When I called to interview Scott Turow in March about his new book Innocent, he told me he was sitting down doing legal research because he had a problem in a case.
A bit later, we found ourselves engaged in an interesting side topic about modernist literature. It was very interesting to both of us, however irrelevant to my assigned profile on the man, the lawyer, and the new book.
I’m working on getting our full interview text ready to post, but until then, here is a sneak peak–Turow on modernism, the “bullet-headed” and hugging oneself after the end of a novel comes clear.
Interview by Christine Thomas, March 2010
C.T.: Like Dickens your books have multilayered characters, but are still focused on telling a good story. Why is that so important?
Turow: A lot of this comes from my strong reaction against the modernism with which I came of age as an undergraduate English major and graduate student at Stanford. The modernists, whose work in many ways captivated me, whether we’re talking about Joyce or Ezra Pound or Virginia Woolf or many others, really saw art as if it were a machine which would be constantly improved and lead society forward. There was obviously something to that point of view. A play like Angels in America really did break boundaries and sort of put the understanding of gay life in a vastly broader cultural context.
But generally speaking, the idea that works would never be understood by the bullet-headed, as Pound once said, seems inimical to what I think literature should do. Take one person’s experience and make it universal—I thought that’s what art was about, so the idea of writing off the bullet-headed struck me, as the years went on, as absurd.
I was reinventing the wheel for myself. I eventually thought, especially as I started trying cases, the stories in the courtroom engross everyone—especially when the star witness is on the stand talking about something that the community judges to be evil. So I was drawn to it; but the reality is crime stirs something really deep in me. I had decided that I would light out for the territories and leave academic life and go to law school when I watched one of my friends try a rum-dum case in Washington state. I had a friend who was a criminal defense attorney and he told me he got sick every morning before he tried a case and even that sounded great to me.
I was deeply drawn to that life. It was a matter really of discovering my subject, and my inclination as a writer has always been toward plot and surprise. I like that. But I didn’t believe in the modernist novel and I didn’t believe in the realist novel that was written by the likes of Saul Bellow—and I’m talking about writers I really admire and whose work is significant—but there were flaws in them that I saw.
I just didn’t think that was right. People don’t want to read about the humdrum and ordinary—they live the humdrum and the ordinary. Basically the conflict is between when you write about the quotidian reality and the humdrum and everyday, you’re writing about stasis, and I wanted to write about change. And change takes place only when the assumptions we have about our lives are altered, and usually they’re altered by events. [For example] You wake up one morning and your wife is dead on the bed beside you. I thought that’s where a lot of the potential of literature was.
I love surprise. I have a great deal of fun putting these novels together. When I figured out the end of Innocent, I wanted to run around the house hugging myself. I love it as a reader because life really does surprise us. When a novel mimics that process it really invites us to expand our comprehension of the world, even if it’s the imagined world.
To be continued…