Scott Turow heads to Holland, the Balkans to pen his latest thriller

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Author and attorney Scott Turow traveled far from his Evanston home to research his new novel, “Testimony.” | Ashlee Rezin/For Sun-Times Media

When it’s time to escape his daily grind of practicing law and writing novels, Scott Turow chooses a world where he can observe the insights of other writers.

In a recent chat, Turow said he and his wife, Adriane, really enjoy “seeing a lot of theater. We have season tickets to Steppenwolf and Lookingglass [theaters], and we’re going to see ‘Shakespeare in Love’ at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre,” said Turow. “By far, beyond any other culture pursuit, we really love going to see a lot of theater. We’re so lucky there’s such an abundance of it in Chicago.”

The Evanston resident’s imagination and fertile mind has propelled him to write 10 novels — plus two non-fiction books — over the past 30 years. The inspiration for his latest, “Testimony,” has been germinating for many years.

The premise takes the Bill ten Boom attorney character out of that frequent Turow setting — the Chicago/Cook County-esque Kindle County — to The Hague in the Netherlands. That’s where ten Boom becomes a special war crimes prosecutor at the International Court investigating the alleged massacre of 400 Roma people [also known for centuries as gypsies] during the Bosnian War. In the process, ten Boom also journeys to the Balkans for a bit of first-hand snooping — turned by Turow into a thriller yarn with many twists and turns.

Turow points to two incidents in his life that inspired him to write “Testimony.” While in Holland about 17 years ago on a book tour for his “Personal Injuries” novel, he was introduced to lawyers working at the International Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia. “They told me, ‘You’ve got to write a book about this place. You won’t believe what goes on here! There’s so many back-channel intrigues!’ ” said Turow.

“You have to understand, people tell me all the time they’ve got a unbelievable story that I’ve GOT to write. However, 90 percent of the time, it turns out to be about their divorce or something like that,” said the author with a chuckle. “Unfortunately, those divorces aren’t different from anybody else’s divorce!”

However, this story pitch struck a chord with Turow, and made him think of something else that he said “has been on my author’s bucket list for about many, many years: writing a book about the Roma.”

About 40 years ago Turow was visiting a dying family member at what is now Rush Medical Center. At the same time, a man who was the leader of the local Roma community was in the hospital, causing a lot of grief for the staff.

“The nurses were going crazy, constantly having to lock patients’ room, because watches and cufflinks and other valuables kept disappearing. There were dozens of Roma huddles in all the waiting rooms,” explained Turow, who added that even standing ashtrays in the public areas disappeared during that time when smoking was still allowed — even in hospitals.

That incident made Turow wonder, “What goes on with these people who are so enmeshed in their own value system that they engage in petty thievery, making them unwelcome in a place where everybody wants to be welcomed — a hospital?

“I wanted to learn about that value system that was different from anybody else’s, and thought that some day I would explore that and get to understand it. Writing ‘Testimony’ gave me that chance,” he added, noting that it was the centuries of bigotry against the Roma that had played a big part in their becoming known for stealing from others. As part of his research, Turow spent several weeks both back in The Hague and in Bosnia, where he visited Tuzla and Sarajevo.

One of his biggest challenges in writing “Testimony” was to lay out a compelling page-turner that still explained the intricacies of the court in The Hague, and the issues that surfaced during the Bosnian War. “Of course, it’s very, very complicated on so many levels. These people have been hissing at each other since the 14th Century.”

A final sad note of which Turow came to be extremely aware: “the role of the United States in Bosnia. Americans saved thousands and thousands of Muslim lives, but we never made that overtly evident to the rest of the world — even other parts of the Muslim world. I’m not saying that would have prevented Al Qaeda going after us, but I think there would be more support for the United States if we had made it known we had refused to allow Muslims to be slaughtered in the Balkans.”

Scott Turow will be signing copies of “Testimony” beginning at 7 p.m. May 25 at Barnes & Noble, 55 Old Orchard Center, Skokie.

Frugal Muse Books, Music & Video will be offering a special event with Scott Turow at Hollywood Blvd. Cinema, 1001 W. 75th St., Woodridge at 6:30 p.m. on May 24. Note: This is a ticketed event — a conversation between Turow and Dave Berner of NPR’s “Weekend Edition” and Columbia College Chicago. The discussion and audience Q&A will take place at the theater. The book signing will follow at the on-site museum.

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