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Scott Turow talks about loss, Amazon and the unsolved murder behind new book

Robert K. Elder
relder@suntimes.com | @robertkelder
July 17 6:20 a.m.

Author Scott Turow calls his latest novel, “Identical,” a “weird stew of personal things.”

Indeed it is. The book centers around a set of twins — state Sen. Paul Giannis and his brother Cass, a recently released ex-con who served 25 years for the murder of his girlfriend. That case mirrors the unsolved case of Valerie Percy, the daughter of real-life Illinois politician Charles Percy, who was killed in her Kenilworth home in 1966. Percy, herself, was a twin, and the notorious murder happened a few miles from where Turow lived on the North Shore. Adding thematic complexity to the tale, Turow’s family suffered the loss of a twin when he was 3 years old, a fact that reverberates through the book.

A fixture on the North Shore and on the best-sellers list, most notably for books such as “Presumed Innocent” and “Reversible Errors,” Turow still practices law and serves as president of the Authors Guild. At 65, he has added new projects that include a young adult novel and writing for television.

Turow, who also served as our guest editor this issue, talks about his 10th novel, his publisher’s fight with Amazon.com and what the Supreme Court gets wrong about political speech. Below is an edited excerpt of our talk, but you can listen to our entire conversation on our podcast “The Big Questions,” available for free on iTunes, Soundcloud and YouTube.

Q: You were raised in Rogers Park and then you lived all over — Wilmette, Winnetka, Glenview. What forces shaped you along the North Shore?

Turow: I grew up in the city, on the North Side of the city, and my parents moved to Winnetka when I was 13. It was actually somewhat traumatic, because it was a much different milieu in those days. I came from a city neighborhood and once I was 10 years old, I was free to go where I wanted as long as the bus or the “El” could get me there.

Suddenly, I’m in the suburbs. I’m basically landlocked, because there’s no real public transportation in those days. I can only get to where my parents will drive me. I was not in the junior high school system, which is everybody’s social basis at a school like New Trier. I was lonely and ticked off that my parents had moved me out here. And the affluence, at least a higher level of affluence than I was accustomed to, was somewhat off-putting. So, I was not a big fan. Most of this was not the fault of the area or the school, but it is my personal baggage, and I was the usual depressed teenager. So I walked out of New Trier [high school] vowing that would be the last time I would ever set foot inside the building. Naturally, then, I sent three children there.

Q: Not only did you send three children there, but you resettled here.

Turow: Well, my hope was to live in Evanston. My ex-wife preferred to be one town further north. She had good reasons for that. I lost that one and I am not sure now that my kids wouldn’t have preferred that I won. Because when they reflect on their time in New Trier, I don’t hear unguarded joy when they talk about their high school experience. But again, that’s very often natural to the times of life.

Q: I don’t think unguarded joy comes for years and years, after you have lost several layers of memory.

Turow: Right. About high school. I remember my ex was somebody who loved high school and in the years since the marriage ended, I’ve dated several people who loved high school and I am always at pains to explain that, you know, that is a minority experience. Most people don’t love high school. They just don’t like being adolescents.

Q: But you seemed to have thrived and became the editor of the high school newspaper. And New Trier remains very proud of you.

Turow: This brings to mind [William] Blake, who said that, “If there’s fruit to spite the blight, don’t give credit to the blight.” And you know, I wandered into the newspaper. And it certainly was true that I had a natural feeling for it and the newspaper really saved me. I had a small community that I belonged to and I loved it. I loved my time working on the New Trier News. And my girlfriend in high school worked on the newspaper and so did my best friend. But it was sort of accidental. I certainly was never a keen teen or a cool kid.

Q: But I just want to revisit my original question. Then when did this start feeling like home? You chose to come back to Evanston, when you could have lived anywhere.

Turow: Well, I do love Evanston. I love the diversity of the community. And, candidly, that ­— to some extent — is a response to having lived other places on the North Shore. Without talking too precisely about where I live, I live next door to a tot lot. And I take enormous pleasure as an American that I can look out that window and very often not tell which child belongs to which parent.

