Taking the Fifth with Daniel Libman

An interview series where writers lay it all out for Fifth Wednesday Journal

Scott Turow and the Implied Warranty of Habitability


Scott Turow is the author of ten best-selling works of fiction including Innocent, Presumed Innocent, and The Burden of Proof, and two non-fiction books including One L, about his experience as a law student. His books have been translated into more than forty languages, sold more than thirty million copies world-wide and have been adapted into a full length film and two television miniseries. He frequently contributes essays and op-ed pieces to publications such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Playboy, and The Atlantic Monthly. Learn more about him at: www.scottturow.com.

Fifth Wednesday Journal: My mother interviewed you for the Tribune Magazine like twenty years ago.
Scott Turow: What was her name?

FWJ: Norma Libman, but you won’t remember. I think it was about first jobs.
ST: Well I had some colorful ones. I worked in a fire extinguisher factory. I worked as a mailman.

FWJ: She said she got stuck in the John Hancock building elevator and you told her that happened all the time.
ST: Must have been the Sears Tower. Right. When it happens that’s not fun. Usually when the elevators stop working it drops for awhile before the breaks go on. About ten floors a second before it comes to a stop.

FWJ: You still have an office there?
ST: I do. It’s my law office.

FWJ: When I was walking downtown I overheard someone say, “I was going over your case and . . .” And I noticed I leaned in to listen. What is it about the idea of “a case” that’s so irresistible?
ST: If you go back to the notion of storytelling in general there has always got to be a conflict.  A legal case involves people who are having a pretty serious disagreement with each other. If it’s criminal obviously then somebody’s liberty is at stake, but even if it’s just a routine civil case where people are suing one another for money or a divorce — in which case it’s about love and it’s really gory and emotional — it’s the stuff that elevates itself above the quotidian. A case is literally what people are willing to fight about, and that makes it interesting.

FWJ: Did you come to writing through your law practice or was it the other way around?
ST: My dream was to be a novelist. I was a writing fellow at Stanford for two years and then I taught in the creative writing center there for another three, then I realized I was heading for a life as an English professor and it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. I started casting about for something else and I was shocked when I realized how interested I’d become in the law. I like to joke that my father was a prophet in his own time in that he was a physician who hated lawyers long before it was common for doctors to do that. I didn’t know any lawyers because he wouldn’t let them in the house. When my friends started to become lawyers I was shocked by how interesting it was what lawyers did. Eventually I accommodated myself to the notion that I actually wanted to become a lawyer.

FWJ: So the law was always something you were going to write about.
ST: I had written a novel, one of my umpteenth unpublished novels, about a rent strike on the north side of Chicago. The heart of the plot was something called, “the implied warranty of habitability.” Which I thought was fascinating but I didn’t realize until twenty-three publishers didn’t publish it that it was peculiarly fascinating to me.

FWJ: That’s an actual legal concept?
ST: Yeah! Oh yeah. It’s really the backbone of contemporary tenant law. For eons the common law whether in the US — or before that the UK — clung to a fiction that a tenant was simply renting the right to occupy the space below the building. Even if you lived in the 7th floor apartment, that was the fiction. Then in the 1960s the courts in the US began to imply in the standard landlord/tenant contract an implied warranty, an implied promise, a covenant that the place you rented was going to be fit to live in. It changed everything. The fact that the pipes leaked and the heat didn’t work — now you had a remedy for it in court because the landlord was violating the implied warranty of habitability, and that’s where housing courts came from. None of that existed before the 1960s, and the fact that law could rectify what was really a century old injustice was fascinating to me. And in the process it could so dramatically equalize power relationships so that tenants could go from the equivalent of serfs to people who have some rights. I really became fascinated by this, but like I said, no one else did.

FWJ: You’re from Chicago.
ST: I grew up in west Roger’s Park then my parents moved when I was in high school to Winnetka which was a culture shock, and an unhappy one for me. I walked out of New Trier vowing that I would never set foot in the place again and then sent three kids there.

