Scott Turow

He made the Legal Thriller Count

Scott Turow was captivated by The Count of Monte Cristo and not much else at age ten. America’s father of the legal thriller didn’t capture that feeling again about a book until twenty-eight years later when Presumed Innocent, his blockbuster first novel, was published.

Except for athletics, Turow wasn’t enamored with school as a boy, so when his tonsils garnered a doctor’s attention, he milked his condition to stay home as long as possible. His mother, who had unfilled writing aspirations of her own, handed him a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo to pass the time, and young Turow was hooked.

“I was absolutely captivated by the book,” he says. “If it was this exciting to read the book, I thought ‘imagine what it would be like to write it.’ That’s when I declared I wanted to be a novelist.”

Between the instant he discovered his life’s goal and the moment he actually achieved it, life stepped in, making it a long journey. His first serious attempt at fiction was as a high school senior.  He wrote a short story about a commuter who was leaving his wife. It was later published while he was in college.

He got accepted at Amherst and quickly learned he’d made a mistake. There was no creative writing curriculum. “I hadn’t even bothered to check the course offerings. In sheer frustration, I said I’m going to write a novel.”

And so he did. The result was DithyramB, a story about a murdered prostitute in New Orleans and the police who saw little need to investigate. So two runaway boys step in and take on the role of amateur sleuth in hopes of finding justice.

“The book had many defects, one of which I hadn’t even been to New Orleans,” Scott says. Even so, he sent the manuscript to Farrar Straus & Giroux. He received a note back: “put it in the desk drawer in anticipation of the second novel you will write.”

“It was a teaspoon of encouragement,” he says.

He went back to writing short stories. As a college senior he started getting published in the TransAtlantic Review (Ford Maddox Ford was one of its founders). One story, “The Carp Fish,” landed him a writing fellowship at Stanford.

While at Stanford he met a girl who confided in him about being raped the summer before. That resulted in “A Classic Case,” a short story about an exhibitionist who turns into a rapist. “This was the first time I really felt the wind under my sails as a writer,” he says.

To support himself Scott applied for and received two writing fellowships. One, the Book of the Month Fellowship, was awarded during a luncheon in New York City. He remembers William Styron was handing out the prizes. “He was so wildly drunk, it was embarrassing.”

Young Turow found the whole scene intimidating. “New York scared the shit out of me in those days.”

So he kept to the Left Coast and taught undergrads at Stanford while working on a novel about a rent control strike on the north side of Chicago. By the time he finished it in 1974, he’d lost his market. “The message was America was not having more of this hippy shit. That’s what my novel was basically about. A young person trying to make peace with himself. A draft resister then gets involved in the rent strike. That book could have been published, but the public was sick of the rebellion thing.”

Even though he didn’t have a saleable book, he had managed to wrangle an agent, Elizabeth McKee. And after teaching for five years, Turow had had enough of the Stanford English Department. “I found the people who were doing the things I was most drawn to were friends who went on to law school.”

So in 1974 he opted for law school. “My friends asked me, ‘What’s going to happen to your writing?’ I thought I could do both. People told me I was crazy. A friend told me ‘The law is a jealous mistress.’ It was the first I had heard that.”

It wasn’t the last.

Some of his first notions after entering law school were not about the law at all, but on writing. He decided to write a non-fiction book about his first year at Harvard Law.

“One-L at that time was the computer acronym for the first year of law school,” he says. “A friend said that would be a good book title.” And it sure was, especially for his pocketbook. It was published during his third year of law school.

He can’t remember what Ned Chase, editor at Putnam, saw in the book, but he bought it. Chase was the father of comic actor and former Saturday Night Live cast member Chevy Chase. The book is still in print and is a annual source of income. Turow has a built-in lucrative market of first year law students and young people contemplating law school.

After graduation, Turow spent eight years as a federal prosecutor in Chicago and learned exactly who his mistress was. The workload put a strain on his marriage and left him little time to write even though the desire still burned.

