Scott Turow's legal thrillers have been translated into more than 25 languages and sold 25 million copies worldwide. His first novel, Presumed Innocent, was made into a film starring Harrison Ford.
Still a practicing lawyer (Turow is a partner in the Chicago office of Sonnenschein Nath and Rosenthal), Turow also writes nonfiction about his own profession: His first book, One L documents his first year at Harvard Law School. Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty was published in 2003.
After a recent reading and signing in Dallas, Turow spoke with me.
J. Louise Larson: Your latest novel, Ordinary Heroes, takes readers into the territory of history. Talk about bringing history into your work.
Turow: Half of The Law of Our Fathers was set in California in the 1970s and required quite a bit of research. Of course, World War II was a period when I was not alive. I enjoyed the research more than I expected. ... If there's something that bores you to dig into, you can leave it out. And there are advantages. History sets boundaries that don't exist in contemporary fiction. The war in Europe was going to end in May 1945. I had no decision about that.
J. Louise Larson: Kindle County and its recurring characters could be considered a study in establishing a setting and people readers can get into. Why did you create a fictional tri-cities area and how does that work for you as a writer?
Turow: Kindle County was created by accident. Presumed Innocent was originally set in Boston, but I spent so long writing it that Chicago, where we were living for years by then, had infiltrated the setting. So Kindle County was born. When I decided to write next about Sandy Stern, the lawyer in Presumed Innocent, I had no choice about staying there. By now I've taken up permanent residence.
J. Louise Larson: You're a practicing attorney and many of your characters are attorneys. Is this “writing about what you know,” truly something you're fascinated with, or both?
Turow: I do like lawyers, God save me, but I like the law as a subject even more. The struggle of the law to impose reason on life is both morally worthy and frequently impossible. It's a wonderful theme.
J. Louise Larson: How did you get started as a writer? Your memoir of law school, One L, is a cult favorite among those who have been there or are considering being there.
Turow: I got my start as a writer in college, at Amherst College, where I was given my senior year off to write fiction fulltime, under the guidance of Tillie Olsen, Leo Marx, and David Sofield. After that I was a writing fellow at Stanford, and a lecturer at the Creative Writing Center after that. Having channeled my talents a little made it possible for me to write while amid the law school hothouse. It would be a tough environment in which to start.
J. Louise Larson: Tell us about your writing routine—environment, research, process, whatever. How do you get from the seed of an idea to a finished manuscript?
Turow: It's very haphazard. I think for a long time, then I start writing fragments, pieces of scenes, descriptions of characters, background, patches of dialogue. It's kind of like the nebulae swirling to become stars. Things accrete, eventually moving toward a shape. I write principally at home, but have been known to pull out my laptop anywhere, including the commuter train, airplanes, but very, very seldom in the law office.
J. Louise Larson: What makes a great read? Who do you read?
Turow: A coherent imagined world makes for great fiction, a world compelling in its details. I read more "serious" fiction than anything else. Recently, I've liked Benjamin Kunkle's Indecision, and was impressed by Banville's The Sea.
J. Louise Larson: What advice would you give a fledgling writer?
Turow: Just do it. Writers write. As my friend Tom Zigal, a Texas novelist, puts it: "You've gotta log a lot of pages to learn how to do it." Learning how to connect thought and feeling to words takes practice, just like anything else in life worth doing. (This interview was originally conducted for an article for mediabistro.com.)