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Scott Turow – Return to Innocent

Updated: Sep 28, 2023

Scott Turow

Scott Turow

Scott Turow

Return to Innocent

by Jay S. Jacobs

Is it fair to say that Scott Turow has made the law sexy and dangerous?

Well, perhaps that is a bit of a stretch.  However, over the past two decades lawyer and novelist Turow has fostered the reputation as the finest writer of legal thrillers, creating exciting and complex stories based on trials and the lives of lawyers.

In fact, his 1987 best selling debut novel Presumed Innocent pretty much jump started the genre, making mysteries built around the legal system a literary staple.  Twenty-three years later, after many years of telling himself and anyone else who asked that he would never do a sequel to that classic, the characters insinuated themselves back into his mind and would not be denied.

The result is Innocent, a supremely twisty and slightly twisted legal drama which returns such legendary characters as Judge Rusty Sabich, his damaged wife Barbara, determined prosecuting attorney Tommy Molto and suave defender Sandy Stern to our bookshelves.

The funny thing is, by all rights, none of these characters may have existed at all.  Turow had a successful career as a lawyer even when he was writing Presumed Innocent – and he continues practicing to this day.  Everybody knows the extraordinary schedule and workload lawyers have.  Add to this the massive amount of time and effort that it takes to write a book and no one would have blamed Turow for not following his muse.  There are only so many hours in the day, after all.

Nonetheless, since his college days Turow knew that he wanted to follow both career paths.

“My dream was to be a novelist from the time I was eleven or twelve years old,” Turow recalls.  “After becoming a writing fellow at Stanford, I became a lecturer in the English Department, teaching creative writing to undergraduates.”

However, teaching never felt like the right fit for the young writer.

“Teaching was simply a way to make a living and I decided to go to Law School,” Turow continues.  “One, I’d concluded that I was not really cut out for academic life.  This is no slam of people who are good at it, but I was just there for the paycheck.  Second, I was far more interested in the law than I expected.  My father was a doctor, and as I say, he hated lawyers long before it was fashionable for doctors.  I had little exposure to law until my college roommates went to law school and started practices.  By then I found that I was making friends with lawyers in San Francisco.  It seemed that I was far more interested in law than academic English.”

The two interests may seem like a bit of a contradiction, but Turow does not see it that way at all.  In fact, he feels there is a great symmetry to the fields.

“For the most part, practicing law is writing: writing briefs, writing contracts, writing letters, writing memos.  The voices are different, but the law is an intensely verbal profession and the law itself is, in the end, really just about words.”

Turow also found quickly that he had a talent at both types of writing.  In fact, in 1977, a whole decade before his literary breakout with Presumed Innocent, while he was still at Harvard Law School, Turow published his first book: a memoir on his first year at law school called One L.  The book is still in print and considered a staple for young law students.

However, as much as he enjoyed the experience of writing his memoirs, Turow still felt the siren’s call of the novelist.  His legal career was picking up serious traction – by the 1980s he had gotten on a very busy career track with the US Attorney’s office.  Still, the idea of writing a novel haunted him and he found that the legal cases he was handling in his job were just fueling his imagination.

“My vow when I went to law school was that I would not give up on my dream of writing fiction,” Turow says.  “Although I decided to practice law, notwithstanding the success of One L, I still had that vow in mind.”

Therefore, he took to writing his first fictional book – the story that would become Presumed Innocent – whenever he could find the free time.

Presumed Innocent

Presumed Innocent

“When I started as an AUSA [Assistant United States Attorney], I used to write on the morning commuter train,” Turow recalls.  “It was sometimes no more than a paragraph a day, but it kept the candle burning.  The plot of Presumed Innocent suggested itself to me over a number of years.  I started the book, based on experiences I had in the Suffolk County DA’s office, which had been my clinical placement in the trial practice class taught by Gary Bellow at Harvard.  But that took me only about 120 pages into the book that ultimately resulted.  I took two years off and wrote other things while I figured out the rest of the plot.”

The rest – as they say – was history.  Presumed Innocent was released in 1987 to wonderful reviews and became a runaway bestseller.  The story of Rusty Sabich, a prosecuting attorney in the fictional Kindle County who is accused of killing his lover, the novel was particularly lauded for its surprising ending.  It also spawned a 1990 film version starring Harrison Ford, which itself became a huge hit.

In the years that followed, Turow has written several other acclaimed books, including The Burden of Proof, Pleading Guilty, Personal Injuries and The Laws of Our Fathers.  Many of these also took place in Kindle County – and quite often had characters recurring from his earlier books.