The young prosecutor was assigned to “Operation Greylord,” which exposed him to judicial corruption in Chicago. He learned enough about the cloistered intrigues behind the Chicago bench that he began mulling a novel about an innocent prosecutor working in a similar setting despoiled with corruption.

“I knew I had to keep writing, even if it was just thirty minutes a day. I had this short ride on the commuter train. So I decided to write then. I wanted to get something published so I decided to write a mystery. I thought I was stepping out of the literary world with this mystery novel with nice vocabulary.”

He was writing in long hand on legal pads. His was a very slow process. He dragged his pages around in a briefcase. With so little time to write on a daily basis, he finally purchased a portable computer in 1982. “Had the personal computer not been invented, this would not have happened. I was writing in such isolated moments, there was no continuity. The way to put it together was to put it on the computer.”

In the summer of 1986, he was diagnosed with chronic anemia. His wife Annette recommended he lower his stress level and quit the U.S. Attorney’s Office. “She didn’t want her children’s dad to die young. I think she always felt cheated because she had married a writer and ended up with a lawyer. She didn’t like the legal world and was always supportive of my literary ambitions.” Even though they later divorced, Turow says, “I’m still grateful for that part of our marriage.”

He took a partnership with the Chicago firm of Sonnenschein, Carlin, Nath and Rosenthal as well as a three-month break between jobs to try and finish his legal thriller, which became known as Presumed Innocent. “I thought I had something really good,” he says.

With so little time to write, it had taken him eight years to complete. During this interval, he says, he was “writing from inspiration. I will not say that’s the right way to do it. There is a lot of wasted motion. But it’s a process that works for me.”

When he finally finished, he decided to work with literary agent Gail Hochman, who had been an editorial assistant working on his non-fiction book One-L. Something had clicked between them, a gut feeling, which would play a big role in both of their successes. Each was struggling at that time to get their respective literary careers into high gear.

“We were both at the bottom of the rock pile in those days,” says Turow. Today, after more than 30 million novels sold, he still relies on Gail.

He sent her his Presumed Innocent manuscript three weeks before he was to begin his new job. And rather than dwell on the fate of his manuscript, he spent his time painting his porch. But it wasn’t long before Gail called saying she’d distributed multiple submissions, which of course would increase his chances of publication. But nothing was definite, so Turow didn’t pay much heed and got busy on another manuscript.

“I think you did a good job with this and I think we’re going to sell it,” Gail told him. What she didn’t predict was a successful auction for his book.

“I had no clue, zero, about what was going to happened,” Turow says. “I have always accepted the role of luck in all of this. Right place, right time.”

Four of the five publishers who read the manuscript bid on it. The one editor who didn’t was later forbidden by his publisher from reading fiction submissions.

Ned Chase, who’d worked with Scott and purchased One-L while at Putnam, had moved to Charles Scribner’s & Sons and offered him a $350,000 advance. It’s safe to say any writer alive would jump at that, but Turow had something else in mind.

“Why am I going to make this decision based on money?” he asked himself.

So he queried the editors at each publishing house on how he could improve his novel. Turow had earned an MFA at Stanford and wanted a literary publisher. Newly hired Executive Editor Jonathan Galassi at Farrar Straus & Giroux, whom Turow had contact with a few years before, gave him the straightest answer. Years before Turow received a rejection letter from Galassi on another manuscript when Galassi was at Houghton Mifflin. Scott was so impressed he filed it away. So when Galassi made an offer for Presumed Innocent, Turow found the old rejection letter and framed it. Today, it hangs on the wall of his study. It serves as a reminder that Farar Straus & Giroux offered only $200,000—43% less than Scribner’s bid—for the publishing rights and Turow took it because he was impressed with the literary reputation of FSG and its editors.

Turow had just returned from a business trip to Oregon when a fellow lawyer dropped by his office. “I remember her knocking on my door the day of the auction,” Turow says. “She asked what was going on. I told her, ‘This is crazy, people are throwing money at me.’”

