Scott Turow's 'Innocent,' 20 Years Later

Scott Turow's 1987 blockbuster first novel, Presumed Innocent, was about a prosecutor charged with the murder of a colleague. His new book, Innocent, is the unexpected sequel. Host Scott Simon interviews Turow at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in front of a live studio audience.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

I got to interview Scott Turow this week at the S. Dillon Ripley Center of the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The audience was standing room only. After all, Washington, D.C. has a lot of lawyers and fans of Scott Turow's novels. He has a new one out, "Innocent," the sequel to "Presumed Innocent," the 1987 bestseller that made Scott Turow one of the major writers in America.

"Innocent" picks up the story of Rusty Sabich - 22 years after being acquitted of murdering a colleague with whom he'd had an affair, he's the chief judge of the appeals court. One morning he wakes up to find his wife dead in bed beside him. Once again, Rusty Sabich is accused of murder.

Scott Turow is not a lawyer-novelist. I read down the list of his bona fides for the audience.

Scott taught creative writing at Stanford, then went to Harvard Law School but he wasn't so busy in that heralded pressure cooker that has been known to reduce magna cum laudes to sobbing wrecks that he didn't have time to write his first book, "One L." In the U.S. Attorney's Office in northern Illinois, he prosecuted federal judges and a former Illinois attorney general before becoming one of the most successful novelists in the world. But he also continues to take cases pro bono, including winning the release of an innocent man who spent 11 years on death row. He served on the governor's commission to reform the death penalty, and on the seventh day Scott Turow rests.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Now, 23 years later, he has written "Innocent" and we're so glad to welcome him.

Mr. SCOTT TUROW (Novelist; Attorney): Thanks, Scott.

SIMON: Thanks for letting me do this.

Mr. TUROW: Thank you.

SIMON: I'm not going to ask you why write a sequel because that's a little bit like asking Steve Jobs, why do you keep coming up with another iPhone?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But why now?

Mr. TUROW: There's no good answer to that except that, you know, I had an idea. And, you know, sometime in 2005, you know, the last child left home. I was probably in a contemplative mood with 60 somewhere nearby and I'd had this weird little Post-it note on my desk which said: A man is sitting on a bed in which the dead body of a woman lies. And where the image came from, I can't really tell you. I think there's a Hopper painting of a woman sitting on a bed. And I turned around one morning after it had been sitting there a couple of months and suddenly said to myself, that's Rusty Sabich who's sitting on that bed.

SIMON: Are you always plotting murders in your mind?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUROW: No. You know, these people just end up dead and...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUROW: ...and it's up to me to explain it.

SIMON: You have at "Innocent," the murder at the heart of this one involves a chemical reaction to salami, cheese and red wine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: It may already be too late for a lot of you who are here tonight.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUROW: Many of my favorite foods.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: So is that true, a chemical reaction to...

Mr. TUROW: Yeah. Yeah, to tyramines, right.

SIMON: So how do you come up with interesting and more or less untried ways to murder people?

Mr. TUROW: Well, this one actually just involved a lot of consulting. I talked to a toxicologist named Jerry Leikin and a pathologist, Michael Kaufman, and I would just tell them what I needed. I needed, you know, a death that could be mistaken for natural causes and I described what ailments the victim had and they would give me suggestions. And finally, I found a pill that had been suggested that looks just like a common household pharmaceutical and it was eureka, that's it. I know just how this crime's going to occur.

SIMON: As we mentioned, you still practice law.

Mr. TUROW: Until I get it right, the old joke.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Does the client/attorney privilege ever overlap with the novelist/client privilege?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUROW: In what sense?

SIMON: Well, novelists absorb everything, right?

Mr. TUROW: Right. Right.

SIMON: I mean, there - somebody here who's a 65-year-old man might be initially maybe in a small way based on someone you went to nursery school with.