“There was never a conscious decision to write this skein of books that are tied together like a kite tail,” Turow says.  “I got interested in Sandy Stern while writing Presumed Innocent; I got interested in Sonny Klonsky while writing Burden [of Proof] and that led to Laws of Our Fathers.  It really has been a question of following my imagination while it leads me around by the nose.”

In fact, every time he starts a new project, it is something of an adventure for him, Turow admits.  He never quite knows where it will lead.

“It really depends on what I’m writing, but I think the early stages of a novel – when you’re finding voice and characters – is probably the hardest kind of writing for me.”

The popularity of Presumed Innocent spawned a whole rush of legal novelists who may arguably be less talented as writers – such as John Grisham and James Patterson – but who became even more popular than Turow by churning out slightly more simplistic books.  However, Turow has no hard feelings.  Nor does he feel that throwing together a book just to be commercial would work for him.

“We are all the writers we can be,” he states.  “They can’t write my books, but I can’t write theirs.  There is plenty of room in the room for all of us.  Grisham is a friend.  I’d love to have his sales.  He’d love to have my reviews.”

Beyond the popular film version of Presumed Innocent, Turow has also seen two of his other books turned into television productions – The Burden of Proof and Reversible Errors.  Some authors cringe when they see how their work looks through the prism of Hollywood, but Turow is mostly content with the results.

“It’s a strange process,” Turow admits.  “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 2003, Turow also returned to non-fiction books, publishing Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer’s Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty.  After so much time working in fiction, Turow admits it’s an adjustment as a writing process.

“Very different,” Turow asserts, “although Ultimate Punishment, an expansion of an essay I’d done for The New Yorker, is different by itself from One L, a memoir.  Ultimate Punishment, which has some memoir to it, is a little like the Op-Eds I occasionally write for American dailies.”

So, now, twenty-three years on from the book that made him something of a household name, why did Turow decide it was time to return to the characters of Presumed Innocent for his latest novel, Innocent?

“It’s a subset of what I said before,” Turow explains.  “Somehow, my imagination decided it was time.  I can look back and say it was related to things going on in my personal life, but all I can say for sure is that Rusty started to force himself back into my imagination.  For some months, I had had a post-it sitting on my desk, reading ‘A man is sitting on a bed in which the body of a dead woman lies.’  It was a story idea I had no clue what to do with.  Then one morning I realized that the man sitting on the bed was Rusty and that I was about to write the sequel I’d declined to write for decades.”

Since Presumed Innocent is considered to be such a classic, there must have been a little intimidation that with the second story that the new book may somehow not live up to the original.



“To be honest, I thought for many years that I never would write a sequel,” Turow says.  “I always thought self-imitation is an inherently limiting thing for a writer, and I was afraid of trying to equal a book whose success at the time depended in part on breaking new ground.  But at this stage, I was no longer worried about constraining myself.  And, by now, enough time has passed that I thought many people would be curious about Rusty – starting first of all with me.  But yes, I was intimidated.  I used to say that it was like writing with a vulture on my shoulder.”

Much like the original book, everything that happens in Innocent is essentially set in motion when Rusty Sabich falls into a sexual affair with a female co-worker – leading to a mysterious death and Sabich being put on trial for the murder.

In the book, Rusty is tortured by the fact that after all these years in a essentially loveless marriage and after getting such a dramatic wake-up call after his first affair that he would be weak enough to fall into another one.  Amongst all other things, it certainly destroyed his political career and potentially took away his freedom.  Turow admits even he is somewhat baffled by what would lead a powerful man to take such a risk.

“I think one of the deepest truths about life is that people are sometimes compelled for reasons they don’t understand to keep repeating the same mistakes,” Turow says.  “So I regarded the parallel circumstances as deeply revealing of the character, and full of a meaning that wasn’t as clearly there the first time around.  All the characters in Innocent are informed by the experience of the first book, and are trying desperately, in a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes, not to step in the same river twice.

“Why Rusty – and Bill Clinton and Eliot Spitzer and dozens of others – do these things, notwithstanding the astonishing stakes, is hard to answer.  But certainly there has to be a self-destructive and even self-loathing component involved.  In this book, Rusty has absolutely no hope that things are going to turn out well once he becomes involved with Anna.”

Still, Turow enjoyed revisiting old characters and seeing how they had grown and changed over the years.  For example, prosecutor Tommy Molto has definitely become a much deeper character and smarter lawyer over time.  On the other hand, the suave and cultured defense attorney Sandy Stern (who was the main character of the novel The Burden of Proof as well as his important role in Presumed Innocent) has been laid low by illness.  His brain is still functioning on the same level, but his body is betraying him.