In the end, his advance didn’t matter. Turow quickly earned it out and a whole lot more. His novel hit the New York Times bestseller list two weeks after publication and stayed there for 45 weeks, selling 645,000 copies. (Galassi was subsequently promoted to Editor in Chief at FSG for fear he’d get scooped up by another publisher. Nearly twenty years later he was named publisher.)

Roger “Rog” Strauss III, who was also involved in landing Turow for the then family-owned publishing house, acknowledged Turow’s sacrifice by traveling to Turow’s hometown of Chicago to take him to lunch at Ciel Bleu, a very expensive restaurant Turow picked. If not a $350,000 advance, at least he’d get a good meal out of the deal.

“He asked me, ‘Where have you been all these years?” Turow answered, “in your fucking slush pile.” When he was in college, he had sent the publisher his manuscript for DithyramB, which had gone nowhere.

Straus warned him not to quit his day job just yet. “This novel has come out of your career, the urgency of the writing,” Rog explained. “You wrote that urgency because you didn’t have time to write.”

“That resonated with me,” Turow says. “I tried being a writer years before. That didn’t work. So I stayed as a lawyer-writer. He was right.”

Awarding $200,000 was huge for FSG and there was concern the publisher had blown too much of its acquisitions budget on a single writer. Advances like that were for keeping famous authors like Philip Roth in their stable, not newbies like Turow. But those fears quickly disappeared when FSG auctioned the paperback rights for $670,000. The publisher had made a profit on Presumed Innocent before even publishing the book.

“The fact I turned down more money became part of the initial publicity,” Turow says. Even the New York Times wrote about it.

“Suddenly I was a millionaire. Literally, three months before, I’d been some guy writing in his basement and the guy writing on the commuter train.” He could now afford to hire someone to paint his porch.

Then the movie rights war began. “Movie producer David Brown, (husband of Cosmopolitan magazine Editor Helen Gurley Brown), offered me more money than I had made in all of the eight years I had been a U.S. attorney.” Brown and David D. Zanuck made an opening bid of $75,000. Later, Bob Bookman, Turow’s movie agent, told Scott to turn down a bid for $250,000 and the bidding continued for a book that was still a year away from publication.

Sydney Pollack and Mark Rosenberg of Mirage Enterprises made a winning bid of $1 million. In all, Scott remembers Presumed Innocent bringing in $3 million in guarantees prior to hitting bookstores or movie theaters. Of course his publisher kept a significant portion.

“It was a great lead up to the publication of the novel,” Turow says.

That would be an understatement. Presumed Innocent became a literary phenomenon, introducing the legal thriller to an entire generation of readers. His novel came before John Grisham and many others who have since jumped on the legal thriller bandwagon.

While the money was amazing, there was the sudden realization his life was about to change forever. To deal with the stress he’d escape to his driveway and shoot hoops. In a way, it was like his childhood all over again.

“It was the most excitement I had felt since reading the Count of Monte Cristo,” he says.

Presumed Innocent

Start to Finish: 8 Years
I want to write a novel: 10 years old
Experience: Short stories, Nonfiction book One L 
Agents Contacted: Two
Agent Responses: One
Agent Submission: August 1986
Time to Sell Novel: Less than 2 months. Auctioned.                            
First Novel Agent: Gail Hochman
First Novel Editor: Jonathan Galassi
First Novel Publisher: Farrar Strauss & Giroux
Age when published: 38
Inspiration: Saul Bellow (father’s high school classmate), Graham Greene, Charles Dickens
Advice to Writers: Write. You have nothing to put out there if you allow yourself to be daunted. Put your ass in a chair and write. It’s a job. If you write, you’re a writer. If you don’t, you’re fooling yourself.


Like this? Read the chapter on Steve Berry.

Read the latest prattle on your favorite crime authors in Idol Talk.