Some Call Writing Agony. Scott Turow Finds Great Pleasure in the Craft
By David A. F. Sweet
A prolific author whose forte is legal thrillers, Scott Turow is asked how his most recent novel, The Last Trial, stands apart from his previous works.
He laughs before answering.
“It stands apart because of the reverential reviews,” said Turow who, like most writers, have been stung by the negative ones. That includes the first review panning Turow’s debut work, One L. It ran in the Chicago Sun-Times — much to the chagrin of the New Trier High School alumnus, whose family and friends could read it.
But that was back during the Carter Administration. One L is still in print, despite the wounding words written by reviewer John Jay Osborn Jr., best known for his book The Paper Chase. Let’s just say Turow — whose One L is a memoir describing his first year at Harvard Law School — has recovered quite nicely. His national best-sellers (tens of millions of his books have been bought) stretch back to 1987, when Presumed Innocent captivated readers before becoming a hit movie starring Harrison Ford.
Only 11 years old, Turow knew he wanted to be a novelist once he became enamored with the works of Alexandre Dumas, who composed The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. His mother, Rita, possessed similar ambitions, and even joined a writers’ workshop in Winnetka. But publication eluded her.
Turow was stunned upon arriving at Amherst College that no creative writing classes were available, but he made up for that by earning a fellowship in the creative writing program at Stanford University before becoming a lecturer in the school’s English Department.
“Those were critical years,” said Turow, who met well-known writers there, such as Raymond Carver. “I got the space and time to write a lot. More important was to be around young people who were bold enough to declare they wanted to be authors and poets.”
But upon leaving The Farm to attend Harvard, he was immensely frustrated.
“It was the biggest challenge of my life for many reasons,” he said. “By a lot of outside measures, you could say I was doing well. But I was a failure by my own measure. I felt I hadn’t tapped into everything I had as a person and writer. I left Stanford feeling that I had failed myself.”
Law degree in hand, Turow served as an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago for eight years, a job he loved. Still, he was unfulfilled. He turned to writing Presumed Innocent during his daily commute on what was then the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.
“Each case is a death struggle — people’s liberties are at stake,” Turow told me when we sat down at The Lucky Platter in Evanston in 2014. “Trying to be respectable and ethical, and to overcome the barriers defense lawyers are properly trying to create, all of that stuff had me teeming with emotion. Writing a book about a prosecutor seemed like a natural.”
His latest work, however, is focused on a defense attorney. Set in the fictional Kindle County, Illinois, The Last Trial — which is published by Grand Central Publishing — follows the work of lawyer Alejandro Stern, better known as Sandy. The octogenarian is familiar to Turow’s readers — after all, he’s appeared in all of his novels, if only briefly at times. And the name, crazily enough, can even be found in One L, a point the author did not remember when it was mentioned to him decades ago (“It proved that the name worked for me,” Turow said). The character’s inspiration came from a family friend during Turow’s childhood, one the author said possesses an “understated elegance.” The plot of The Last Trial is gripping, and though the book is hefty, no one wants to put it down.
His talents in fiction and law are beyond dispute — in fact, Turow remains involved with mainly pro bono cases with the firm Dentons downtown. But he has no singing ability, as he readily admits. Despite that fact, he has belted out songs for the band Rock Bottom Remainders, including stints with Warren Zevon and Judy Collins during their guest appearances.
“To sing harmony with Roger McGuinn (of the Byrds) on ‘Turn, Turn, Turn’ is so absurd, but it’s a privilege that I’ve really enjoyed,” he said.
You may have heard of the mainstays Rock Bottom Remainders: Stephen King, Roy Blount Jr., Dave Barry — famous authors all. In fact, when Turow married Adriane Sarah Glazier in 2016, Barry served as the minister. The humorist maintained a serious demeanor until asking Turow to turn to his bride and say, “Wild thing, you make my heart sing.”
Still busy in his 70s, how does a man who’s been a No. 1 New York Times best-selling author and who graced the cover of Time magazine when it still had influence stay motivated to write?
“I would say there’s still a lot of pleasure in it,” he said. “When you get it together, there’s nothing quite like writing well. I’ve hung around with writers who talk about the agony. If it’s so much pain, why do you do it?”
Unsung Gems columnist David A. F. Sweet can be followed on Twitter @davidafsweet. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.