Q & A #45 – Allison Leotta, “The Last Good Girl”

Last Good Girl 2Did you read the non-fiction Missoula by Jon Krakauer?

How about the entire text of the statement that a rape victim read out loud in court to her attacker, a former star athlete at Stanford University?

There’s a lot of this, unfortunately, going around.

As a topic, campus sexual assaults are ripe for fiction and The Last Good Girl by Allison Leotta dives straight into the fray.  It’s a compelling read.  My full review follows. First, Allison was kind enough to answer a few questions about her approach to this novel, the fifth in her Anna Curtis series.

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Question:  The Last Good Girl reads like the perfect fictional bookend to Jon Krakauer’s Missoula, his non-fiction account of college town acquaintance rape and how the cases are handled (or mis-managed) at both the college and police levels. Did you read Missoula or was The Last Good Girl inspired or informed by another specific case or cases?

Allison Leotta:  I read Missoula while I was midway through writing The Last Good Girl.  I realized that Krakauer had written the non-fiction version of the novel I was writing.  He did a great job with the research; it all felt very authentic.  I saw cases like the ones he highlighted over and over when I served as a sex-crimes prosecutor in DC.  In writing my own book, I took details from those cases and also from cases that were in the news.  Unfortunately, in this area, there has been too much “inspiration” to draw from.

Question:  In an interview about Missoula, Krakauer said he was “appalled” when he learned about the rate of rape and abuse and that he felt a bit ashamed about not paying attention to the issue of rape, the impact on victims, and the low percentage of cases that are prosecuted. What’s it going to take to change the culture and the way these cases are handled? Do you sense anything changing?

Allison Leotta:  We need to talk about this – which is actually something that is happening.  Even the terrible Brock Turner case, appalling as the sentence was, was helpful in a macro sense, because it sparked a national conversation.  I think a lot of people were in a similar position to Krakauer pre-Missoula: not realizing how prevalent the issue is and how harrowing an experience for the victims. The conversations we’re having, even here on your blog, Mark, are a crucial first step.  This is a crime that has thrived in silence.

Question:  There is a positively harrowing scene toward the end of The Last Good Girl where you decided to show readers the crime, up close and personal. What was your thought process about putting this on the page? Was it hard to write? How did you know when you had enough detail?

Allison Leotta: It’s a scene I learned about over and over, from the victims to whom it happened.  If we’re going to have a conversation about this, I figured, let’s talk about what it really is.  I just tried to convey that authentically.

Question:  Do you plot before you write or dive in and start writing? Did you know Emily Shapiro’s fate before you began?

Allison LeottaAllison Leotta:  I’m a plotter, I outline like crazy before I start chapter one.  I did know Emily’s fate before I started—but I didn’t know exactly how it played out, what exactly went down.  When I got to the crucial scene, it suddenly came to me, and it was so elegant and perfect.  It was one of those magic writing moments.

Question:  Anna has a lot on her hands in The Last Good Girl, including some questions about her own relationships and what they mean for her future role (or roles). How do you balance the romantic elements and the mystery/crime elements as you write? Do you know where Anna is heading with her life, long-term, in future books?

Allison Leotta:  The romantic and professional elements of Anna’s life seem to balance pretty naturally, in part because I was in that situation.  I and all my prosecutor friends were navigating our private lives—dating, getting married, planning families—while prosecuting sex crimes.  It’s a unique POV.

I have no idea where Anna will head in future books.  I’m just happy she made it through this one!

Question: If benevolent dictator Allison Leotta could change one law around sex crimes at the federal or state level, what would it be?

Allison Leotta: Hm, if I’m the dictator, I’ll change two laws.  First, I would expand the statutes of limitations for sex crimes.  Many children are raped, and only summon the courage years later to talk about it. In many jurisdictions, those cases are barred because too much time has passed.  That needs to change.

The issue affects adult victims too.  There’s an incredible book out this season called “Jane Doe January,” by Emily Winslow, a crime writer who was raped when she was in college.  Twenty years later, they found her rapist—and had to let him go again because of a statute-of-limitations issue. Outrageous, infuriating stuff.

Second, I would mandate that all rape kits be tested immediately and the results uploaded to CODIS, the national DNA database. There’s an estimated 400,000-kit backlog.  When they’re tested, we find serial rapist after serial rapist.  But we can’t stop these predators unless we get the testing done.

