This Law of Attraction is a novel by Allison Leotta, a federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. It’s a fun, fast-paced read; I could hardly put it down, finishing it in two sittings. I concur with the blurb by Harvard law professor and criminal defense attorney Alan Dershowitz: “I loved this novel. Law of Attraction is realistic, gritty, and filled with twists and turns. Allison Leotta’s female lawyer character is compelling and engaging. This is a great read for anyone who loves legal thrillers, cares about domestic violence, or wonders how lawyers can live with themselves.”
(Disclosure: I also enjoyed Law of Attraction because it contains an Above the Law cameo. After the protagonist, assistant U.S. attorney Anna Curtis, gets in trouble, her misadventures wind up on ATL (pp. 217-18). The novel even contains fictionalized comments from the peanut gallery of Above the Law commenters — which are hilarious.)
I spoke with Leotta recently, while she was in New York to meet with her agent and do a book reading. We discussed such subjects as why, and how, she wrote her novel; the Department of Justice review process for the book; how she juggles her day job as a prosecutor, her writing career, and being the mother to two kids; and her advice to lawyers who want to become writers.
ATL: Let’s begin the way all lawyer interviews being: name, rank, serial number. Tell us about your career path.
My dad was a federal prosecutor in Detroit. I grew up listening to his stories, thinking of him as a superhero fighting bad guys. So being a prosecutor was always something that I was interested in. I went to James Madison College at Michigan State, then Harvard Law School. After law school, I clerked for Judge Algenon Marbley (S.D. Ohio) for a year. Then I went to the Justice Department through the DOJ Honors Program, where I worked on consumer litigation and consumer fraud cases.
After my husband Mike [also a federal prosecutor] and I got married, we took a year off and traveled around the world for our honeymoon. I joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in D.C. when I returned, in 2003. I started off in appellate, followed by misdemeanor domestic violence, where my novel is set. Then I went to general felonies, where I worked on gun and drug cases, followed by felony domestic violence. Now I’m in a senior post in the sex crimes section of the office.
ATL: There are some similarities between you and the protagonist of your novel, Anna Curtis. You’re both Michigan natives and HLS grads turned prosecutors, handling domestic violence cases in D.C. How much of the book is based upon your own experiences?
Anna has the same résumé as I do, but she’s a different person. She’s younger and hipper, she drinks wine, she banters and flirts. I go home after work. I have two toddlers. Cheerios are all over the place.
Anna takes her work more personally than I do, and her romantic life is much more complicated, partly because of what she experienced as a child. I didn’t have that — my childhood was a typical happy suburban childhood.
ATL: Why did you decide to write the book?
I’m a huge book reader. I was always the kid reading after bedtime with flashlight. I seem to have had a biological clock for writing that went off around the time that I had my kids. I started writing when I was pregnant with my first son.
As a prosecutor, you see incredible heartbreak and acts of evil, but also courage and dignity and healing. Some of these stories gave me nightmares, and some of them inspired me. I decided I needed to take all of this thinking and imagination and put it into a book.
ATL: Well, the book turned out great — had you done fiction writing before?
No — this was my first foray into writing fiction.
ATL: We have many lawyer readers who dream of leaving their day jobs and becoming novelists. But it’s tough to juggle a full-time job practicing law and writing.
You not only have a rather demanding day job, as an AUSA in D.C., but you’re also the mother of two children. Do you sleep at all?
I’m the tortoise — my writing was slow but steady. I’d work for two hours every day, from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. Some people watch television or go to the gym for two hours; I’d write. I could also get in time when my kids were napping.
When I first started writing the book, Mike and I went up to his family’s cabin for a week to write. I thought I’d have the book halfway done by the end of the week. It ended up taking me two years — significantly longer than the week I had anticipated.
ATL: Did you have an idea of exactly what was going to happen in the book before you started writing?
I did have an idea of what was generally going to happen, but things did change. I wrote a first draft in about a year, but it wasn’t exciting enough, so I went back and punched it up. I went through countless drafts. By the end of the process, I was satisfied that I had a fun, compelling read, which tackled some serious issues in an interesting and novel way.
My husband Mike was my first reader. He was the appellate chief of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore, and he’s an amazing editor. He gave me very honest feedback. The process wasn’t always great for our marriage [laughter], but it was great for the book. There’s no way I could have done the book without him.
