Author Interview: Allison Leotta

allison-leottaAllison Leotta is the author of the Anna Curtis series, about a DC-based U.S. Attorney who specializes in sex crimes. The first three books were set in DC; last year, Leotta brought Anna back to Michigan (A Good Killing) and in her new novel, Anna is in a town that sounds oh-so-similar to Ann Arbor. Leotta, a native Michigander who also worked as a sex crimes prosecutor in DC, brings real life chops to this wonderful and engaging series. I read her new book, The Last Good Girl, in one sitting, and was thrilled she agreed to an interview.

Q: Obvious question first: how did you turn to writing, away from, I’m assuming, your busy and compelling job as a prosecutor?  How does your work inform your writing?  

 A: Writing was cheaper than therapy. Prosecuting sex crimes was a crazy, stressful, haunting, rewarding, heartbreaking, enlightening, engrossing experience, and I never stopped thinking about it, could never leave the job at the office. Every prosecutor I know has some hobby they turn to for their mental health, from ultra-marathon running to ultra-marathon shopping. Writing was my way of processing everything.

Q:  Did you always want to write suspense/thrillers?  Or is this the form that came naturally to you as you started to write?

A: I wasn’t aiming for a particular genre, I just wanted to tell an authentic story about a sex-crimes prosecutor.  Turns out, the life of a sex-crimes prosecutor plays out a lot like a thriller.  Every day at the USAO, I’d walk the halls wondering what would happen next.  Every time I thought I could no longer be surprised, something surprised me.  That makes for a lot of good raw material, and for a naturally suspenseful story.

Q: I like that your novels often address a very timely issue.  How do you choose what you’d like to write about?  

A: Unfortunately, there’s always some bad man doing some bad thing in the world (sorry, it’s almost always a bad man in my line of work).  There’s plenty of “inspiration,” and I always have several ideas percolating. When it’s time to pull the trigger on a book idea, I talk to my editor, my agent, my husband and a few trusted friends about these ideas, spinning out how they’d work.  After several conversations, I start to get excited about one in particular, and that’s the one I write.

Q:  This new book and the last one have taken Anna from Washington, D.C. back to her home state, Michigan.  What do you feel makes telling a story in Michigan an important part of Anna’s story arc?  (As a Michigander, I’m all in favor!)

A: I’m from Michigan, too, so it’s easy for me to write about!  And I’ve always been fascinated by Detroit.  The city has represented the very best and the very worst that America can be.  And where it is now – poised between desolation and renewal – is such an intriguing moment.  I love the people who are working to find creative ways to bring it back, and I try to highlight that spirit in my books.

Q: I really like the way Anna’s gender is portrayed in terms of how she’s treated by the general public.  I don’t see the people she works with as sexist, but she certainly encounters sexism, and it’s especially vivid in this novel. There’s a sentence toward the beginning “Being underestimated could be a power in itself.”  I felt like that really illustrated the way Anna has adapted and used possible negatives as positives as far as her work is concerned, and it stuck with me after I’d finished the book.  Do you want to comment on that?

A: When I first started at the Justice Department, I was twenty-six years old with unlawyerly long curly blond hair.  I’d walk into a conference room filled with a bunch of older male lawyers, and they’d look behind me to see where the attorney was. One guy ordered coffee from me.  (To his credit, he was embarrassed when he learned I was the prosecutor, not her assistant.)  I was underestimated pretty much every time I got a new case. It didn’t take long for me to learn how to use that to my advantage – to out-prepare, out-research, and out-strategize the other guy – and enjoy the look on his face when he realized he’d been bested by the girl he thought was going to fetch him a half-caf.

Q: I’m interested in the way you approached the research in this book which involves the way students live on college campuses now, and their attitudes toward one another.  It seems very “right” – how did you achieve that?

A: Thanks!  I’m so glad you think so.  This didn’t come naturally to me – it’s been twenty years since I graduated from Michigan State. I hung around campuses here in DC, watching students interact and checking out the new scenery, like vending machines offering condoms and lube.  I spoke to college students about their take on modern campus life.  And I watched a lot of vlogs – video logs – of college students on YouTube.  I took notes on how they were talking, and, you know, kind of, gave that to my characters.

Q: A technical question: your books are brilliantly paced. How do you achieve that in the writing process? In a way I think writing a good suspense novel is like writing a good poem, as it can’t have anything extraneous that drags it down. It has to be lean and mean!

A: Thanks again!  I agree that a good suspense novel has to be lean and mean.  I definitely don’t achieve that in the writing process – that happens during editing.  My first drafts are sloppy and oversized.  I spend as much time editing my books as writing them.  I try to carve away everything that isn’t essential to the story or entertaining to the reader. If a paragraph can be expressed in a sentence, I use the sentence. I kill a lot of darlings.

Q: Who are your writing influences/inspirations?  

A: Too many to list!  I’m a lifelong bookworm, always reading when I should have been sleeping.  Two of my favorites are Jane Austen and George Pelecanos, and I like to think of my work as Pride and Prejudice meets “The Wire.”

Q: What read for you in life was “transformational”?  The book you read that opened your eyes or changed your life?  (It might be a book you read when you were 10).

A: This has nothing to do with my genre, but the non-fiction book Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond changed the entire way I look at the world.

Q: Finally what’s next for Anna?  Any tidbits you’d care to share about what’s coming up for her?

A: Poor thing, I’ve put her through a lot the last few years. She might need a little rest while I look into writing something new. I’ll keep you posted!