Scott Turow: 'You Have the Illusion at Least That You’re Going to Evolve'
In advance of his speech at Oak Park's Unity Temple, the author of "Presumed Innocent" tackles Amazon.com, defends Barney Frank and tells us what it's like to be robbed at gunpoint.
On a recent October afternoon, Scott Turow entered Evanston's Brothers K Coffeehouse, near his home on the north shore. Dressed in a Cubs cap and winter jacket, Turow walked up to the counter and ordered us coffee. No one stopped him, no one asked for an autograph. Turow seems to prefer it that way.
The best-selling author Presumed Innocent, its 2010 sequel Innocent and nine other books, Turow has leaned on his experience as an assistant U.S. attorney in Chicago to create Kindle County, the fictional locale for his tales of legal intrigue, murder and deeply complicated protagonists. His work has been adapted on TV and on the silver screen, most notably 1990's Presumed Innocent, starring Harrison Ford.
Turow, an alumnus of New Trier Township High School, remains active in Chicagoland, as he continues to write here and practice law as a longstanding partner at SNR Denton, an international law firm.
In this wide-ranging interview, Turow talks about everything from his disagreements with Amazon.com to getting robbed at gunpoint.
Q: Can you give us a preview of your upcoming lecture?
Scott Turow: I will talk about the future of the book in the digital era and the many different threats that exist for our authors. And I’ll talk principally from the perspective of both the lawyer and author and president of The Authors Guild. I don’t think reading’s going to disappear. I don’t think books are going to disappear. The fact of the matter is that the e-book is such a huge economic winner for publishers, that they’re gonna drive things that way.
Q: What do you think about Amazon publishing its own authors?
Turow: I refer to Amazon as the Darth Vader of the publishing industry. I am very concerned about what they do. When I went to law school, I thought that that kind of vertical integration, where the book seller also becomes the book publisher, I thought that was supposed to be against the law, but you know, it’s supposed to be an anti-trust violation, but I guess the anti-trust laws have evolved in a way that I haven’t thought of.
There are rumors that Amazon will offer books exclusively through Amazon.com, and given the disparities in capital between Amazon and the book publishers, this is an enormous threat because it’s the best-selling authors that keep the publishers afloat.
If Amazon goes out and makes an offer to Stephen King or John Grisham that they can’t refuse — they won’t completely sink their publishing houses, but they’ll put a hole in the hull. And the other problem with Amazon is that you worry that they will behave as a monopolist. They play the game so that they always win.
Q: What about the evolution of ebooks? There are authors, Neal Stephenson for example, who are making books with soundtracks and interactivity and mobile apps. Is that something you’re interested in?
Turow: I’m a novelist. I work with words. I don’t mean to sound like a real old dog who can’t learn new tricks, but I would not naturally feel expert enough to be putting a soundtrack with my novel. But I do think we’ll pretty quickly get to the point that, when you read a scholarly work, you’ll be able to jump to every source that it’s citing, and I think that’s great. And I think books and maps and pictures and probably film clips are going to be regularly embedded.
Q: In your latest book, Innocent, your protagonist Rusty is an introspective guy who seems to realize he’s making the same mistakes. This book was written in a very interesting time in your life, during the breakup of your marriage—did that prompt similar introspection on your part?
Turow: Well, because it was an interesting time in my life, I really don’t think it’s fair to my family to draw any lines.
Q: Outside the family, then.
Turow: Yeah, aging is a really interesting process. I got a bad back; I’ve got bad feet. So it’s not really worth it except for the fact that you seem to learn a lot as you go along. And you have the illusion at least that you’re going to evolve. But you have to embrace change. And a lot of people have a very hard time doing that, and Rusty is one of them.
Q: Since you started writing with a computer, you now write your novels out of sequence. How many scenes do you just lose? Do all the pieces always fit?
Turow: No. I’m not very efficient. No, not everything fits. It all gets rewritten. So I’m not very scrupulous about first drafts. Just like: Get it down.
But, you know, I found myself last week reading something over and going, that is really good. That is really good. I know that’s gonna be there. I will not lose what I think is a great scene. So I’ll figure out how I’m gonna make it. But I lose a lot. And when I look back sometimes, when it’s all over, I feel heartbroken about what I’ve put on the cutting room floor.
I made a major discovery today. I’m writing a scene out of sequence and I hadn’t realized the way this story was gonna unfold and all of a sudden when I wrote this scene, I saw: “A-ha! As a result of this conversation A, B and C are going to be realized fairly early on in the book.”
Q: And is this within bounds of a legal thriller?
Turow: Yeah, it is.
Q: Is this a completely new book, or are you revisiting established characters?
Scott: Well, I don’t know. Right now, there’s one character that I have lived with before who seems to have reemerged.
