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An interview with Scott Turow

“A man is sitting on a bed in which the dead body of a woman lies.”

By JANE AMMESON
  
If you dig deeply enough on the website for the Rock Bottom Remainders, a band composed of writers whose books very seldom show up on the remainder table, such as Dave Barry, Stephen King, Ridley Pearson, Roy Blount Jr. and Amy Tan, you can find a photo of their lead singer, Scott Turow, wearing a multi-hued, synthetic wig —like what a clown might wear. It is not the type of photo one would think exists of Turow, a partner at the Chicago offices of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, a national law firm, and bestselling author of such intricate and complex legal thrillers as The Burden of Proof, Personal Injuries and Reversible Errors, as well as Ordinary Heroes, a novel about a man’s quest to solve the mysteries of his father’s World War II history. His most recent book, released this May and titled Innocent (Grand Central Publishing, $27.99) continues the story of Rusty Sabich, now a judge, who was tried for murder in Turow’s runaway best seller, Presumed Innocent, published 23 years ago.
   “The New York Post said that I, along with Amy Tan, was a surprising talent,” says Turow about his recent tour with the Rock Bottom Remainders, which raised money for charities. “Though what I lack for talent and ability in my singing, I make up for with
enthusiasm.” Turow began singing at an early age, though he says he never got much beyond the shower stage.
   “My favorite song to perform is ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon,” says Turow, noting that he can do 80 percent of the falsetto, but can’t quite reach those top notes.
  Luckily his legal and writing skills are much better honed. As the author of seven best sellers that have sold over 25 million copies and been translated into more than 25 languages, he’s received numerous awards, including the Silver Dagger Award of the British Crime Writers, the Heartland Prize and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. In his work as an attorney, he combines a passion for pro bono work in helping the underdog, including winning an appeal in the case of Alejandro Hernandez, who spent almost 12 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit, and a specialization in white collar criminal defense. When Turow worked as an assistant United States attorney in Chicago, he was the lead counsel in several trials having to do with Operation Greylord, a federal investigation of corruption in the Illinois judiciary.
   Turow, who grew up in Chicago, graduated from Amherst College with high honors and then was awarded an Edith Mirrielees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center. After that, he taught creative writing there for three yearsbefore deciding he wasn’t going to be able to support himself as a writer. Turow then decided to go to Harvard Law School because he thought he could combine being a lawyer with being a writer. Turow’s first book, One L, which was published in 1977, recounted his experience as a law student.
   The idea for Innocent began with a simple sentence that Turow wrote down and placed on his desk. It read, “A man is sitting on a bed in which the dead body of a woman lies.”
   “I wrote it down sometime in 2005,” says Turow. “And then I went off on a book tour for Ordinary Heroes and when I came back, it was still there.”
   Turow had said he’d never write a sequel to Presumed Innocent.  And indeed, the sentence to him represented a different murder trial at first. As he pondered the sentence, he wondered who the judge would be.
   “At first I thought he was going to be Sabich,” says Turow about the protagonist in Presumed Innocent. In that book, Sabich has an affair with a colleague who turns up dead. The evidence ties him to her murder and during the trial he discovers that his wife, Barbara, is the killer. Barbara Sabich, an unstable woman given to rages, has connived a cunning plot to pin the murder on her husband, taking care of the proverbial two birds—or in this case—adulterous couple with one stone.
   His agent told Turow that having Sabich as the judge seemed like “kind of a waste.”
    “And so as I was looking at the note, I thought Rusty Sabich is sitting on that bed,” says Turow. “So who is that woman? I thought it’s Barbara and then I asked myself what is she doing in Rusty’s bed? Are they still together?”
   The Sabichs are indeed still together, locked in an unhappy marriage, at the beginning of Innocent. Sabich returned to his wife because of their son Nat, so that he can help raise him and also protect him from Barbara who has tried to commit suicide, only stopped by young Nat walking in the room.
   But there were other considerations too. Turow had to figure out how the Sabichs’ marriage had survived not only infidelity and murder, but also an intentional frame-up that would have sent Sabich to the electric chair—a tough job even for the “Marriage Ref.” But Turow, after reflection, saw very clearly why Rusty and Barbara got back together.
   “Given Rusty’s commitment to his child, it made sense to me that he would still be with Barbara,” he says. “He loves his son,  and it also rectifies the damage done to him by his own father.”
   Even though the reunion of Rusty and Barbara didn’t fall in the happily-ever-after territory, Sabich has avoided extramarital complications, but at the start of the book, he begins an affair with a much younger colleague. He painfully breaks it off, and later the woman becomes involved in an intense romantic relationship with Nat, now an attorney too. His wife, a mathematical and computer whiz, learns of her husband’s affair and Barbara’s mysterious death and Sabich’s odd reaction to it—he sits with the body for 24 hours before calling the police—leading to his being charged with murder again. And there’s another wrinkle too. The DNA samples that existed from the first trial can now be tested and will indicate that Sabich had sex with the woman Barbara murdered.
If all this sounds ubër complicated, remember it is a Turow novel, and there are layers and layers of complexity, though with his ultra tidy lawyer’s mind, he is able to succinctly tie in everything at the end...........................
...........              ....When asked if he writes such intricate novels because of his law background, Turow says that he probably was drawn to the law because he likes complexity.
    “I’ve done complex litigation and investigation, and I write complex novels,” he says. “The woman with whom I share my life with now says I can never tell a short story. Dave Barry asked me why I don’t have a spleen and I began to explain by telling him how I didn’t have my spleen taken out against my doctor’s advice and Dave said I just want to know why you don’t have a spleen and you start off with talking about how you didn’t get your spleen out at first. And I said, but that’s how I explain things.”
   There were moments, says Turow, when he asked himself if he was crazy to write a sequel to Presumed Innocent, which was made into a movie starring Harrison Ford.
   “I thought people would inevitably compare it,” says Turow, who writes in the morning before work. “I didn’t want that, and I was afraid of people thinking that I was feasting on the original. But I’m very proud of the book.”
   When Turow first began writing his legal thrillers, it was a rare genre, but perfectly suited to his talents. The field has since exploded, but Turow, who turns out a book every two to three years (which seems ages compared to writers who come up with one every year), still stands out in the crowd.
   Turow says that he doesn’t know if he’ll write about the Sabich family again, even when told that Nat’s story seems to demand a continuance.
   “Weirdly,” says Turow, the father of three, “I just remembered this morning that I always had the idea of writing about a son.”

Published: June 07, 2010
Issue: Summer 2010 Urban Living