Scott Turow: Law school was “the great break of my literary career.”


If you collect and devour bestselling legal thrillers by the master of the genre, Scott Turow, you’ll be thrilled to know: 1.) Turow’s latest novel — Identical — is now out in paperback, and 2.) Turow will be in Nashville for a public appearance this Saturday. On November 8, he’ll receive the 10th annual Nashville Public Library Literary Award, an honor bestowed upon one author each year in recognition of outstanding contributions to the world of books and reading, at a black-tie gala held at the Nashville Public Library. He’ll also speak at a FREE event that morning at Montgomery Bell Academy. 

In anticipation of the weekend, our MUSING editor, Mary Laura Philpott, had a conversation with Turow.

You’ve taken an artful approach to something once perceived as a guilty pleasure — the crime thriller — and you’re often credited as a trailblazer for showing that literary fiction and genre fiction can be one and the same. The success of your books probably opened doors for a lot of future authors. (Gillian Flynn comes to mind, because I’ve just re-read Gone Girl.) Which authors opened doors for you?’

scottST: My view, for better or worse, à la Aristotle, was that art should not only enlighten but entertain. Without the latter function, there is no chance that literature or any other art form can appeal to the universal audience that art, in the ideal, seeks. In proving to me that this was possible, no author was more important than Graham Greene. Hard behind him came John le Carré. They are both great writers whose prose is breathtaking, whose characters are rendered profoundly, and whose plots surprised — often to the effect of deepening our understanding of the imagined world.

You’ve said the success of Presumed Innocent changed your career forever. Could you tell me a bit about what you were writing before then and how you found your way to your niche?

ST: I started out, when I went to Stanford as a writing fellow after college, hoping to be the next James Joyce and came to realize that was neither my native inclination nor within the scope of my talents. Moreover, I was troubled that so few people outside the academy were thronging to Joyce’s books. That began a long process of trying to figure out who I really was.

I’d always had a taste for plot — which was then dramatically out of favor for serious writing — and crime, although I was loathe to recognize the latter inclination. But the first short story I wrote that was ultimately professionally published was about a rapist; and the novel I wrote and unsuccessfully tried to publish during my five years at Stanford was about an elaborate fraud. It also centered on something called “the implied warranty of habitability,” a novel legal doctrine that fascinated me but not any of the 23 publishers who rejected my novel. But it did inspire the thought that I might want to go to law school. That proved to be the great break of my literary career. I became a federal prosecutor coming out of law school — that crime thing again — and sitting in courtrooms, I recognized the power of crime to appeal to that universal audience I craved in the ideal. I began writing Presumed Innocent in that light.

Earlier this year, you wrapped up your stint as president of the Author’s Guild. I’d love to know your thoughts on the current state of the publishing industry and the biggest issues facing authors these days.

Turow with Roxana Robinson, who was elected Authors Guild President when his term ended earlier this year. Vice presidents are Judy Blume, Richard Russo, and James Shapiro. (Image via The Authors Guild)

ST: Gosh, that’s a 10-age essay. I love e-books, because of their utter portability. But digitization has set off a free-for-all in which authors seem to come out the consistent losers. Publishers have reduced royalties on ebooks. Scholars are less invested in copyright, largely because they make so little money from their own books, and thus want to reduce copyright protections for other writers. Libraries want to engage in remote lending, erasing the traditional barrier to free use that exists when people have to go in to borrow a book. Google wants to freely sample copyrighted books and sell ads while it does that. And Amazon dominates the book-selling business, with the clear agenda of putting other booksellers and publishers out of business, and thus raising the specter that in order to keep reducing prices, they will ultimately put even greater economic pressure on authors. Courts continue to expand the doctrine of fair use, seemingly allowing more and more uncompensated use of copyrighted work.