Question:  There are tool kits out there, data being kept and published about reported crimes on campuses—and lots of good information for students to protect themselves. Is it enough? Have you found any colleges or universities that are taking this issue seriously?

Allison Leotta: Most are taking the issue more seriously, which is great.  Activists have forced this conversation, and it’s much harder for colleges to ignore it now.  Still, there are some terrible instances of outrageous college responses.  Brigham Young University recently expelled some women who reported their rapes, for violating their honor code.

Question: What writers inspire you?

Allison Leotta: Stephen King, Margaret Atwood, George Pelecanos, Laura Lippman.  I have a serious girl crush on Linda Fairstein.

Question: And, what’s next?

Allison Leotta:  I’m heading to Costa Rica. Just me and my two boys, ages 6 and 9.  (Wish me luck!) We’ll take some Spanish classes in Tamarindo then meet up with my husband hang out in Nicaragua. I plan to drink fruity cocktails and avoid thinking about writing until I get back!

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Allison Leotta’s Website

Read Allison’s Blog Entry: “Beware the Adorable Rapist”

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Review:

What happened to Emily Shapiro? We see her, in the opening scene, at a bar near campus. She is listening to the “mating call” of a frat boy: “Wanna do shots?” To anyone else, “she probably looked like any other carefree girl basking in a Friday night.” The bartender puts down two shots of a “shimmery blue potion” but soon Emily knows she needs to leave to avoid an encounter with a guy she’d rather not meet. Or see again. Ever.

The first thing Anna Curtis sees of Emily Shapiro is on a “grainy surveillance video, the type that only become relevant when something terrible happened.”

We’re in Michigan. Anna, a prosecutor, has temporarily moved to the Detroit area to be with a man she befriended during a previous case involving her sister, Jody. Anna has known the man she’s living with, Cooper, since the two were in elementary school. Anna is still sorting through the wreckage from her previous relationship with Jack and her ongoing relationship with Jack’s daughter, a girl Anna thought she would end up mothering. Cooper is a former Army Ranger who lost the lower part of one leg from an IED explosion in Afghanistan.

Anna’s life, and all its romantic and sexual entanglements, make for a stark contrast to the college-boy antics of the case she’s about to dive into. Jack, it turns out, turns out to be in Michigan on a work-related matter; he’s the chief of homicide at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington, D.C.

Without going into too much detail here, Jack pulls Anna into the case of the missing Emily Shapiro.

Complications abound. So legal technicalities. Dylan, the boy on the grainy video with Emily, is identified. Dylan’s father is Michigan’s lieutenant governor. Dylan belongs to Beta Psi, “a college fraternity in the Skull-and-Bones tradition. Four U.S. presidents were alumni, along with countless senators and CEOs.” And Emily’s father is the president of the university, where maintaining reputation and public image is paramount.

And so Anna dives in. She’s thorough, methodical, detailed and tireless. What she finds will be no surprise to anyone who has followed the recent stories of campus sexual assault and rape from Vanderbilt to Missoula to Stanford—and for many decades prior. The story in The Last Good Girl s loaded with legal and strategic intricacy. It’s rich, layered—and gives you the feeling for why the arrogant frat boy college culture has been allowed to persist on so many campuses. The palpable tension over Emily Shapiro’s whereabouts is heightened by the fact that Emily has left a video diary of her chilling experiences. Leotta intersperses excerpts with Anna’s investigation. The trails leads to the top, the “1 percent of the 1 percent,” and to the secret basement caverns with the secrets, the histories, the traditions, the culture.

The ending offers a fine twist, two back-to-back gulp-gasp moments. Leotta handles them skillfully. The Last Good Girl is clearly the product of a writer who knows the territory (Leotta’s real-life credentials in this territory are sterling). With Anna’s layered romantic adult complications providing a solid counterpoint to the spotlight Leotta shines on exploitation and college-age cruelty (and the adult enablers of it). There is one scene that is a graphic and jolting that brings the crime, the product of entitlement and power, front and center.

The Last Good Girl is a topical, layered, tense and palpable piece of crime fiction. You just wish it weren’t quite so real, so plausible.