I like the diversity of Evanston in all ways — the fact that the university’s here, you can go to Space and hear really good music. There are nice places to eat. The lakefront is spectacular. I bike around the Northwestern campus all the time. When I have to get downtown, I’m close to the city. It is nice.

Q: You said before you are a big believer in this theory that authors write only one book. And if that is true for you, what is the theme of that book?

Turow: If I understood that completely, I might be writing something different. I think I am writing about the uses and abuses of power — but that is a guess. They are just the same sort of assembly of obsessions.

I am doing writing for TV now. I’m working on this young adult book. I think that’s partly an effort to avoid repeating myself. But if you go into slightly different media, then your own constant hobby horses have a new way of expressing themselves.

Q: “Identical” seems more thematically personal than much of your other work because it is about identical twins. You’ve shared before that your sister had been a twin, but her fraternal twin died in childbirth. What conversations have you had with Vicki, your younger sister, about that?

Turow: That is a really interesting question. And I have been trying for the last couple of years to engage her on that subject and she’s extremely elusive, which she has every right to be. It finally dawned on me, about a year ago I said, “I’m doing all this talking about what the death of your twin meant to me.” I said, “What did it mean to you?”

And she said to me, “That’s an interesting question. … We’ll have to talk about it sometime.”

Q: In a strange way, you felt like he was your twin, right? Can you explain that?

Turow: The important biographical fact is that my father was an OB-GYN. His job was to deliver babies. So my father delivered healthy, happy babies for this multitude of families and somehow our baby, one of them, didn’t come home. That just seemed really weird to me. And again, being candid, I didn’t have a friction-free relationship with my father at any point in my life.

And even by the age of 3, I had the sense that something was amiss. And so, my fantasy was that what this baby had done to die, was be like me (the baby that died was a boy). We are talking about the way 3-year-olds think. That led to this fantasy that the baby was not really my sister’s twin, but must have been my twin. I was preoccupied by that thought between ages of, say, 3 and 6. And so I don’t think a young child having a fantasy of being an identical twin — of there being another “self” out there, is completely unusual, but it certainly was the way I grew up for a while.

Q: But what was the impact? Was it that you wanted someone like yourself?

Turow: Well, there is a line in “Identical” where Paul Kronon, who is the sort of antagonist of the Giannis twins, says, “I was always envious of them, because they always had someone to be with, someone who would like them. Someone who knew them.” And I think that is part of it. You want to feel that you have a place in the world and someone to be close to. A twin, obviously, satisfies that, even though I did a lot of reading about twins: They often hate each other’s guts, as often as they feel like they inhabit the same skin.

Q: There are always shades of Cook County in your fictional Kindle County. Paul was a star witness in a crooked judge scandal, inspired by a real case you worked on as an attorney. There is an allusion to a violin player who was dragged by a train, which is a reference to Rachel Barton Pine. Have any thinly veiled references ever gotten you in trouble?

Turow: Well, it is weird. I met Rachel Pine recently, and I am not sure I would have included that had I done so earlier. But, although there’s really no commentary one way or the other, I don’t think it has gotten me in trouble yet. These things just serve as inspirations. They are sort of landmarks. So that the case of the violinist who gets dragged by the train becomes the first time that Paul Giannis has a very successful personal injury suit. So the details, they get woven in, in a fairly innocuous way.

Q: At the core of “Identical” is a murder that echoes an unsolved murder that happened in Kenilworth.

Turow: This book was just a weird stew of personal things, which you correctly seized upon.

Charles Percy was a candidate for the United States Senate. And he had run unsuccessfully for governor once before. And while he was out on the campaign trail, someone killed one of his identical twin daughters in a shower of blood and glass in the girl’s bedroom in their suburban lakefront mansion in Kenilworth.

And this happened just as I was leaving the North Shore for college. I went off to Amherst College in Massachusetts. And because it was the first murder in 100 years along the Winnetka/Kenilworth lakefront area, it was one of those things that fascinated me. And of course, you know, Percy ended up winning that election. And he stayed in, won and proved to be a very successful and I think a pretty good senator.

Q: Are you aware that this seems to be your most personal book in some ways?

