Episode 70: Pamela Samuels Young

If Max Montgomery ever had to commit to monogamy to save his wife’s life, she would just have to come back and haunt him from the afterlife.

Max rested his forearm on the registration desk as his eyes anxiously crisscrossed the lobby of the Beverly Hills Ritz-Carlton. He watched as people milled about, dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns. He made eye-contact with a short, brown-skinned cutie who sashayed by in dress so tight he could see the faint outline of her thong. Max smiled. She smiled back. Too bad he was already about to get laid. Otherwise, he definitely would have taken the time to follow up on that.

Every Reasonable Doubt, Pamela Samuels Young

My conversation with Pamela Samuels Young spanned so many important issues and so many good books, I wasn’t sure which one to give you a taste of. But I went with her first published novel, Every Reasonable Doubt, a legal thriller which opens with Max, as he goes to keep a date he’ll never forget. 

His last.

Pamela writes powerful legal thrillers and protagonists who have complicated, messy relationships. She’s been called John Grisham with a female twist — and, I would argue, a gift for creating characters you want to follow in case after case. 

She also delves into difficult and important safety issues, especially if you have a teenager in your life. And she makes it easy (well, easier) for you to address these issues with your children, having adapted two of her own novels for middle school and up: #Abuse of Discretion on the very real legal dangers of sexting, and #Anybody’s Daughter on the terrifying world of sex trafficking right here in the United States.

Regarding the epidemic of teenagers being prosecuted for sexting (and facing sentences that include both prison and registering as sex offenders), Pamela talks about a recent case in Minnesota. If you want further info, I have the ACLU statement here and the judicial outcome here. Newsweek offers a bleak, and sadly increasingly common story of a teenage boy whose life was devastated because of some ill-considered photos exchanged with his girlfriend. 

Pamela has all her legal series in order on her website. Not listed there, but findable on Amazon, is her legal erotic novella, Unlawful Desires. If, you know, you need a change of pace.

As always, the transcript is below if you’d rather read than listen. Enjoy!

— Laura

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Laura Brennan: Pamela Samuels Young is an attorney, author, and anti-trafficking advocate. Her award-winning thrillers shine a light on important issues like sex trafficking, online safety, and the juvenile justice system and include young adult mysteries, legal thrillers, and even an erotic suspense novella under her pen name, Sassy Sinclair.

Pamela, thank you for joining me.

Pamela Samuels Young: Thank you for having me.

LB: So you don’t just write about justice, you work for justice in real life.

PSY: I previously did, sort of. I’m now full-time author, I’ve been retired from the practice of law for two years. I was actually an employment lawyer, employment defense. Discrimination, sexual harassment, cases of those matters. My last job was in house with Toyota.

LB: I certainly think discrimination is one of the key aspects of working for justice.

PSY: I completely agree.

LB: How did you get into that field? Why did you decide to go into law?

PSY: I was a journalism major in college, I went to USC. And I was convinced I was going to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. Then I spent a summer while at USC working in DC at a local television station, and that became my passion. So then I went to grad school directly afterwards and got a Master’s in broadcasting and began working in TV news. And after about five or six years of TV news, most recently at KCBS in LA, I was completely burned out and decided to go to law school.

I had thought about law school much younger, but it wasn’t until I was approaching 30 that I had the confidence to leave my TV job behind and go to law school, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made. I ended up working for a large corporate law firm and after getting my first sexual harassment case, I determined, okay, this is an exciting area of law. I never really wanted to do criminal defense or criminal prosecution. I landed in the area of discrimination law, and it was a perfect fit for me.

LB: So how did you then start writing fiction?

PSY: When I finished law school, my release was reading legal thrillers. I love John Grisham, Scott Turow, and many others, but I would always close their books and say, there’s nobody in here who looks like me. And one morning after closing another book, I said, you know what? I’m going to write a legal thriller, and it’s going to contain attorneys who are women, attorneys who are people of color. And I got up the next morning, and I had a case that I thought would make a great legal thriller. And without question, when I got up at four o’clock that morning — which was the only time, before work, to really start to write — I discovered my passion. Because nothing else can explain the fact that every second of free time I had from then on went to writing and it took me three years to finish the first novel.

And of course I thought I was going to finish it, send it to Oprah, then be on her show and write the rest of my books from a beach house and retire from the practice of law. Didn’t exactly go that way, but it’s been a fun journey.

LB: Is this Every Reasonable Doubt?

PSY: Every Reasonable Doubt was actually the first book I sold, it was the second book I wrote. The first book I wrote, In Firm Pursuit, was actually part of the two book deal, but after I got my book deal for Every Reasonable Doubt, then I went back and rewrote In Firm Pursuit.

