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May 4, 2010 7:22 PM

He Wrote the Book on Legal Thrillers: A Q&A with Scott Turow

Posted by Ed Shanahan

Turow Scott Turow put in an average of 2,800 hours yearly as an assistant U.S. attorney while he was writing Presumed Innocent, his 1987 best seller. To finish the book, Turow wrote during his morning commute. "I wrote 26 or 28 minutes a day. It doesn't sound like a lot, maybe, but if I hadn't done it, we wouldn't be having this conversation." The occasion for that conversation: the publication of Innocent, a Presumed Innocent sequel that Turow never planned to write. Now a partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, Turow still works his writing around his "day job"--these days that means two "very active matters." One is an indicted criminal case; the other is a pro bono case with "some critical stuff happening." Turow spoke to The Am Law Daily's Dimitra Kessenides on Tuesday, Innocent's official publication date.

Sounds like you’ve been busy lately.

The last six weeks have been the busiest of my entire life. First, the U.S. State Department invited me to go to China as part of the public speakers program, and I went for ten days with the woman I share my life with. When I returned, the shooting had begun on a Fox television series based on my third book, Pleading Guilty. And then the tour began with The Rock Bottom Remainders [the band whose rotating membership includes Turow and such other authors as Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Matt Groening, and Amy Tan]. And I've been inundated with interview requests because of the new book.

You must be superorganized.

I don't think you could persuade me--or anyone else who knows me--of that. I tend to work in circles. I just go round and round and spark. If you saw my office, you'd quickly dispense of the idea that I'm organized.

Do you play an instrument with the Rock Bottom Remainders or are you a vocalist?

My role is to set a bottom threshold for musical talent--no one is worse than me. I'm out there to prove that the rest of them don't take themselves too seriously. I was touched that the New York Post in a review said I was a "surprising talent," but they went on to say I "couldn't sing worth a damn."

Who goes to these concerts, aside from family and friends of the band members?

That's a good question. These shows were organized by the Pearson Foundation and their We Give Books program, which is just getting started, and they're spectacular. Every show was sold out, but I don't know whether those were all Pearson's people. I'd say these aren't music lovers, they have to be readers, and there are, fortunately, lots of those.

You've said at various times in the past that you didn't ever intend to write a sequel to Presumed Innocent. So how did the idea for the new book come to you?

While I was on tour with my last full-blown novel, Ordinary Heroes, I wrote this on a Post-it note and left it on my desk, on the plastic covering that protects my keyboard--"A man is sitting on a bed in which the body of a dead woman lies." It was to describe an image in my head; I thought that maybe it was a little imaginative parody of a Hopper painting. Then about six weeks later, I turned around and looked at the Post-it note. I'm just looking at this note, and I think the man is [Presumed Innocent protagonist] Rusty Sabich. And it's this hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-the-neck moment. And then I think, who the hell is the woman? OK, it's Rusty's wife, Barbara. But what are they doing in a bed together? Did they stay married? Why would they have stayed married? And you start asking yourself these questions and think you have the answers, and you're really off and running on a book.

What about Rusty surprised you, if anything, this second time around with him?

I think Innocent is about change, about fearing change, or embracing change, and about the reasons that people continue to make the same mistakes, which is one of the saddest and most common spectacles in life. The fact that Rusty did not understand more about himself probably surprised me a little bit, and, yet, that was almost implicit from the starting point. I thought that was really faithful to Presumed Innocent. I'm sure people will go back and look at that book again.

How does your life as a writer intersect with your life as an attorney--does it, or are the two really separate?

This, what I'm doing today and tomorrow, the public presentation of the self, it's pretty much like trying a lawsuit. It's easier, maybe, because the antagonists are far gentler. This is a familiar experience of being up really early and going on really late, and speaking your lines. That is, it's the same kind of high-impact, high-pressure experience that's pretty familiar to anyone. Making a movie, too, is the other experience that's a lot like trying a lawsuit.

The legal profession is so different today than when you graduated from law school and began working in the U.S. attorney's office. What observations can you offer about those changes and the challenges today's law students and young lawyers face?

Our profession is not at its best when it’s all about money, and it’s very very hard in the big-firm environment to maintain an active culture that is not about profit maximization. Sonnenschein, I am really proud to say, sponsors a charter school in the city of Chicago. And all the pro bono stuff the firm is involved in, and the extent to which the firm takes pride in it. It’s these things that really leaven the quest for money.

In some ways, I'm the most uncredible critic, because I have found a way to make a handsome living that is separate from my practice. So I take my own criticisms with a grain of salt. It's really unhappy when law firms have to downsize and let 30-year employees go. But the one good thing that will come of this, we will see alternative billing, something I've written and talked about, come to the fore, and that might provide a little mercy in lawyers lives.

Photo: Jeremy Lawson Photography; Courtesy of Grand Central Publishing

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