Talkin' to Turow
an intervew with Scott Turow

by Andrew Elias

SCOTT TUROW IS THE AUTHOR of ten best-selling novels set in fictional Kindle County, including Presumed Innocent, Burden of Proof, and Reversible Errors, which were adapted to film. He also wrote two non-fiction books, including the best-selling One L, about his experiences as a law student. His books have been translated into more than 40 languages and sold more than 30 million copies worldwide. His newest best-selling novel, Testimony has been acclaimed a masterful international legal thriller. He is a frequent contributor to publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic.

Turow served as Assistant U.S. Attorney in Chicago, where he prosecuted several high-profile corruption cases. He was a member of the U.S. Senate Nominations Commission for the Northern District of Illinois, which recommends federal judicial appointments.

I was able to ask Mr. Turow a few questions about his work as a writer and his thoughts as a lawyer.

Your new book, Testimony deals with war crimes in Europe, a long way from Illinois’ Kindle County. Why did you feel the need to create the fictional world of Kindle County in the first place? And why did you feel that you needed to leave Kindle County now and focus on an international situation?

SCOTT TUROW I got the idea for Testimony when I made a trip to Holland during 2000 for a book tour. I was at a small reception where many of the guests were American lawyers who were working in The Hague and I was in a circle of about five lawyers who told me I had to write a book about The Hague and the International Criminal Court.

As for Kindle County, it came about as an accident. Because I was working as a federal prosecutor, a job that requires high confidentiality, I was reluctant to set Presumed Innocent in Chicago, so there was no confusion between my day job and the world I’d imagined. When I followed with the Burden of Proof — about Rusty’s lawyer, Sandy Stern — I was firmly lodged in Kindle County.

Testimony is part thriller, part history lesson and part morality tale, dealing with both systematic and personal cruelty and heroism. Why was it important to you to tell this story at this time?

The treatment of the Romas intrigued me. They are emblematic of the struggle of all minority issues of today, and of refugees. I saw currency in the theme of how the Romas are treated, as are refugees. They have been treated horribly. They come with their own values and culture and those are often incompatible to those who are trying to help them. The complexity was very attractive to me.

What is the secret to a good thriller?

Not to be a wise-guy, but the secret is secrets. There has to be something the reader doesn’t know and can’t see, but it must be a development the reader could fairly anticipate. And of course, a hero in actual peril will make the book thrilling in another respect.

Testimony has been reviewed as a 'fun' read. You must have mixed feelings to have written a book about war crimes that people think of as fun?

I have always accepted the fact that my novels can and are read at different levels by different readers. It was obviously a challenge to make a book about war crimes ‘fun,’ but I’m glad that some readers take the book only as an intricate puzzle. For others, of course, it’s a story about how the law deals with the greatest evil, and the tale of how that exploration leads one middle-aged guy to become more deeply in touch with himself and his own family’s ghosts.

What is your creative process as far as historical research, character and plot development, and the actual physical writing? Do you have a schedule or routine? How much research do you do?

I do as much research as the book seems to require. In the case of Testimony, it was a great deal, because I needed to learn a lot about the International Criminal Court, The Hague, the Bosnian War and Bosnia, and about the Roma people. The research always stimulates the creative process though. The more you learn, the more you can see the opportunities for intrigue.

You've had a few books adapted to film. Writing is a solitary creative process and filmmaking is the process of a collective. How was the experience of having your books adapted to film?

It’s a strange process. On the set for Reversible Errors, which was a mini-series on CBS, I looked around the set and realized that hundreds of people were working to make real something that had lived for years in the privacy of my mind. On the other hand, there are always differences between my vision and the filmmakers. Overall, my experiences have been good.

In 1990 you were featured on the cover of Time magazine, which called you 'The Bard of Litigation.' Do you find that insulting or wear it as a badge of honor?

Well, to be precise, Time called me ‘The Bard of the Litigious Age,’ and to the extent that it recognized my role in writing stories about America’s growing preoccupation and involvement with the law, which were important to Americans, I was pleased to agree. I’ve never thought that a writer can ask for a wide readership — and almost all writers want to be broadly read — and then try to establish exacting terms. For me, it is truly a dream come true to be read on the one hand, and to be praised by critics on the other. I’ve been lucky enough to have, for the most part, the best of both worlds.

You received the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights book award for your non-fiction book, Ultimate Punishment because it "most faithfully and forcefully reflects Robert Kennedy's purposes — his concern for the poor and the powerless, his struggle for honest and even-handed justice, his conviction that a decent society must assure all young people a fair chance, and his faith that a free democracy can act to remedy disparities of power and opportunity." Your novels explore the American legal system, with all it problems and inequalities. How do you feel about the current attempts (or lack of movement) in Washington to deal with prison reforms? How do you feel about the death penalty and 'for-profit' prisons?

I think the notion of privatizing basic governmental functions, especially ones like prisons that come with clear constitutional requirements, is misplaced. It would be like our elected representatives hiring someone to deal with constituents. Due Process cannot be farmed out. It’s part of what makes government inefficient and unable to compete with private enterprises. And that’s also how it’s supposed to be.

As a lawyer and former prosecutor, what is your take on the current tussle between the President and the FBI and special investigator Mueller, and Trump's repeated attacks on the judiciary?

I expect Robert Mueller to do his job without fear or favor. We are talking about a Republican who was appointed to head the FBI by Republicans, but whose professionalism led him to be reappointed by President Obama. The attacks on him by Mr. Trump are, in a word, a disgrace. They are also baseless. You have to be desperate to go this route, because it will come back to bite you in the end. Just ask Joe McCarthy how well it worked out for him, when he decided to attack the United States Army.

In the past, you've been critical of 'eBooks' (which is ironic considering that your novels are set in ‘Kindle’ County). What are your objections or concerns?

I have never been critical of eBooks, which in fact form the bulk of my own reading, because I travel so much. My objections are to the way Amazon popularized the eBook, through deliberate predatory pricing in which they sold eBooks at a loss for many years. The effect of that was to drive the market away from physical books, to put bookstores out of business and to prevent other companies from entering the eBook market in competition with Amazon. My concerns were — and are — with Amazon, not eBooks in themselves.

In the age of Twitter & Facebook, what do you think is the future of, and importance of literacy?

Literacy remains what I call the Mandarin skill — that is, reading and writing well are the principal skills of the people who run this society.

What is your advice to aspiring writers — both for their craft and the publishing business?

Books will always be with us, because text is a remarkably efficient means of delivering information, and one that is uniquely involving to the audience. As for writing, there is one way to become a writer: write. Don’t talk about it, do it. •

Scott Turow will be appearing at the Southwest Florida Reading Festival, March 3, 10am-4pm, at the Fort Myers Library Campus, 1651 Lee St., in downtown Fort Myers’ Historic River District. For information, call 479-4636.

March-April 2018

“Due Process cannot
be farmed out.
It’s part of what makes
government inefficient
and unable to compete
with private enterprises.
And that’s also how
it’s supposed to be.”

“I have worked with the FBI
as a prosecutor and as a
defense lawyer since 1986.
They make mistakes, like
every other organization,
but the widespread
dedication within the Bureau
to ethical behavior and
to finding the truth
has always earned
my deepest admiration.”