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Scott Turow: ‘In legal thrillers it’s rare to hit upon a setting that seems completely new’

Author Scott Turow.

Jeremy Lawson Photography

One of the United States' bestselling writers, Scott Turow is the author of more than a dozen works of fiction and non-fiction, including Personal Injuries, Presumed Innocent and Reversible Errors. His work has been translated into more than 25 languages, and he has sold more than 30 million copies of his books around the world. Turow's new novel, Testimony, was recently published by Grand Central Publishing.

Why did you write your new book?

The germ of Testimony came to me while I was on a book tour in the Netherlands in 2000. The American Ambassador, Cynthia Schneider, was kind enough to host a small reception in my honour at her residence in The Hague. Given the subject matter of my books, it was no surprise that several of her guests were American attorneys working at The Hague's many international courts. I remember standing in a circle of lawyers who seemed united in insisting that I 'had to write a book' about one of The Hague's international war-crimes tribunals, which they characterized as nests of relentless intrigue, both because of the complexity of the investigations and the personal and political manoeuvring within the courts. I loved the idea and always held onto it, since in legal thrillers it's rare to hit upon a setting that seems completely new. Four years ago, I realized I could use that scene while also satisfying some of my lifelong curiosity about the Roma – Gypsies. Thus Testimony, about an American prosecutor recruited to The Hague's International Criminal Court to work on a politically charged case about the alleged massacre of 400 Gypsies in Bosnia a decade before.

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What's the best advice you've ever received?

Regarding life, I've always accepted the wisdom of the bromide, 'There's no such thing as a free lunch.' About writing, I've never forgotten the simple advice of the esteemed American novelist, Wallace Stegner, when I was in his class as a writing fellow at Stanford in 1971. Wally emphasized that writing a novel was, first and foremost, a job, which, like any other job, required you to work every day. Wally himself wrote two pages each day of the year except Christmas, but for those less dogged, he insisted that at least 30 minutes a day was required. With those words in mind, I started Presumed Innocent, writing every day on my 30-minute morning commute, right after I'd graduated from law school and began work as a federal prosecutor in Chicago.

What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

Finnegans Wake by Joyce. Not only is the book unreadable, but it consumed 17 years in the life of a literary genius who otherwise might have given us more monumental works, like Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses.

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time travel?

Since I was a boy, I've been fascinated by the prospect of invisibility. Leaving aside the juvenile and prurient aspects, invisibility would seemingly bring with it a chance to answer my perpetual curiosity about what is actually going on inside other people. What better avenue than to see what they say and do in complete privacy?

What's more important: the beginning of a book or the end?

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E.M. Forster said in Aspects of the Novel that novels generally don't come to a satisfying conclusion because of what we might call a failure of verisimilitude: stories end but the life of the world does not. There are many books that end unconvincingly that are still widely and deservingly appreciated – Robert Stone's fine novels, for example, all seemed to me to have that defect. But if you can't draw a reader into the imagined world of a novel in the first few chapters, you're in deep trouble as a writer.

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