May 26, 2020

You're Invited: Novelist Scott Turow Zooming in May 20

National Writers Series hosts bestselling author
By Clark Miller | May 9, 2020

Novelist and former federal prosecutor Scott Turow turns otherwise dry court proceedings into page-turning drama. A bestselling author many times over, Turow appears (virtually) as part of the National Writers Series at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 20, to unveil his new novel, “The Last Trial.”

This time out, Turow puts seasoned — and at times, tottery — defense attorney Alejandro “Sandy” Stern front and center. Stern is about to retire. He surprises everyone by taking on the case of Dr. Kiril Pafko, the Nobel Prize-winning doctor and medical researcher who saved his life and who now stands accused of insider trading, fraud and murder.

Northern Express interviewed Turow about “The Last Trial,” Sandy Stern, courtroom theatricality, aging, and his thoughts about the current health crisis.

Express: Please introduce Sandy Stern.

Turow: He’s 85 years old, a celebrated criminal defense lawyer. He was first seen in "Presumed Innocent" (1987). Since then, he’s become sort of the first citizen of Kindle County [the make-believe setting of 10 of Turow’s novels].

Express: His health is lousy. He doesn’t need the money. So why does he take on this complex case? Professional pride? Going out with a bang? Because he owes Kiril for saving his life?

Turow: Sandy wonders himself. Some of it is vanity. He’s spent his most productive years in the limelight. It’s an opportunity to be on central stage again. Certainly, ego is driving him. It’s inevitable also that he’s measuring his life against Kiril’s, and that becomes important in the story.

Express: So much of the book is about courtroom stagecraft — the gestures, dramatic timing and seemingly offhanded remarks that can help sway a jury. How important is all of that? It seems like evidence and the law should be 99 percent of a trial.

Turow: It’s not 99 percent. Law is about principles. The reality is it’s also a human institution with all the frailties of human beings. But that’s the great thing about the courtroom.

Express: Why?

Turow: Because there’s a lot more going on than principles, and that’s how it should be. Stern says toward the end of the book that a [jury] trial is one of the few places in our government where power is wielded by average people of the street who decide whether someone ought to be punished or not. I think of that as a good thing.

Express: Did you draw Sandy Stern’s character from real life?

Turow: Yes. My parents had a friend, a Cuban Jew, but not a lawyer. He was so elegant in his bearing. That really impressed me.

Express: What is Sandy’s main strength?

Turow: As a lawyer, it’s his mensch-y-ness. He manages to broadcast that in the courtroom.

Express: Given the current health situation globally, it seems prescient that you chose to write about drug development and people who fudge results.

Turow: I chose pharma because is everyone is affected by it, but not everyone understands it. I was curious myself. The system makes as much sense as letting everyone give themselves their own driving test.

Express: Another important thread in The Last Trial is how Sandy deals with aging. You just turned 71. Describe your own attitude toward getting older.

Turow: I wanted to write about aging. I’m definitely more positive about it than Sandy Stern. So far, it’s great to be older. We have wonderful grandchildren. The big problem is that you know it’s not going to last much longer. You’re dancing along the edge of the cliff.

Express: Are you in Illinois – Evansville – or in Florida right now?

Turow: We’re in Naples, Florida.

Express: That’s funny, since in the book, you have Sandy describe Florida as a “giant penal colony for America’s elderly.”

Turow: [laughs] I find it amusing when my characters are essentially criticizing me!

Express: So do you think of Florida as Heaven’s Waiting Room, or as Hell’s Front Door?

Turow: I’ve learned in Naples that I’m a weather slut. If we have clear skies, 80 degrees, I’m too shallow to care about lots of other things. [In a more serious tone] But I’m also effective in writing down here.

Express: For those of us who don’t quite know what to make of the snowbird lifestyle, what do you like about Florida?

Turow: Before we started coming here, I didn’t understand retirement communities either. Now I get it. You don’t have the same irrelevance here as in a community where there are lots of younger people. They don’t discount older people here.

Express: With so many fans worldwide, does it become harder to write strictly what you want? In other words, are there dangers that come with success?

Turow: Huge dangers. You need to resist people who want a Presumed Innocent I, II, III.  I’ll never do that. I didn’t struggle to get published just to clone myself. On the other hand, my fascination with the law is the center of my personality — it’s never ending.  

Express: A question about the legal side of the COVID-19 response. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York has warned of a constitutional crisis on the horizon because of Trump’s calls to resist governors’ sheltering policies. What do you think?

Turow: I don’t think it will become a constitutional crisis. [Trump] won’t have the temerity to try to shut down what [Gov.] Gretchen Whitmer’s doing in Michigan, for example. That would be demagoguery of the highest order. I don’t know anyone who thinks she’s doing this for any reason other than keeping people alive.

Express: And what about the political side of the situation?

Turow: The message to disobey, to get out there with your pitchfork and firearms, might energize [Trump’s] base. But what does that say to African-Americans in Wayne County? I don’t understand this whole presidency. It seems aimed at 40 percent [of the electorate] and laying waste to political opponents.

The May 20 National Writers Series event will take place remotely via Zoom. Registration is free. See www.nationalwritersseries.org for details on registering — and getting Turrow’s book and Morsels delivered to your door.

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