Aspen Writers’ Foundation hosts Scott Turow | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Writers’ Foundation hosts Scott Turow

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
David Joel PhotographyStarting with 1987s Presumed Innocent, Scott Turow says he triesto use the problems of the law as a pathway to more universal issues.
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ASPEN Of all the oxymorons that have become part of popular lingo, one that has been overlooked for its oxymoronic quality is legal thriller.Anyone who has become immersed in the legal system knows that even the most dramatic, stomach-turning or celebrity-filled case moves at a snails pace of discovery, motions and counter-motions, and garden-variety stalling. A few years after I left the practice of law, I visited the New Jersey firm I had worked for, and found my former colleagues still working on the same cases, the same files, the same disputes that had occupied them years before. Not the stuff of thrills.Scott Turow, who appears tonight at 5:30 p.m. in Paepcke Auditorium, understands this perspective. He does not envy, for instance, his colleagues at the Chicago firm of Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal who spend their billable hours dealing with ERISA the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, the dense federal statute intended to protect pension plans and the like.Theres a lot of drudgery in the life of a litigator, a lot of going nowhere, he said.But Turow hasnt spent much time with ERISA. Since graduating from Harvard Law School in the late 70s, the Chicago native has found himself in the sexier side of the legal profession first as an assistant U.S. attorney, where he developed a specialty in white-collar crime; later, defending convicts on death row and working on ethics issues. The experience has left Turow with the point of view that the legal field is not devoid of thrills. It has also given him the capacity to write some of the best-known novels set in the world of courtrooms and law offices, including his debut novel, 1987s Presumed Innocent, which has sold more than 8 million copies and was made into a film starring Harrison Ford; and his latest, 2005s Limitations, which first appeared in serial form in The New York Times Magazine.Im not one of those lawyers whos ever been bored by the law, said Turow, speaking from his home in Evanston, Ill. Ive been a prosecutor and involved with ethics, and I dont find that area of the law to be banal or pedestrian. Crime, I think, is one of the most interesting of human endeavors.In the broader picture, Turows novels are only partly about the law. His stories are populated with judges and lawyers and set in courthouses; the conclusion of Limitations is contained in a court opinion. But the books, while referencing the real world of court procedure and legal precedents, spend more time with crimes and consciences.I always thought I was trying to write books of some substance that use the problems of the law as a pathway to more universal issues, said Turow, who appears Thursday (5:30 p.m., Paepcke Auditorium) in the opening event of this years Aspen Writers Foundations Winter Words series. An issue that has come to the fore is aging. In Limitations, Turow who turns 60 in April focuses on George Mason, an appellate court judge in Turows familiar, fictional Kindle County who faces the standard problems of advancing years. Georges wife is undergoing treatment for cancer; the judge cant relate to his young law clerks. Most significant, George is taking a fresh look at his past, which is not unsullied. The headline-making rape case he is about to decide has brought up an incident from his own youth: Is this rape so different from the sexual liberties George took with a young woman decades earlier? Should Georges legal opinion be influenced by personal experience?Limitations turns on a legal question with broad moral dilemmas: How do you make peace with your past? How does an older person make peace with his younger self and the idiotic things he did? Its philosophical, said Turow, who splits his time unequally between his law practice, which gets more of his attention, and his writing.Turow brought up the real-life example of Bill Ayers, the one-time radical activist whose past was resurrected recently because of his brief contacts with Barack Obama. All the caterwauling about Bill Ayers during the election campaign how can you really ask anyone to be judging this guy 40 years later? Who among us wouldnt look at who we were 40 years ago and not shake our heads at what we did?In fact, Turow has been embracing his past self of late. After vowing not to write a sequel to Presumed Innocent, he is in his second draft of just such a book. Turow feared he would get trapped in self-imitation if he revisited the story of Rusty Sabich, a prosecutor charged with the murder of his colleague and former lover. In the earliest version of Limitations, Rusty was the main character, until Turow took account of a Post-It note he had written himself: A man is sitting on a bed in which the body of a dead woman lies.Then I realized Rusty was the man sitting on the bed, said Turow, adding that leaving himself vague, cryptic messages is a standard tactic in his writing. I removed him from Limitations and made him the central character. It became irresistible. The writing of the sequel, which has no title yet Turow is leaning toward Innocence, the title favored by his children echoes the issues raised in Limitations. Revisiting Rusty after nearly 20 years, Turow finds the character a different being.Im writing about a substantially different person, he said. Rusty is 60, about to ascend to the state Supreme Court, the crowning achievement of his career. He can feel the wings of time, and he isnt quite satisfied with his life, or even if he has had good fortune.Turow has learned at least one lesson about aging: The adage about new tricks is not necessarily true. For Limitations, he substantially altered his writing technique, churning out the novel in 2,500-word chunks to fit the constraints of The New York Times Magazine. For the book, he reshaped and expanded the serialized version, but the result is a far shorter novel than usual. Turow has some reservations about the end product; his main criticism is that the conclusion wraps up too quickly. Still, the book illuminates human nature and creates suspense, while exploring the legal universe.I knew it was not going to have the same heft as my novels. I took a hairpin turn for the sake of the Times, Turow said. Its what E.M. Forster said: Life goes on, novels dont. So theres something artificial about every novel. Any novel is going to be a bit unsatisfying in its conclusion.stewart@aspentimes.com


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