The Presumed Innocent author, whose new legal thriller is Identical, talks about law school, being member of a band made up of superstar authors, and being able to practice law while he writes novels.
NC: Where did you grow up?
ST: I grew up on the north side of Chicago, in West Rogers Park, an overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhood. When I was 13, my parents moved to Winnetka, Illinois, an upper class, WASPy suburb where Jews—as well as Blacks and Catholics—were unwelcome on many blocks. I suffered the spiritual equivalent of whiplash.
NC: Where’s the best steak in Chicago?
ST: At my house, cooked on my Big Green Egg over lump charcoal and mesquite. If you can’t get an invitation, then I’d go to Gene & Georgetti’s, featured in Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift. The place hasn’t changed since the first Richard Daley was mayor.
Cubs or White Sox?
Cubs—although I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll be like my dad, and never live to see them World Series champs.
You studied law and are a practicing lawyer. Was there a particular historical legal case that inspired you to become a lawyer, or that captured your imagination during law school?
Truth told, no. Like most Americans of my age, I was very impressed by the dynamic capacities of the law, demonstrated by the civil rights movement and then Watergate, animated by Sam Ervin’s mantra that no person is above the law. But the case that had the most impact on me was an imaginary one, central to a novel I failed to publish while I was a writing fellow at Stanford. The legal details I’d included in the book fascinated me, if not my would-be publishers, and clued me to how deeply interested I was in the law, which was something of a shock.
What prompted you to write your first book, at the start of your legal career?
One L was written largely by accident. I was embarrassed to tell the agent who had worked so hard to sell my unpublished novel that I was going to law school, so as a kind of sop I mentioned to her that there really were no nonfiction books about what it was like to be a law student. I wasn’t actually proposing to write that book myself, but when she presented a contract to do it, I couldn’t say no. My rejection slips, laid end to end, reached most of the way to the moon.
I’ve asked this question of Judge Richard Posner, and I thought I’d ask you the same. Besides the U.S., which other nation’s legal system do you particularly admire, and what is different and admirable about it?
Unlike Judge Posner, I don’t consider myself well-versed in the legal systems of other nations, although I’ve been lucky enough to travel quite a bit. That said, the biggest difference that I’ve noticed is not whether a nation’s legal system is code-based on judge-made, but whether its citizens are truly committed to the rule of law. The Brits remain an example to the world in that regard.
Describe your morning routine.
It’s not really a routine, because the pace is so likely to vary, but the greater portion of days finds me up by 7 and looking through three newspapers over coffee. By no later than 8:30, I’m at my desk, writing. I think the truth, to be brutal with myself, is that I spend no more than 45 minute out of every hour actually getting things down on paper. The rest of the hour goes to email or phone calls. But this does not prove that technology has intruded on my life, since years ago I’d just spend that 15 minutes wandering around the house, often ending up at the refrigerator.
What is a distinctive habit or affectation of yours?
I don’t know if this trait really counts, but the reason I’ve been able to continue practicing law is that I can take a call from a client in the midst of writing a sentence and complete it as soon as I put down the phone.
How did your superstar writer rock band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, form?
The late Kathi Kamen Goldmark, an author’s escort, a.k.a. author-schlepper, and professional musician in San Francisco, conceived the idea of getting some of the authors she schlepped to play music together. [The band’s members have included Dave Barry, Maya Angelou, Amy Tan, Barbara Kingsolver, Matt Groening, and Stephen King, among many others.] The next time I was with Kathi, I told her that I bore a psychic wound because I was not invited to join. Aghast, she asked what instrument I played, or what other musical talent I might possess. My frank answer was, “None, but I’m wounded anyway.”A few years later, I became a regular with the band, but only as a way the talented members could prove that they don’t take themselves seriously.
Please recommend three novels featuring lawyers to your readers, and tell us why you like them:
The Just and the Unjust by James Gould Cozzens. Cozzens, largely forgotten these days, was a 20th-century realist writer in the mode of Theodore Dreiser. Although the book is slow by contemporary standards, his evocation of the life of a small-town lawyer is remarkable, and the book’s surprises, when they come, seem shattering.
