Scott Turow: Innocent

Scott Turow has spent his entire career at the nexus between law and literature. He has produced eight bestselling novels, many of which hinge upon late-act courtroom dramatics and the moral dilemmas inherent in the criminal justice system, while a partner at the Chicago law firm of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, working pro bono for much of his case work. (Ultimate Punishment, Turow's 2003 meditation on the death penalty, grew out of his experiences related to the release of a man from Illinois's death row, eventually prompting a moratorium on the practice.)


But Turow will forever be associated with his first and most successful novel, Presumed Innocent -- and not just because of the movie. The book's complex protagonist, Rusty Sabich, and the stunning twist that blows a hole through his trial for the murder of colleague and former paramour Carolyn Polhemus, made Turow largely responsible for the legal thriller subgenre, paving the way for the likes of John Grisham, Lisa Scottoline, and others who created meaty narratives larded with the intricacies of the law. But Presumed Innocent itself seemed the literary equivalent of lightning in a bottle, impossible even for its author to replicate.


Turow long pooh-poohed the idea of a sequel -- until, that is, a persistent image in his mind of a man sitting by the side of a dead woman became clear enough to reveal the couple to be Rusty Sabich and his wife, Barbara. Any objections to revisting the character at the center of his debut faded away over the three years it took Turow to write Innocent, due to be published on May 4 by Grand Central. The new novel casts Rusty -- now sixty, and a senior-ranking judge -- once more as a man on trial for a crime he did not commit, now facing off against an older, not necessarily wiser Tommy Molto in the courtroom.


"I think in retrospect, it was important for me to go back to the beginning," Turow told me in a telephone conversation in early April, speaking while en route to an appearance at the University of Iowa. "I was coming up to sixty myself, looking both backwards and forwards for a variety of personal reasons. I see now what I didn't see then, which is that I wanted to go back to the very start and, as it were, start again."


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It also comes with a spoiler warning: read no further if you don't want to know what happens until you've read the book.


Sarah Weinman: Unlike Presumed Innocent, which is told exclusively from Rusty's first-person point of view, Innocent features four separate perspectives, belonging respectively to Rusty, his now-grown son (and budding law professor) Nat, Tommy Molto, and Rusty's senior law clerk, Anna Vostic. Why did this story need multiple angles?


Scott Turow: If a book is going well, there is always a character who kind of resonates with it. I don't think that when I started writing Innocent I had the idea of writing from Tommy's point of view. But I got up one morning and tried it, because I had an inkling that maybe it would be good to show the investigation of Barbara's death in parallel with what had gone on in Rusty's life a year before. With respect to Nat, I thought he was, in some ways, the most interesting character in the book, because there's a tremendous moral uncertainty about his father. The whole story depends on Nat's willful blindness to certain facts. I'm not sure that could be credible to a reader unless you enter his point of view. I don't think the mechanical considerations were as important to me as the fact of his position being represented. Once I had opened up the perspectives beyond Rusty, I sort of felt obliged to get into Anna's, because I don't think she can be as fully accepted as a character unless you really see how she understands herself.


SW: Anna struck me as an enigma, and I thought she would remain that way throughout the entire book. But all of a sudden, fairly deep into Innocent, she gets her own point of view. On one hand it elicited sympathy, but from a narrative standpoint it was surprising you waited so long to utilize it. Did you consider introducing her perspective earlier, in order to allow the reader to better understand her troubling, important decisions?


ST: The short answer is yes, I did think about that. I would have been happy to go into Nat and Anna's points of view earlier on. The main issue was that there was so much going on in the early parts of the book. I have the same problem every time: when the stories and characters get complicated, it is really hard for me to get moving. I was reluctant to establish additional points of view earlier, because it would have come at the cost of the forward momentum of the novel.


SW: Innocent carries an underlying theme of masochism. There is Rusty staying with Barbara for decades of marriage, commenting that "what has lain between then and now...that time is not fully deserving of being called 'living'." And Tommy saying that "nobody was meaner to him than Tomassino Molto III. He liked to make himself suffer, and he was doing that now." To some degree Nat has a real masochistic streak, too. The irony is that Barbara comes off as the most sadistic character in the book, even though, being dead, she technically doesn't have a voice. How deliberate were you in pursuing this masochistic streak in the book?


ST: The theme of Rusty's masochism began in Presumed Innocent. It was particularly pronounced through the relationship with that child who was tortured by his mother. [Masochism] is clearly part of Rusty's character. And that vision of Tommy is something established particularly in The Laws of Our Fathers, where he is beginning to move out from under his own shadow. At end of that book he begins this pretty impassioned speech about the kind of person he is. Basically he knows he's going to be dumped on, but goes out and does what he has to do anyway.


