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No Perry Mason 

Best-selling author Scott Turow writes about lawyers — because he is one

click to enlarge JEREMY LAWSON
  • Jeremy Lawson

When best-selling author Scott Turow was a boy, glued to his television on Saturday nights, Perry Mason reigned supreme. Turow, a criminal defense attorney best known for his nine bestselling books, says the title character was a “paragon of virtue,” something, he will argue, that has changed with the presentation of lawyers in pop culture over time.

Turow will bring his keen eye and his mastery of words to Gonzaga University this week as the kickoff speaker for the yearlong celebration of its centennial. He’s giving a lecture on, of course, Perry Mason. But he’s also talking about how we think about the law profession.

“[Perry Mason] somehow managed to practice as a criminal defense lawyer and represent only innocent people with tricks I never mastered,” Turow points out. “He won every case.”

Turow’s lecture — entitled “Where Are You Perry Mason?” — will tackle the images of attorneys in pop culture, the power of actual lawyers within American culture and their perceived dark sides.

“Compare [Perry Mason] with the lawyers we have on television now,” says Turow. “Julianna Margulies’ [character] on The Good Wife is immersed in the morally ambiguous world of a big law firm.”

Turow says that the image of lawyers has changed a great deal, as has what the public expects and accepts of them.

“So I’m going to be talking about how that transformation has occurred, speculating on their larger cultural meanings,” he adds.

Literature came before law for Turow. After receiving his undergraduate college degree, Turow was a writing fellow at Stanford University, where he taught creative writing for three years. He says he decided that he really didn’t want to be an English professor, so then it was off to law school.

Turow is considered by some critics as the father of the modern legal thriller. He has inked nine bestselling fiction titles, including Reversible Errors, Presumed Innocent and The Burden of Proof. All three of those books became films for either big or small screen. He says that each of his books takes off from deep-seated, life-long preoccupations.

“I’m writing a novel now about identical twins, and one of them is running for mayor and one is about to be released from prison for a murder convicted 25 years before,” says Turow.

Some, Turow suggests, might wonder why a novelist of legal thrillers would write about twins. “My sister was a twin, but her twin was stillborn. So I’ve always been fascinated with twins.”

Turow is also known for doing pro bono work, but has less time for that now that he’s the president of the Authors Guild. He sees his role with the Authors Guild as a chance to help keep authors from getting taken advantage of. It’s a challenging job in today’s publishing environment, though.

“People are coming at writers from all sides. There are entities like Google that scan the contents of major university libraries [and] want to use copyrighted work for free. There are people who are pirating copyrighted work offshore. There are entities like Amazon that want to disrupt the traditional publishing model and force writers to become entrepreneurs,” says Turow.

He likens the situation to a war movie “where the hero is surrounded on all sides by four different enemy forces.”

A native of Chicago, Turow has also worked on the Illinois Commission on Capital Punishment, a public body that suggests reforms to that state’s death penalty law.

But, when it comes down to it, Turow’s main objective is still writing. “It is a process of self-discovery and to some extent self-formation,” says Turow.

“I’m delving into stuff that has been rolling around inside me for a lifetime and making something out of it,” he adds. “I don’t know if that was a wound. Writing is self-discovery and reconstituting yourself. It’s a very rich process, and I’ve had a blessed life to be able to do it.” 

Scott Turow • Thu, Sept 20 at 7 pm • Martin Centre Gym, Gonzaga University • Free • Turow will be available to sign books following the lecture

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