CHICAGO, IL—A thin man wearing a light suit and a subtle smile quietly stood near the entrance to the Claudia Cassidy Theatre as visitors filed past him to claim their seats.
“Was that Scott Turow?” asked a woman to her friend, as they hurried by. “I think so,” the other replied.
Although he may not be immediately recognizable to some fans, who have only glimpsed his photo on book cover flaps portraying a younger image, Turow remains a publishing rock star having penned and sold eleven best-selling works of fiction—more than 30 million copies—translated into 40 languages. His first novel, Presumed Innocent, became a hit movie in which Hollywood actor Harrison Ford played the role of protagonist Rozat “Rusty” Sabich, a prosecutor.
Turow knows a bit about being a prosecutor. He was an Assistant U.S. Attorney based in Chicago where he tackled high-profile corruption cases. He began writing Presumed Innocent on the train while commuting to his job. The book was so well-written that when Turow released the manuscript, a bid to purchase it came immediately. The offer was from David Brown, a producer best known for co-producing the 1975 film Jaws based on the best-selling novel by Peter Benchley.
“He offered me more than the sum of what I had earned over the last eight years as a prosecutor,” says Turow. “I called my agent and he told me not to take the offer. ‘Tell him no… there will be more offers to come.'”
Throughout his life, doors seemed to open easily for Turow. He attended New Trier Township High School, Amherst College, and Stanford University where he was accepted as a writing fellow. Turow says that it was a time of much angst.
“They were good years and bad. I was surrounded by young writers, some of whose names you would know. Bad, because I was pretty confused about myself,” he says. “It was the end of the ’60s and I ended up staying on three years to teach as a lecturer in the English Department.”
At Stanford he taught writing classes such as Development of the Short Story, but, Turow later realized that he didn’t want an academic career. He left Stanford and applied to Harvard Law School. Becoming a lawyer, he says, gave him the break in his literary career.
“My fascination with the law is real and lasting. The whole complex that’s involved in law—the question of how you sort wrong from right, the making of rules, the procedures, the way that given facts can conform to the rules in somewhat surprising ways. All that stuff is just fascinating for me.”
His first book, OneL, came from his proposal to his law school to produce such a book because he felt there “were no good non-fiction books about law school.” He ended up writing it, himself.
On advice about becoming a writer, Turow recommends writing every day. The chairman of Nike once sent him a fan letter and Turow wrote back saying that Nike had stolen the writers’ motto of, “Just Do It!”
“One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that writers write,” he says. “If you go to bars and think about what you’re going to write, hang around with writers and talk about literature, but you don’t write, then you’re not a writer. But if you do write, no matter what the circumstances, whether it’s on the morning commuter train or in your unfinished basement, and nobody reads it, you’re still a writer.”
He says that the practice of writing daily is necessary for honing one’s skills in crafting words, sentences, paragraphs, pages. Write enough pages and you could end up with a book.
“If you propose that you’re going to play at Carnegie Hall as a pianist without ever practicing… people, of course, would laugh at you. But, because we deal with language in so many different ways every day, people are sometimes under the illusion that they become writers without actually writing.”
Turow is an advocate of traditional bookstores. Although copies of his books are sold online, he’s not a fan of platforms such as Amazon and their initial, and current, practice of selling books below cost.
“They sold them that way for years with the very conscious intention of putting bookstores out of business so they had less competition,” he says.
“It’s a company built on selling other people’s content,” he says. “When you do a Google search, all you’re doing is just looking at something that somebody else has written, much of it copyright protected and giving it to you, supposedly, for free. But it’s ‘free’ in the same way that network television is free, but advertisers are paying. Google is making commercial use of the copyrighted words of other people, and they pay nothing for this while they make billions, literally.”
Turow and the Guild have fought, and lost, this battle in court.
“I still don’t quite understand the rationale for the decision in the Google Books case, but it doesn’t matter. We’re right and I know we’re right. And we will win, eventually, when somebody more important than authors (essentially pirated by Google) and the courts step in and say, no, no, no, you can’t do that.”