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Save as Draft: Meet Natalie Lee, Novelist and Federal Prosecutor

Natalie Lee (aka Cavanaugh Lee)

Might we be seeing a new trend, namely, federal prosecutors moonlighting as novelists?

Last year, as part of Above the Law’s Career Alternatives series, we profiled Allison Leotta, an assistant U.S. attorney in D.C. who wrote a well-received thriller, Law of Attraction. Today we introduce you to Natalie Lee — an assistant U.S. attorney in Savannah, former associate at Alston & Bird, and author of a new novel, Save as Draft. (When looking up the book, please note that Natalie writes under a pen name, “Cavanaugh Lee.”)

Like Law of Attraction, Save as Draft has garnered some nice reviews. A post on Chick Lit Reviews, for example, praises the book as a “fantastic read that all of us technology addicted Chick Lit fans will absolutely fall in love with, a must read!”

The reference to technology addiction relates to the novel’s ingenious premise. I discussed that premise — along with other topics, such as the inspiration for the book’s law firm partner / villainess, a products-liability litigatrix named Rose — in a recent interview with Natalie Lee….

Save as Draft tells the story of Izabell “Izzy” Chin, a young associate at a large law firm in Atlanta, and her complicated love life, featuring two men: Marty, a fellow she meets over eHarmony, and Peter, a colleague and friend who becomes… more than that.

The subject matter sounds like a chick-lit staple, but the format is quite original and clever. The novel is told entirely through emails (both sent and draft messages), texts, Twitter and Facebook status updates, and the like. In the words of Publishers Weekly:

Lee’s inherently intimate format succeeds most when a character’s thoughts are revealed in unsent e-mails (“save as draft”), revealing the outcomes that could have been had more fearless actions been taken and how matters are misinterpreted and misunderstood.

(If you spin through the Above the Law archives under Email Scandals, you’ll come across a fair number of emails that their senders probably wish they had saved as drafts — and then deleted before sending.)

In light of the novel’s cyber-communication orientation, I eschewed the phone and decided to interview Lee over instant messenger — specifically, Gchat. Here’s the (lightly edited) transcript of my conversation with Natalie Lee.

ATL: so, my first question is – can you tell us a bit about your educational / career path?

LEE: sure. i graduated from UCLA school of theater, film, & TV. i spent four years after college working (or not really working, trying to work rather) as a struggling actress in hollywood. after getting sick of being poor, i went to law school at UNC. worked for 22 months at Alston & Bird in the ATL. then, moved on to the USAO in Southern District of Georgia where i work now… by day…

ATL: so I notice some similarities between you and Izabell, the protagonist of Save as Draft.

LEE: busted!

ATL: you both are actresses who then went to law school and then went to work at firms in Atlanta

LEE: hmm.

ATL: so,the inevitable question – oh, and I noticed some tantalizing shout-outs in the acknowledgments – is: How much of the novel is based on your own experiences?

LEE: ah yes the acks… give me away, i’m afraid.

ATL: LOL

LEE: well… pause…

ATL: btw, props for how realistic some of the exchanges seem…

LEE: the book is loosely based on real-life events. i’m trying to find the italics button to italicize “loosely.”

ATL: ha

LEE: i was engaged to be married. i did not get married. i’m still not married. i did have a pseudo-rebound affair. so… in many ways, this book, as it says in the acks, was my way of saying sorry, saying thank you, and saying everything else that needed to be said to those 2 men.

ATL: interesting!

still on the topic of realism, there’s a holy terror of a partner in the book named Rose – how did you come up with her?

LEE: hahaha. yes…Rose…

ATL: did you base her on anyone?

LEE: Rose is a composite character of several female partners that my girlfriends and guy friends had the “pleasure” of working for during their first year at a big law firm.

i, oddly enough, was blest to be paired up with very cool partners at A&B in the white collar crime department who, honestly, never worked me past 7 PM.

well, maybe there were a few times here and there…

but i watched in horror as many of those around me worked like slaves and… i put those observations into a character that, sad but true, is probably not too far from the truth at many big law firms.

