Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With ... Scott Turow
Best-selling, award-winning author and lawyer Scott Turow has been writing seriously since he was in his teens. He has sold more than 25 million copies of his books worldwide. His first book, "One L," about his first year at Harvard Law School, was a hit in the law community. But it was his later books -- "Presumed Innocent," "Burden of Proof" and "Innocent" -- that made him popular with a wider audience. The 61-year-old has managed a dual career while being married and raising three children. The marriage ended, the children grew up and he continues to indulge in the literary life and the law. He was in Pittsburgh in April as a guest speaker at Duquesne Law School's Alumni Reunion Dinner.
You were still in your 20s when "One L" was successfully published. How did the reactions to the book of your friends and fellow students affect you?
[Laughing] It taught me not to write any more nonfiction about my immediate environment. I always tell the story that the people who felt that they were favorably portrayed in "One L" regarded it as a discerning literary work and the people who thought they'd been unfavorably portrayed had other opinions.
Has becoming an increasingly litigious society strengthened the populations respect for the law or diluted it in some way?
Well it demystified the law. Certainly, when I was a boy, people liked to believe that lawyers were kind of pillars of goodness of the likes of Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird." Americans have grown a great deal more realistic about lawyers and the law. I think that's all for the good. A lot of people will say to you these days, if you are looking for justice don't go to a courtroom. That's just a more realistic perspective on what happens in the legal process.
As far as the writing process, you have said in past interviews that the hardest part of writing is the point of entry for the story. What about getting out of it? Is that more organic?
Yes, that's more organic for me. Very often it will take real time, but I have a lot of faith that the logical ending will come to me. What I've just begun working on now (I was writing on the plane), I have no clue what the end of this novel is going to be.
The stereotype of writers used to be kind of socially awkward, substance abusing, tortured loners. You seem to be rather well adjusted. Did you ever feel you needed more darkness?
You know, my mom, who inspired me to be a novelist, I remember her reading "The Agony and the Ecstasy," about Michelangelo, and saying, "No mother would want that for her child no matter how great the artist." I have my share of demons, but I am a gregarious sort. I like being around people and that's really one of the major reasons I continue to practice law.
People often say writing is a lonely activity, but don't you find the characters you develop become company?
Yeah, sometimes I will look at my girlfriend as I'm about to go upstairs and write and I'll say, "OK, it's time for me to go up and play with my imaginary friends."
You told Charlie Rose in an interview that "Innocent" was about facing change and fearing change. Was it written because of the changes in your own life -- your marriage ended and your children were grown?
I think I'll just let the autobiographical facts speak for themselves. Rusty [his main character in "Innocent"] and I are the same age and obviously I made some major changes in my life, but I'm not going to go beyond that.
As a writer it must be hard to have what is happening in your life not infiltrate bits of the writing at times.
Well I've never made a secret of -- I always said I don't keep a diary. What's going on in my life tends to go into the fiction, but there is very seldom a resemblance between what I'm writing about and what's actually happened to me.
Do you find, especially in this type of interview, that it is easier to talk about characters than yourself?
It depends. It depends on the nature of the question. I never really felt free to talk a lot about my family life because I don't want to sacrifice anybody else's privacy. If you look through the archives you will see, for example, no pictures of my children. That is not because I don't love them. I think I've been a really good dad, at least I try to be. But I don't want to drag them into the spotlight. I want them to be able to live their own lives.
Did they have a clue that you were a best-selling author when they were younger?
When my oldest was growing up, I wasn't anybody special. I was a young lawyer working for the government. When my little one was born, you know she always refers to herself as the "Presumed Innocent" baby. My life had changed dramatically. It was hard for her especially to go to school and have teachers wanting her to bring their books home to be signed. And yet, she's the one who wants to be a writer and actually is. Everybody's got parents and parents' things in their lives. My dad was an obstetrician-gynecologist and he literally had delivered somewhere between a quarter and a half of my grade school classmates. I gave up thinking that was weird.
How often is the reader on your mind when you are writing a story?
The imaginary or ideal reader is always on my mind. I've had arguments with friends over the years who are visual artists and that can be a kind of radically subjective world and they claim they don't think about the viewer at all. I don't mean this to sound as judgmental as it does but I think that kind of perspective for an artist is immoral. I mean there's always a narcissistic element to every artist's enterprise, but to say it's only about me just seems wrong.
Finally, what do you do to release yourself from writing and law? Do you go fly fishing or ski?
The truth is for many years the law has been my release from writing. [laughing] That's one of the reasons I do it. When I want to get away from everything else, I play golf. I'm a passionate and very bad golfer. But because it's so frustrating it's very hard to think about other things. You've got to pay attention!
First Published September 5, 2011 12:00 am