Scott Turow’s writing makes it easy for critics to gush. Reviews of his books brim with compliments about his remarkable talent, the mastery of his storytelling, his psychologically complex, multidimensional characters, the you-are-there feel of the world of his imagination. Such praise rarely fails to generate arrogance and sense of entitlement. It is pleasantly surprising to find out that ordinary folks who happen to rub elbows with the award winning author and practicing attorney also praise him.
“Scott’s a great guy,” says the young Ripley Center staffer when I tell him that I am there for talk between Turow and National Public Radio’s Scott Simon. “Setting Thrilling Legal and Novel Precedents” centers on Turow’s newly launched INNOCENT, a sequel to PRESUMED INNOCENT, his bestselling first novel. It is part of the Smithsonian Resident Associates program. At the book signing, a former Wilmette, IL neighbor of Turow’s parents clutches a copy of the tribute he wrote to his mother for the Mother’s Day edition of The Washington Post magazine — evidence that besides being a brilliant lawyer, an acclaimed writer, a rich man–his house recently sold for $5 million—is also a good son. There is something charmingly artless in his response,
“I remember you,” he says with a smile as she introduces herself and though he is surrounded by people waiting for him to sign books, he gives her his complete attention. It is this attention, this genuine interest in people that that pervades his writing, just as the pro bono work he does at the Sonnenschein, Nath and Rosenthal indicates that he is, above all, a mensch.
Although the law is as much his mistress as medicine was Chekhov’s, it is fiction writing that made Turow’s fortune. PRESUMED INNOCENT, which followed ONE L, Harvard Law School memoir, is the stuff of legend. Its rights sold for a cool $3 million and even before it went to press, Sydney Pollack bought its film rights for 1 million dollars. Alan Pakula directed the movie version starring Harrison Ford, Bonnie Bedelia, Raul Julia, and Greta Schacchi. Since then over 25 million copies of Turow’s eight books have been sold. Four of them have been made into movies.
But there is no hubris in Turow’s performance. His talk with Simon is as relaxed as if they were sitting in a suburban living room. He comes through as an urbane, grounded guy with a self-deprecating sense of humor. He tells the standing room only audience about the unpublished novels that he wrote while he taught Creative Writing at Stanford University.
“The great break of my literary career was when I went to law school. It gave me a subject that I was passionate about, that, you know, I still find as interesting as I did the day I entered law school. And, you know, I think lawyers can do good things.”
The genesis of INNOCENT, he says, was a Post-it note he wrote to himself as an aide-memoire for a mental picture possibly based on an Edward Hopper painting. The note said, “A man is sitting on a bed on which a dead woman lies.” The man, Turow determines later, was Rusty Sabich, the hapless protagonist in PRESUMED INNOCENT.
Sabich’s somber progress towards middle age is something that fascinates the recently divorced fifty-eight year-old Turow. He knows that the the changes that come with middle age are not all beneficial and that the so-called golden years are not necessarily so. Relationships fail, the flesh weakens, power dwindles so why not snatch up a bit of happiness before before it is too late? Tommy Molto, Sabich’s nemesis in PRESUMED INNOCENT does not think so. His approach is the diametrical opposite of Sabich’s passionate affair with law clerk Anna Vostic. But while love redeems him, it crucifies Sabich. Demonstrably, even in the age of relative morality, hook-ups and friends-with-benefits, adultery continues to be a punishable offense at least in literature. Turow throws the book at Sabich with such force I feel compelled to ask him if he meant to write a morality tale.
“No.” he says. “I don’t equate adultery with murder. The difference between Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary is that he takes responsibility.”
When the talk is over Turow turns the spotlight on Simon’s novels. It is the perfect touch, as beautifully worded as his blurb for Simon’s PRETTY BIRDS, “Always gripping, always tender, and often painfully funny, Pretty Birds is a marvel of technical finesse, close observation, and a perfectly pitched heart.”