March 25, 2007
2 worlds of Turow balanced
By Steve Penhollow, The Fort Wayne Journal Gazette
When Scott Turow left a career track in the English department at Stanford
University to go to law school, he recalls telling his friends and
colleagues that he was doing it to gain experience that would aid him in
writing future novels.
But he wasn't being truthful.
"I think it was just to circumvent criticism," he said in a phone interview
from his Chicago law office. "It was a sop to the people at Stanford who
were shocked that I could even consider leaving academia."
Turow did end up becoming one of our nation's finest crafters of legalistic
thrillers, an author who is as respected by critics as he is worshiped by
Turow will give the Fort Wayne Jewish Federation's "People of the Book
Lecture" on Monday at Congregation Achduth Vesholom.
Turow's desire to be a writer is considerably older than his desire to write
fiction about the law.
"I thought I was going to be the next (James) Joyce when I was at Amherst
(College)," he said. "It took me a long time to realize those were neither
my gifts nor my interests."
After graduating with high honors from Amherst College in 1970, Turow went
to Stanford University on an Edith Mirrielees Fellowship.
Turow soon realized he didn't want to become an English professor.
"There were lots of different factors," he said. "Certainly most compelling
was that I don't have a deep scholarly interest in literature. Criticism
doesn't excite me.
"I was starting to get a strong sense of the way English departments were
over the appointment of a writing professor. People were acting as if the
survival of the Union was at stake.
"I asked myself, 'Do I really want to spend the rest of my (expletive) life
debating stupid (expletive) like this?' "
Considering how the question was framed, it is hardly surprising that Turow
answered it the way he did.
Turow did write a novel while at Stanford, but it was victimized by bad
"The truth of the matter is," he said, "the book I wrote as a fellow at
Stanford, 'The Way Things Are,' would have been published if I'd finished it
five years earlier. It was a hippie novel. By the time I finished it,
McGovern had lost the election. The world had changed. No one was interested
in the subject matter. There was a certain 'been there, done that' quality
to the book. I certainly think the novel could have been published. It was
Turow earned his juris doctorate degree from Harvard Law School in 1978, and
he went to work for the federal government as an assistant U.S. attorney in
He served as the lead prosecutor in several high-profile federal trials.
Turow quit his job at the U.S. Attorney's Office to finish his third novel
(and his first bona fide hit), "Presumed Innocent."
He has been a partner in the Chicago office of Sonnenschein Nath and
Rosenthal since 1986 and works part time on white collar criminal defense
and pro bono cases.
Unlike some of his peers in the legal thriller game, Turow has always prided
himself on portraying the legal profession and legal processes with absolute
Time magazine called him the "Bard of the Litigious Age." But Turow says he
has no beef with writers who fudge things for the sake of increasing
"(TV producer) David Kelley ('Ally McBeal,' 'Boston Legal') is a friend of
mine," he said. "David certainly knows the law, but he believes it's more
important to present good drama than to remain faithful to the realities of
the courtroom and that is totally defensible. It's just not the way I do
The public's extraordinarily durable fascination with fictions of this ilk
is a complicated matter to dissect, Turow said.
"It's hard to get into every piece of it," he said. "Generally speaking, law
has become an enormously intrusive force in American life in a way it wasn't
30 or 40 years ago. We have new rights that have arisen solely through the
legal process. Rights regarding sexual harassment. If a parish priest
touches your privates, you no longer have to take it in silence for the rest
of your life.
"People want to know about it, and that's what the novel has always done.
It's been an educational instrument. People have traditionally looked to
stories when they are really curious about something."
And people who aren't in the legal profession tend to see the law as being
about values. Which is ironic, because lawyers tend to see it as being about
economics, Turow said.
"Throughout my lifetime as a lawyer," he said, "all legal doctrines have
been traceable to an economic rationale. And the fact of the matter is,
Americans don't see that in the law. They see it as being about surrogate
motherhood. They see questions of values in all kinds of zero-order issues."
When Turow served on a 2000 commission appointed by Illinois Gov. George
Ryan to consider overhauling the capital punishment system, he learned that
there was a huge disconnect between what supporters of the death penalty
think it accomplishes and its actual effects.
"I actually learned a great deal about the death penalty while I served on
that commission," he said. "I realized we were asking ourselves the wrong
questions. Most Americans want to figure out if the death penalty is moral
or not. That's not the right question. The right question is, 'Is it going
to give them what they want?'
"We want some moral message that the death penalty is never going to be able
to send, some unambiguous moral message," he said. "By its very nature, the
penalty is always going to be imposed on the weak rather than the powerful.
It is never going to give people the moral certainly they want. It is not a
deterrent. It does not fulfill the purposes it is supposed to serve."
In his capacity as a lawyer, Turow is currently working on a pro bono case
not unlike the one involving Alejandro Hernandez. Turow won Hernandez's
release from prison after his client spent 12 years in prison - five of
those on death row - for a murder he did not commit.
Turow said DNA testing has changed a great deal in the last decade. "I may
as well have never approached subject," he said. "It's so different. Working
with these experts is an amazingly slow process."
Turow says he expects to win this client's release from prison as well.
"I hope so," he said. "The prosecutors agree that there's a basis to do the
testing. That's all we agree on."
Turow says his celebrity status is something of a mixed bag in this
"Well I don't have to introduce myself the first time I come into a
courtroom," he said. "There are advantages and disadvantages. The judges are
sometimes threatened by my prominence."
In his capacity as author, Turow is currently working on a sequel to
Turow's works have been adapted three times for Hollywood projects, and he
says Tinseltown reps occasionally approach him to write a screenplay or two
(he was recently asked to work on an update of the Charlie Chan films, an
offer he was forced to decline because of lack of time not lack of
Given such enticements, a move to the West Coast would seem to be called
But Turow said he will always live in the Windy City.
"I'm a Chicagoan," he said. "My children are grown so I will spend less time
here as the years march on. But I've always been a Chicagoan. I am licensed
to practice law here. My law office is here. I have innumerable ties to
If you go
Who: Scott Turow
When: 7:30 p.m. Monday
Where: Congregation Achduth Vesholom, 5200 Old Mill Road
Source : Fort Wayne Journal Gazette (Indiana)