Profile: Scott Turow
The master of the legal thriller is back with a multigenerational tale that touches on Jewish assimilation in America. The novel is largely inspired by his own father.
Scott Turow walks casually into the restaurant. His hand is outstretched and his smile is contagious. He’s feeling good. Looks good, too. Fit and tanned, Turow’s appearance is at least a decade younger than his 56 years.
Over lunch he tells how the youngest of his three children is heading off to college, that he’s celebrating 34 years of marriage, his legal career is still in fifth gear and he’s given birth to his latest novel, Ordinary Heroes, a suspenseful tale of a man plunged into the mysteries of his family’s secret wartime history.
Leaning over his salad, Turow says with a wink and a let’s-cut-to-the-chase whisper, “When it all comes down to it, my life is basically organized around how much time I can play golf.”
He softens the conversation with stories, both witty and surprisingly open, particularly when it comes to his late father—the relationship that is at the heart of his latest work.
His father, David, a doctor, dreamed his only son would follow in his footsteps. The young Turow, however, had other plans. He yearned to become a writer. “After the success of Presumed Innocent, I looked at my father and said, ‘Well, Dad, looks like things turned out O.K. after all,’” he recalls. “My father shook his head and said, ‘You could still have gone to medical school.’”
It’s no coincidence that a common theme threading through Turow’s novels is how children break free of their elders to live a meaningful life.
Turow sprinkles his father’s real wartime letters throughout Ordinary Heroes, coming out next month. David Dubin, née David Dubinsky, is derived from David Turow, née David Turowetsky. The author tackles the nagging questions plaguing contemporary Judaism, and perhaps his own parents: Can you be Jewish and American? Can you remain Old World Dubinsky after transforming into Americanized Dubin?
“David Dubin was of the assimilationist generations who wanted to fall into the American melting pot before World War II,” Turow says. “His son Stewart was so committedly Jewish that as a college student he went back to the original family name, Dubinsky, rather than be seen as having shirked his identity. The father’s restrained response is to tell his son that the concentration camp where he met Stewart’s mother ‘made him a Jew.’”
The author took notes from his own childhood, having been raised a Reform Jew in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood. He says his upbringing made him aware that “Judaism, and how you practice it, is an intensely personal matter. What is right for one [Jew] is not for another, and that’s the glory of Judaism.”
Though Turow is not religious, he says his wife, Annette, and his son and two daughters (ages 25, 22 and 18, respectively) are all more observant than he. As a gift to herself on her 50th birthday, Annette, a painter whose work has Jewish themes, became a bat mitzva. The family regularly attends services at a local congregation outside Chicago, where they have been members for 20 years. “Annette is a very spiritual person,” he says. “The kids, of course, follow their mother. Isn’t that why Judaism is based on the mother’s faith? Mommy always wins!”
Turow says the story of Ordinary Heroes has been inside him for years. In fact, after graduating from Amherst College in 1970, he received a fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center by submitting a short story about a Jewish-American soldier who is interred in a concentration camp—more or less the foundation of his latest novel. “[This story] is an attempt to make sense of the experience of that disappearing generation in terms of my own generation, which is deeply affected by all this stuff that was kind of dark and unspoken.”
Making sense of his writing process is not easy. Turow admits he writes scenes as they come into his head, and in no particular order. He says his most interesting characters may be his “bad” ones—the legal offenders—but maintains that nobody in his fictional world of Kindle County (aka Chicago in drag) is all good or all evil or, in fact, sentenced to just one novel. Turow keeps many of his characters alive by circulating them from book to book, like Judge Sonia “Sonny” Klonsky (The Burden of Proof, The Laws of Our Fathers) to Stewart Dubinsky (Presumed Innocent, The Laws of Our Fathers, Reversible Errors, Ordinary Heroes).
Of his work, Turow notes that “[his] novels revolve around what happens to people and society when laws are broken. That’s what makes law so interesting.”
I’ve worked closely with Scott since Presumed Innocent,” says Jonathan Galassi, Turow’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. “People always ask what makes him different from all other writers of legal thrillers. Scott does not just produce a great plot, he delves deeper, using law as the template for investigating life.”