So, as a novelist, how interesting was it for Turow to slip back into their world and see where the characters had gone in life?

“Extremely,” Turow says.  “Much like life itself.  I am one of those people who loves hearing about how things are going for virtually every person I ever met.”

Like in Presumed Innocent, the character which resonates most in Innocent is Rusty’s disturbed wife Barbara.  This is quite an interesting trick because she is the dead body in the bed from Turow’s original post-it idea.  However, even though Barbara is already dead on the opening page, she looms large over all of the action.

A recent review of Innocent said that Barbara Sabich was one of the great villains of modern literature.  While this may be true in the first book, in the second book while she did many horrible things, the reader can’t help but feel some sympathy for Barbara.  In the long run, she lost everything for a bit of petty revenge that she would never actually physically experience.

Turow agrees that it is a little simplistic to look at Barbara as a villain or even a victim.  She is just a very complex, brilliant and troubled woman.

“Personally, I think it is one of the achievements of Innocent that at the end, notwithstanding the ultimate plot twist, that many readers, including the author, feel quite a bit of empathy and sorrow for Barbara.  [Her] final hours are, in my view, somewhat noble.”

As Innocent hit the book stores in 2010, Turow has written twelve books – ten of which are novels.  Some have been huge successes.  Most have been critically acclaimed.  Yet Turow could never look at one of them as his penultimate accomplishment as a writer.

“I always reply when people ask that question, ‘Do you have a favorite among your children?’” Turow says.  “It’s hard for me to imagine picking one over the other.  The experience of writing each of the books retains an intense place in my memory.  There are things I am immensely proud of in each of them, and, of course, things that I wish I’d thought about twice.”

Yet, over the years, even as his career as a writer has flourished, Turow has continued practicing law.  At this point Turow could be self-sufficient as both a lawyer and as an author.  In fact, the legal cases he takes on currently are done pro bono (with no payment – pro bono is from the Latin term pro bono publico which means “for the public good”).

“I continue as a lawyer mostly because I can do some good in the practical way that lawyers do.”

However, as a man, why is it so important to him to stick with both vocations?

“I always say that the great break of my literary career was going to Law School,” Turow explains.  “It was one of the most fortuitous decisions of my life.  I was a lecturer in the English Department at Stanford, and for me going to law school meant giving up a teaching career.  But I realized I was passionate about the law and the questions it asks, about deciding right from wrong for an entire society, fashioning rules that are firm yet flexible enough to fit the multitude of human circumstances.  Those questions continue to preoccupy me.  The truth is that I became not only a much more successful writer when I started writing about the law, but also a much better one as well, because I was writing about things that gripped me to the core.”

Turow has also dabbled in politics over the years, often writing on the subject and appearing on shows such as Real Time with Bill Maher.  He was also a member of the US Senate Nominations Committee, which helps to choose judicial nominees.  However, despite an interest in the subject, he does not have any plans to run for public office.

“No runs in me, but I write about political issues often,” Turow says.  “Take a look at my recent Op-Ed in the New York Times about Blagojevich to get the flavor.  I love politics as an observer, but I don’t have the stuff for full contact sports.”

Besides, between Turow’s legal work and writing, he is also the President of the Author’s Guild.  If he took on yet another job, when could he possibly find time to sleep?  Turow admits good-naturedly that his schedule is not quite as out of control as it may seem from the outside.

“I practice only part time,” he says.  “I prefer to write in the mornings, when possible, and then turn to legal work in the afternoons.  I tend to go into the office one or two afternoons every week and do the rest remotely.”

And on off days?

“I like to golf.”

If Turow had to give either the law or writing up, would he be able to choose?

“Both can be enormous fun, and a pain in the ass,” he acknowledges.  “There is more exhilaration in writing and more drudgery in the law, but they each have their shares of both qualities.  My dream from childhood was to be a novelist, so there is a deep satisfaction in that life.”

Luckily for millions of readers, that is not a choice that Turow has to make.  He is able to show us that a man can be defined in many ways – to follow his muse as well as thrive in his career.  However, does not do any of this to define himself as a person.  It is what he loves and what he is drawn to do.  While wearing the writer hat, Turow is not trying to one-up himself every time.  He simply hopes that his novels are successful in a more primal, basic way.

“As fulfilling the function of art that Aristotle described: To enlighten and entertain.”

Mission accomplished.

Copyright ©2010  All rights reserved. Posted: October 5, 2010.  

Photo Credits:#1 © 2010 Jeremy Lawson Photography. Courtesy of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.#2 © 1987. Courtesy of Warner Books. All rights reserved.#3 © 2010. Courtesy of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

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