- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 21, 2017

The novelist Scott Turow has sold 30 million books around the world and had five of his stories turned into movies, with “Presumed Innocent” becoming a hit film starring Harrison Ford in 1990. But Mr. Turow, the Chicago-based writer and attorney, insists that when he begins a new work, a film of it is the last thing on his mind.

“I’ve never thought of myself as someone who was trying to write movies. I’m writing novels,” Mr. Turow told The Washington Times from his offices in Chicago. “I’m trying to please my audience and myself. And if a film doesn’t [get made of it], I don’t think that’s a black star against the book.”

Mr. Turow’s latest work, “Testimony,” is now on shelves. In the new novel, American attorney Bill ten Boom leaves almost everything behind to travel to the Netherlands, where he looks into the case of an entire Roma village that disappeared in the former Yugoslavia a decade prior.

“I couldn’t believe the kinds of crimes against humanity that had taken place there,” Mr. Turow said of the conflicts that tore apart Eastern Europe in the ‘90s. “Like many others in the Western world, [I paid] so little attention to [this] unimaginably awful event.”

The seed for “Testimony” was planted while on tour for his book “Personal Injuries” in 2000. Mr. Turow traveled to The Hague, where he met many American ex-patriots working in international tribunals, many of them addressing fallout from the 1990s wars in the Balkans.

“They all were saying you have to write a book about this place,” Mr. Turow said, adding that such unsolicited “advice” often bedevils his travels.

But something about the treatment of the Roma people — pejoratively known as “Gypsies” — during the Bosnian War intrigued Mr. Turow, as did their misunderstood history that went back centuries to their origins in India and their lack of identification with a written past.

The idea was further stoked when a Roma acquaintance of Mr. Turow’s died in a Chicago hospital. Jewelry and other trinkets began disappearing from patient rooms, Mr. Turow said, taken by the Roma who had come to the bedside of his colleague.

“I said to myself, ‘What kind of people are these that they would self-consciously engage in this pattern of behavior knowing it’s going to lead to them being reviled?’” Mr. Turow said. “There are lots of minority groups around the world that are reviled, but very few who commit themselves to just getting so far into the faces of the majority culture.

“Are they self-hating or are they so deeply steeped in their own values that they don’t care about anybody else’s?”

Mr. Turow’s research took him both to The Hague and to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where he spent time in a Roma village and met their people. The Roma were subject to enslavement and persecution in what is now Romania for hundreds of years, but Mr. Turow said that history does not define how the Roma see themselves in their present context.

“Virtually every other ethnic group I know of, including all the other people in the Balkans, everybody can tell you when their ancestors were mistreated. The Roma are an ‘ahistoric’ people,” Mr. Turow said. “Their sense of identity is not rooted in a sense of victimhood.”

Furthermore, he said, the Roma do not maintain a written tradition of their own history and are always living in the present.

“In many ways, the past to them is something that is always being invented,” Mr. Turow said.

Mr. Turow, 68, graduated from Harvard in 1978, one year after publishing his first book, “One L.,” a nonfiction tome about his experiences in law school that became a veritable primer for legal students that followed. “Testimony” marks four decades since Mr. Turow first began writing professionally.

When asked what advice he offers to aspiring writers now, Mr. Turow, whose own daughter is also an author, said that he advises young writers to “have a sense of realism.”

“Richard Russo and I were going to the airport after an Authors Guild board meeting, and he said, ‘You know, we were writing during the golden age for novelists,’” Mr. Turow said his fellow scribe told him, adding it was “certainly the golden age for best-selling novelists.”

“I’ve always tried to tell my kids that they can’t expect to emulate my career because you can’t emulate luck,” Mr. Turow said. “And I hate certain aspects of the life of young writers today, particular the degree to which they are asked to write for free.”

Mr. Turow has also kept active away from his practice and his writing. He was even on the commission appointed by former Illinois Gov. George Ryan to reform the state’s death penalty. (Mr. Ryan commuted all such sentences in 1999 before leaving office, but was later convicted of racketeering charges. He was released from prison in 2013.)

“Two decades ago I was really pessimistic about when the death penalty would end in the United States. It may not be in my lifetime, but it’s not going to be a lot longer than that,” Mr. Turow said, making no attempt to hide his disdain for capital punishment.

“The reality is that the death penalty doesn’t work,” he said. “People get what they want out of it, but it doesn’t add to a sense of morel justice.”

Mr. Turow, who lived briefly in the capital area after graduating college — “like most lawyers, I have tons of friends there” — said he hopes that readers of “Testimony” come to a greater understanding of the tragedies that befell not only the Roma during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, but also of the precarious state Bosnia and Herzegovina now finds itself in, what with its three constituent governments all vying for power.

“There isn’t a person in Bosnia who thinks this arrangement is going to hold,” he said. “They’re all holding their breath hoping that war doesn’t break out again.”

When not on book tours, Mr. Turow continues to call Chicago home. Unlike other Midwestern cities, Chicago has transformed to a service economy, he said, thereby allowing it to escape the scourge of the loss of manufacturing jobs that have plagued places like Detroit and St. Louis.

“It has been a role model for keeping the middle and the working class within the city, and I really hope that continues,” he said. “To say that we have problems that haven’t been addressed, particularly in the poorer segments, that’s obvious to everybody.”

Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Mr. Turow seems to brighten at mentioning perhaps his city’s most notable recent export.

“This is the city that Barack Obama came from,” he said.

“Testimony” is available now. To purchase or to learn more about Mr. Turow’s schedule, visit ScottTurow.com.

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