Turow: Well, I’m not sure I agree with that. Either I have been more honest about the autobiographical sources, which is possible, or you just know me better.

Q: You have, relatively recently, been divorced. How has that informed the way you write about relationships? Because especially in this new book, there is a woman named Evon Miller who is struggling with the end of a relationship.

Turow: Right. Without commenting on my divorce, it’s a fact. So I have been single for eight years now and that’s led to a lot of thought about relationships. Really, it brought to mind the experience of a couple of gay friends in particular, who wrestled with the issue of coming out. Then, once they came out, they realized this is hardly the end. Relationships are just as tough, as coming to terms with who you are. And you know, there may be a personal echo in that.

Q: I just wanted to return to my original question, it’s more just about writing and understanding characters. How do you understand characters differently having gone through divorce? Do you have different insight?

Turow: Well, I’ll just say, “Yes.”

Q: OK, fair enough. There are parts in this book where your personal opinions shine through. My favorite one is about First Amendment rights: “as long as there are five clowns on the Supreme Court who think that spending money is a form of unrestricted speech.” So that is Scott Turow speaking, am I right?

Turow: It is, it is. I may as well have had them print in the margin, “Author’s Message.”

Q: This seems to be something that is particularly upsetting to you.

Turow: It is, it is. I think that it undermines our democracy. When the Declaration of Independence declared that all persons are created equal, it had a vision that is fundamental to democracy … to make an inclusive political system, is to say that everybody gets equal voice in it. And so, it is one person, one vote.

Then you come along and say, “Well, it is one person, one vote, but if you happen to be a billionaire, you can spend whatever you want to influence the political process.” That is fundamentally at odds with this notion of equal influence over the government. And that’s bad enough as it is, but the doctrinal underpinnings of it, as far as I am concerned, are [B.S.].

Q: In this age where corporations are people, you have called Amazon.com a very special kind of person: Darth Vader. You said this years ago. Is it time to either revisit or update that metaphor?

Turow: Well, I don’t know about updating the metaphor, but I will say to those who thought that I was being a little hysterical: Who looks like a prophet now?

Amazon is busily engaged in this war with Hachette Books apparently over the percentage of ebook revenues that each will receive. Now, I have a horse in this race, because I am a Hachette author, but everybody knows that the model that is being developed between Hachette and Amazon will end up being the one that every other publisher is forced to follow.

The big part of this story that nobody in the press, frankly, has been following, is that not only are the Hachette authors getting screwed, but all authors are in peril, because ebook royalties are based on a percentage of the net, 25 percent of the net. So that if the publisher’s net goes down, which is what Amazon’s goal is, 25 percent of that decrease will be paid out of the author’s shares of the revenue.

Amazon is really acting not only as an antagonist to the Hachette authors — whose books are not being discounted, they’re not being delivered promptly. They won’t take pre-orders, for example, for the paperback of “Identical” — but they are also over all trying to reduce the author’s share of revenue as well as the publisher’s.

All of this, though, is to give the lie to the notion that Amazon is out for the good of literature or to offer lower consumer prices. The price of “Identical,” the hardcover, has risen 40 percent on Amazon since this affray began. They have undue market power and they are wielding it in their usual ruthless way.

Amazon and the publishers and the authors all ought to be friends, but this is Jeff Bezos’ philosophy. He thinks that ruthless capitalism is good. And maybe he is right, but, I don’t see it.

Who else but somebody with undue market power looks at their customers and says, “Go buy the book somewhere else. I don’t give a damn?” And who else but a company that is being sponsored by Wall Street and allowed to lose money? I can run a business and lose money for year after year after year. It doesn’t take any special genius to create a money-losing enterprise. And again, one of the reasons that they dare take this approach, to thumb their nose at their customers — not to mention their suppliers — is because they don’t care about making a profit. Wall Street hasn’t forced that on them.

Q: Depending on what you read, Amazon.com is responsible for 30 or 35 percent of the book market.

Turow: I think it is closer to 50 percent.

Q: Is it because their market share has yet to top 50 percent that they are not in danger of any monopoly charges?

