Author, attorney, advocate—Scott Turow’s collective roles range in scope and responsibility, yet each is a key exhibit in the mountain of evidence that upholds his position in writing’s upper echelon.
Over the past four decades—2017 marks the 40th anniversary of his acclaimed debut, the law-school memoir One L—Turow has published 11 bestsellers (nine of them legal thrillers), served two stints as president of The Authors Guild, and penned op-eds for The New York Times and essays for The Atlantic, all while continuing to practice law (most of it pro bono) in his hometown of Chicago. When asked why he didn’t quit his day job after finding literary success (the way most other lawyers-turned-bestsellers do), his response is firm: “For me, having to produce a book a year would be a form of slavery.”
Indeed, it’s that kind of conviction that keeps Turow’s body of work squarely in the realm of art.
As president of The Authors Guild, he fought relentlessly for writers to receive a fair wage equal to their creative output. His background as a litigator made him an ideal candidate for the position, targeting issues such as intellectual property rights and e-book piracy during his tenure.
With one foot in the literary world and the other in law, the twain meet in his novels. All are largely set in Kindle County, a fictional facsimile of Chicago’s Cook County, where the Cubs are called the Trappers, the Lake looms large and the courts are packed with complex cases. It’s a setting shaped in his celebrated first novel—1987’s Presumed Innocent, later made into an eponymous film starring Harrison Ford—in which deputy prosecutor Rusty Sabich is charged with the murder of a beautiful colleague with a mysterious past.
His latest, Testimony, Turow’s first novel in four years, drops in May: a suspenseful globe-trotter in which middle-aged attorney Bill ten Boom leaves behind his life in Kindle County for a role with the International Criminal Court in The Hague. His new position takes him to Bosnia, where he investigates an alleged genocide, has a fling with a sultry barrister and becomes involved in the pursuit of a Serbian war criminal. Turow deftly explores identity as a theme both overt and subtle, as ten Boom struggles with a family secret that has roots reaching back to Nazi Germany.
Turow took a short recess from the courthouse and his current work-in-progress to chat with WD from his home in the Chicago suburbs. Look for the feature-length interview in the May/June 2017 Writer’s Digest. In these online exclusive outtakes, Turow talks discusses the role setting plays in his fiction, and why the backdrop of his latest, Testimony, is so different from past works.
Setting plays a significant role in your novels, with most taking place in Kindle County. But in Testimony, the primary setting is The Hague. At times, the Netherlands and Bosnia are painted so vividly they almost feel like characters of their own. What made you decide to deviate for this new book, and how do you generally view the interplay between setting and plot?
Years ago—in 2000—I was on book tour in the Netherlands. The American ambassador at that time—Ambassador Schneider—invited me to The Hague to have a reception in my honor. Naturally, The Hague, as the novel makes clear, is a center of legal activity, so she invited many of the American lawyers who were working in town to come to this reception. A group who were working at the Yugoslav Tribunal (because there was no International Criminal Court at the time) kind of cornered me and said, “You’ve got to write a novel about this place.” That idea had immediate appeal because I didn’t think I was acquainted with anything close to that. Then the ICC came into being over the years, but I wanted to go back to that.
Bosnia was sort of a byproduct of that in the sense that the other thing I’d always wanted to write about was the Roma. It goes back to the time that I had a gravely ill family member in a hospital in Chicago and it so happened that [a gypsy] was dying in the same hospital. It was not an atypical story that the nurses were running around closing the doors to all the hospital rooms because valuables were disappearing. I remember coming in one morning to visit this family member and all of the ashtrays—ashtrays on stanchions—all disappeared from the reception area. Like everybody else, everyone was on guard, so I began to think to myself, What are the terms that these people live by that this is OK with them? Both committing these petty crimes against the gadjo and bearing the rejection that was going to come with it.
It just always was an interesting question to me.
So, writing about the Roma—it’s got to be a war crime because that’s what the ICC does. I began to wonder, How would a war crime against the Roma have occurred? Especially if I wanted to think about it in American terms.
