Scott Turow is sitting in the art-filled living room of his 103-year-old colonial-style home, located in a town north of Chicago, discussing the perils of doing pro bono legal work. Dressed casually in a hoodie and jeans, the down-to-earth Harvard-educated lawyer and megaselling author of legal thrillers says he’s had unpleasant experiences involving strangers showing up at his door seeking professional counsel. “I’ve been stalked a couple of times,” he says.
Turow’s 13 books have sold 30 million copies worldwide and have been translated into 40 languages, according to his publisher, Grand Central Publishing. His latest, The Last Trial, featuring lawyer and recurring character Sandy Stern, will be released in May.
Despite his impressive literary output, Turow has maintained his law career. He’s a partner at the international law firm Dentons, where his pro bono work representing wrongfully convicted clients sometimes makes him the object of unwelcome attention. “People get ideas that I can help them, and not necessarily people of sound mind,” he says.
Turow was born in Chicago and has lived in and around the city for most of his life. His birthplace is the blueprint for Kindle County, home to a fictional metropolis plagued by crime and foul weather where all but four of his books are set. His previous book, 2017’s Testimony, was set in the Hague and was considered a departure.
The Last Trial is a return to Turow’s literary roots. Its setting is Kindle County and it stars Sandy, who first appeared in Turow’s fiction debut, the 1987 bestseller Presumed Innocent. Sandy, who is now 85, has been in the foreground or background of all of Turow’s fiction. He appeared most prominently in 1990’s Burden of Proof, which opens in the aftermath of his wife’s suicide. “I knew I wanted to get back to Sandy eventually,” Turow says. “And I wanted to write about aging.”
In The Last Trial, Sandy is working on his final case, which concerns a Nobel Prize–winning doctor who developed a cancer treatment that may have killed patients. There are accusations of insider trading and research data manipulation. There’s also talk of legacy and mortality, subjects that are of special interest to Turow as he prepares to turn 71 in April.
“I’m certainly not done as a writer, but 70 is a big number,” he says. “You can’t kid yourself. There are people who lie to themselves. Like Saul Bellow having a baby at 84—what an absurd thing to do! But I’m not about to have more children. And so you come to grips with the last stage of life.”
That life has been impressive, as Turow has made significant contributions to both the literary and legal worlds. In 1970, he received a fellowship to Stanford University’s Creative Writing Center, where he studied and taught until 1975, when he went off to law school. He famously wrote parts of Presumed Innocent while riding the train to and from his job as an assistant United States attorney in Chicago, which he held from 1978 to 1986. (“I can write anywhere,” he says.) The novel went on to help establish the modern legal thriller genre.
“There really wasn’t such a thing,” Turow says of the genre. “You had Anatomy of a Murder and, frankly, To Kill a Mockingbird, which is a courtroom book, but there wasn’t a lot of writing about lawyers in court, if you didn’t consider Perry Mason.”
Ben Sevier, Turow’s editor at Grand Central, describes Turow as “one of our most masterful writers”—one who’s had “a great impact on American fiction.”
Turow has also made a lasting impact on the law. His achievements there include securing the release in 1995 of a man who was on death row for a crime he didn’t commit and, in 2000, serving as a member of the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment, whose findings paved the way for the abolition of the death penalty in that state.
His passion for advocacy extends to his writing career. Turow was president of the Authors Guild from 1997 to 1998 and again from 2010 to 2014. He quips that the job of guild president is like being “the person in America chiefly responsible for banging your head against the wall.” He adds, “There are all kinds of threats to the existence of authors. The biggest right now are the behemoths of the internet: Google, Amazon, Apple. They’re interested in making use of the intellectual property of others for the least amount of compensation.” Stressing that he’s been “blessed” in his literary career, Turow says he fights for the average American author, who’s confronting an economic system in which it’s growing harder and harder to make a living.
“Scott is insanely thoughtful and considerate of other people,” says Turow’s longtime literary agent, the charmingly fast-talking Gail Hochman of Brandt & Hochman. To illustrate her point, she says Turow once sent her a plant, as a thank-you, that lived “for like 25 years.”
In the past two decades, Turow has continued to advance professionally, but the biggest changes in his life have come on the personal front. He got divorced in 2008 from his first wife, with whom he has three children. In 2016 he married his current wife, Adriane, whom he calls “the love of my life.” Turow and Adriane adore Chicago, but they’ve been spending more and more time in Florida. “We’ll always be Chicagoans, but the winters here suck,” Turow says. “I have mild seasonal affective disorder. I feel better in the sunshine. I write more.”
While Turow’s longest-running character is looking ahead to retirement, the author says that isn’t in the forecast for him; he still publishes one book approximately every three years. “I’ve never been a fan of the factory,” he adds. “It takes me time to write books.”
Turow also works on screen projects. Bruce Vinokour, his film agent at CAA, says, “When you talk about books-to-film, there are three things that are important: character, character, character. Scott’s characters are intriguing and compelling.”
The latest screen project for Turow is a new adaptation of Presumed Innocent. The novel, which was made into a movie starring Harrison Ford in 1990, is currently in development as a television series.
Turow, meanwhile, is composing his next novel, about Sandy Stern’s granddaughter, Pinky, “a true misfit” who appears in The Last Trial. “I haven’t even told my editor yet,” he says. “You’re the first to know.”
Turow will leave for sunny Florida as soon as our interview concludes. There he’ll continue writing Pinky’s story. He checks his watch and leans back on the couch. “I do two things a lot in Florida: I write and play golf,” he remarks with a smile. “Bellow said he taught because a writer needs something to do in the afternoon. Turns out you can also play golf.”
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.