"I'm the luckiest person I know," says Scott Turow, the 41-year-old writer-turned-lawyer-turned-writer, whose first novel, "Presumed Innocent," brought him fame and fortune (the movie rights alone sold for $1 million) three years ago.
He has had a terrific day. His face looks out from the cover of Time magazine. The film version of "Presumed Innocent," starring Harrison Ford and directed by Alan Pakula, is due out this summer. His name is printed four inches high on the cover of his new book, "The Burden of Proof." Rave reviews are pouring in. The book is expected to do so well that the first printing was set at 800,000 copies -- a huge number for a hardback. Its paperback rights are rumored to have sold for a record-breaking $3.2 million.
And if that weren't enough, Turow has lost 15 pounds since his last time out on the book promotion trail. "And kept it off," he says beaming.
Is it disconcerting to note that with all this, Turow seems to be a nice, balanced, sensitive guy, that he praises his wife, dotes on his three children and doesn't want to utter a word that might upset his parents?
A little. But not to worry. Beneath Turow's cheerful, lawyerly exterior, doubts beset him. He is always aware that the ground beneath him could crumble, that the next time out, success could prove elusive.
"There are no limits to my insecurities," he says wryly, admitting that he does seem to have things in his own life under control. "Somewhat," he cautions, the vowels of Chicago ringing in his voice. "Sooner or later you fall off the mountain. It has to happen."
The vagaries of fate, and the power of people to affect their destiny, are at the center of Turow's new book. Yes, like "Presumed Innocent," this one is about an unexplained death and lawyers and crime and legal strategies.
But it is also about love and passion and second chances -- and the mysterious power that the most unlikely people can have to reach out and refashion their lives.
Says Turow, delighted to have a reader focus on his preoccupation, "This book is about the difficulties and the prospect of change in people's lives -- the failures that many people experience and the wonderful triumphs of others who manage to do it."
Turow knows all about change. He has had his fill of it -- for the moment.
His story by now is familiar: A kid from a Chicago suburb, he wanted to be a writer, but his parents, a gynecologist and a writer, wanted him to be a doctor. ("It was a big deal," he recalls solemnly. "A very big deal.") Eventually he turned into a lawyer, who while scribbling away on a Chicago commuter train produced a runaway hit -- 44 weeks on the bestseller list -- his first time out as a novelist.
Well, almost. An initial unpublished effort at fiction written when he was in his early twenties didn't work out, and was one of the factors that pushed him from Stanford, where he was teaching in a writing program, to Harvard Law School.
During his first year in law school -- he was married by then -- he found time to keep a journal, which he fictionalized and turned into "One L." Now a cult classic about the teaching method at the law school, the book was published just before his final year at Harvard. Turow the writer was alive and well.
"I never believed if I went to law school my creativity was going to dry up," says Turow, who was in town recently.
An offer from the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago, where he spent eight years before moving to a private firm, took him and his wife, Annette, home again. It was during that time that Turow began writing "Presumed Innocent."
These days, Turow is still a partner at his old law firm, Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal (at $220 a billable hour). He still lives in the house he bought five years ago in the Chicago suburbs. And he is still married to Annette. The only obvious changes brought about by his success are an addition to their house (family room, bedroom and upstairs study where he writes), a more expensive car and fewer hours at the law firm.
Staying put was a conscious decision. "We did the smartest thing," he says. "We never moved. We're right where we are, so I'm a neighbor. I have the same privacy anybody else does. We're all familiar faces, so everybody leaves me alone."
When pressed, he admits that his celebrity has been accompanied by subtle differences in the way other people -- his friends, colleagues, parents -- treat him. "Maybe if we're in a group, somebody will wait for me to speak first," he says. "Success gives you added authority." His clients, however, are the least impressed. "They want a service. They don't care if I'm on the cover of Time. They want their legal work done."
From his point of view, he has the life he wants. Not the starving artist-in-a-garret writer's life he thought he craved when he started out, but the life that allows him to acknowledge and embrace his affinity with "bourgeois values" and still indulge his fascination with the law -- as well as weave it into material for fiction.
What has obsessed him for the past few years has been "The Burden of Proof." Could he repeat his success? He didn't let himself think about it. Instead, he just hunkered down and let his imagination take over, working at home in the mornings (while still taking calls from his clients) and going into the office for meetings in the afternoons.
He doesn't start out with fixed plot structure, but rather with an idea of whom he wants to write about. ("I have to figure out enough to have a sense of who the characters have got to be," says Turow.)
The main character of the new book, defense lawyer Alejandro "Sandy" Stern, is a holdover from "Presumed Innocent" (played by Raul Julia in the upcoming movie). Stern, an Argentinian Jew and defense lawyer, fascinated Turow. But he didn't just decide to write about him again. Instead, for years he'd carried in his head the idea of a man possessed by various doubts, a man who had not surmounted certain problems, a man who married again.
"Then I realized that man was Sandy Stern," he remembers. "I was in love with him. When I realized I could keep him, I was thrilled I could find out more about him."
As he thought about Stern -- how he could reappear without the wife he had in "Presumed Innocent," who his new love interest might be, what implications for the plot the answers to those questions held -- other characters developed in his mind, and he wrote passages and sections that would eventually be rewoven into the book that now exists.
"The consolidation of the characters seemed miraculous to me," he says. "I didn't work at it. It just happened."
Although a computer he bought a few years ago made this method of writing manageable, he didn't always have to be at his desk for ideas to gel. One crucial detail occurred to him one night when he was taking out the trash. "I can show you the place," he says.
Myriad adulterous and family relationships are explored in the book. But although Turow says he tried to be fair to all the characters, he may have been particularly aware of the women. His experience with "Presumed Innocent," for which he was criticized by some feminist groups for being misogynistic, heightened his sensitivity, though it did not, he says, change his approach.
"I certainly think there are a number of remarkable and admirable women in this book who score high as human beings," he says, "notwithstanding the fact that nobody's perfect."
And the women in the new book are a more diverse group -- some professional women, some not, many 10 years older than he -- than the two prominent women in "Presumed Innocent."
He is not sure himself how these female characters revealed themselves to him. "I think that's the product of keeping my eyes open most of my life," he says. "I've just tried to watch and listen. I don't think you can research someone's inner life."
And he freely admits to having sexual fantasies. All the time.
When Turow talks about his work, he turns into the writing teacher he used to be at Stanford many years ago. He is passionate about literature, and the state of writing today, and dead serious about what he is trying to do. "I wanted to write serious novels that could be read with equal appreciation by bus drivers and PhDs," he says. "My problem was finding my way."
It seems unlikely that he will lose it. He is already in what he describes as "the gestational process" for the next novel, which he has said is about the law. He gives a smiling "no comment" when asked if he will continue the thread of picking up any of the same characters.
After that, who knows? Even for Scott Turow, success is not automatic. Life offers no guarantees. But there is the film version of "Presumed Innocent" to look forward to and maybe a film deal for "The Burden of Proof."
There's his law practice, of course. And Annette. And their children, Rachel, Gabriel and Eve. And the pleasure that accompanies his writing. And if all else fails, which it won't, for Turow there is still the temptation of change, maybe even of becoming the doctor his parents wanted him to be. A couple of years ago his father sounded the refrain "I still think you could have been a good doctor." And finally Turow agreed.
"I didn't want my father's life," he says firmly. "I wanted to be a writer.
"But you know, I looked at Annette about six months ago and said, 'If I weren't 40 years old, I'd go to medical school.' "