Now that first book I wrote, which I thought was going to be a bestseller, basically pretty much sucked. I knew nothing about story structure and how to tell a story. It really took some learning your craft, and that’s what I tell writers, you have to learn your craft. I ran across a really great writing coach who said something that I’d never thought about. He said, take a book that’s like yours and outline it. And when I outlined John Grisham’s The Firm, it was like a lightbulb moment for me. I could see how the story came together. I could see the plot twists and all those things.

And it took some effort. I’ve been a diehard member for more than 20 years of Sisters in Crime, a mystery writing organization dedicated to the advancement of women mystery writers. And just learning the process. We tell people, you want to write, don’t just sit in your corner and write. There are a lot of online resources, there are a lot of writing groups, there are a lot of workshops; take them.

LB: Well – yes! Okay, I’m just going to agree with that. That’s a great idea. There’s always more to know. And then, also, write as you go. Which you did. In Every Reasonable Doubt you introduce attorney Vernetta Henderson. How did you develop her character? Why her?

PSY: Vernetta has a lot of similarities to me. She works in a large corporate law firm, she was one of the few African-Americans there, she grew up in Compton, I grew up in Compton. She was married to a blue-collar guy, I was married to a blue-collar guy. And so I kind of put myself in that story about these two women who were the only African-Americans at their firm. They’re assigned to defend a high-profile murder case, and they don’t get along. And the story is about this murder case, the socialite who’s accused of murder, did she or did she not kill her husband? And the course of them bonding through the course of defending this murder trial.

LB: Well, I love that. I love that complex relationship between Vernetta and her co-counsel, Neddy. We never see that. We don’t see women with messy, complicated working relationships like that.

PSY: That’s true, and I really wanted to write about reality. We see attorneys on TV and watch Mr. Avenatti go at it and… I wanted to include the legal thriller, the story part, but I also wanted to look at the personal lives. Because they’re often pretty interesting.

LB: I love that Vernetta has problems outside the courtroom, not just inside. You know, she’s got a fabulous husband, but he wants different things than what she wants.

PSY: That was one of the issues that I really wanted to deal with. She’s this committed career woman who loves her husband but her career really drives her. But her husband’s saying, you know, what about us? What about me, I’m here? What about kids? And all those things. So I really wanted to wrestle with those kinds of issues that people deal with on a daily basis.

LB: Yes, and women in particular deal with them.

PSY: Absolutely, absolutely, in a greater way. I remember thinking about all the partners at my law firm who were male, most of them had wives who didn’t work, who were there to take care of the mundane things in life. But even the women attorneys, they had husbands who worked and also the family issues fell upon them. Those are things that we deal with as women every day.

LB: So Abuse of Discretion is your other series.

PSY: Yes. The other series, the latest book in that series is Abuse of Discretion. It started with Buying Time and then Anybody’s Daughter, and then Abuse of Discretion.

Abuse of Discretion came about as a result of a conversation I had with a law school classmate. He practices criminal defense work, and he’s always telling me about his stories. And he was telling me about having to, lamenting about having to defend yet another teen accused of distributing child pornography. And I’m like, what are you talking about? And he started explaining to me that if one teen sexts another teen, one has distributed child pornography and the other one is in possession. And that prosecutors all across the country are prosecuting teenagers — boyfriend/girlfriend, strangers, whatever — who are sexting. And it is at an epidemic level.

Most teachers are aware of this, most parents are not. Most schools are trying to educate and have campaigns, but if you Google it, you will see some pretty shocking cases all across the country. There is one case recently where a Minnesota 14-year-old — and luckily the state Supreme Court recently, I think, rejected that case, so I think on appeal, that 14-year-old girl is no longer facing criminal charges. So it’s something that parents and teens should be aware of.

LB: But that just destroys your life.

PSY: It really does, because not only in many of those states, you’re not only charged but you would have to register as a sex offender.

What’s happening is that many prosecutors are applying the sex pornography laws literally. Pornography laws say that if you’re in possession of a sexual image of an underage child, that is child pornography. And those statutes were designed to protect children. So in many states are not looking at how old you were when you did it or the circumstances, they are looking literally, you are in possession of child pornography. If you take a selfie of yourself, you are in possession of child pornography. And sending it to someone is distributing child pornography. And girls and boys alike are being prosecuted for this crime.

LB: Are there not enough adult criminals for them to be prosecuting? I’m just, I’m floored.

PSY: I still haven’t been able to trace the first case of this nature. Now, indeed, there have been some pretty tragic circumstances of teen sexting where may be prosecution was appropriate. Think of the case where a boyfriend convinces and pressures his “girlfriend” to send him a naked picture, then he takes a picture and distributes it all over the school. Now there are some cases where action is warranted.

