Recently, I read “DISCRETION,” by Allison Leotta and had the opportunity to interview this renowned author. Allison is a graduate of Michigan State University and Harvard Law School. Before beginning her career as a novelist, Allison practiced law for twelve years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney prosecuting sex crimes and domestic violence in Washington, D.C. It is this experience that inspired Allison to become an author and write first rate thrillers like “DISCRETION.”
“DISCRETION” begins with a beautiful young woman plummeting to her death from a balcony in the U.S. Capitol building. Then, Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Curtis arrives at the scene to investigate the case. The victim is one of Washington, D.C.’s highest paid escorts, and the evidence points to sexual assault and murder. The novel follows Anna’s investigation, and with each break in the case the mystery deepens. As Anna delves deeper into the secret world of prostitution, politics, and power, the target on her own back begins to grow larger.
With that introduction, below is my conversation with Allison Leotta, the author of “DISCRETION.”
Michael Serra (“MS”): Who is your target audience for this book and when you write in general?
Allison Leotta (“AL”): My target audience is anyone who likes thrillers. So anyone who wants a great read for the beach or stair master would love my books. I do find that young women and young lawyers tend to like my books. But, I hope there is something there for everybody.
MS: Did you always want to be an author, or did your desire develop from your experience as an attorney?
AL: I always was a big reader and always thought it would be great to write a story, but I never knew anyone who had written a story before and I did not know how to go about doing it. My inspiration to write started with having the job at the U.S. Attorney’s office. My friends and I would meet after work and always say, “There needs to be a book about our war stories.” I would say it so often that my husband was finally like, “Okay Allie put your money where your mouth is.” So when I was pregnant with my son, I finally found the time to sit down and write my first book.
MS: What are some of the attributes you share with Anna Curtis, the female protagonist in your book?
AL: I think for any author, a large part of them is in their characters, but obviously she is quite a bit younger than me. I always wanted the heroine in my story to have a darker background. I always approached cases very analytically and especially with such emotional and upsetting subject matter in sex crimes. But for a fictional character, I found it to be better to have her be more emotionally involved and have her take it personally and share some of the same feelings that are felt by the victims. So she comes from a much darker background than I ever had, and has those “flaws” or “better” attributes that I never had, which makes her a better fictional character.
MS: Is it a flaw for a prosecutor to be emotionally involved in their case?
AL: I wouldn’t say it is a flaw, but I think it is better not to. It is better to approach things as neutral as possible and to figure out what really happened. Everyone sees what happened from a different angle and as a prosecutor you want to see it from as many angles as you can. If you are emotional about it, you have a hard time seeing things independently. If you are bringing all of these emotions to the table you cannot see these angles as objectively, you see them only from your own point of view. The job of the prosecutor is a unique duty and responsibility in the U.S. justice system. The goal is to find the truth and to find justice. You are supposed to do what is right. This is prosecutorial discretion: to decide to bring a case or drop it. It is important to come at these cases with the objective to find the truth and do the right thing.
MS: When you were doing research for “DISCRETION,” how did you get people like police officers and escorts to trust you and share their experiences with you?
AL: For police officers, I didn’t find that to be a problem at all. From my job as a prosecutor, officers were really helpful and want to tell their amazing stories. I found them to be very generous. I have been on that side of the aisle and developed my relationship with them and they wanted to help me. With the sex workers, I worked with them for twelve years because they were often victims of sex crimes. A lot of the victims in my sexual assault cases were sex workers because they were runaways and throwaways. Predators know this and they prey on these women, so a lot of the cases I dealt with involved women in the sex trade. To work with a victim, the prosecutor needs to gain their trust to find out what really happened, so you are always trying to get the trust of your witnesses especially with these difficult types of crimes. Therefore, you try to be as open and empathetic and nonjudgmental as possible.
MS: On page 207, Anna Curtis analyzes the mural, “Contemporary Justice and Women,” in the Department of Justice building. In this scene, Anna describes the mural as a female wielding a sword and cutting the chains of tradition holding women back. Anna discusses how liberating this mural is, but then looks at her wrists as if she is still shackled by tradition. Is this a symbol for an ongoing struggle in the book? Is it about balancing being a young woman, having a relationship, and trying to be a professional, among other things?
AL: I think women today are confronted with this new and changing landscape. This world has not really existed before, and women are trying to find their identity. I feel this struggle, especially in this stage of my life with a job, a family, and trying to balance it all. I think this is something that all women of my generation are trying to find a way to make work. There is so much history where women have not had these opportunities and have been held back, and there are very clear rules about a woman’s role. In the first chapter, I talk about the only four women depicted in the murals in the U.S. Capitol building. These women all have extremely submissive roles. They are either a wife or naked on their knees. These are the two main roles that women had during the founding of America and we are still trying to figure out what a woman’s role is and whether women are still subject to their traditional roles.
MS: Why did you make Anna Curtis so young?
AL: She was this young in my first book, “Law of Attraction,” and I think it is more interesting for the reader to learn this world through her eyes, as she is learning it. I wanted the reader to be there as Anna makes mistakes, so the reader makes them with her. I wanted to show what it was like to be in your first job as a lawyer and the growing pains involved.
MS: Do you have any advice for law students or young lawyers?
AL: Do what you love. You are going to be tempted to go to a firm because they want you there and will throw a lot of money at you. But try to find something where you wake up every morning and are excited to do what you do.
MS: Did you always want to be a prosecutor, and how did you know you wanted to prosecute sex crimes?
AL: I always knew I wanted to be a prosecutor. My dad was an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Detroit and I loved his stories. I thought he was a superhero fighting crime. Then when you get to the DOJ you can either go the “guns & drugs” route or you go the “sex crimes and domestic violence” route. The “guns & drugs” division doesn’t really have a clear-cut victim, and I felt that with sex crimes you can combine being a prosecutor with social work and can really make a difference.
MS: Can you talk about the title of the book, and its meaning below the obvious layers?
AL: There are a couple levels, one is of course it is the name of the escort agency. The other layers have to deal with secrets, the book very much about secrets. Anna has a secret, all of the escorts have a secret, and the congressman has a secret. Everyone has a secret. This idea was inspired from the D.C. Madam case, where all these prominent people were living secret lives. I found it interesting how these people have so many secrets and how these secrets shape their lives, 5 years later or even 20 years later. Also, prosecutorial discretion plays a role in the title. Prosecutorial discretion is all about choosing what are the most important cases and where you are going to put your resources. Moreover, the book is about the choices people make and how these choices affect their lives and others.