lucky enough to have my practice moving ahead," he says, "and in terms of time, I ended up making a new arrangement that began in 1989 with my law firm - one that continues to the present - where I can practice part-time."

This new arrangement allowed Turow to complete 1990's The Burden of Proof, which cast as its protagonist Alejandro "Sandy" Stern, attorney to Presumed Innocent's Sabich. Like 1987's suspense novel, the best-selling The Burden of Proof is set in Kindle County - a fictionalized, yet recognizable, version of Chicago's Cook County - and was the first of Turow's subsequent works to find figures from one book appearing in another. (The Burden of Proof's Judge Sonny Klonsky, for instance, shows up in 1996's The Laws of Our Fathers; Presumed Innocent character Stewart Dubinski is featured in 2005's Ordinary Heroes.)

"I start with characters and situations," says Turow of his writing process, "and I just go from there. I just get interested in what these people are up to now. You know, Sonny was created in The Burden of Proof, and later I thought, 'Gosh, what's goin' on with her ... ?' And I had always wanted to write a novel about the '60s, so that ended up becoming Laws of Our Fathers.

"And the past several years now," he continues, "I've sort of been focused on wondering what happened to Rusty Sabich. So Innocent - which is the direct sequel to Presumed Innocent - will be published by Grand Central [Publishing] in May."

This will no doubt come as great news to the author's fans, who have been deprived of a new Turow novel since the 2006 publication of his legal thriller Limitations. Turow says, though, that he continues to receive letters and e-mail messages from readers who are discovering his works for the first time.

Scott Turow"I've been lucky enough that my books have been part of a cultural conversation about the law," he says. "One L continues to figure into the discussion about law school and the law-school experience, and I get a lot of correspondence about all of my books during the course of a week, so that's very gratifying. You know, to be in dialogue with the people who are reading your books on a regular basis."

Turow also has the chance to communicate with readers during his occasional appearances on the lecture circuit, as with his forthcoming engagement at the Adler Theatre. (Asked what he'll be discussing on January 26, Turow tells me, "I think I'm mostly gonna talk about my career and the way it's developed, and probably cover some of the same ground you and I have covered - with probably a few more amusing anecdotes.") Between his writing and his law practice, though, Turow says that he only accepts requests to speak publicly "probably six to 10 times a year," a schedule that suits him fine.

"I've discovered over the years that either you do what people want you to talk about, or you talk about it," he says. "And if you give up too much time to talk about it, you don't do it."

In addition to publicity for May's Innocent novel, one of the things Turow may soon be doing - though not necessarily by choice - is re-acquainting himself with his former career as a trial lawyer. "I haven't tried a case now in, I would say, seven or eight years," he says. "I would, and I may - I have one case that's probably, regretfully, going to go to trial, and I may try it. I'm not afraid of going to court, but, you know, it's been a while.

"The one thing I'm not gonna do," he continues, "is try another civil case. The problem in the civil system is that the burden of proof is preponderance, which means 51/49 wins it. And, you know, when it gets that thin, that's really just a dice roll. So it's often very hard, as a lawyer, to feel good about the results."

Still, to hear Turow tell it, his most nerve-racking experiences in a courtroom might have an equivalent: the fear he felt as a 2006 contestant on Celebrity Jeopardy!, where he earned roughly $50,000 for the charity Literacy Chicago.

"It was terrifying," says Turow of the experience. "I looked at Paul Shaffer and Susan Lucci - who were my fellow competitors - as the doors were about to open, and I said, 'You know, we're all wondering the same thing: Why in the fuck did I ever agree to do this?'"


Scott Turow speaks at the Adler Theatre on Tuesday, January 26, as part of the Eastern Iowa Community College District's "Viewpoint Distinguished Speakers Series." Tickets are $30 to $34 and can be reserved by calling (800)745-3000 or visiting

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