But the reality is that the laws just have not caught up with technology. Where living in a different time. When you’re 14, 15, 16, you’re going through puberty. I didn’t have a cell phone to talk to my boyfriend all night or to text him all night or to send pictures. Where living in a different time, and the laws have stayed static.

LB: While this is fascinating, I also want to talk about the book itself. So Abuse of Discretion also has two strong female attorneys working together. But it’s a very different book from your other series. The series is very different from your other one in that the male voices are also given prominence.

PSY: Yes. Graylin Alexander, which is the main protagonist, is a model 14-year-old and he finds himself with a picture of a classmate and finds himself embroiled in the juvenile justice system. His father is just kind of incensed that this whole thing is taking place. He had a naked picture on his phone, why is he being treated like a criminal? And there’s a storyline that continues from the previous book, Anybody’s Daughter, where there is a revenge-type element happening. Someone is out to kill Dre, Angela, my protagonist’s, boyfriend. And he goes full-bore to protect himself and the people he loves. 

LB: It’s so interesting, speaking of craft, because this book is actually told by different characters but each in the first person. So every chapter, every story is very immediate and raw.

PSY: And I loved doing it that way. This is the first book I’ve done that way and it was a little difficult at first. I remember reading a couple books that were done this way and I thought, oh my god, I love that! Can I pull it off? I always get, have test readers, book clubs read my book ahead of time and I was kind of nervous as to whether it would be jarring for them, but it wasn’t. I got really good feedback about it. And I like the first person narrative because it brings you closer, it puts you in that person’s head. So I love writing that way. I don’t think my next book is going to be that way, I think I’m going to go back to third person point of view because it’s easier to write, but I had fun writing it this way.

LB: So tell me a little bit about your protagonist, Angela, and how she’s a different, she’s a very different attorney.

PSY: Angela is a former prosecutor and she ends up defending Graylin’s case because she’s a family friend. Because she doesn’t know the juvenile system, she helps the family hire another attorney, Jenny Ungerman, who specializes in juvenile defense. And they jointly defend the case. Jenny isn’t really happy about that, but they jointly defend the case and they have sometimes opposite views. And really the story is also about them coming together and bonding on behalf of Graylin in the end.

Jenny is kind of by the book, and Angela is more of, she abides by the law, but she’s going to do what’s best for her client and this presents itself in a weird way in the juvenile justice system. Because I had no idea before I started writing this book that under the law, the juvenile client is the client. Not the parent. So if you hire your 12-year-old an attorney and you disagree with what’s going on, your voice has nothing. As a parent, you don’t have a voice. If that 12-year-old client tells the attorney, this is what I want to happen, then that attorney has to abide by the child’s wishes. And that was something that Angela and Jenny definitely bumped heads on.

And another thing that I learned that I did not know when I was beginning this process is that the police can show up at your child’s school and question your child without a parent’s consent. And also a child saying, I want to talk to my parent, or I don’t want to talk to you without my parent, is not the same as asking for an attorney. The police do not have to stop the questioning. So I learned a lot, and I’m always looking for a subject that if it’s shocking to me, I think it’s going to be shocking to someone else. So I’m always looking to entertain but also to educate.

LB: Well, you actually subtitle on your website your books “Mysteries that Matter.”

PSY: Exactly. I love that. If you didn’t learn something after reading what my mysteries, that I haven’t done my job.

LB: One of the things you talk about we talk about those intimate photos that can be sexted from teen to teen, that intimate photos can also end up in the hands of human traffickers.

PSY: Exactly. And that’s one reason why understand that authorities want to crack down on this. And people don’t understand that once that picture is out there on Facebook or whatever, it could end up anywhere. It can follow you when you’re looking for a job in 10 years. So this is really something that, as a society, we need to clamp down on.

But one of my frustrations about this whole thing is that we want to prosecute these kids, and yet we raise them in a very sexualized society. I grew up with Lucy and Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy sleeping in separate beds, or The Brady Bunch in the same bed but not seeing the level of sexuality that our kids grow up with. You can’t watch a TV commercial without seeing sexual innuendo. So when our kids watch shows like The Bachelor and Bachelorette and they’re jumping into each other’s arms in the pool and doing all kinds of things, why would they think it’s a big deal to sext their body parts?

LB: That is so true, and it’s so disconcerting!

PSY: It is, it is. We’re sending our kids mixed messages.

LB: I want to go back to the idea of human traffickers, though, because it takes us to another of your books, Anybody’s Daughter.