ATL: she’s definitely on the extreme side, but yes, there are partners out there who are like her, alas.

ok, so let me take a step back. the book has a very innovative premise, in terms of how it’s told through emails, texts, Twitter updates, etc. how did you come up with the concept?

LEE: when i broke off my engagement a couple years back, i very masochistically read through my old emails. i noticed how many there were. thousands even. then, i noticed there were about a hundred in my draft folder – all the emails i never sent my ex. that’s what put the idea in my head that all of this technology has made us “over-communicate” while in the process “say nothing at all.”

in short, we edit. or delete.

ATL: fascinating….

LEE: fascinating and sad (pardon the pun).

ATL: re: Twitter, which Izabell has an account on – did you add that then? I feel Twitter wasn’t that big a few years back.

LEE: Twitter was one of the fictional elements of the book. I didn’t have a Twitter account until after I wrote most of the book. I added that at the end actually. I had to do “Twitter” research, because I had no clue how it worked. I’m STILL learning the Twitter lingo!

ATL: ha, interesting! or should I say, #interesting

LEE: hahaah. yes! you got it!

ATL: so – and you touched on this a little supra, but – what led you to decide to write this book?

LEE: it was the perfect blend of two things: 1) a broken heart, and 2) the dramatic downturn in the (legal) economy as of January 2009. i literally had nothing to do. i would go to work from 9-5 (sit in my office wondering how long it would take for me to be laid off since there was no work to be had back then). i would go home and write at 5 on the dot.

ATL: ha

LEE: i kid you not. NO work.

ATL: were you deferred or did you start on time?

LEE: oh, and i’d read Above the Law about all the other attorneys who were wondering the same thing as was: When are we going to be laid off?

i was the last class of law students to make it in time…i started at A&B in september 2007. it was the next group that started to feel the economy ripples… then, the group after that, i believe, got deferred.

ATL: ah yes…. since you had all this time to devote to writing, how long did it take you to finish the manuscript?

LEE: 4 months – from january 1, 2009 to april 1, 2009. got an agent on july 6, 2009. got a publisher on sept. 7, 2009. it’s scary that i remember these dates so well.

ATL: wow – that’s awesome – congrats! super-fast. so were you still at the firm at this time?

LEE: yep. i wrote the entire book while at the firm. i actually booked my agent – july 6 2009 – on the EXACT same day i started at the USAO. when it rains…

ATL: oh, interesting….

LEE: i thought – oh s–t. hopefully, the federal government doesn’t have a problem with this book…

ATL: you anticipated my next question in light of my earlier discussion with Allison Leotta [who had to get her book vetted by DOJ officials]. how did you handle that?

LEE: yes, i’m reading her book as we speak! I’m on page 79.

ATL: yes – lots of novel-writing prosecutors these days! and, interestingly enough, you’re both continuing to do both (which I think is great).

LEE: day one on the job, i was sitting at the ethics portion of my training. they started to talk about “extracurricular writing.” i started to sweat buckets. i turned to the ethics advisor, and i said: “uh, yeah, we need to talk.”

she looked at some big ethics manual. made some calls. and that was it. the book didn’t even need to be vetted since it wasn’t about any of my cases.

ATL: interesting – very cool.

LEE: they’ve been very supportive here. in fact, i’m sitting in a SAVE AS DRAFT decorated office, no joke. very sweet.

ATL: oh wow – awesome!

now the book’s official publication date was Feb. 1 – so do you have to do some promotion?

LEE: we launched the book in SF – my home town. i spent the past week there doing promos.

next up, Atlanta next week. then, back to Savannah for the book festival. then, Kentucky in a month for some book fest. and maybe… Chapel Hill… still undecided on that.

ATL: cool. btw, are you on leave then from USAO – my recollection from my own days as an AUSA is that vacation accrual is slow at first!

LEE: annual leave is no walk in the park. it very much sucks for a new federal employee. i have saved up my AL religiously. i actually managed to take a two week vacay to China last month. and, i still have enough AL left to take this past week (not counting today) and most of next week off.

but after that, it’ll be unpaid leave. let’s hope for a movie deal, lol!!! or another book deal. hahaha.

