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Historical Fiction for Turow

Novelist Scott Turow was inspired by his father's experiences as a doctor in World War II.

books Updated: Nov 21, 2005 16:31 IST

Author Scott Turow's father served as a field surgeon in a medical unit during World War II, but his stories about that experience stopped flowing before his son reached his teen years.

Now Turow- whose work as an attorney has often inspired his best-selling legal thrillers like Presumed Innocent - has used his father's conflicted views about war and courage as the jumping off point for his latest novel, a foray into historical fiction called Ordinary Heroes.

"My father when he told his war stories, even though he was in my eyes heroic, always downplayed his own heroism- not only downplayed it, didn't believe in it," said Turow. "And the reason he didn't was because he knew he was petrified. I guess he thought heroes were people who didn't feel fear."

The father-son relationship is central to Ordinary Heroes. Fiftysomething former newspaper reporter Stewart Dubinsky, seeking to understand his dead father, sets out to investigate his World War II experiences as an officer with the Judge Advocate General's Corps and subsequent court-martial.

Along the way, Dubinsky discovers an account written by his father during his court-martial. The story-within-a-story helps illuminate Dubinsky's father and his life-altering interactions with Robert Martin, a charismatic OSS officer suspected of being a Soviet spy, and Martin's comrade, an intriguing Polish woman. Before writing, Turow read the wartime letters that his father wrote to his mother.

Turow's father agonized that he was repairing soldiers only so that they could be returned to battle to risk their lives yet again. He wrote how he stayed up two nights straight trying to will a young medic to live - the medic died 10 minutes after Dr. David Turow was persuaded by a friend to take a break to get some sleep.

"There ... was a making peace with my dad that was part of writing this book," Turow said. "This was the one part of my father's life that I regarded as unambiguously glorious." The book is Turow's first real foray into historical fiction in a writing career that started with One L- his account of his first year at Harvard Law School - and then exploded in 1987 with the blockbuster novel Presumed Innocent. He's published nine books in all.

Turow's editor of almost 20 years, Jonathan Galassi, said he was not surprised when Turow told him he wanted to set a novel during World War II, because he's an author who is "always trying new challenges."

"I think he draws from whatever around him strikes his interest at a particular time. I knew that his father loomed large in his psychic life- as any father does," said Galassi, president and publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. "I think this was a way of dealing with an aspect of his father's experience that he could not have known."

Turow began his legal career as an assistant federal prosecutor in Chicago. He now focuses on white-collar criminal defense, pro bono work and serving on various public bodies, including currently chairing the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission.

Despite selling more than 25 million books, Turow said he enjoys his legal work.

"I like being in the world. I think I've got a certain fascination with power and how it's used," he said. "It's hard to do that sitting behind the screen of your word processor." And Ordinary Heroes is not the first of his novels to dip into Turow's real-life experiences for inspiration. Personal Injuries features an investigation into payoffs to judges- mirroring Turow's work as a federal prosecutor in the Operation Greylord courthouse corruption scandal in the 1980s.

He wrote 2002's Reversible Errors - about a man on death row for a triple murder- after helping to get charges dismissed against Alejandro Hernandez, who served 12 years in prison, three on death row, for a murder he did not commit.

While much of Ordinary Heroes occurs on the battlefields of Europe, Stewart Dubinsky lives in Kindle County, the fictional Midwestern metropolis that has been the setting for all of Turow's novels and where characters from past novels often intersect.

In real life, Turow lives in a suburb north of Chicago, with his wife of 34 years, Annette Turow, a painter. They have three children together, and Turow said he considers himself as having a "blessed life."

"When I sit around and speculate, when I was 21 I wanted to be James Joyce. And every now and then I wonder, have I cornered myself with this sort of suspense thing?" Turow said. "But you know, I don't think so. I think I'm a better writer. I think I'm about as good as a writer as I can be, writing that way."

First Published: Nov 11, 2005 17:46 IST