Or, depending on the day, life as the template for investigating law. Turow, a partner in the Chicago office of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, devotes a substantial amount of time to pro bono work, including cases involving the death penalty. In 1995, he won a reversal in the murder conviction of Alejandro Hernandez, who was exonerated after 11 years in prison. In 2000, Turow was appointed to a blue-ribbon commission by then-Illinois Governor George Ryan to review the state’s capital punishment policy. The findings—that the death penalty does not deter the criminal—became the subject of his nonfiction Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing With the Death Penalty. Turow also chairs the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission.
The celebrated author-attorney has come a long way from his early days of ambivalence about writing as a career. After graduating from Stanford’s writing program, Turow taught there from 1972 to 1975, but recalls that “being a writer was making me crazy…. I wanted to be a writer but at that point I didn’t have a profound connection—a subject, a passion.”
Turow took a break from fiction and entered Harvard Law School in 1975—an experience that, ironically, materialized into his first book, the iconic nonfiction One L, a personal navigation of the first year of law school. Within the confines of legalese, Turow felt the most free, simultaneously discovering his passion and his literary voice. Legal and literary became the two “l’s” in his life.
His first job, serving as an assistant United States attorney in Chicago, was a prosecutor’s fantasy. The intense, bright-eyed lawyer landed some of the Windy City’s most notorious cases including prosecuting Illinois Attorney General William J. Scott, who was convicted of tax fraud. Drawing from his own experience, Turow burst onto the literary scene in 1987 with Presumed Innocent, a story about the murder of a prosecutor. The novel, later turned into a major film, was the first of six best-selling legal thrillers that have been translated into 25 languages, including Hebrew. All his books have been published in hardcover by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, with Warner Books responsible for paperbacks—except forUltimate Punishment (published by Picador).
The author believes that his strong sense of ethics is a product of the Jewish humanitarian tradition, handed down by his politically conscious grandfather. “I was of the generation in which the immigrant experience, and having a sense of being excluded from the best America could offer, was still very close at hand through my grandparents,” he explains.
He shares a story recounted to him by his grandfather, who had bought a gas station only to find that it had been condemned by the city during the Depression. Despite losing his life savings, his grandfather didn’t sue because, he said, “A poor man like me? I can’t afford to buy a judge.”
In the 1980’s, Turow avenged his grandfather by serving as the lead government counsel in several of the trials connected to Operation Greylord, a federal investigation of corruption in the Illinois judiciary, in which 15 local judges and 49 lawyers were convicted. Turow successfully prosecuted one of the most notorious judges, who received an 18-year prison sentence. Once again, legal met literary in Personal Injuries, a suspenseful tale of a personal-injury lawyer who is forced by the F.B.I. to serve as an undercover informant in an investigation of judicial corruption.
Chicago attorney Julian Solotorovsky has known Turow for nearly three decades after they met on an internship in the United States attorney’s office. He has never seen anyone balance it all like Turow. “Scott is supremely intelligent, with no ego,” he says. “His edge over other writers of his genre is that he has a very keen sense of the human condition. For example, when Scott and I tried cases together, he would spend 10 times the amount of time as I would observing the jury. For Scott, both writing and law are all about people, and that’s what gives his characters and his cases incredible depth.”
So when he finally closes his briefcase and shuts off the computer, how does Turow cut loose? He is in a rock ’n’ roll band called the Rock Bottom Remainders, which includes best-selling writers Stephen King, Matt Groening, Mitch Albom, Amy Tan, Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson. “We have an unwritten rule to never discuss business during our once-a-year tour,” Turow says. “When we get together we are all much more interested in Dave Barry’s booger jokes than who is on the New York Times best-seller list.”
But when they do talk shop, band mate Pearson says, “Scott is so inspirational to be around…. He writes from so many different angles, yet somehow it magically comes together—not to mention that he does a mean rendition of ‘Wild Thing.’”
Turow’s voice waxes tender when asked if he experienced postpartum depression after completing Ordinary Heroes. “All I can say is that this book was really a labor of love,” he observes. “I worked really hard to get the manuscript in, a lot of grinding. When I was done, I looked at Annette over a glass of champagne and said, ‘I really can’t believe how much I’m going to miss writing this book.’”