None of this, frankly, is to the great disadvantage of bestselling authors, who have benefitted enormously from many of the changes in publishing in the last 30 years. The problem is for authors with smaller audiences, who find their livelihoods more and more in danger. The constitutions’s framers enabled copyright as a way to establish a professional class of authors, who would not depend on patrons or the government to write. The thought was that an independent artistic class was the best thing for the democracy. I still think the richness of our cultural life depends on ensuring that writing, and other arts, remain a livelihood for more than a lucky few.

In the nonfiction Ultimate Punishment, you wrote about how your work on death penalty cases shaped, over time, your opinion on capital punishment. Are you still involved in education or advocacy on that subject now?

ST: To a much more limited extent, because the death penalty has been abolished in Illinois, thank heavens.

One L, your book about law school, came out 37 years ago, but it remains a cult classic among lawfolk. What do you think makes it still so relevant and popular today?

ST: Clearly law school has changed and become far more humane, at least at a number of schools, including Harvard. But what gives One L its currency, I think, is that at its heart it’s a book about identity and about the way a professional education sometimes forces souls into a pre-existing mold.

I think many of the lawyers I know would agree with that. Next question: Last book you read and loved?

ST: I just read the manuscript of Scott Simon’s forthcoming Unforgettable to Send, about his mother’s last days. It’s a beautiful book — moving, poignant, funny, and even, incredibly, sexy.

Book you’ve recommended to someone else recently?

ST: Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Last month, there was a news story about an American tourist who accidentally got locked in Waterstones, a British bookstore, after hours. What would you do if you got to spend the night in a bookstore?

ST: First, I’d find the bathroom, so I could stop worrying about that. Then I’d go to the fiction section, pull down novels I’d been meaning to get to, and read a little of many, so I’d shape my longings for future reading.

Favorite thing about libraries?

ST: Candidly, the solitude. There is something very special in the sense of being alone with a book in a public place, as if a secret self gets life outside your home. Does that sound really weird?

Not to me. But if we’re going to veer into weird, let’s talk about the band you’re in with a bunch of other authors, including Amy Tan and Stephen King. The Rock Bottom Remainders bills itself as “350 Million Books Sold, 40 New York Times #1 Bestsellers, One Lousy Band.” What’s your role in all this?

I have absolutely no musical talent. My role is to sing backup and occasionally lead, although I candidly call my vocal performances “singing in the key of H.” My principal functions are: a) as a sight gag, because I wear a lot of funny wigs, and b) to prove that the rest of the them don’t take themselves very seriously, because if they did, they would never let me onstage.

Thank you! See you soon.

* * *

Prior recipients of the Nashville Public Library Literary Award were David Halberstam (2004), David McCullough (2005), John Updike (2006), Ann Patchett (2007), John Irving (2008), Doris Kearns Goodwin (2009), Billy Collins (2010), John McPhee (2011), Margaret Atwood (2012), and Robert K. Massie (2013). Proceeds from the Literary Award Gala and silent auction will provide programs to promote early reading skills, establish centers for homework help, and purchase library books in all formats to benefit the Nashville community.

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For more conversation with Scott Turow, check out his chat with our friends at Chapter 16.

Identical (Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9781455527199
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Grand Central Publishing, 7/2014

Limitations (Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9780312426453
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Picador, 11/2006

Innocent (Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9780446562416
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Grand Central Publishing, 5/2011

ISBN-13: 9780143119029
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Penguin Books, 12/2010

Ordinary Heroes (Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9780446697422
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Grand Central Publishing, 4/2011

Pleading Guilty (Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9780446574921
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Grand Central Publishing, 4/2011

ISBN-13: 9780312423735
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Picador, 8/2004

ISBN-13: 9780374281601
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 11/2002

Presumed Innocent (Mass Market Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9781455500406
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Grand Central Publishing, 4/2011

ISBN-13: 9780374184230
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 10/1996

The Burden of Proof (Mass Market Paperback)

ISBN-13: 9780446584173
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Grand Central Publishing, 4/2011