The comment about Barbara is a very interesting one. I've had some categorical reactions among my early readers. One is "What a complete monster she is!" My Italian translator felt obliged to write me, telling me how much she hates Barbara. The other reaction, and I have to say this is much more in tune with how I see her, is to treat her with a great amount of sympathy. She's struggled to go on for the sake of her son. Then she poisons herself and lays down to die, beside the husband who's failed her in huge ways over 35 years of marriage -- you want to talk about masochism, that's a really masochistic end. But I don't think she's consumed by masochistic self-sacrificing.


SW: How then did you navigate this fine line between masochism, self-sacrifice, and protection of other people? Look at Nat, especially -- his being protected by those around him is in some ways detrimental, but it also allows him to discover who he is.


ST: I have to say I like this book a lot. I suppose it's not surprising to hear an author say that. What I really enjoy about it is the emotional complexity of all of the characters. All of that evolves out of trying to be faithful to the situation of Presumed Innocent -- and saying to myself, what would it be like to be the man who had survived this cataclysmic experience of being tried and then exonerated? And what would it be like to be the child, the only child in a household where there's all this dark stuff going on? It's true that Nat has been protected. And yet he's had big stuff to deal with as a kid. A suicidal mother, a father accused of being a murderer -- and they want to pretend like he's Beaver Cleaver. He has some potent issues to deal with, and an element of emotional instability which is either part of the situation or part of his nature. I take some satisfaction that at the end of the day he's grown up.



SW: But as the book unfolds, Nat seems to end up just like Rusty, caught in a cycle of being doomed. Is Nat then going to be subject to the same mistakes as his father?


ST: I don't know. Obviously it's a ripe situation. If I choose to return to the Sabiches again I'll have to figure it out. It's absolutely all sitting there, there's no question.


SW: About a year after Presumed Innocent came out, you remarked in an interview that if the book had been published even twelve months later, it would have been dated because of advances in forensic technology. You address that issue to some degree in Innocent, as DNA evidence relating to the murder of Carolyn Polhemus gets us right into part II and Rusty's trial. Was this a way to update yourself on current forensic technology, both the upside and the downsides? After all, there is a lot in the news about the CSI effect, and how older and generally accepted techniques are heavily scrutinized because they aren't validated.


ST: Yes, that is all true. My goal in writing Innocent was to write a free-standing novel, one that can be read and enjoyed by people that haven't even seen the movie of Presumed Innocent. But it was just as important to write it in a way that created obvious resonances between the two novels. I enjoy the irony of pointing out to Presumed Innocent readers that this guy would have been slammed had DNA existed at the time of his first trial. And that everything that happens, including the fact that he was running for the Supreme Court, and is free to get in trouble, all depends on that little weird window of time when he was first tried.


Your point's well taken that the science is somewhat ephemeral. I was a federal prosecutor and I put evidence in -- Presumed Innocent featured hair evidence and fiber analysis, and it turns out that that kind of forensic evidence is now regarded as utterly bogus. You live the history of science in the courtroom. And it is kind of ironic that everybody accepts what you call the CSI effect, and feels that now we really know the truth, because it's science. But people ignore that some of what was regarded as rock certain science actually has nothing whatsoever to do with science. There are people who question fingerprints, and maybe with some reason. Time will tell.



SW: All of your books feature the fictional world of Kindle County, and what you do with it is a lot like what Ed McBain did with Isola, his fictional version of New York City, in the 87th Precinct novels. Does  an entirely made-up world give you more room to play with? Or, since you keep revisiting the same world again and again, does it constrain you in any way?


ST: The development of Kindle County was quite accidental. I had been a clerk in the Suffolk County DA's office. I was a prosecutor and had become a member of the bar, so I wanted to make sure no one would accuse me of writing what I was actually doing. When I first started writing Presumed Innocent, it was basically set in Boston. I don't keep a diary or note down observations from real life for use in my crime fiction, but still the net result over time was that Boston ended up resembling Chicago; so I decided to keep it the same and use a different name, Kindle County. I didn't even want to specify the city. And then, because I was really excited about writing about Sandy Stern (in The Burden of Proof),  all of a sudden I found myself the proprietor of this separate fictional world.


I have to say that operating in a fictional world suits me really well. I think some people feel frustrated. They think I'm being coy, because obviously, as time has gone on, Kindle County resembles Chicago more and more. So people go, "Come on, just call it Chicago, get it over with." That always confuses me. Readers say it's a little harder to suspend disbelief. I say, it's easier to believe in made-up people but not a made-up place? I don't really buy that.


I do enjoy the liberty of having my own city with its own history. Obviously as time goes on, the place itself has become a character in the books. I really enjoy the way its citizens will go from the background to the foreground and back again -- as Tommy Molto has done throughout the books. I enjoy being able to import my own view of American history without getting into the kind of overt commentary on specific situations that might otherwise be involved if it was a real place. By way of an example, the courthouse where Rusty is tried was built in the 1980s with federal crime-fighting money. But because of urban renewal the project is a complete disaster, because no one wants to open a store near where all the biggest busts in the city are as they come for their court call. I like being able to do this kind of thing, offer some commentary on our contemporary situation.

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