March 18 2013 12:00 AM

Scott Turow discusses his legal thrillers at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids


Tuesday, March 13 —  New York Times best-selling author Scott Turow — renowned for “Presumed Innocent,” a seminal novel in the legal thriller genre — always wanted to be a novelist. “That was my lifelong ambition,” said the 62-year-old Turow, 62, in a phone interview from his home in Chicago. “My mom had wanted to be a novelist, so I took on her ambition — that’s what happened. I always thought I was headed to becoming a novelist from the time I was 11 or 12 years old.”

Turow will be discussing the path he took to achieving his lifelong dream at “An Evening With Scott Turow: Contemporary Writers Series 15th Anniversary Endowment Fundraiser” at 6:30 p.m Wednesday at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids. The proceeds will go to the Contemporary Writers Series Endowment.

“(At Aquinas, I’ll) talk about my career and read. I’ll take little pieces of fiction I’ve written over the years and intersperse them with a talk about my own development as a writer and my approach to some of this stuff,” Turow said. “It’s a pretty direct outline. It’ll be autobiographical; it’ll bring people up to today.”

Turow graduated with honors in 1970 with an undergraduate degree in creative writing from Amherst College in Amherst, Mass. He received an Edith Mirrielees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center in the mid-1970s, earning a graduate degree in creative writing in 1975.

“I actually taught there for three years before deciding that I really preferred to do law versus academic English,” Turow recalled. “I was surprised when my friends from college graduated from law school. I found what they were doing really interesting. I was also writing a novel that involved legal issues; I thought they were fascinating. I began to reconsider my ignorance of the law. So I decided to apply to law school, notwithstanding the fact that I had other opportunities to maintain my academic life. And so it went.”

Turow graduated with honors from Harvard University Law School in 1978. During his time at Harvard, he wrote his first book, “One L,” an autobiography chronicling his first year in law school. It was originally published in 1977. A perennial best-seller, “One L” is read by many students going to law school. According to a 2007 Wall Street Journal article, it continues to sell about 30,000 copies annually.

After graduation, Turow returned to his native Chicago, where he was an assistant U.S. attorney, serving in that position until 1986. He was lead counsel in Operation: Greylord, a joint investigation into judicial corruption of Illinois’ Cook County, conducted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the FBI, the IRS Criminal Investigation Division, the U.S. Postal Inspection Service, the Chicago Police Department and the Illinois State Police.

In 1987, Turow published “Presumed Innocent,” set in fictional Kindle County and told in the first-person by prosecutor Rusty Sabich. Rusty is accused of murdering fellow prosecutor Carolyn Polhemus, with whom he had an affair.

Asked what makes “Presumed Innocent” stand out, Turow said it was “the concept of looking at the lawyer as a flawed person; that’s No. 1. No. 2 was the emphasis of the nuts and bolts of a lawyer’s life and the legal practice in the courtroom. There’s a much greater emphasis and a much greater appetite for learning the actual details of law practice by readers. These two things were very distinguishing to me about the novels that came versus the ones that were there before.”

According to Turow, over the eight years it took him to write “Presumed Innocent,” it was originally set in Boston, then Chicago.

“The setting became more and more like Chicago than Boston. I was left with a city the size of Boston, which is smaller than Chicago, but it’s Midwestern. So Kindle County came into play by accident. Then when I went to write my next novel (1990’s ‘The Burden of Proof’) about a character from ‘Presumed Innocent,’ lawyer Sandy Stern – it was located in the same place. Eventually, I realized I created my own setting. There was nothing intentional about it – it’s just the way things evolved.”

“Presumed Innocent” was adapted into a 1990 movie with Harrison Ford as Rusty.
“I liked it. It’s pretty faithful to the novel and really well done,” Turow said. “You can still find ‘Presumed Innocent’ on cable with some regularity.”

Due to Turow’s success with “Presumed Innocent” and fellow attorney-turned-novelist John Grisham’s “The Firm,” the two are considered godfathers of the legal thriller genre.

“I think to be really blunt, John and I have that status for slightly different reasons,” Turow said. “Obviously, ‘Presumed Innocent’ was the first of the lawyer-based novels to gain really great popularity. John followed fairly closely with ‘The Firm,’ which — I think — popularized in a very deliberate way that genre. I have been fortunate to have been the critics’ darling within that period of time. My books have been held up as the most literary — or the more literary. John’s got this vast audience. I think that’s why the two of us remain the household names in that field.”

“Innocent” — a sequel to “Presumed Innocent” — arrived in 2010 and was adapted into a 2011 telefilm. In it, Rusty (Bill Pullman) is now a judge and 20 years have passed since “Presumed Innocent.” He is now charged with murdering his wife.

“Turow’s experience as a lawyer and prosecutor shines through on every page,” said Michigan State University and Harvard Law alumna Allison Leotta, author of “Law of Attraction.” “It’s clear that he’s lived in the world he describes. But his work transcends the legal thriller genre. He is, quite simply, one of the most talented American writers working today.”

Turow is writing his next novel. Although untitled, it is set in Kindle County and is based on the Greek myth about twins Castor and Pollux.

Turow still practices law. “I don’t practice full-time anymore; I haven’t for 20 years. I do what I want as a lawyer,” he said. “I pick my projects as a lawyer pretty carefully. If I was to be on trial 12 times a year, I wouldn’t have much time to write novels.”

Scott Turow
6:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 14
Sturrus Sports & Fitness Center, Aquinas College, Grand Rapids

(616) 632-2805, or