By Karen Harper
Recently I sat down with Allison Leotta to discuss her debut legal thriller, Law of Attraction.
Please tell us a bit about your novel.
I’m a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C., specializing in sex crimes and domestic violence. “Law of Attraction” is about – surprise! – a federal prosecutor in D.C. specializing in sex crimes and domestic violence. The book is part courtroom drama, part love story, and part murder mystery.
My heroine investigates a mysogynistic killer, while her own boyfriend, a public defender, represents the accused. As her love life collides with her professional life, she learns she may be just as vulnerable as the victims she works to protect.
In writing Law of Attraction, I tried to create the type of story I like to read myself: a fast-paced tale of crime and punishment, infused with authentic detail, which will give the reader an inside glimpse into how our criminal justice system really handles the most intimate crimes.
This may be your debut legal thriller but you certainly have the background to write it. How much of you is in your fictional female prosecutor?
There’s a bit of me in Anna Curtis, but she’s much more interesting than I am! We both hold the same job and have similar resumes. We’re both driven to work for justice and we feel similar frustration at the roadblocks. But our backgrounds are different. I had a tame and happy childhood in suburban Michigan. Anna’s childhood was much darker, so she takes her work a lot more personally and her romantic life is more challenging. And she gets herself into a lot more trouble than I’ve ever been in! She also has a more exciting nightlife. I’m the mother of two toddlers, so a big night for me usually involves Happy Meals, matchbox cars, and handfuls of Cheerios. I enjoyed shadowing Anna at hip urban happy hours and watching her banter and flirt with other bright young things.
The fact that your setting is Washington, D.C. adds a new layer of meaning to your novel. Did you choose D.C. because you are so familiar with it or for other reasons?
D.C. is a fascinating city – in some ways it’s two cities. There’s the “federal city,” the part you would see if you took a bus tour: the monuments and Mall, embassies and hotels, fancy office buildings filled with lobbyists and politicians. Then there’s the local city – the guy driving the bus lives in that part of town. There are folks who live in D.C. their whole lives, in rowhouses literally in the shadow of the Capitol, who never set foot in the building. These are the people who give the city its character and energy and make it a vibrant place to live. But there are some communities that are struggling, some bad neighborhoods, and some truly dangerous places. That’s the interesting thing about the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where a lot of “Law of Attraction” takes place. It’s that rare place where the two sides of D.C. intersect, when the federal lawyers prosecute the street crimes.
Lawyer extraordinaire Alan Dershowitz praises Law of Attraction for its twists and turns. Does such thriller plotting come naturally to you or did you really have to work at it?
My real-life job is filled with twists and turns, and art imitates life, right? Every day at the office is filled with surprises. Defendants who have threatened to kill prosecutors and their children. A witness who unsnapped his wooden leg and brandished it while being cross-examined about whether he was an able-bodied man. A woman who mooned a prosecutor – yes, she pulled up her skirt and flashed her bare bottom – while telling her daughter, “This is what we do to people we don’t like.” Jailbreaks, revenge killings, politicians caught on wiretaps. As a sex-crimes prosecutor, you never know what you’re going to find around the corner. That translates very naturally into the thriller genre.
Your lawyer protagonist becomes as vulnerable as the clients and victims she represents. Does this strengthen or weaken her character? What does she learn from this?
Lisa Scottoline often quotes this great saying: “A woman is like a tea-bag; you only know how strong she is once you put her in hot water.” Who wants to read about a woman who goes to bed early, eats five servings of vegetables a day, and never gets in any trouble? Your heroine can be a nice girl, of course, but she needs to land in some trouble; only then can we learn what she’s really made of. So that’s what I did with Anna. She was smart and tenacious to begin, but I put her through the wringer. I made her face her greatest fears, gave her some terrible luck romantically, and plunked her into seemingly impossible situations. In the end, she comes out stronger and wiser – but the fun part is watching that happen. In writing “Law of Attraction,” I most enjoyed when Anna was in the toughest spots, seeing how she’d fight her way out of them. The harder things got for Anna, the more fun it was for me. Hm . . . I hope that doesn’t make me a sadist.
On your blog (accessed through your website www.allisonleotta.com) you evaluate the realism of such crime shows as Law & Order and SVU. What are several key common errors on those shows which writers should learn to avoid–and the viewing public should take with a large grain of salt?
I love the TV crime shows! I’ve always been addicted to them. But now when I relax in front of the TV, only half my mind is enjoying the story. The other half wants to stand up and shout, “Objection!” There are so many things they get laughably wrong. On my website, I talk about things like facial-imaging technology and the near-impossibility of getting fingerprints off a gun. One low-tech thing that struck me recently is how chatty all the TV witnesses are – like they all can’t wait to have a heart-to-heart with the detectives. In real life, the opposite is often true. Sex crimes are the most under-reported crimes in America; sometimes talking about the crime is almost as painful for the victim as having it happen. And some eyewitnesses don’t want to testify because they fear retaliation, or just don’t want to get involved. The talkative witnesses on shows like SVU add a lot of interesting facts to the plot, but in real life, cops and prosecutors have to work a lot harder to earn witnesses’ trust and really get them to open up.
Can you tell us about your next project?
I’m working on a sequel to Law of Attraction. Anna has moved up in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, and she’ll be handling bigger, more complicated cases. Next up: an explosive political sex scandal that threatens to bring down powerful men who are willing to do almost anything to stop Anna from exposing their secrets.
And my children are my ongoing work-in-progress. I try to give them lots of love and attention so they don’t end up sitting at the wrong table in D.C. Superior Court. Between writing, prosecuting and mommying, it’s a crazy, busy, and wonderful time!
*The views in this interview are Allison’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Justice.