By Karen Harper
Recently I sat down with Jilliane Hoffman to talk about her new nove, Pretty Little Things. Please tell us a little about your new legal thriller.
Thirteen-year-old Lainey Emerson is the middle child in a home police are already familiar with: her mom works too much and her stepfather favors his own blood over another man’s problems–namely Lainey and her wild older sister.
When Lainey fails to come home from a night out with friends, her disappearance is dismissed by the local police as just another disillusioned South Florida teen running away from suburban drama and an unhappy home life.
But FDLE Special Agent Bobby Dees is not quite so sure. When he discovers Lainey was involved in a secret internet relationship, he fears she may be the victim of an online predator. And when chilling portraits of other possible victims are sent to a local television station, he realizes she may not be the only one. Haunted by the still unsolved disappearance of his own teenage daughter, Bobby will find himself pulled into a deadly game of cat and mouse with the most prolific killer he’s ever encountered.
Your topic certainly seems ripped from the headlines–and a necessary, if sad, warning about the world we live in. What brought you to this hot-button, terrifying topic of which Publisher’s Weekly says “the suspense ratchets up to such a high pitch that most will keep flipping pages till the end”?
My daughter was only eleven when a classmate of hers started a texting relationship via cell phone and AOL Instant Messenger with a boy she’d met on the internet. Pretending to be sixteen, this little girl then passed the telephone numbers and email addresses of her fourth grade friends along to her new pal. My daughter told me–mind you, while I was driving–what had been happening after the boy had asked one of the girls to send pictures of herself to him. That was also when my daughter told me that the boy’s AIM screen name was “rooster69”, the obvious sexual meaning of which was lost on a bunch of eleven year-old children. After the tow truck finally unwrapped my car from the light-pole I had then run into (I’m kidding about that part), I contacted the parents of the children involved along with Crimes Against Children squad of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It was no surprise to find out that this “boy” was a 43 year old man from North Carolina, and the pictures he had asked this child to send him were to be taken without clothes on.
I was not prepared to encounter these internet problems with my kids at such a young age. But I should’ve been. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in every seven children is approached by a sexual predator on the internet. A recent sweep by the Attorney General in New York found more than 3500 convicted sexual offenders on Facebook and MySpace. That’s just New York sex offenders. And those are the ones who used their real names on the social networking sites. And those are just the sex offenders who have been caught and actually convicted. I thought the time was right to pen a thriller about the subject.
Your career as a prosecutor obviously gives you great background for your legal thrillers. Are you able to be completely true to the legal aspects of that career, or must some things be fictionalized?
That is the one rule I follow when I write a legal thriller–I always follow the law. I may make up plots and quirky characters, but when it comes to taking that fact pattern and dropping it into the criminal justice system, I work the story into the law. Because once you bend the rules to make them fit your story, you will inevitably lose credibility. Someone out there will know that’s not how an Arthur Hearing would happen, or that search would be suppressed, etc., and you’ll lose that reader. I never want to lose a reader for that reason. Besides, it makes it much more interesting to take a plot to its natural conclusion in a courtroom.
How difficult is it to write a villain who is a cyber criminal, compared to the standard in-your-face bad guy?
As legal counsel for FDLE, I had the experience of working undercover Internet sex predator cases with both the Crimes Against Children squad and the Law Enforcement Against Child Harm (LEACH) task force. That experience gave me a little insight into the part, but it was still a challenge to write a predator/sociopath who hunts via the Internet. The “grooming” dialogue had to be both authentic and creepy, but yet not obviously threatening to a teenager and not completely boring to an adult reader. I also had to make sure both my bad guy and my victim sounded like teens, so for that I had to enlist the help of a couple of resources– namely my friends in law enforcement and, on occasion, my own tween and teen daughters. OMG–that was interesting. INSIA. (I Now Speak In Acronyms.)
Can you give other thriller writers any advice for writing psychopathic characters? Have you done research on this, or have you met some real-life felons you have used as “inspiration”? Do all psychopaths have traits in common?
As a prosecutor, you definitely come in contact with some warped individuals. That includes a few sociopaths. But in addition to tapping into my real life experiences with crazed, dangerous individuals, I do extensive research on the subject. In the past I have interviewed psychopaths and schizophrenics (for my novel, Plea of Insanity), and I have read multiple treatises on both mental illness and psychopathy. It also helps to have a friend who is a forensic psychiatrist with more than a few whacked clients, whose brain you can pick over drinks!
Congratulations on the movie rights being sold to Warner Brothers for your earlier novel,Retribution. How is that project going? If it hasn’t been cast yet, who would you like to see play the leads? Will you be able to visit the set during filming? It sounds like an author’s dream come true.
Thank you! I am very excited that Retribution may one day be made into a movie. Since selling the movie rights, I have learned that that day may be a way off, though. Hollywood moves at its own pace. Sometimes movies can spend many years “in development” before anyone actually picks up a camera, such as was the case with Forrest Gump, which spent eleven years in that state. I can only hope, though, that when and if they do move forward with Retribution, it turns out half as good as Forrest Gump did! Imagine that—a chain of Retribution restaurants. Waiters in clown masks and bloodstained menus. How macabre! As far as leads, I was lucky at one point to hear that actresses such as Jodie Foster, Julia Roberts, and Renee Zellweger were interested in the role of C.J. Townsend. Any of them would be amazing! I would also love to see Charlize Theron or Naomi Watts. As far as visiting the set–that’s a definite. I want to be a juror!
What are you working on now or next?
I am currently writing a sequel to Last Witness, which was my second novel. It is a conclusion to the C.J. Townsend / Bill Bantling story.