Mr. TUROW: Right. Right. Well, I don't tend to write well with one-to-one correspondence from life. But, you know, there's a detail in "Innocent" which I will allow to go unmentioned that I picked up from a case. But the case was more than 20 years ago and I know the people who were involved in the case will smile when they see it but, you know, that's about as close as I'll get.

SIMON: Mm-hmm. And why do you still practice law?

Mr. TUROW: You know, I always say, and I mean it, that the great break of my literary career was when I went to law school.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. TUROW: It gave me a subject that I was passionate about, that, you know, I still find as interesting as I did the day I entered law school. And, you know, I think lawyers can do good things. Now, every lawyer would like to practice under the terms that I practice. There's no economic pressure. I take the cases I want to take and turn away the others.

So it's, you know, it's no real facsimile of law practice for the many lawyers who, you know, labor hard. But being a lawyer, even in a city as large as Chicago, is like being a citizen of a small town. I love watching the life of the town play out. You know, the rise and fall of individual lives in the entire community is just fascinating to me.

SIMON: But if you'd stayed at Stanford in the creative writing program...

Mr. TUROW: Right. Right.

SIMON: ...you might have wound up writing vampire novels?

Mr. TUROW: I don't know what I would've ended up writing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUROW: I probably would've ended up writing what I was writing then, unpublished novels.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: A lot of lines in "Innocent" just stopped me cold. I wrote one in particular I want to ask you about.

Mr. TUROW: Okay.

SIMON: When love is involved you can give only so much ground to propriety or even wisdom. How did you learn that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUROW: Can I pass on this one?

SIMON: Yes, of course.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUROW: You know, it's a, you know, I'm a single person.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. TUROW: And I've done a lot of learning late in life, so I'll leave it at that.

SIMON: Let's invite your questions. We have - yes, sir?

Unidentified Man: I was wondering if you could comment a little bit about the whole process of your novel - your first novel becoming - being made into a movie and then how that has sort of influenced this novel, to what extent.

Mr. TUROW: Mm-hmm.

Unidentified Man: I mean, I'm sure you had a very clear idea of who Rusty Sabich was when you wrote "Presumed Innocent" but now is it - does he look like Harrison Ford?

Mr. TUROW: Well, I think one of the blessings that I've had in watching, you know, films be made now from four of my books is to realize that it's a separate thing. It's a separate work. You know, I really believe that the movie will never be as good as the book, both because the book goes on longer - a movie is basically an abridgment of a book - and because books are internal. But they are incredibly powerful. The visual format is, you know, amazing. And it's true that after Harrison played Rusty Sabich so well, when I thought about Rusty Sabich I saw Harrison's face.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUROW: And one of the neat things was that as I began writing "Innocent" Harrison's face started to fade away and I saw Rusty Sabich again in the way I had seen him, you know, 25 years ago when I was writing "Presumed Innocent."

SIMON: Actually I have two questions I'd like to wind up with: Do you have any worries about the survival of the novel?

Mr. TUROW: The truth is I have no worries whatsoever about the survival of the novel. Whether the audience for the novel will be as large as it is now, I think is pretty much told already, you know, by history. But the experience of reading fiction is so immediate and moving to so many people that I am not worried about whether the novel will survive. It will survive. And certainly, I'm not about to stop, so they'll have to stop me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: What's your favorite lawyer joke?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TUROW: Three people are sitting on a park bench. They're an engineer, a doctor and a lawyer. And the engineer says, it's obvious to me that God was an engineer. Look at the remarkable precision of everything in nature. And the physician speaks up and he says, but look at the extraordinary intricacy of all the life forms on Earth. It's obvious that God was a physician. And the lawyer says no, no, you're both wrong. God was a lawyer. He created chaos and darkness first.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Scott Turow, recorded in front of a live audience earlier this week at the S. Dillon Ripley Center of the Smithsonian Institutions in Washington, D.C. Scott's new book "Innocent" is the sequel to his 1987 novel "Presumed Innocent."

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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