The obvious conflict for a plot was the conflict between the ICC and Americans being subject to its jurisdiction potentially. Then when were there American soldiers presumably on European soil? And that led to Bosnia. As an aside, though, the Bosnian writer Aleksandar Hemon is a Chicagoan and he’s somewhere between a friend and an acquaintance. Reading what [he] wrote about Bosnia, and what my friend Scott Simon wrote—a wonderful novel set in Sarajevo called Pretty Birds—left me with a sense that there was a lot I didn’t know. So things sort of conspired and that struck me as an interesting place to learn about.
I’m curious to hear about your research process. In Testimony, you explore the aftermath of the Bosnian War, and in doing so demonstrate extensive knowledge of the conflict and of the inner workings of the ICC. How did you prepare for a book composed of such complex threads?
It’s different for each book. Some things are closer to my own experience than others. In this case, one of the odd things is that I don’t have to leave my chair in suburban Chicago to watch the proceedings at the ICC because those are broadcast over the internet. So it wasn’t getting a feel for what the courtroom was like that propelled me to The Hague. It was learning what the milieu around the court and life in The Hague was like. I found that just sort of jolting, in the sense that I could be sitting in my office and watching the proceedings 6000 miles away. I spent a lot of time with different people who worked around the court—they were very, very generous with their time. I’m sure if the press office had had its way there would’ve been more conditions on these interviews, but people were willing to meet me without that. I listened to a lot of people, listened to a lot of stories, and was in their offices for much of a week and kept my eyes open and listened to other people in The Hague, some of them had nothing to do with the court. I love The Hague as a town. I thought it was an amazingly interesting place. Doing good is really sort of the principle industry there. That makes it an unusual city.
As far as Bonsia is concerned, I knew I would need a translator. I needed to be near where the American troops were stationed, so that meant most of my time was spent near Tusla instead of Sarajevo. But [a friend] had told me that he thought Tusla was a great setting because it had always been Bosnia’s most polyglot city. The Catholics and the Muslims and the Orthodox really co-existed there in much greater amity. The war had sort of torn the spirit of the city in some ways, most deeply (even though the physical and casualties were far greater in and around Sarejevo). It was a very interesting place to be. I came away with a deep affection for Bosnia, too. Don’t ask me what I think the Bosnian future is, because it’s forbidding. But as a people they share remarkable warmth, great cuisine, and a lot of pride in what’s an extraordinarily beautiful country.
While your novels are often driven forward by the case at the core of the book, the personal lives of your characters add further layers. In Testimony, one of the core themes is identity, as the protagonist struggles through a midlife crisis and questions about his family history. How do you entwine these internal conflicts with the more tangible plot?
I wish I could answer that. I didn’t start out with the idea that Bill [ten Boom, the protagonist] was going to discover … or basically be wrestling with the consequences of the fact that his parents had hidden elements of their identity. But all of these crimes that the ICC investigates, in almost every case, are related to ethnic identity. It’s heavy in the themes, and pretty natural to want to have a protagonist who’s got some conflict. Now if you take an American and put him overseas you’re halfway there anyway. But I’ve always been fascinated by these stories—many years ago a friend of mine in the United Kingdom told me a story about her parents. And I think she was 30, rather than 40 [as ten Boom was], when her parents sat her down and told her that she’d been raised as a high-church Anglican and her parents told her they were actually Holocaust survivors who’d been hiding that fact since they’d got to England shortly after the war. I was deeply struck by the story and the way she had reacted to this. She was, like Bill, pretty upset with her parents. She wished she had grown up being in on the secret. That’s one of those stories you hear as a writer that you tuck away and think, There’s a lot to this. There’s a book in here somewhere.
So when I began to intuitively recognize the issues of identity that are essential to the war crimes the ICC investigates, it was natural that this story came out of my unconscious. I said, “Oh, this is perfect.” It also then helps to explain what the midlife dissatisfaction is that this man has experienced, and why he feels, as he puts it, that he’s never really felt at home with himself. It starts fitting together. These ideas don’t feel to me intuitively that they have some kind of overall integrity. It’s not like I just to inflict them on the book. As I said, I wasn’t long into the process of exploring that I began when the idea of this hidden Jewish identity to me.
Tyler Moss is the managing editor of Writer’s Digest.