Real-life crimes turn prosecutor into crime thriller novelist

Allison Leotta
Alumna Allison Leotta visited mid-Michigan for her 4th book tour in May, promoting her latest book, A Good Killing. Leotta spoke with HConnections Managing Editor Stephanie Cepak about her time at MSU, what happened after law school and how she went from being a federal prosecutor to a successful crime thriller writer. Leotta has been dubbed “the female John Grisham.” Her goal is for John Grisham to be dubbed “the male Allison Leotta.”

Cepak: What do you remember about your time in the Honors College?
Leotta: What I remember at the time (is that) I was really intimidated. I didn’t come in (after high school) through the Honors College, but I wanted to get in. And so it was my big goal my first semester to do well enough so I could get into the Honors College. I was really intimidated whenever I took an honors class with the other kids.

Cepak: Really?
Leotta: It was fine. It all turned out fine. But I remember that it was very supportive. There was great counseling and it was a little home that you could go to. I remember it was great that whenever you had an honors class, you were surrounded by super bright people and the conversation was always interesting. You’d never have a boring conversation in one of the honors classes.

Cepak: Did you go right to law school after you graduated from Michigan State then?
Leotta: I did. I went straight through.

Cepak: And then you graduated from Harvard Law School?
Leotta: In ’98 and then I clerked for a year with a federal judge in Ohio. Then I went to the justice department, (through) their honors program, which is kind of the only way that a first-year lawyer can get into the justice department. And then I went to the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C. and that’s where I worked for eight years. And that’s when I did most of my work in sex crimes, domestic violence, crimes against children.

Cepak: Did you ever do any creative writing before then, at MSU or Harvard?
Leotta: I hadn’t. I did a lot of writing being in James Madison (College). That was a huge writing program, not so much in fiction, but you just had to be able to write a good essay in order to get through there. So, I think that was helpful. But writing fiction is using a totally different part of your brain than what I was learning at James Madison. I think I was just a big reader; I loved to read a good story. So, I think that’s where it came from.

Cepak: I was reading on your blog, or maybe it was the website, that you started writing when you had your first child.
Leotta: Yeah, when I was pregnant with my first child. I knew I had this really strict nine month deadline. I knew after nine months, that’s it, there’s going to be no more free time anymore. So, I had to get it done. And I actually didn’t get it done. I started it, I started the book and I was probably halfway done with the first draft when my little baby came. But luckily I had enough momentum going to then keep going. I kept writing even after the little guy arrived.

Cepak: Was that like a bucket list kind of thing you had decided that ‘I’m going to write a novel’? Leotta: I think at the time I started I was too young for a bucket list! No, it was more like I kept coming home from the courthouse saying “I can’t believe what just happened”…mostly to my husband, “sweety you’ll never believe what happened. Somebody should put this in a book.” And I think finally you say that enough times and you have to put your money where your mouth is or stop saying it.

Cepak: How do you make those connections? Did you know people in the publishing world living where you live, or no?
Leotta: Not at all. I had never met anyone before that who had written a book. So this was a very novel thing when I first met a writer. And now of course I’ve been doing this for a while and I know a lot of writers and it doesn’t seem nearly as interesting as at the time. When I wrote the first draft, it took a year. And I re-wrote it for a year. They say all writing is re-writing. So, (I) re-wrote, re-wrote for a year. And then I got the How to Get Your Book Published for Dummies book.

Cepak: Really?
Leotta: And it was helpful, but what it boiled down to was get yourself an agent. And so it suggested there was going to be 1,000 queries, and 99 (percent) rejections. I was very organized. I had an Excel spreadsheet of all the rejections I was going to get and how organized I was going to be about it. And then right out of the box, the first agent that I queried said, “Great, let me represent you.” So, I was super lucky. I felt like I had won the lottery.

Cepak: This is your fourth book and this is all based around the same character, her journey. This one is coming back to Michigan?
Leotta: Exactly. They’re all standalones, so anyone could pick up any of the books and enjoy the book if they haven’t read anything else. But, you can also read them as a series and see her development too. Anna Curtis the whole time, which was surprising because I thought I had written one book. But Simon and Schuster thought “this is a series now.”

Cepak: Are there any more slated to come out after this?
Leotta: Yes, I just turned in my fifth (book) on Monday. So it’s been a big week.

Cepak: How long does it take you to write (an entire book)?
Leotta: It takes about a year. I spend about six months researching, then three months writing the first draft, three months kind of tweaking it, re-writing and re-writing. So, about a year. And it takes a year to go through the publishing process to come out the other side. So, I turned this in (pointing to book) about a year ago. I started it two years ago. It’s so satisfying when you finally see it. There, I can touch it! It’s real; it’s in your hands. So, it’s very exciting.

Cepak: Do you normally come through Michigan when you do your book tours?
Leotta: I have every time. Because I have family here still. My mom is here; my sister was here, she just moved. But I still have family and friends here, so it’s nice to come home and see Michigan. One of my favorite parts is I get to come home and do a little victory lap with my family.

Cepak: Did you go by campus today?
Leotta: I didn’t today, unfortunately. The last time I was on campus was two years ago and I was blown away by the cafeteria at James Madison (Case Hall). Oh my gosh! I was like ‘I came here at the wrong decade’! I’ve (been) coming to that stadium (Spartan Stadium) since I was two years old. My dad was a Spartan and he would take us every year. We would go to a bunch of Spartan football games. We’d park, we’d go along the river and we’d go to the football game, we’d tailgate. For a long time I thought that MSU was just a tailgating spot, a river and a stadium. I pretty much had to go here because I came from a big Spartan family.

Cepak: How much of what you experience in the courtroom influences your writing now?
Leotta: I had enough stories from working in D.C. Superior Court to last a whole lifetime. So, I do try to take the bits and pieces that were the most interesting from all of those stories and put them into the book and give them a book that will ring with authenticity… also that kind of urgency that we’re dealing with real issues here.

Cepak: Do you miss being a lawyer and in the courtroom?
Leotta: I do. I love being a prosecutor. Especially a sex crimes prosecutor. I think it’s the most rewarding job there is. There’s nothing like putting a predator in jail and knowing your job is keeping your community safe. But this is a dream come true. Being asked to write books is really a dream come true. So when push came to shove and I had to make a choice it wasn’t even really a choice. I just had to take the leap and see what I could do on the page.

Cepak: And you’ve obviously branched out too. You’ve become a commentator. In terms of analyzing the crime shows, how did you get into that?
Leotta: Two things. Well, every author needs a platform, so that was a pretty obvious platform. But I’ve always loved the TV crime shows. But they drive me crazy; they get so much wrong. In the past there was no outlet except throwing popcorn at the TV. And here this is much more productive; the blogging is much more productive than throwing popcorn at the TV. So I was covering SVU for a while. People were really into that. They wanted to know what’s real and not real, so that was fun.

Leotta is a contributor to the Huffington Post, where she reality-checks TV crime dramas like Law & Order: SVU. Her blog, The PrimeTime Crime Review, was named one of the best legal blogs in America by the American Bar Association. Leotta has provided legal commentary for outlets such as CNN, MSNBC, PBS, and Reuters TV. She serves on the Board of Directors of the Mystery Writers of America.

This article was originally published in HConnections 2015.