ATL: awesome, yes! well, I don’t want to reveal the ending, but – might there be a sequel?

LEE: i would love for there to be a sequel. i had always envisioned the book as a three part series. if this sells well, i very much think there will be a sequel. fingers crossed. and toes. and every other part of my body, for that matter.

ATL: LOL… now, the folks who might have been somewhat depicted in the book – are they okay with it? as in, your past beaus?

LEE: that’s a very good question. i hope so. i hope they read it and see that this book was our closure. and that i truly respect them. and that i wish them only the best.

of course, they may have a voodoo doll of me somewhere with pins in it!

ouch, my elbow!

ATL: HA

LEE: JK. in many ways, they are the heroes of the book so… i hope they appreciate that.

ATL: btw, you were an actress – could you see yourself acting in a movie version of the book?

LEE: hell no.not for all of he $$$ in the world. struggling in hollywood is only fun when one is in her early to mid twenties. i literally couldn’t eat food for 8 years… it’s nice to be able to eat again and not have to be unusually thin. it’s nice to have a bad hair day. and it’s nice to not be rejected at an audition every week!!!!!

ATL: LOL. wow!

LEE: and it’s especially nice not to have to wait tables… ugh!

ATL: so do you have a stance on the whole “is law school still a good idea” debate?

LEE: plus, my parents would disown me if i went back to hollywood.

ATL: ha

LEE: law school… hmm.

ATL: it seems to have worked out great for you, since you’re a prosecutor and a novelist
and your book does draw on the law world.

LEE: i think… that law school is a very good idea… if you truly want to practice law. i think it’s not a good idea if you’re simply riding out the economy. and i in no way condone it for someone who is going simply to find a rich husband.

ATL: LOL. too funny.

LEE: but i love practicing law. love it.

i took a HUGE pay cut to be a federal prosecutor.

HUGE.

ATL: ha, tell me about it!

LEE: so i must REALLY love it here! hahaha! yes!

ATL: what types of matters do you work on? (to the extent you can discuss in general terms)

LEE: i pros fraud. love the fraud.

ATL: very cool

LEE: no drugs, very little guns. some immigration. but mostly just fraud.

ATL: so you are planning to stay as a prosecutor – not going to do writing full time?

LEE: i honestly think… and this could always change but… for now, i really can’t imagine writing well WITHOUT my day job. it keeps one grounded. does that make sense? i don’t know how writers come up with things to say while sitting all day in front of their computers. maybe i just don’t have as vivid an imagination. but my job keeps me… grounded… and writing is this… thing… i have to look forward to at the end of my day…

and it feels really good to, as corny as it sounds, “serve justice.” i’m still SUCH an idealistic new prosecutor hahha.

ATL: ah, so my next question – when do you write? lots of lawyers out there want to write books – when do you find the time?

LEE: i write from 7 PM to 11:30 PM every night. i write for about 5-8 hours on saturday and sunday. i have no life. it’s a good thing i don’t live in NYC or hollywood anymore… not as many temptations here in quaint savannah.

ATL: wow – that’s commitment! but that’s what it takes

LEE: admittedly, i’m a little tired at times.

ATL: ok, I should probably let you get back to chasing criminals (and I should get back to blogging). anything else you’d like to add?

LEE: hmm. only that i’ve read Above the Law since I was in law school. i encountered it when… you’ll probably remember this… associates’ salaries jumped from $115,000 to $145,000.

ATL: oh yes – those were the glory days!

LEE: we all followed the blog religiously as we watched our future salaries sky rocket as we sat in class during our 3L…. and that’s all she wrote!

ATL: ha, awesome – cool! congrats on the book, and thanks for taking the time to chat!

Disclaimer: All of the views expressed by Natalie 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 Southern District of Georgia.

Disclosure: Lat received a reviewer’s copy of Save as Draft.

Save as Draft [Amazon]
Cavanaugh Lee [author website]
American Weekends Book Review: Save as Draft by Cavanaugh Lee [Chick Lit Reviews]

Earlier: Prior coverage of career alternatives for attorneys
Law of Attraction: Meet Allison Leotta, Novelist and Federal Prosecutor

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