Q: Anybody you want to share?
Turow: No, but I’m a little amazed. I mean, “What is she doing here?” I keep asking myself. But she has certainly found a role really quickly.
Q: Have you ever had the occasion where something doesn’t fit into a book, but it’s so good that you can’t let it go and it ends up in the next book?
Turow: I haven’t done that yet. I mean, I’m sitting here talking to you and I’m thinking, why don’t I go back and reread this stuff? Maybe there’s at least a short story in there somewhere. [Laughs]
Q: When I moved to Chicago, Studs Terkel told me, “Chicago is not any more corrupt than any other city. It’s just that we’re proud of our corruption.” You’ve worked within Chicago government and legal circles for a long time, so I’m curious about your insight. What is it about Illinois or Chicago politics that brings this out about human nature?
Turow: Well, first of all, I loved Studs. He was wonderful to me, as he was to you. And he was just one of those, you know, those guys who came of age in the 30s, the guys who were really inculcated in that socialist tradition. They loved people. They really believed in humanity and that there was good inside everyone. And Studs just exemplified that.
I agree with Studs somewhat, in that corruption in Chicago is no worse than corruption in Cleveland or Philadelphia or Baltimore or Boston. Or Miami, my God. There are places in the country that are not as corrupt, especially in the West. The traditions don’t exist the same way. So that’s the caveat.
Chicagoans are just accustomed to the reality of it. There’s been a tradition of a certain amount of brazenness. I remember when my beloved older partner, Bernie Nath, started talking to me about what went on in the city council when he started practicing law. He said there were two aldermen who ran everything, one was called Hinky Dink and the other was Bathhouse John. And he looks at me and he says, “Can you imagine being publicly known as Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John?”
He says, “They might have worn a hat that said, ‘I’m on the take.’ ” So when federal prosecutors in the 1970s began getting around to prosecuting it, it wasn’t too hard ’cause it was just laying there on the surface. So, you know, I think Studs is right. I don’t think people like it though, and I don’t think they’re really proud of it. I think they just accept it.
I think Chicago is like a lot of American big cities that came of age at the same time, where there were a lot of tribes, there were a lot of immigrants. And how do you get things done in that situation? Especially in a city like this, which is basically segregated. We were well aware of racial segregation, but we don’t think about the ethnic segregation that certainly existed when I was a boy.
I grew up in West Rogers Park. That was Jews, period. Period. Bridgeport was Irish, period. There were parts of towns that were Italians. Lincoln Square was German, period. So everybody’s in their separate enclave, and how do you make things work? ’Cause each group gets control of certain aspects of city life. So it’s pretty natural to go, “I’ll give you this for that.” And I’m sure barter works, but cash is better.
Q: [Laughs] But you were intimately involved in Operation Greylord, which battled corrupt judges.
Turow: That blew me away. And that was a longtime Chicago tradition. And the bottom line was: You could not get more honorable people to sit on the bench in the Circuit Court of Cook County. There were some, like Marvin Aspen, who was eager as hell to get out of there for just that reason. And the other bad part was the people who didn’t participate just turned a blind eye... And they knew they had to accept it.
Q: And speaking of moral reckoning, there’s a confrontation at the end of Innocent in which a prosecutor says to a defendant, in essence, “Listen. I will not prosecute you, just tell me the real truth.” Is there a case in your life or a defendant that you would love to have that conversation with?
Turow: Yes, but I’m not gonna name him.
Q: Can you tell me circumstance at least?
Turow: One of the judges I convicted. This is somebody who I thought was a good guy. And I’d just like to know, you know, “What the hell happened? How could you be doing this?” Some people speculated it was gambling debts. I remember one person telling me that he probably needed the money to support his elderly parents. But I would just like to be able to say, “Why? I don’t get it.” But he always comes to mind as a kind of moral enigma, because I thought he was a very good guy.
Q: Will you have the opportunity to have that conversation? Is that something that’s possible for you?
Turow: I might. I mean, he’s out and he’s around town. You know, we don’t have extended conversations, but we certainly say hello. It would be really interesting.
Q: I was always fascinated by that fact the Bob Woodward would have figures from Watergate as dinner guests. People he helped put in prison.
Turow: For years, I was neighbors with a guy I’d been responsible for convicting. I was one of the prosecutors on the case. There are people who understand that they are responsible for their own misfortune in this system, and that they did things they are not proud of anymore, and they got exposed. And they think to themselves, “If I was in the prosecutor’s or the reporter’s shoes, I’d have done the same thing.” And so, there can be some peace there.
