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Scratch a lawyer or a judge and, beneath the surface, you’ll often find a novelist — or an aspiring one. For most, the dream remains a dream; the manuscript gathers dust on a shelf. Footnotes crowd out flights of fancy. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Three lawyers who have actually pursued their dreams and seen their novels published successfully spoke recently about combining the lawyerly and literary arts at a forum sponsored by the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. Speaking in the Shakespearean setting of D.C.’s Folger Theatre, Scott Turow, Linda Fairstein, and Stephen Carter did not make it look easy as they described how they fit fiction writing into their legal careers. But they all made it appear worth the effort. And all of them, interestingly, said they wanted to be writers before they aspired to a career in the law. “I never wanted to be a lawyer,” said Carter, whose novel The Emperor of Ocean Park was a 2002 bestseller. He’s been writing novels in his head since his childhood. “What lawyers write, I didn’t want to write.” Turow, a founding father of the legal thriller genre with bestsellers including Presumed Innocent and Reversible Errors, also always wanted to be a writer. “My father hated lawyers before it was fashionable,” he recalled. Fairstein, author of the popular series of Alexandra Cooper crime novels, said, “I’ve wanted to be a writer since I can remember.” For each, other priorities intruded, and they became successful lawyers first: Carter, a prominent professor at Yale Law School; Turow, a partner in Chicago’s Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, where he still works part time; and Fairstein, formerly the groundbreaking chief of the sex crimes unit of the New York district attorney’s office. As they pursued their legal careers, each found the law lacking in certain ways. Though lawyers and writers have the same “central preoccupations” of storytelling and truth seeking, Turow said, law lacks an emotional dimension. “The law isn’t comfortable with emotion,” he said. “Law is the story of society. A novel is the story of one individual in that society.” Fairstein saw in writing an opportunity to educate on a grand scale. Prosecuting sex crimes led her through “endlessly fascinating” legal thickets, and by writing about them in fictional form, she said, “I thought I could illuminate these issues while being entertaining. I’ve reached many more people than before.” Another appeal, Fairstein said, was that “I can say things in novels that I couldn’t say in court without objection.” Carter found new risks and challenges in writing fiction. “In law there are footnotes — giants on whose shoulders I can stand,” he said. In fiction writing, however, “I put myself on the line when I invent scenes.” At work now on a second novel, Carter added, “Writing novels is excruciatingly difficult. I always feel somewhat at sea.” Finding time to write, while also meeting deadlines and expectations, has been a constant challenge. Turow still writes on the train during his commute to his Chicago law office. But they all persisted and have found the writing immensely satisfying — even if literati sometimes still turn their noses up at legal thrillers and crime fiction. “If someone wants to accuse me of being in the entertainment world, that’s OK with me,” said Carter. “Celebrity has been an impediment,” said Turow, especially when he walks into court. “Judges want to put you in your place.” But as he cuts back on his law firm work, Turow said he enjoys writing fiction more and more. “I really am in touch with the joy of it,” said Turow. “A lot of writing is being in touch with your inner 6-year-old.”

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