Scott Turow on politics, corruption

Scott Turow, a bestselling author of legal thrillers, will be in town for a reading and book signing 6 p.m. Friday at the Charleston Library Society.

His latest novel, “Identical,” is another page-turner, this time addressing the influence of money in politics.

Turow, a practicing criminal lawyer, was an Edith Mirrielees Fellow at the Stanford University Creative Writing Center from 1970-72, then taught creative writing there until 1975.

Born in Chicago, Turow has written nine fiction and two nonfiction books, which have sold more than 25 million copies worldwide.

His first novel, “Presumed Innocent,” written in 1987, arguably is his most famous. It was turned into a 1990 movie starring Harrison Ford. Two other Turow books were made into films.

In anticipation of his visit to Charleston, The Post and Courier asked him a few questions.

Q: You are known to be very concerned about political corruption, in particular, the way campaign financing erodes the democratic principle of one-man-one-vote.

You have even considered advocating for a second Constitutional Convention as a way to achieve sweeping reforms without relying on status quo institutions.

You new novel, “Identical,” addresses the ways in which money corrupts society. Is the book a sort of Trojan Horse, a way to get readers to consider issues you deem important? And what should Americans do about the force of money in politics?

A: I always agreed with what Darryl Zanuck, the head of 20th Century Fox in the 1930s, supposedly said to one of his writers who delivered a very political script: “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.”

Fiction is fundamentally about ambiguities, about what’s not clear in life. “Identical” is first and foremost a complex mystery, about love and families. Because Paul Gianis, one of the main characters, is running for mayor, politics plays a large part in the action of the story, and the money chase is a huge component of today’s campaigns. But my views about our campaign finance laws get no more than two lines in close to 400 pages.

Beyond that, readers can reflect or not, as they choose, on the state of our laws, which allow a billionaire to blast the airwaves with an accusation of murder against a political rival, charges that seem, at least initially, to be based on nothing more than a hunch. As usual in my novels, even the political point is blunted by the ambiguities that emerge.

Yes, I’m concerned about our current campaign financing system for just the reason you say. If we have a society conceived from the start on the notion that all persons are created equal, that makes that principle real in the requirement of one-person-one-vote, a principle designed to give every citizen equal say in the political process, then how in the world is it compatible to give rich corporations and individuals an unlimited right to influence elections, to let them use an electric bullhorn while other citizens can barely whisper?

I expect the Supreme Court to eventually turn around on this issue and to find that spending money on elections, while sometimes a form of free speech, cannot be unrestricted, and must be balanced against the equality principles we cherish.

Q: Your legal thrillers always incorporate serious current issues. “Presumed Innocent” dealt with big-city political corruption; “Ordinary Heroes” was about, in part, the brutality of war.

To what extent have your own experiences, professional and personal, informed what you write about?

A: Completely. I don’t keep a diary. I write about my present-day impressions in my fiction, and, of course, I work out in my novels the preoccupations of a lifetime.

In “Identical,” it’s an intense curiosity about twins that stems from the stillbirth of my sister’s twin when I was 3 years old.

Q: As a practicing criminal defense lawyer, you have worked on several death-penalty cases. You served a couple of years on Illinois’ Commission on Capital Punishment, and you wrote a book about your views and experiences called “Ultimate Punishment.”

Where exactly do you stand on this issue? Is capital punishment justifiable, in practice or theory?

A: Despite having represented an innocent man who’d spent years on death row before he was exonerated, I came to the Capital Punishment Commission unsettled on the issue, a death penalty agnostic as I liked to put it. But two years to reflect on the death penalty, to read the cases and the research, left me convinced that the death penalty would never give Americans what they want from it, that is a clear moral declaration that some forms of behavior are so cruel and depraved that we as a society must make the most emphatic statement against it.

The rationale is perfectly acceptable, but if you want to have a system designed to send a moral message, then it must be precise in its operation. Randomness and error are completely incompatible with that moral clarion. And yet that is what we will always have.

Differences of race, class, gender and geography all provably influence who gets selected to die, and even worse, capital cases are especially prone to error. Even a whiff of executing the innocent subverts that moral message.

Q: You are the author of 12 books. And you are a working lawyer.

Do you write and practice law simultaneously, or do you alternate between the two?

A: For many years the two have existed side by side, although my practice slowed somewhat beginning in 1990.

In the last few years, my role as president of the Authors Guild has eaten into my time to practice, but I tried a criminal case a couple of years ago while occupying that role, and expect to revert to a more robust practice when my term ends next spring.

Q: What’s your next literary adventure?

A: Currently, I’m working on two things: A young-adult novel based on my relationship with my grandfather, and the next legal thriller, set at the International Criminal Court at the Hague.