Jilliane Hoffman: My daughter was just eleven years old when a classmate of hers started a texting relationship via cell phone with a boy she’d met on the internet. She had pretended she was sixteen and he had claimed he was a teen, as well. This classmate then passed the telephone numbers and email addresses of all her fourth grade friends along to her new cell phone pal. The friends, being eleven year old girls, thought the whole thing was pretty funny and so they continued the ruse and ‘told’ this stranger that they were all 16.
My daughter was not actually involved in this, but heard about it over lunch every day in school. One day, as I was driving to the supermarket, my daughter told me what had been happening after one of the little girls was asked by this cell phone pal to send pictures of herself to him. I must add here that that this stranger’s Instant Messaging name was ‘rooster69,’ which has a raunchy sexual double meaning that was unfortunately lost on a bunch of naive eleven year olds. Of course I almost wrapped the car around a light-pole. I was not prepared for these sorts of internet problems at such a young age. But I should have 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 in the spring of 2010 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.
Surprisingly, when I contacted the parents to let them know what was happening, most were in complete denial. ‘Not my kid! She knows better than to talk to strangers on the internet!’ was a common response. Their reaction threw me. Ultimately, though, after being questioned by their parents, the children confessed to IMing rooster69, and one little girl tearfully admitted that he had not asked for just pictures, but had wanted her to send him nude photos of herself. Crimes Against Children (CAC) agents with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) subsequently launched a criminal investigation, where it was discovered that this new cell phone pal was actually a 43 year old male from North Carolina! Because they girls had told him they were 16 and because no photos were ever sent, no crime had technically occurred yet. But who’s kidding who? The man knew darn well the girls he was chatting with were not sixteen, but he had insulated himself from prosecution.
That’s when I first got the idea for Pretty Little Things. The ever-changing internet age has spawned new hunting grounds for sexual predators. Social networking sites like Facebook allow kids to converse with millions of strangers from all over the world. But of course, not everyone is who they say they are. Behind the black screen of a computer, a predator can be anyone: a ten-year-old boy, a sixteen-year-old girl, Beyoncé’s best friend, a Hollywood agent. But kids being kids—and in particular teenagers being the immortals they think they are—they still continue to insist they “know” their new internet “friends” because they’ve seen their webpage, looked at their profile picture, and chatted a couple of times over Facebook. So I wanted to write a thriller that would expose the dark side of the internet. I wanted to show just how easily a kid can be fooled and manipulated by a stranger, and how a relationship spawned over a simple chat on a computer or a cell phone can spin into a deadly encounter with a psychopath.
KR: You were a State Attorney before becoming a full-time writer which brings a unique authority to your writing. Has your previous career influenced the plots of your books?
JH: I was a prosecutor for five years, immediately followed by a busy five-year career with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement as a police legal advisor. I have plenty of creepy, and terrifying real life experience from which to cull ideas for a thousand legal suspense thrillers. To stay current, I also keep a host of prosecutor friends, along with FDLE special agents, on speed dial so that I can pester them at all hours of the day and night with crazy questions. (The FDLE agents are also the ones that I will be sending to tail my daughters when they go out on dates in a couple of years. My girls think I’m kidding, but I’m not.)
Through my law enforcement experience I know that terrible things can and do happen every single day to normal, everyday people. I know how crime changes people forever, from the most basic robbery to the most brutal home invasion. I know the toll that being a career prosecutor takes on your psyche. I know how hard it is for a cop to not solve a case. I think that is through this experience with victims, cops, officers, attorneys and, of course, criminals that I can breathe real life into my characters. That is what I think sets my thrillers apart from other mysteries.
KR: Had you always wanted to be a writer?
JH: No. I am a procrastinator, so every term paper I have ever written in college or legal brief I wrote for court was toiled on the night before it was due and way into the morning hours, as well. I have vowed on more than one occasion—with my fist raised to the sky like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind—to never write on demand again. Well, never say never. The plot for my first novel, Retribution, formed in a courtroom and ultimately spun itself around and around in my head like a rock in the ocean until it shaped itself into characters and subplots and finally demanded to come out on paper. Thanks to Retribution’s success, I now do nothing but write. And laundry. Always lots and lots of laundry.
KR: As a mother of two young daughters, how do you deal with the threats posed by internet chat rooms on their safety?
JH: I keep them chained up in their room. No, I’m kidding, although they are both real pretty so I do think about it on occasion. Now teenagers, the dangers of a technologically advanced society are a constant presence in both my daughters’ lives. If chat rooms, texting, Facebook and MySpace weren’t enough to have to worry about, now there’s Twitter, Skype, and instant messaging. And every day it seems there’s something new. A new iPod app, a new cell phone, a new interface programme. Such as the recent phenomenon of ‘sexting’, with kids, some as young as elementary school-age, sending nude pictures of themselves and provocative texts to ‘friends’ via cell phone texts. In addition to offering kids and teens the standard-issued warnings of ‘You don’t know who you are speaking to on the computer,’ and ‘Never agree to meet anyone you chatted with on the internet,’ I also force my children to read the articles about those kids who have met up with predators they’d chatted with online and all the terrible things that happened from there. The real life experience of others often makes the best instructor. Many parents don’t want to expose their children to the nasty things that have happened to people, hoping to spare them their innocence, perhaps, but trust me on this, parents – if your child meets up with a sexual predator on the internet, nasty stuff is exactly what Mr. Bad Guy will be doing to Little Susie or Billy.
Perhaps the best advice I can offer parents is that which I received from my own mom when I was a teen. Preventative advice that I, in turn, have been force-feeding my own daughters: Never put anything in writing or in pictures that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times. Or retrieve with a Google search.
KR: Without giving too much away, what is your next novel about?
JH: My next thriller is sort of a follow-up to Last Witness, which was my second novel.
At first glance, veteran prosecutor Ellie Riordan has been assigned what looks like another “routine” Miami murder: a pretty University of Miami co-ed brutally slain by the reckless, young, playboy whose advances she apparently spurned while at a popular South Beach hotspot. But when mysterious video of what could be the torture and possible murder of another young woman is provided to Ellie and City of Miami homicide detective Manny Alvarez, Ellie will soon find her case is anything but routine. The bodies of both the woman in the video and the UM co-ed bear an identical and disturbingly unique traumatic injury – they’ve each been branded with the distinct mark of the same killer.
As Manny races to find out both the identity and demise of the young woman in the video, he is haunted by something he has not yet shared with the prosecutor: a long-forgotten interview he had conducted with a sociopathic monster. That monster, who sits on Florida’s death row awaiting execution for the murders of eleven women, is none other than William Bantling, the notorious Miami serial killer known as Cupid. Initially dismissed by Manny as the manipulative ramblings of a condemned man trying to save himself from a one-way trip to the gas chamber, Bantling’s ominous allusion years ago to an underground human ‘snuff’ club operating not just in Miami, but around the globe, now sounds like an all-too real and very frightening possibility.
With no alibi and the circumstantial evidence steadily mounting, Ellie remains convinced Gerard Lunders is guilty of murder. A conviction seems all but inevitable, but after a jury is sworn and double jeopardy has attached, the defence will deliver the explosive bombshell that will completely change the prosecution’s theory of the case. To attain justice, both Ellie and Manny will need to decide just how far they’re each willing to take the law. And if they can live with the heavy price they’ll both need to pay when they get it.
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