Scott Turow

This piece first appeared in the Sunday Independent in April 2005

For most aspiring novelists the overriding goal, beyond fame or artistic fulfilment, is to quit the day job. They spend evenings and weekends hunched over a keyboard in the hope that one day it will pay off and they will be able to blissfully retire from real life. Scott Turow is not one of those writers. Some 25 million people have bought his books, countless more have seen the big screen versions, but the man credited with inventing the legal thriller still works with the same law firm he started with twenty years ago in Chicago. He tries cases ‘on the fly’ and, despite the fact that he has gotten at least one man off death row, tells me does legal work ‘when I can find the time.’

The law firm in which he is now a partner has always been understanding. ‘When I started I asked them for three months off to finish what I described as ‘a mystery novel with a nice vocabulary,’’ he tells me, ‘which turned out to be Presumed Innocent. I went off to try my first lawsuit in private practice. And as usually happens when you’re trying cases, I came back and forgot that this manuscript was due to be auctioned the following Monday.’ Even before his debut novel was published a frenetic bidding war had begun between Hollywood studios for rights to adapt it for the silver screen. ‘And so I had to go to the president of the law firm and tell him that I had good news and strange news. I said ‘the good news was that I won the case. The strange news is that I’ve written a book and I think it’s going to be big.’ He said ‘how big?’ And I said, ‘Harold, I think we’re talking the backs of buses big’. Thereafter wherever he was in the world when he saw those photos of Harrison Ford (who starred in Presumed Innocent) on the back of a bus he made sure somebody took a photograph of him with it.’

Turow, a lean, compact 57 year old, relates this anecdote with the relish of a natural storyteller. With his colourful turn of phrase and twinkling eyes he seems more writer than lawyer and in fact he started his career in 1970 as creative writing teacher. Ironically it was only when he moved into a career in the law that his literary talents blossomed. ‘In going to law school and leaving life as an academic I had sort of hit on a mass of concerns central to my personality: how is power used fairly, how are appetites for power curbed, what’s moral and what’s immoral in the writing of rules. These are eternal issues with me. I used to joke that it was only when I went to law school I found my subject as a writer. But like many jokes there is a truth in it.’

Turow traces the fascination with the misuse of power back to his poor relationship with his father. ‘I didn’t get along very well with him. I was afraid of him. He was an angry guy. He lost his own mother when he was four years old and so he treated me as a rival for the affection of my mother. One can laugh at Freud but there was certainly something Oedipal going on in my household. We were fighting over my mother but he was an adult and I was a child. The biggest issue of my childhood was ‘if I don’t want to be like my father then how can I become a man?’

Turow’s father was that epitome of American 1950s manliness – a war hero. ‘I spent a lot of time thinking about the war, hoping that it would give me a better insight into what made him the way he was.’ Turow’s father was reluctant to speak to his young son about the war but gradually certain narratives entered the family’s folklore. ‘We learned that while he was a doctor in the American army he had been captured by the Germans. They treated him well but they shot his driver, a young kid from Kentucky. I had heard this account many times as a young boy, but it only when we were both much older that he told me the end of the story.’ When Turow’s father was liberated the American colonel asked him to go around the camp and find the men who had killed his driver. ‘My father selected them and they were shot in a row, behind a tent. Geneva convention be damned. Ironically he had spent the week prior to this tending the wounds of the German soldiers.’

Turow’s relationship with his father reached a turning point when his own son was born. ‘As a toddler my son was a rambunctious little boy and he had taken a handful of nuts when he shouldn’t have. I saw my father physically bully and threaten my son the way he had threatened me. And I said to him ‘this ends here; you will not do to him what you did to me. If you feel the need to do that you’ll never see this child or me again.’ My Dad had to back down. I’d humiliated him in front of guests. And that was that. It was different from then on.’

Right up to the end of his father’s life their relationship remained strained. ‘I always got on with my mother – she refused to choose between us – but my father was a difficult man. Even when he was very old he was not an unswerving truth teller. He asked me to help him with legal matters and only after days and days would I find out that he had hidden certain essential truths.’

Beyond the motivations of this familial psychodrama Turow claims he owes much of his success to what he calls ‘America’s omnivorous interest in the law’. ‘In the 1960s America had abandoned the idea of a melting pot, where everyone was going to be the same and instead began to consciously embrace pluralism. It was no longer the goal to have everyone march in lockstep with the white Anglo-Saxon establishment. But when you abandon this goal in order not to get into a civil war you need a way to answer the overarching questions in society, like abortion, gun control and so on. You need to look to the courts. And that’s why law has this pre-eminent place in the United States.’

Turow, like no other writer before him, tapped into this rising fascination with all things legal. Time magazine called him ‘the Bard of the litigious age’ and his success helped blaze a trail for the likes of John Grisham and Michael Crichton and well as the rise of everything from Judge Judy to Court TV. ‘In America we now have a trial of the century once a year and I’m not sure that I can take credit for that’ he tells me, smiling. ‘To me the grand daddy of them all is still the OJ trial. That had all of the American obsessions – class, race, sex, money – in one.’

For all of the tense legal jousts in his books Turows own ‘grand-daddy trial’ was in fact a real-life retrial. In the mid eighties a young Hispanic man, Alejandro Hernandez, was convicted of abducting, raping and murdering a young girl. The crime paralysed a small community in rural Illinois. The police and prosecutors were desperate to get a conviction. ‘And they found these two brown skinned men who were goofier than the monkeys in the trees’ Turow tells me. They said one stupid thing after another. The police got one of them to implicate the other guy. Neither one knew a goddamn thing they were talking about. They were sentenced to death. Everything was neatly tied up.’

Or so the prosecutors and police thought. Six months later another little girl was abducted, raped and murdered in the same neighbourhood. Another man in a plea bargain confessed to both this and the earlier murder for which Hernandez had been convicted. ‘This is where the story gets bad. The prosecutors then spent the next ten years trying to prove this other man was lying. Were it not for the advent of certain DNA technology in the 1990s Alejandro would have been put to death. The day he was released was a huge personal moment for me. It makes me angry though that only now, 20 years after the murder, has this other man been indicted for it.’

Turow though, does not seem like an angry man. He is working on the hotly awaited follow up to Presumed Innocent and tells me that ‘life is good right now.’ As he gets older he notices himself growing more like his deceased father. ‘I have respect for his memory but I catch myself when I notice myself being like him. There are facial expressions of his that come so naturally to me. I’m short and curt the way he was. You can’t bleach or starch it out yourself.’ Does he feel he finally solved the conundrum he sensed as a boy – how to be a man without being like his father? ‘I’m a better father than he ever was and I guess I did finally figure it out. He might be one of the reasons I began writing, but I’m not like him.’

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~ by Donal Lynch on March 31, 2008.

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