Phineas Finn by Anthony Trollope, the story of an Irish lawyer who more or less wanders into Parliament. (It was recommended to me years ago by the then Cook County State’s Attorney, Dick Devine.) It’s Trollope, wonderfully chatty, with occasional passages repeated hundreds of pages apart, but Phineas’s evolution in the way he thinks about the law, and its relationship to the problems of life, is discerning.
A Married Man by Piers Paul Read. This novel is currently out of print, but I can’t fail to mention it. It tells the story a British barrister, a criminal lawyer, in mid-life crisis. I read the book while I was in law school, and its combination of clever plotting and earnest reflection served as one of the models for what I was trying to accomplish when I wrote Presumed Innocent.
Describe your routine when conceiving of a book and its plot, before the writing begins. Do you like to map out your books ahead of time, or just let it flow?
I tend to start with a kernel, a vague concept, and just begin to write things down—notes about a character, lines of dialogue, descriptive passages about a place. One idea fires another. I do that for about a year. By then there’s a story, and I’ll go on to a complete first draft that sews many of those ragtag pieces together. It is not an efficient way to write, but I love that exploratory phase, when even bad writing somehow seems promising.
What has to happen on page one, and in chapter one, to make for a successful book that urges you to read on?
God, I wish I knew, I really do. For most of us it’s like Justice Stewart’s definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
Is there anything distinctive or unusual about your work space?
Only that, as you might expect, the U.S. Criminal Code, and a similar collection of Illinois criminal statutes are nearby.
Besides the obvious, what do you keep on your desk?
I keep two sentimental mementos on my desk to remind me of two favorite men. There is an inkwell that my Uncle Seymour made, a brass grotesque he mounted on a marble base. And my grandfather’s shaving cup is there, used to store pencils and pens. As a boy, I watched my grandfather create a froth of lather in that cup, and shave himself with a straight razor. He was a wonderful grandfather, which is made all the more remarkable by the fact that both his children couldn’t abide him. I’m writing a YA novel right now for which he is the inspiration.
Was there a specific moment when you felt you had “made it” as an author?
When I went off to the fabled Creative Writing Center at Stanford as a fellow, after graduating from Amherst College, I wanted to be the next James Joyce. Bestsellerdom was never a goal. So there was a bizarre moment of realization, after Presumed Innocent was published and began its astonishing rise up the bestseller list. I was on vacation in Oshkosh, Wisconsin with my young family, and I remember heading back into the rented condo to get something one of the kid’s had forgotten. Alone there in the dim apartment, I was suddenly staggered by the overwhelming success the book had become, with adoring reviews and rocketing sales. After more than 20 years of wanting simply to be a published novelist, it was very weird finally to take in that I was having a success far greater than anything I’d dared imagine.
What do you need to have produced/completed in order to feel that you’ve had a productive writing day?
No page or word counts, but I have to keep my ass in the chair, which is hard at the very start of the process. If I allow myself to become distracted, as I’m inclined to do at that point, then I’m disappointed in myself.
Tell us a funny story related to a book tour or book event.
There are many, but I’ve had many star-crossed travels any time I get on United Airlines. The tour for Identical commenced October 6 with a trip to Providence to address the New England Independent Booksellers Association. I left my house at 5:30 p.m. and walked into the hotel in Providence at 4:15 a.m. In the interval, my fellow passengers and I had been subjected to several indignities unprecedented in the life of a guy who averages 100,000 air miles a year. Among them were being walked out onto the tarmac several blocks and then held there in a driving rain as the ground crew refused to let us board, including a man in a wheelchair. As you might guess, there were equipment malfunctions and plane changes and paperwork screw-ups, but the topper was the announcement, when we finally reached Providence at 3 a.m., that the flight crew could not get the door open. Eventually, we deplaned through the emergency hatch. So much for the glam life of a bestselling author.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Write. Don’t talk about what you’re going to write, or figure you’re getting somewhere because you’re rubbing shoulders with writers. Nike put it best: “Just do it.”
What would you like carved onto your tombstone?
An end date very far in the future.
What is your next project?
Aside from the YA book, I’ve also started the research for a novel set at the International Criminal Court at The Hague.