You know, if you meet an actor who you’ve seen on the screen and on stage, you really already know a lot about them, ’cause they’ve revealed a lot of themselves. But the backstage actors are different. Like I told somebody last night, who was telling me how much she hates Barney Frank. And I said, “I’ve known Barney since 1975, he was a year ahead of me in law school and by the way, he is one of the funniest human beings alive. He’s hysterical.”
And she said, “He is? I like him better already.”
So, sometimes the public persona, especially political figures, is very limited. They may be different people. The one that always gets me in trouble with my friends is when I tell them that George W. Bush is a really great guy. He’s good company. He’s incredibly honest, just unbelievable candid. A very engaging, funny guy, who’s great to spend time with.
Q: You’ve said before that fiction gives a truth that reality cannot deliver. Will you please expand on that?
Turow: I think that that’s pretty true. You and I sit across from each other and I think I know your motives. I don’t. I’ll never really know your internal life, and that’s the truth that fiction delivers. As a character, I do know what you think and what you feel, and that’s the fundamental truth that fiction delivers. And it’s imperative to our moral development. I mean, you can’t do unto others as you’d have them do unto you unless you know how they feel, unless you can imagine how they feel. And so, you know, that’s why we’re engulfed by stories. Because it’s part of the fundamental moral reckoning we make of what it’s like to be somebody else.
Q: Last time we met, you told me about an experience that led you to question the credibility of eye-witness testimony…
Turow: I was held up at one point. My ex-wife and I, we drove into a parking lot of a restaurant in Marin County, and our beloved landlord, Albert, was going to be our host. And I saw these two young men come running up, and I thought they were the parking attendants! [laughs] We got out of the car, and they pointed the gun at me and they wanted our wallets.
My ex was so petrified that not only did she hand over her wallet, she handed over her glasses. [laughs] For which I do not blame her, at all. I was always proud that I had the courage just to put my arm around her. ’Cause it’s a bad moment and your natural instinct is to think about your own survival. Albert, on the other hand, got out and started fighting with them.
I finally just turned around and said, “Albert, give him your f**king wallet before he kills you.” And he did, and he said afterwards, “The gun was plastic! I felt it!”
And I said, “Well, why didn’t you say that instead of what you were doing?”
Q: What was the resolution?
Turow: They caught a young man using my credit card. So they called me down for a line-up. And I couldn’t identify him. So I show up for court to testify. And he’s a poor kid, so what does he do? He’s no longer in the jail jumpsuit. He’s now wearing exactly the same clothes he wore the night he stuck me up!
And of course, all the sudden when I see the pants and the silhouette, I grab the prosecutor: “That’s the guy, right? That’s the defendant!” But I absolutely could not make him without those clues. The accomplice was never identified.
So, I testify against him in the preliminary hearing, and all they can get him on is using my credit card for $3 worth of gas and a can of oil. But it’s three years in jail for that. So, after I testify, I wait, talk to the prosecutor, I get on the elevator and who gets on with me alone but the defendant.
He said, “Oh, those were some heavy charges, man, those were some really heavy charges.”
I said, “Well, I gotta be honest with you, I really didn’t like having a gun pointed at me. But, maybe you didn’t do that.” And I said, “And three years for $3 worth of gas and a can of oil. Yeah, I’ll grant you, that’s kind of heavy.”
And he looks at me and he says, “Yeah man, that’s the law though, and when you use the card, you know that.” And the elevator doors opened and we went our separate ways and we sort of had our little peace. And you know, he pled for a great deal less than that. The prosecutors told me he was going to catch between 90 days and six months.
Q: How did that affect you?
Turow: What I learned from that experience is, when you have a gun pointed at you, you are not much of an observer. All you’re thinking about is “am I going to be okay? Is my wife going to be okay?” I mean, you almost don’t want to look him for fear that it’ll offend him and they’ll blow you away. But oddly, when I was a prosecutor, I remember Elizabeth Loftus, who’s a great psychologist, and one of the pioneers in this area. Somehow I met her inside the doors of the U.S. Attorney’s office, and she started telling me that eyewitness testimony is notoriously unreliable. My initial inclination was to go, “No, no, no, no, no!” But she was right.
Scott Turow will present the sixth Barbara Ballinger Lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 25, at 7:30 pm at Unity Temple, 875 Lake St. in Oak Park. A reception, book sale and signing will follow the lecture. The event is free and open to the public. Doors will open at 7 pm. The Main Library's parking garage will remain open through the reception.
Read themed parts of this interview separately
Introduction: Turow on ebooks and the future of publishing. "I refer to Amazon as the Darth Vader of the publishing industry."
Part 2: Turow on his writing process, the book he's currently working on and the influence of Chicago writer Saul Bellow on his work.
Part 3: Turow on Studs Terkel, the roots of corruption and Illinois politics.
Part 4: Turow recounts the story of getting mugged and how it changed his thoughts about eye-witness testimony.
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