Please welcome New York Times bestseller Jilliane Hoffman!
Pretty Little Things
Plea of Insanity Last
New Mystery Reader - Jilliane Hoffman Interview
Congratulations on your new novel Pretty Little Things, a novel that by all
accounts is no doubt going to prove as successful as your previous tales. Can
you tell us a bit about this latest hit?
you! I’m really excited about it! Pretty Little Things was definitely a
fun and sometimes challenging book to write—delving into the world of Internet
sexual predators—but as I have two young teenage daughters myself, the topic hit
close to home. It’s probably the most frightening personal thriller I’ve ever
penned. As for your predictions on its success, I have to say I hope you’re
Pretty Little Things is set is Coral Springs,
Florida, a suburb of Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Thirteen-year-old Lainey Emerson
is the middle child in a home police are already familiar with: her mom works
too much and her stepfather favors his own blood over another man’s
problems—namely Lainey and her wild older sister, Liza. When Lainey fails to
come home from a night out with friends, her disappearance is dismissed by the
local police as just another disillusioned South Florida teen running away from
suburban drama and an unhappy home life.
But FDLE Special Agent Bobby Dees is not quite so
sure. When he discovers Lainey was involved in a secret internet relationship,
he fears she may be the victim of an online predator. And when chilling
portraits of other possible victims are sent to a local television station, he
realizes she may not be the only one. Haunted by the still unsolved
disappearance of his own teenage daughter, Bobby will find himself pulled into a
deadly game of cat and mouse with the most prolific killer he’s ever
NMR: This book is sure to ring some very
loud alarm bells with parents regarding their children’s use of the Internet and
the possible dangers lurking there. During your research of this issue, what
did you find the most alarming and surprising about it?
JH: Although I had worked on cases with
FDLE’s Crimes Against Children (CAC) squad and the Law Enforcement Against Child
Harm (LEACH) task force, it was actually a personal encounter with an Internet
sexual predator that first gave me the idea to write about the subject of
vulnerable teens and the dangers of chat rooms and social networking. My
daughter was only eleven and in the fourth grade when a classmate of hers
started a texting relationship via cell phone with a boy she’d met on the
Internet and communicated with via AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Pretending to be
sixteen, this little girl then passed the telephone numbers and email addresses
of her friends along to her new pal. My daughter was not a participant, but she
had listened while the girls talked about what was happening over lunch. She
finally told me—mind you, while I was driving—what was going on after the boy
asked one of the little girls to send him pictures. That was when I learned
this “boy’s” screen name was “rooster69”, the obvious sexual meaning of which
was lost on a bunch of eleven year-olds. After the tow truck finally unwrapped
my car from the light-pole I’d driven into (I’m kidding about that part), I
contacted the parents of the children involved, as well as the CAC squad of FDLE.
And that was probably the most surprising thing I discovered: the ambivalence of
the parents to the dangers of the Internet: “Not my kid,” and “That wouldn’t
happen because Lexy knows better,” was what I heard back and it really threw me.
It wasn’t until one of the little girls tearfully ‘fessed up that the photos
this “boy” had asked her to send to him were to be taken without clothes on that
the parents stood up and began to listen and realize that, yes, this sort of
tragedy can happen to their child right under their noses in their very own
living rooms. What was not so surprising was when CAC agents subsequently
discovered that this “boy” was a 43 year old man from North Carolina.
I wasn’t prepared to encounter these Internet problems
with my kids at such a young age. But I should’ve been. According to the
National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in every seven children
is approached by a sexual predator on the internet. A recent sweep by the
Attorney General in New York found more than 3500 convicted sexual offenders on
Facebook and MySpace. That’s just New York sex offenders. And those are the ones
who used their real names on the social networking sites. And those are just the
sex offenders who have been caught and actually convicted. It’s an ever-growing
problem, as more and more kids use social networking sites to communicate with
“friends” they have never met outside a WiFi connection. And parents need to not
just sit and talk with their kids about the dangers of the Internet, they need
to know about the dangers firsthand. They should visit chatrooms to see what the
participants talk about, they should go on Facebook and MySpace and see what a
post is, and how much personal information is made available to the public.
Giving your kids a blanket okay to use these sites without monitoring what it is
they are posting is a recipe for trouble.
NMR: With the explosive growth in
communication technology, it seems an almost impossible battle that parents face
in keeping their children sheltered from online predators - both those parents
who are aware and care, and those who don’t or who remain blissfully ignorant.
As a former prosecutor, what role, if any, would you like to see our government
play in this escalating dangerous situation?
JH: It’s completely unrealistic to think
that we can keep children offline in today’s society. But as stated above, I
think it is a parent’s responsibility to teach their kids about Internet safety,
in particular warning them to never disclose personal information to someone
they do not personally know, never taking, sending, or posting nude or otherwise
inappropriate photos of themselves, and never meeting up with ANYONE they’ve
chatted with over the Internet. Seeing as some parent’s don’t want to take up
this mission before letting their kids surf the web, then I think the secondary
responsibility should fall on schools and the community to educate kids. And
that means sharing real-life stories with children, most of which don’t have a
happy ending. Laws such as New York’s e-STOP (Electronic Securing and Targeting
of Online Predators) help the state and social networking sites reconcile their
files and purge registered sex offenders emails from their databases, but that
alone is not enough. It won’t get rid of those offenders who use aliases when
subscribing to MySpace or Facebook, it doesn’t affect all offenders who visit
chat rooms, and, perhaps most importantly, it doesn’t purge offenders who have
not yet been caught and convicted of a qualifying sex offense. Consider this
sobering statistic: According to the Center for Sex Offender Management (CSOM),
the average sex offender offends for 16 years before he’s finally caught.