Turow: Don’t ask me, because I think this latest episode is clearly evidence that they believe that their customers have nowhere else to go. They are punishing Hachette, not simply with ebooks, but rather with the physical books. Why do they do that? They do that because they have tethered their customers to them through Amazon Prime. People have paid $79 in advance for free shipping and so when Amazon says to them, “Oh, go buy it somewhere else” — they don’t really mean it. They have their fingers crossed when they say it. Because they have already scooped up the $79 or $99 that people pay for Prime and Amazon knows they’re not going to go anywhere else. So, yeah that’s undue market power.

Q: And, full disclosure here: my own book publisher IPG [Independent Publishers Group] also has been in conflict with Amazon recently.

Turow: Look, you gotta give Amazon credit for a lot of things. Their software is brilliant; they really have built a better mousetrap in many ways. And they deserve the success that comes from that. They do not deserve the success that comes from predatory pricing, which is what they did with ebooks for many years. Nor do they deserve the success that comes from the kind of monopoly power that they have begun to exert in the book business.

Q: Despite the turmoil, you have a young adult novel in the works, inspired by your grandfather.

Turow: Yeah, there is a shaving mug of my grandfather’s that is on my desk. He was the man of my life at a time when I needed him. A friend of mine who is a shrink liked to say that, “Every adolescent needs an adult to help the adolescent grow up. And that adult can not be one of the adolescent’s parents.” So my grandfather was that person for me.

He was just this smelly, grumpy old man until I was about 13. And I got the measles right before my bar mitzvah and in those days there was this belief that exposure to the light while you had measles would cause you to go blind. Whether there is any truth to it, I don’t know. But it led to this sort of romantic existence in a dark room and my grandfather came and sat down in the dark room and just began to tell me the story of his life.

That went on for days while I was sick and when we raised the blinds again, I was sort of in love with him. And a love that never left me. Everyone else in the family detested this man — both of his children, his wife — but I loved him dearly and he loved me. The idea of an elderly person who finally figured out how to have a loving and successful relationship with somebody, seems to me to be just a really neat literary motif. So I have always intended to write this story, but the birth of my own grandson has really propelled this. So I have a first draft done and I’ve put it aside, since both editor and agent have told me that there needs to be a second draft. I kind of get what was wrong with it. And I will go back to it; I will finish it.

Q: You mentioned writing for TV. Can you discuss what that is?

Turow: I did a pilot along with my friend Mike Robe last year for TNT. And I think everybody agrees we wrote a really good script. It did not fit the needs of the changing industry. Television is in an immense transition, which frankly is a very good one for a novelist, because TV is becoming more novelistic, if you look at things like “Breaking Bad” or “True Detective.” I am also working with the people from Anonymous Content, who put together “True Detective” originally. I am working on a new proposal for TNT.

Q: You’ve chosen American Friends of the Hebrew University to champion as a charity. Can you tell me about that charity and why you chose it?

Turow: Well, I am going to be very straight from the shoulder. I don’t like being the honoree at the disease of the week luncheons or dinners. I typically shun this role, but I was asked to be the honoree at an event that benefits the American Friends of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, this is the Chicago chapter. Despite my natural reluctance for a couple of principled reasons: My nephew, Robert Marcus went to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem for a while and it proved a pivotal experience in his own life. He is now a special assistant to the president for legislative affairs at the White House. So, having seen its enormously beneficial effect for Robert, I feel a certain gratitude to the university.

The award I’m getting is named for Jerry Solovy, who was another long time North Shore resident and the chairman at Jenner & Block. I got to know Jerry very, very well — even before I was licensed to practice law. We formed a pretty nice friendship and that persisted through the rest of Jerry’s life. I always like to say that one of the reasons that I have continued to practice law is because I have met more great people in that [profession] … and by that I mean, people of real moral vision.

Q: Is that the goal both for you as a writer and attorney? Do you hope to accomplish that amount of impact?

Turow: I mean look, what are we here for? To love people and help them. That about sums it up, right? To love and be loved and to be helpful to humanity in general. Adriane, my beloved girlfriend, likes to talk about “leaving the campsite a little cleaner.” And I think that is a worthy goal for all humans.

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