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A Chat with Scott Turow About Innocent

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It's not exactly like asking where you were when you heard JFK was shot, but for many of us, the publication of Presumed Innocent in 1987 was An Event.

A bookseller I knew in Washington D.C. called it "the best book ever written." Before publication, Sydney Pollack bought the movie rights for $1 million --- an amount unheard of at the time. There were ads on the sides of buses. There was the hard-working-boy-makes-good personal story of the attorney-author writing his first novel over seven years, every morning from 4am to 7am, before he went to work in a downtown Chicago law firm.

There was the hype, and there was the book itself --- a legal thriller, a story of lust, murder, marriage and political corruption set in an invented Chicago-like place called Kindle County. Among the twists in the story: The county prosecutor, Rusty Sabich, is the one charged with the murder of his colleague-lover, and a contraceptive device plays a major role in the plot. Another knock-out punch is the identity and method of the murderer, about which not another word for those who haven't read the book

This was not Agatha Christie, this was contemporary America, and Turow's lucid, psychologically penetrating prose approached the high ground of literature.

This kind of hybrid --- the dynamic plot and the carefully wrought prose --- was not unheard of (Alan Drury's Advise and Consent and James Jones' From Here to Eternity), but it hadn't been seen in some time. In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the lines between genre fiction and literature were much crisper; you did one or the other. Here was Turow, in a first novel, doing both.

In seven more novels, he has continued to mix genres extremely well, but I imagine that Innocent, the sequel to Presumed Innocent, will trump them all. By page three, I was hooked --- I spent eight hours on my couch without eating. This is one of those cases when describing more than the start of the book can spoil your reading of the rest, so I'll say only that the story opens with 60-year-old Rusty Sabich, now a Kindle County judge, waking up next to a dead wife, in a sequence told by the couple's grown son.

I don't generally read legal thrillers or mysteries --- Turow is an exception for me. The pleasures of Innocent are many and complicated, particularly if you know the first book. If you don't, the publisher has just brought out a new paperback, and there is no time like the present to crack it open.

For those who read #1, #2 is just as good, just as riveting, and moving in certain ways that Presumed Innocent was not. Rusty Sabich is now twenty-three years older, and so are we. He can look back on a lot more life: the sorrows, losses, mistakes, regrets, and the people he's hurt --- and so can we.

Scott Turow was kind enough to answer a few questions by e-mail for me.

When did calls begin for you to write a sequel to Presumed Innocent?

As soon as it was published.

Why were you reluctant to write one? What changed?
Complicated questions. I feared self imitation --- death for a writer --- and the inevitable comparisons, in which it seemed there would be no winning for the second book for reasons set forth by Ecclesiastes: you can't step in the same stream twice. But five years ago, at the inception of a period of upheaval in my personal life, I began to yearn to go back to Rusty, to return to my beginnings as a novelist.

With the understanding that no book is easy to write, what were the particular difficulties with writing "Innocent"? Did you feel you had to retell the story of Presumed Innocent --- or were you counting on readers to be familiar with it?
Deb Futter, my wonderful editor, actually made me expand my brief references to the original story because we both wanted this novel to stand alone. I wanted the two novels to interact so they could be read in either order. But the biggest difficulty was simply being self-conscious about the earlier novel's success, and to write without fearing anyone's disappointment, including my own. In the early stages, it was like writing with a vulture on my shoulder.

There's one piece of the original story that I noticed was not spelled out in the sequel, involving who killed Carolyn, Rusty's lover. Without giving it away, for those who might not have read Presumed Innocent, I wonder if you can say something about why it's not in the new book --- or did I miss it?
No, you surely did not miss it. As I said, I wanted this book to stand by itself, without depriving readers of the chance to enjoy "Presumed Innocent". To simply spill the beans in this book would not only have ruined the reading of the earlier book, it would also have taxed the credulity of readers who hadn't heard the whole story and somewhat spoiled the conclusion of the new book for them. Writing a book that reads on two separate levels was one of the great challenges and ultimately pleasures of the writing.

I frequently tell your story to my writing students who want to get an MFA as soon as they graduate from college. I describe the trajectory of your legal and literary career, and show them that your life as a lawyer provided you with the material that has made your literary career what it is. I know you've funded programs at Stanford, where you studied writing. I wonder what advice you give to beginning --- or even intermediate --- writers about how to proceed.
I always tell them that Phil Knight [founder of Nike] got to the writer's slogan first: Just do it. Writers write. Don't plan. Put words on the page, learn how to connect words to thoughts and feelings.

Is there a movie of Innocent in the works? If so, can you tell us about it?
No deals yet.

Elizabeth Benedict is the author of the bestseller Almost and of The Joy of Writing Sex: A Guide for Fiction Writers. She's editor of the new anthology, Mentors, Muse & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives.

[Cross-posted from Head Butler.]