FWJ: Do you consider yourself a Chicago writer? And what does that mean to you?

ST: I certainly consider myself a Chicago writer. I used to joke in California that all of my dreams were set in Chicago, but I think it’s really true. My great attachment to Chicago writers was always to Saul Bellow.

FWJ: Which of Bellow books had the most meaning for you?
ST: For peculiar reasons, Herzog, but everything from Augie March on I have a great fondness for.

FWJ: What other writers were meaningful to you?
ST: The writer who influenced me in the most unconscious way was Dickens. I read Dickens so much throughout the time growing up culminating in a graduate school course in Dickens. I was never all impressed with Dickens as a young person and yet his way of doing stuff is sort of the grid I accept for the structure of a novel. And Graham Greene — when I got older and began to think about how you write novels that are serious but also gripping. As much as I love writers like Dreiser and Bellow and even my own teacher Wally Stegner, I knew there was a stasis in that work that was not satisfactory to a lot of readers including me. But Bellow I just studied like it was scripture, trying to figure out how each paragraph worked, how each sentence was written, the incredible control he had over a variety of different vocabularies and dictions. The language is amazing. You know Bob Stone died?

FWJ: Yes, recently.
ST: About a month and a half ago. And he was another of the Stanford writing fellows before my time. But when he died — this is one of those things that could only happen by e-mail — those of us who were at Stanford in those years and who are still alive, gulp, sort of wrote an unconscious tribute to Stone. We all talked about the impact he had had, especially his first couple of novels. We all read Hall of Mirrors because it came out when we were at Stanford and we knew he had been there too and had enormous admiration for him a novelist. I’m not sure he ever fully got his arms around his material and every book ends in an apocalypse. But boy, what a great writer. My point is to say a lot of work has a lot of influence especially when you’re young. So it would be wrong to leave Bob Stone off that list.

presumed-innocentFWJ: On the subject of Presumed Innocent, I wanted to tell you, I don’t remember reading a lot of the books I’ve read, I mean the physical act of reading them, but I can still recall twenty-five years later reading those scenes where Rusty goes and washes off that bloody tool. I can recall the room I was in and the couch I was sitting on and being sprawled out across the cushions, so obviously I was more than casually interested in going back and finding out what’s gone on in that world since then. But why did you want go back?
ST: Without being too specific, I was at a point in my life where I had gone through a lot of changes and I think it was important to me to go back to the source — I had always said I would never write a sequel.

FWJ: So let’s start there. Why that original decision to never do a sequel?
ST: It just seemed to me like a trap. You can’t step in the same stream twice.

FWJ: But you’ve set other books in the same place.
ST: Kindle is the setting for all the novels in whole or in part.

FWJ: Which is actually Chicago?
ST: It certainly looks a lot like Chicago. It’s a little bit smaller.

FWJ: It’s probably uncool of me to ask that but I have a long-standing bet with a friend of mine who swears Kindle is based on the Quad Cities.
ST: No, but that’s certainly a reasonable interpretation except for the size.

FWJ: It has the river.
ST: Instead of the lake, right. I started out writing Presumed Innocent with Boston in mind, and I took so damn long to finish because I was working as an assistant U.S. Attorney in those years that eventually the city I was writing about became more and more like Chicago. I don’t keep a journal so the stuff that’s striking to me I sort of end up pumping into the fiction. The city became more and more like Chicago and I had to just name it.

FWJ: And the word Kindle sort of suggests smoldering just beneath the surface; corruption.
ST: Right. And low light and all the rest of it. [In 2006] I was writing what became Limitations and I had never written anything on command before, but the New York Times started publishing serial novels. So I did that and in the midst of writing Limitations I had a sentence that said, “A man is sitting on a bed in which the dead body of a woman lies.”

