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Scott Turow: 'I Do Think Plot Makes Meaning in Fiction'

Author Scott Turow on his writing process, the influence of Saul Bellow and the tiniest peak at his latest book, still in its infancy.

Part 2 of The Patch Interview with Author Scott Turow

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: Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March is the selection for One Book, One Chicago program as part of its 10th anniversary this year and I know you’re a huge admirer of Bellow’s work.
Turow: I love Augie March. And I actually...

Q: A very difficult book…

Turow: Well, every book Bellow wrote is a difficult book. Bellow was like some great ballerina, but choreography doesn’t matter—“Just watch me jump!” And I don’t think I ever read Augie March front to back, but what’s great is to pick it up and read it and watch his athletic performance as a writer. I introduced a reading of the first chapter that was done by a number of Chicago actors at Victory Gardens, three weeks ago. It was wonderful to hear it read so well. I mean, it’s so rich! The language is just amazing, just absolutely amazing!

Q: You’ve said that you have “certain disagreements with him.” Please elaborate.
Turow: Well, with Bellow, the problem is that his narcissism got in the way, even as a writer. He did not feel encumbered by plot. And as I once remarked in The Atlantic that a Bellow novel can be reduced to the following sentence: “A guy wanders around.” And that’s kind of what happens, a guy wanders around for 400 pages, he thinks deep thoughts in magnificent clothes, and then the book ends.

Augie March is picturesque and captivating that way. And you know, every picturesque novel kind of works that way. But he was part of that American realist tradition that believed that plot depended on coincidence and contrivance, and that it was therefore at odds with the middle-range of experience, the daily experience a novel really should represent. And you can read everybody in that tradition. Read James Gould Cozzens, it’s the same thing. You know, 400 pages and not much happens. And I just, I don’t accept that. I do think plot makes meaning in fiction.

Scott Turow will present the sixth Barbara Ballinger Lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 25 at 7:30 pm at Unity Temple, 875 Lake Street 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 more of this interview

Introduction: Turow on ebooks and the future of publishing. "I refer to Amazon as the Darth Vader of the publishing industry."

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.

Part 5: For fanatical Turow fans, we offer the longer, more complete interview.

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