PSY: Anybody’s Daughter, yes. When I learned that gangs were actually involved in trafficking children, I was stunned. I also didn’t recognize before I wrote Anybody’s Daughter that trafficking was a big deal in the United States. This was back in 2011, I think, or ’12 when I had the idea for the book. And the more I researched and dug into the problem, I was stunned at how massive the problem of child sex trafficking is in the United States. I wanted to write about it. I’ve seen lots of changes since I first got that idea to write the book; for one, more people are aware. Secondly, many jurisdictions, not all, are treating trafficked children as victims not as criminals. Because in the past, as much of a couple of years ago, an underage girl who is picked up for soliciting prostitution is prosecuted and treated like a criminal as opposed to a victim. I don’t care if she says she’s out there and she loves her pimp and all of that. She is a sexually exploited child. We don’t let our children drink, drive, vote, or smoke for reason, and we don’t let them sleep with adult men when they’re being pimped out. So I’m so happy to see many states now not treating these girls as criminals and treating them as victims.

LB: One of the things I think you did that is so powerful and I hope will have tremendous impact down the line is that you have turned, you have adapted both Abuse of Discretion and Anybody’s Daughter into YA books.

PSY: Yes, yes, yes! Because I’ve done over 300 book clubs and they, so many women talked about, “Oh my god, I’ve got to talk to my kids about this,” for both of them and I thought, you know what? These books need to be in the hands of teens.

So I just released about a month ago the young adult versions of Anybody’s Daughter and Abuse of Discretion. And they’re called #Abuse Of Discretion and #Anybody’s Daughter. Which a 17-year-old suggested that I add the hashtag. They’re about half the length and the story ultimately is still there, but it is meant for middle school and up. So I’m really excited about that and just now really getting into trying to get it in the hands of teens, where it should be.

LB: I think all books have the power to change the lives of the people who read them. Mysteries in particular are a really good place for that. It’s a great genre to be able to explore, because what it’s really about is bringing to light things that we don’t know that.

PSY: And it’s always my goal. I’m a big mystery fan and I love a good mystery but the idea of learning something or bringing something to you that you didn’t know… And I love legal thrillers, I particularly love to figure out the whodunit and what’s going to happen and how’s the trial going to end. I just think it’s a great teaching tool as well.

LB: Well, the Vernetta Henderson series in particular is great fun to read because there are so many of the books, there are five of them right now, right?

PSY: Yes.

LB: And so we get to watch her progress, which is always a great pleasure of a series. And the courtroom scenes I think are a fantastic strength. Have you spent a lot of time in courtrooms?

PSY: You know, I haven’t. I really haven’t. And I love writing the courtroom scenes, maybe because I haven’t spent a lot of time. Because as a defense lawyer for mostly large corporations, we don’t want, corporations don’t want to go to trial. So my strength is being able to get that case dismissed short of trial. And typically in the civil setting, which I work in, trial is so expensive. It’s not like the criminal setting.

But I love it, I always make sure I have my expert trial attorney friends read it and look for any holes before it’s published. But I love writing trial scenes, I love trying to create the drama and take the reader one way and take them back the other way, and hopefully keep them guessing through the end.

LB: So tell me what’s next for you.

PSY: I’m working on a couple of ideas. One exploring an attorney who has bipolar disorder. I’ve been reading so much about it and having friends who’ve had children diagnosed as bipolar. And I think we don’t understand it, and we think it’s the end of the world, and it’s not.

And I also have another idea that’s been rolling around in my head about elder abuse. So I’m always, that’s the focus of the story. I’ve watched, I have a friend who practices estate law and she, things that happened when somebody dies and there’s a fight over money. You think family members are, the things family members do to family members. There’s a lot of room for good legal thriller in that.

LB: Oh, yes! People are crazy, but families are crazier.

PSY: [Laughter] Yes.

LB: So, I just want to mention, you also wrote an erotic suspense novella. Now I want to know, how much fun was that?

PSY: That was a lot of fun! And it was also probably one of the fastest books I ever wrote. I mean, it’s shorter, but it was also fast. You know, I wanted to write romance and erotica for a while and I think I never just had the nerve. And then when I finally decided to do it, I realized that it wasn’t going to use my name. One, because I didn’t want someone to pick up the book who read eight of my other books and go, oh my god! This is pretty graphic! And it’s still kind of a legal, it’s a legal story. It’s about two lawyers who basically meet and their lust is so strong that they basically risk everything they’ve ever worked for. I just had a ball writing that story and I’m going to probably make that a series as well. And that book is called Unlawful Desires, and the next book in the series will be Unlawful Revenge.

LB: That’s fantastic. And you write them under the name Sassy Sinclair.

PSY: Yes, Sassy Sinclair. That’s my AKA.

LB: Excellent. So where can people find you online if they want to keep up with everything you’re doing?

PSY: You can find me at PamelaSamuelsYoung.com and buy my books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. And I love to hear from readers, so after you’ve read the book, please reach out to me and please rate me on Amazon.

LB: Fantastic! Pamela, thank you so much for joining me today.

PSY: Thank you for having me.