Innocent by Scott Turow '70

It took me over two decades to publish a follow-up to my first novel, Presumed Innocent.  To be honest, I thought for many years that I never would write a sequel. I always thought self-imitation is an inherently limiting thing for a writer, and I was afraid of trying to equal a book whose success at the time depended in part on breaking new ground


But then, in late 2005, during a period of introspection provoked when my last child (Eve, Amherst ’09) had went off to college, I began to have some ideas about writing about Rusty Sabich. For months I'd had a Post-It note sitting on my desk which said only, "A man is sitting on a bed in which the dead body of a woman lies." I didn't get any further than that image (based, I surmise, on Edward Hopper’s painting “Excursion into Philosophy”), so that I had hesitated even to write it down. And then one morning, I turned around and I looked at the note and I said, "Oh, my God, the man sitting on that bed is Rusty Sabich." And then, of course, who's the woman? I had a pretty quick determination that it was his wife, Barbara.

I think in retrospect, it was important for me to go back to the beginning. I was coming up to sixty myself, looking both backwards and forwards for a variety of personal reasons. I see now what I didn't see then, which is that I wanted to go back to the very start and, as it were, start again. And at this stage, I was no longer worried about constraining myself. By now, enough time has passed that I thought many people would be curious about Rusty Sabich — starting first of all with me.

One of the deepest truths about life is that people are sometimes compelled for reasons they don't understand to keep repeating the same mistakes. So I regarded the parallel circumstances of Rusty’s being accused of murder in both Presumed Innocent and Innocent as deeply revealing of the character, and full of a meaning that wasn't as clearly there the first time around. All the characters in Innocent are informed by the experience of the first book, and are trying desperately, in a paraphrase of Ecclesiastes, not to step in the same river twice.

I have to say I like this book a lot. I suppose it's not surprising to hear an author say that. What I really enjoy about it is the emotional complexity of all of the characters. All of that evolves out of trying to be faithful to the situation of Presumed Innocent—and saying to myself, what would it be like to be the man who had survived a cataclysmic experience? Rusty has spent the years since his trial trying to rebuild his life to what he hopes it would have been, and reaches that peak only to recognize that the effort has not made him happy.

I also asked myself what would it be like to be the child—the only child—in a household where there's all these dark secrets. It's true that Rusty and Barbara’s son Nat has been protected. And yet he's had big stuff to deal with as a kid: a clinically depressed mother, a father accused of murder. I take some satisfaction that at the end of the day he's grown up.  I thought Nat was, in some ways, the most interesting character in the book, facing the most dramatic challenges—father accused of murdering mom—which he responds to with as much courage as he can muster, which still leaves him blind to certain facts.

But Nat’s is just one of multiple voices heard in this novel.  If a book is going well, there is always a character who resonates unexpectedly. I don't think that when I started writing Innocent I had the idea of writing from prosecuting attorney Tommy Molto's point of view. But I got up one morning and tried it, because I had an inkling that maybe it would be good to show the investigation of Barbara's death in parallel with what had gone on in Rusty's life a year before.   Tommy ends up as Rusty’s doppelganger, a man who’s profited from time and dared to change to his own great benefit.

Once I had opened up the perspectives beyond Rusty, I felt obliged to offer other characters’ viewpoints, including that of Rusty’s senior law clerk Anna Vostic, because I don't think she can be as fully accepted as a character unless you really see how she understands herself.

There is a truth that every reader reads a book his or her own way. But art of all kinds also depends on creating universals; in the case of narrative, we seek to create a fully imagined individual, a character, to whose life readers have something of a universal reaction. There are great differences in nuance in terms of readers' responses, but if there is a common element, a book can probably be deemed a success.  I invite you to decide about Innocent.

- Scott Turow '70


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