Causes of action

Detroit-born author, federal sex-crimes prosecutor tackles domestic abuse in her debut novel

Jan 12, 2011 at 12:00 am

Allison Leotta was raised in the suburbs of Detroit and attended one of the state's best public high schools. Her father was a respected federal prosecutor in Detroit and her home life was supportive. Undergrad studies at Michigan State University led her to Harvard Law School. She speaks of all of this with a refreshing sense of humility.

Fit, blond and exceedingly smart — she could've come off as a privileged power-tripper, and we could've chalked it up to circumstance. But she doesn't. And neither does her heroine, Anna Curtis, who shares much of Leotta's own story. Like Curtis, Leotta prosecutes sex crimes for the government in our nation's violent capital, but we have to trade Beverly Hills for Flint and Leotta's enthused father for Curtis' abusive one, along with a few other details.

Anyway, if you don't come to the position of federal sex crimes prosecutor with modesty, it's apparent in the first pages of Leotta's first novel, Law of Attraction, that you'll quickly gain it.

She's married (to a federal prosecutor) with two sons, so it's a wonder Leotta finds the time to maintain a blog in which she grades TV shows such as Law & Order and CSI on their legal reality, let alone to write a novel. But that's how fiction works: If you have it in you, it's going to come out. For Leotta, that's exactly what happened, at 5 in the morning.

On the heels of her novel, and an alum of the year award from Wylie E. Groves High School (also this writer's alma mater), Metro Times spoke with lit's latest lawyer-turned-novelist.

Metro Times: Is it difficult to transfer from author to prosecutor in one cup of coffee and a morning commute?

Allison Leotta: They worked well together because I was writing about what I was seeing on a daily basis. In the morning, I'd let my imagination go wild, then I'd go to work where, as a prosecutor, you have to stick to the facts you can prove in court. Still, in Superior Court, there are just so many fascinating and crazy things that are happening all around you that, with this new outlet of mine, I started watching with an eye toward maybe incorporating parts of what I witnessed into my story the next morning. I think playing those roles are mutually beneficial.

MT: You've been a prosecutor for a decade, so why become a writer now?

Leotta: I think I would've had a lot less to write about had I become a writer any earlier. I've had this really fascinating job, for 10 years, and it certainly gave me a lot of material to work with.

I don't know what I would have written about if I would've tried at 25 instead of 35. But I did always know being a prosecutor was something I wanted to do. My dad was a prosecutor and I always loved to hear about his work stories. I always thought he was some sort of superhero — putting bad guys in jail. I started writing right when I got pregnant with my first son. I think I had this feeling of impending — doom is not the right word — but I knew my life was really and truly going to change dramatically, and that if I was ever going to do it, I had to do it then. It was like a nine-month deadline. The pregnancy was really helpful, it really spurred me on. And you know what? It's true: As soon as I had kids, everything did change; life took on a whole different structure. It was then or never.

MT: Considering those you encounter as a prosecutor, who are the characters in your book?

Leotta: They're the composites of the best and most interesting attributes of so many people that I've worked with: real lawyers, real police officers, real judges and victims. Anyone who works in the criminal justice system will recognize bits and pieces in their own dockets. I tried hard to make them realistic in tribute to the people I work with.

MT: Does the book appeal any more to potential readers in the D.C. area than, say, Detroit?

Leotta: I hope the story is one folks anywhere can relate to. It's about love, justice and how we as a society deal with crime. I think those are universal themes. D.C. folks like that they recognize restaurants where dates happen and streets that they walk up and down described as they are. They like the local scene and landmarks, but the story, I hope, is greater than that.

MT: Domestic violence is a heavy subject to tackle, and sadly universal.

Leotta: I think you see sex crimes a lot, like in Law & Order SVU. But in literature, sex crimes and domestic violence have been somewhat ignored. At least in popular fiction. I hope [the book] does shine a light. This stuff takes place in private, behind closed doors, and I hope it gets some people talking, or more willing to talk about it. Just talking about it is one of the most important steps in tackling the problem.

MT: It's a topic that certainly hits home with your book's heroine. Is it an even more personal issue than that?

Leotta: I have to say this for my poor dad: The character, Anna, is based on my job, and she does what I do on a day-to-day basis. But I grew up in a nice, tame, suburban household. My dad's like the nicest guy you've met, and my mother is like a force of positive energy. So in that way, my life is nothing like Anna's. I just have an insider's view to her particular, paternal problems.

MT: Great legal liberties are taken on TV crime dramas, but you call out and grade episodes on accuracy and discrepancy on your blog. Were you more than driven to get the legal system right in Law of Attraction?

Leotta: I just wanted to deliver a good story, a decently compelling read. I'm a big reader, so I wanted to write a story that people could engage with, but, definitely, what I bring to the table is that I know how the system works. That came second-nature.

MT: Do you believe the media takes too much liberty with dramatizing the legal system?

Leotta: I have a very personal take with this, as a prosecutor, because in my field we suffer with what we call "the CSI Effect." This is when the jury expects DNA coding of every part of the crime scene and that we can somehow magically unveil the crime and criminal just by waving a black light over the scene of the crime. That's not the case. But, as a writer, I can see why they do that. The last episode of SVU I watched, they solved four crimes with four confessions, and that would never happen — but how else are they going to solve four crimes in less than an hour?

MT: Are you heading back to the courtroom for a while or are you going to attack another book?

Leotta: Actually, I hadn't planned on this, because I wrote the book as a standalone novel, but I just signed a book deal with Simon & Schuster to write two more sequels for the Anna Curtis character. It looks like she and I are in for a few more adventures.

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