In that time span, he has committed an average of 318 offenses and violated 110
NMR: Another topic you address is that of
missing children, those reported as missing and those that sadly aren’t, and
what you present is pretty troubling. Do you think there’s more as a society
that we can do to lower these seemingly ever increasing numbers?
JH: The estimated number of runaway and
“throwaway” children—those that run away from home, but are never even reported
missing as such—in this country is staggering. I was completely blown away by
the idea that an estimated 1.5 to 2 million kids go missing of their own
volition each year. The hardships that these children face when living on the
street is truly tragic—prostitution, drugs, sexual exploitation, violence.
Unfortunately some kids run from homes that are worse than what they face on the
street. That is the sad truth. Attempts to fix the home environment don’t always
work—some people are bad parents, plain and simple. And many state foster-care
systems are in need of a complete overhaul and additional funding: too many
social workers are overworked, underpaid and severely disillusioned. When a kid
faces a terrible home life, and the alternative is a broken foster-care system
where he or she may face even worse treatment then he or she did at home, the
only option in a child’s eyes can be to run. It’s a terrible situation. I don’t
really have an answer.
NMR: All your novels have presented some
very timely issues facing society and you’ve done a great job of providing the
legal, personal, and investigative viewpoint of all concerned. Which of these
do you find the most difficult to portray?
JH: It is quite challenging to write from
the perspective of a character suffering from a severe mental illness. In my
third novel, Plea of Insanity, my lead character, Julia Vacanti, comes
from a family that is devastated by a debilitating and frightening mental
illness, namely schizophrenia, and as her life begins to unravel and the
pressure mounts on her to secure a conviction in a high-profile murder case
against a prominent surgeon, Julia worries that she herself may also be
afflicted. Considering one of the hallmark symptoms of schizophrenia is an
inability to recognize that you are sick, writing from her perspective was
particularly difficult at times.
I’ve found that writing from a sociopath’s point of
view, however, can actually be a little easier and a lot more fun. Now what does
that say about me?
As mentioned above, you seem to easily
switch perspectives in your novels and make each sound just as realistic as the
next. So is there any character from your group of novels that you felt the
closest to and that you would like to bring back on a regular basis?
I love all my characters! Even the bad ones! C.J. Townsend, my
protagonist in both Retribution and Last Witness—my first two
novels—is an interesting character to write, because I can totally relate to her
on a personal level. Overworked and underpaid, C.J. is a zealous and committed
prosecutor who spends her life-energy keeping the human monsters in jail, far,
far away from civilized society. She knows all too well what they are capable
of. Although I myself am not a rape victim, I have spent a lot of time
counseling sexual assault victims as a prosecutor and holding their hands
through motions, hearings and trials. I have listened to their gut-wrenching
stories and through C.J. Townsend, was able to give them a voice (and, perhaps,
a little vindication, even if it was only fantasy play via a fictionalized
novel). To that end, I am bringing C.J. back in the novel I am currently
working on, which is a sequel to Last Witness. I have also intentionally
set all of my novels in and around the criminal justice system in South Florida,
so that even the characters in my two stand-alone novels—Plea of Insanity
and now Pretty Little Things—could eventually work alongside characters
from my other works. They are all related, even if the plots are independent.
much of your past experience as a prosecutor has come into play when devising
your wickedly suspenseful plots?
JH: I definitely call upon my
previous experience as a prosecutor and police attorney when I imagine plots and
create characters. I have prosecuted some really creepy defendants who have done
some monsterous things. I could not have written any of my novels without my
experience in law enforcement. My characters, from defense attorneys to
correction officers to judges, all of them are slices of people that I have
worked alongside for years. The dialogue in my books could be stolen from any of
the thousands of conversations I had over the years at crime scenes and in
courtrooms and at training exercises.
your novels have had, and continue to have, great success, with Retribution as a
movie now in the works. Have you found this to be a surprise? A burden? Or,
maybe simply a joyful experience.
JH: I was definitely surprised when
Retribution was optioned as a movie with Warner Brothers. When I
originally conceived the plot, I actually envisioned it as a movie, and toyed
with the idea of writing it as a screenplay first. So to have it optioned by a
major studio right out of the box was definitely a dream come true. Seeing it
through to production, however, can take a whole other lifetime, I have learned.
But I have extreme patience and I thrive on optimism, so I do believe that one
day Retribution will be made into a movie, and when that happens, I
intend on being there with it every step of the way. Up to this point it has
been a joyful experience for sure.
of Retribution, have you been involved in that project in such a way that you
feel assured that the movie will remain true to the novel?
Hmmmm….good question. I did write the first screenplay to the movie, but
that doesn’t necessarily mean much. It’s the final screenplay that counts, and
by the time someone finally picks up a camera, that could be a completely
different animal from what I put on paper. I do hope that when and if it is made
into a movie, that it follows the novel. Far too many good books have been
ruined in translation.
How difficult, or easy, is it for you to
finally put a novel to bed and call it complete? And which, if any, characters
continue to haunt you afterwards?
I know my ending before I pick up a pen. It is what drives me to the
finish line. So when I do finally cross it, I know I am done. I may go back over
and add and tweak, but I definitely know when it is done. I have to say that
until Pretty Little Things, no character from any of my other novels had
ever haunted me. But then along came Lainey Emerson. She’s a hard one to forget
about. Her story stays with you, and not in a good way.
finally, what can you fans expect next?
JH: As I indicated before, I am
currently writing a sequel to Last Witness, my second novel, which will see the
return of C.J. Townsend and the final chapter in the C.J./Bill Bantling
you so much Jilliane for sharing your thoughts; both your novels and insights
are greatly appreciated!
of Pretty Little Things