At some point I decided I was basically done, and I let a few close friends in the U.S. Attorney’s Office read it. They gave me some feedback and I made some edits. Then I sent it to an agent, and the agent agreed to represent me.
At that point, before the agent approached publishers, I told the Department of Justice ethics advisers about it, and the book had to go through a whole review process. People in the U.S. Attorney’s Office had to read it, and people at Main Justice had to read it.
I was worried about the process beforehand. What if I had to change the whole book? But the reviewers were very nice. They tried to be as efficient as possible, and they asked for just a few changes, nothing major. The clearance process took about four months. The main concern was to make sure that nothing in the book violated DOJ ethics rules or compromised national security. Thankfully, sex crimes and domestic violence generally don’t affect national security.
After the DOJ approval, my agent went out to publishers with the manuscript. Simon & Schuster bought the book around Thanksgiving of last year. There was additional editing and preparing the book for publication, and it came out earlier this month.
ATL: What advice would you offer to lawyers who want to make that transition from writing briefs to books?
Lawyers are natural storytellers. Most lawyers have stories in them, as well as the writing talent. It’s just a matter of finding the time. Commit yourself to putting aside a few hours a day. It’s about determination more than anything else. Make it a priority to yourself, a promise to yourself.
Accept that you’re going to generate a lot of unusable material. By the end of my process, my manuscript was 350 pages. But I also have a document on my computer called “False Starts,” and that document is 700 pages — twice as long as my novel.
Some stuff that you write is going to be bad. But that’s okay. Just write it, get it out on the page.
ATL: You’re a very talented fiction writer. I’m guessing you’re also an excellent legal writer. How would you compare the two types of writing? Do you find it tough to make the mental shift between them?
It’s not difficult; actually, it’s a lot of fun. As a lawyer, you have to stick to the facts: the facts that you can prove, in court, under the rules of evidence. Precedents are also key.
It’s the opposite for fiction; you don’t want to say anything that anyone else has said before. And in fiction, your characters can do all these things that you couldn’t do as a lawyer — they can run amok and do fun, crazy things that you never could do without getting into trouble.
ATL: As a former prosecutor myself, I was impressed by the realism of your book. But did you ever feel trapped by reality, by your knowledge of how things actually happen? Did you ever feel the need to put things in the book — in terms of, say, details about the prosecutorial process — that aren’t realistic?
One strength of mine in writing this book is that I bring to it this knowledge of prosecuting domestic violence cases, these highly intimate crimes. I want to give readers a sense of what that’s really like. So I try not to take liberties; the whole process is fascinating in terms of what it really is.
And the things that happen in D.C. Superior Court sometimes are so astonishing that you wouldn’t believe them if they were written as fiction. Sometimes I’d write something, and my husband, an AUSA in Baltimore, would read it and say, “That would never happen.” And I would say, “Actually, that happened on Tuesday!”
So no, I didn’t find myself hemmed in by the facts. I feel that there’s a ton of material to work with.
ATL: In addition to what you see as a prosecutor, where do you draw inspiration for your writing? Are there any other writers you particularly admire?
I love Jane Austen, and I love The Wire. I have two boxed sets of DVDs: the boxed set of the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and the boxed set of all five seasons of The Wire. I like to think of Law of Attraction as “Pride and Prejudice” meets “The Wire.”
As for other writers, I read everything I can get my hands on. I can’t fall asleep at night without reading. Scott Turow is masterful. I also have a whole new appreciation for John Grisham. It wasn’t until I started trying myself that I realized how hard it is to do what he does.
ATL: What’s next for you? And what’s next for Anna Curtis?
For me, I’m planning to keep working as a prosecutor and a writer. I love being a prosecutor. If you woke me up in middle of the night and asked me who I am, I’d say I’m a prosecutor. But I also love writing, which is tremendously exciting. So I hope to continue doing both.
As for Anna, Simon & Schuster has expressed interest in a sequel. So I’m dreaming up Anna’s next adventures.
ATL: Congratulations again on the book, which is a fantastic and fun read. Thanks for taking the time to meet up!
Disclaimer: All of the views expressed by Allison are hers alone, and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia.