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Attorney's First Novel Makes a Convincing Case

July 24, 1987|WENDY LEOPOLD | Leopold is a researcher in The Times Chicago bureau

"When I was 22 years old I don't think there was anything in the world that I would have wanted more than to be sitting on a book that was a colossal best seller, well regarded by literary people," says Scott Turow, the Chicago lawyer whose critically acclaimed first novel, "Presumed Innocent," knocked Steven King's "Misery" out of the No. 1 slot on the nation's best-seller lists this week.

Even before "Presumed Innocent" hit the bookstores, the affable 38-year-old former federal prosecutor's courtroom thriller was a presumed best seller--and a red-hot property.

Turow chose the very literary publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux, although its advance offer of $200,000--the highest the house has ever paid for a first novel--was $75,000 less than a competitor's. In a heated Hollywood bidding contest, Sydney Pollack, director of "Out of Africa," won the film rights for $1 million. Paperback rights go on the auction block in August. Bidding starts at $670,000.

"But you know," Turow adds, "there's no such thing as a free lunch. You pay for this."

In his suburban Chicago home just days before beginning a four-week, 15-city book tour, Turow admits he is feeling a bit beleaguered, fed up with the publicity and hype. He assiduously guards his privacy and that of his wife and three children.

"I don't want to see anything about my children, the books on my shelves or the pictures on my walls," he has taken to telling reporters before permitting them in his home. Photographers are forbidden entry.

"It's hard to find the time to do interviews," he explains. "It's hard to go on with the rest of your life. It's hard not to be a moving target for off-base criticism and charitable solicitations. And it's hard to keep people from dealing with you differently than they have before."

An assistant U.S. attorney for almost a decade, Turow is with a private firm that does criminal and civil litigation.

Questioned by Judge

Last week he went to court, and the judge--whom Turow had stood before countless times in the past--congratulated him on the success of his book and in open court questioned why he still was practicing law. "You don't need to, do you?" the judge asked.

The answer from a dollar standpoint is clearly no. But Turow, whose prosecutorial talents put a former Cook County circuit judge and a former Illinois attorney general behind bars for bribery and tax fraud, has no intention of leaving law.

Turow talks of the years before law as his "unhappy years." As a creative writing fellow at Stanford University in the early '70s, he suffered acute anxiety about his writing. The rejection of a novel written during these years by more publishers than he cares to count eroded his self-esteem.

"I became convinced that one could not make a living in the U.S. writing serious fiction," he says. "I was never terribly bitter about that. I didn't see why the world had an obligation to support novelists."

Harvard Law School

He entered Harvard Law School in 1975 and wrote "One L," a first-person account of the horrors of legal education that quickly became an underground classic for law students and lawyers. It has sold more than 100,000 copies and still sells briskly.

"Presumed Innocent" was written in snatches over 7 1/2 years. Early mornings in 1979 and 1980, while the rest of the pin-stripe set perused Wall Street Journals on the commuter trains heading for Chicago, Turow was filling notebook after notebook with his courtroom thriller.

It is the story of an assistant county prosecutor who leads a highly politicized investigation into the sex murder of a female colleague with whom he had a brief but devastating affair. He is later charged with her murder. Clearly the book gains its convincing authenticity from the author's firsthand knowledge of the judicial system and of the attorneys, judges, clerks, medical examiners, convicts, cops and investigators who people it.

But practicing law provides grist for more than character and locale.

Tell Your Story

"A prosecutor in criminal court has always got to tell a story and have accurate portrayal of motivations," Turow says. "You learn what you should say and what you shouldn't, what the audience will figure out on its own. If you have a 50-page limit on briefs, as we have in the 7th Circuit, you learn what to cut and what to deemphasize. All these things transfer from law to writing."

Since he has become a lawyer, writing is no longer a hand-wringing experience for him. "I made the decision that I wasn't going to support myself as a writer in order to relieve the anxiety." And, in what he sees as a second bonus to a law career, he finds himself in the company of lawyers.

"Even when I was a lecturer in the English department at Stanford, most of my friends were lawyers. Although I have dour things to say about the profession, the fact is that I have met more remarkable people practicing law than in any other aspect of my life."

Reads Lots of Fiction

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