CHICAGO -- The man who answers the door in this quiet, suburban neighborhood is one of those dark, driven little men who turn up so often in the law.
Those are Scott Turow's words, actually, used to describe the U.S. attorney who sets his latest book, "Personal Injuries" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27), in motion. It's an inside joke, a throw-away line written with a smile for those who will get it. It's not only the physical resemblance between the book's prosecutor, Stan Sennett, and his creator that is striking. Turow was a U.S. attorney once, and he oversaw an undercover investigation, Operation Greylord, that sent a Chicago judge and state attorney general to prison.
But Turow is not Sennett, and Operation Greylord did not inspire the book's Operation Petros. Turow, though, has borrowed liberally from his own life to inform the case, as well as Sennett's personal stake in it. Operation Greylord, he says, was truly black and white, bad guys and good guys, with nothing to divide one's loyalties.
Operation Petros, by contrast, is loaded with the moral and legal ambiguities that continue to fascinate Turow -- and, apparently, millions of readers. This month, in its first week in stores, "Personal Injuries" appeared in the No. 1 slot on the Publishers Weekly best-seller list. "I think, with 'The Laws of Our Fathers' [his most recent book], I turned a corner and I'm less afraid of autobiographical material," Turow says, settling down for an interview in the bright, unassuming house he uses as a writing studio. "You don't want to write a roman a clef. You still want to be in control of the material, as opposed to writing 'Dear Diary.' But with 'The Laws of Our Fathers,' which was truly a personal book, I sort of realized I could go closer to home without violating my own internal rules."
The fact is, Turow's biography is better, certainly happier, than the lives of the lawyers he has documented in five novels.
Twelve years ago, at the age of 38, he published "Presumed Innocent," a commercial and critical success. The story behind the story -- Turow, a former writing instructor at Stanford University, had worked on the book on his daily train commute to the U.S. attorney's office -- became almost as well-known as the best-seller itself. When Turow's second novel, "The Burden of Proof," appeared three years later, he was featured on the cover of Time magazine.
The fact that he continued to work at Chicago's Sonnenschein Carlin Nath & Rosenthal as a part-time partner only added to the public's fascination. But Turow, determined to maintain his privacy, did his best to shield his wife and three children from the media. (In fact, he continues to be vigilant about his privacy, asking that the name of his hometown not appear in this article.)
But if Scott Turow reinvigorated the legal thriller form, John Grisham quickly came to own it in the early 1990s, turning out a book a year and reaching an audience 10 times larger than even a No. 1 best-seller like Turow.
Asked about Grisham and the other writers lumped into the legal thriller sub-genre, Turow is diplomatic. "I always tread lightly here," he says. "The truth is, I don't have the same ambitions. "There are many things to admire about John Grisham's work. He has the broadest readership probably of any American novelist working. His books are going to be read by junior high school students, blue-haired ladies in their 80s and everybody in-between. That, I think is very much by design, and I give him credit for that. "There is much about his story-telling that is utterly seamless. But," he pauses, "I obviously tarry longer with character and language. John is far and away the most popular of the lawyer writers, and God bless him for it. When my 12-year-old asked if she could read 'Personal Injuries,' I said, 'Go ahead and try.' But I doubt she'll be able to."
How does he feel about the very term, legal thriller? "I cringe, I absolutely cringe. And for a while, I resisted it, but by now, the tide had washed away the efforts to write lines in the sand."
Certainly, his latest book is hard to pigeonhole as a legal thriller. The action is driven not by a murder, but by the discovery of a secret bank account, used by personal injury attorney Robbie Feaver -- pronounced, appropriately, "favor." Faced with jail time, the charismatic Feaver agrees to become a confidential informant, under the constant watch of a young, strait-laced FBI woman, Evon Miller.
You think you know where this is going, don't you? And you might be right, if someone other than Turow had written the novel. "Personal Injuries" is not a love story, but a story written by someone in love with his subject. Turow belongs to that camp of writers who revel in fact, researching subjects from Lou Gehrig's disease to the 1993 Mercedes S-class sedan. Why make things up, he asks, when reality is so gripping? "Most representations [of the law] tend to be distorted and I really don't understand why," he says. "I can't watch a show like 'The Practice,' although my wife loves it. They break so many rules that, to me, it's like watching the most ridiculous soap opera."
Even as a child, growing up in the Chicago area, he sensed the reality of the courtroom was better than the fiction it inspired. "I watched the old Perry Mason religiously, every Saturday night of my young life. And I have to tell you the truth -- even then, I knew this couldn't be the way it really was."
Yet his first ambition was to be a writer, which made family members despair. ("No one was jumping up and down, which is something that most of them have all managed to forget," he says wryly.) He attended Amherst College, then enrolled in Stanford's creative writing program, studying under Wallace Stegner.
It was the Vietnam War era, and experimental fiction was the fashion. "I'd read the avant garde work, and I could understand it, but it struck me as totally sterile." He wrote a novel about a rent strike, but no one wanted it. His literary ambition became almost painful to him. Offered a tenure track position as a writing teacher, he decided to go to Harvard Law School instead.
But, in what was to become a familiar balancing act, he also wrote a book about his experience, "One L." Published in 1977, it was an immediate success and has never gone out of print, selling more than 500,000 copies to date. But it didn't rack up any points on what Turow calls the internal scoreboard. It wasn't a novel. "In terms of my success as a writer, that didn't count," he explains. And what about the unpublished novel? "That goes on the scoreboard as a flat-on-your-ass failure."
Trial work sharpened his story-telling, and his hunger for it. "You lose a juror or two, and you're really at your peril. The answer in the courtroom was: 'Tell 'em a good story.'
He had a story in his head, too, one set in a fictional place clearly influenced by his hometown. Although Turow writes what are called "stand-alones" in the genre business, each book also marks another installment in the history of Kindle County, with some characters making repeat appearances. (Attorney Sandy Stern, for example, who represents the main character in "Presumed Innocent," appears in "Personal Injuries" as well.) "All I knew was there was an intuitive solution, this amazing story of how evil happens, and how we judge it. Plot, at that time was spurned, by realists and anti-realists alike," he says. "My assumption was that you could write with plot, and still write with distinction. My only calculation was if I did this, maybe I could get published."
Other publishing houses offered more money for his first book, but Turow chose Farrar, Straus, Giroux for its literary reputation. Editor Jonathan Galassi, who has worked on all his books to date, also edits Alice McDermott and Tom Wolfe. As a result, Turow never has to worry that someone will suggest that he produce a corpse more quickly, or write a steamy sex scene. (Although his paperback publisher did wonder if maybe, just maybe, Robbie and Evon could sleep together just once.)
He says he feels no pressure to repeat himself, critically or commercially. "I am a blessed human being," he says. "I don't know many people who have been able to have a life more on their own terms."
As for the internal scoreboard -- well, it is dark, more or less. He is 50 now, he lost his father in the past year, an autobiographical detail he ascribes to yet another character in his latest novel. "I felt I had put up the scores I wanted to."
So why not life without literature, or life without the law? Unthinkable, Turow says. One feeds the other. He needs both.
Meet the author
What: Discussion and book signing with author Scott Turow
Where: Bibelot in Woodholme Center, 1819 Reisterstown Road
When: Monday, 7: 30 p.m.