FWJ: Which is the first line of Innocent.
ST: Yes. It was just this post-it note and one of the weird things about it is the image I had came from a Hopper painting called “An Education in Philosophy.” A guy in an ascot of all things is sitting on the edge of a bed, a woman is naked behind him. To me it always looked like they had sex and it had not broken through the isolation of existence. At least not for him. The post-it note was there for months and then I just said one morning, that guy is Rusty Sabitch. So who’s the dead woman? I guess it seemed like literary justice, since Barbara didn’t get her just desserts at the end of Presumed Innocent, that she ought to be dead now. The death penalty was finally exacted by the author. But then what is he doing in bed with Barbara? So I went back and reread the end of Presumed Innocent and I realized he was basically reconciling himself to live with this woman by the end of the book. Which was really amusing because people like Michiko Kakutani said This is just ridiculous. It begins with the implausible — that they would continue to live together. I was like, well whether you like it or not I was kind of stuck with it from the first book, but to me it’s more than emblematic of what can happen in a bad marriage — that inertia takes people over and they just learn to accept. At that point I was off to the races. I don’t know if any writer’s vow not write something can withstand a really good idea anyhow.

FWJ: The vow itself is acknowledging there’s an idea worth perusing.
ST: Right, that something powerful is there. But you know, as a younger guy I didn’t want to become pigeonholed as the writer of the Rusty Sabitch series. I thought it was very unlikely I would be able to put lightening in a bottle again right after Presumed Innocent that would be regarded well. It would have sold well but it’s inevitable that people will say it’s not as good. It’s almost a way of preserving the value of the first book. If I were to have written a book about Rusty Sabitch that began right after Presumed Innocent that began with him trying to resurrect his life and getting involved in some other problem, it’s the same character, so how much a revelation can it be to a reader? I know what a pleasure it is to deal with a character you really like, and there are a lot of really fine writers who have written book after book about the same character, but to my mind no experience quite rivals the first time you meet that character.

FWJ: Plus the space, the time between the two stories is such an important part of the texture of the second book. You could not have written this book two years later.
ST: I could not have.

FWJ: In a book of first person narratives you managed a sharp difference between Rusty’s stiff diction and much looser way the younger people speak. How are you able to create that? Are you play-acting as you write?
ST: I hear it in my head. I couldn’t imagine that Rusty at sixty would sound the same as Rusty at forty. He has made a lot of compromises by the time of Innocent. I’m a big fan of the Rabbit novels and some of the way the walls close in on Rabbit had some influence on me.

FWJ: Why keep Tommy Molto in the 3rd person?
ST: Structurally it’s a little impure. I wasn’t confident that Tommy was articulate on his own to sustain the first person. I don’t envision him even in his new improved self as bookish or literate or literary. It would be a neat trick and if I felt I could do it would have been fine. It’s always amazing to me what Steven King can get out of a [character with] middle range vocabulary and intelligence. And he’s doing it deliberately.

FWJ: Are you writing mysteries or legal thrillers?
ST: I’m writing what I can write. A lot of it is just natural to who I am. When I was an assistant U.S. Attorney and I would describe to my supervisors a case that I was about to indict, they would sit and listen for ten minutes and then say, why do you overcomplicate everything? Can’t you see this in its simplest terms? And the answer is, no I can’t. It’s not who I am. I see all the complexities and the back and forth. I’ve always liked surprises. To me the part about “the mystery” that’s artificial is that it explains with a level of certainty what would be otherwise unknowable, which is why and exactly how somebody did something bad. The truth of course is that all literature functions on the convention that people’s motives are knowable and explicable. That indeed is what literature does, but mystery novels do admittedly take that to a different level. All novelists need to be able to square the circle, need to tell a coherent story. They still have to know what the ending is.


The complete interview with Scott Turow is available in the fall 2015 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. Please visit our store to purchase a copy.

Daniel Libman is Pushcart Prize and Paris Review Discovery Prize winner. His debut story collection, Married But Looking, was published by Livingston Press in 2012. He regularly writes the “Taking the Fifth” interview and is a founding editor of Fifth Wednesday Journal.

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