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Q&A: Duke graduate's novel explores sexual assault at fictional Southern university

Mary Adkins, Trinity ‘04, is the author of “Privilege,” which came out last month. Set at Carter University, a fictional university known as “the Harvard of the South,” the novel explores sexual assault, imposter syndrome and inequality in campus judicial systems. The Chronicle spoke to Adkins about her journey to becoming an author, the ways Duke inspired her fictional university and what she hopes readers will take away from her new book. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: First, can you tell me a little about your time at Duke? What did you study, and what were you involved in that was meaningful to you?

Mary Adkins: At Duke I was in the a capella group Lady Blue, and I started All of the Above, a showcase of monologues by female-identifying students. I wrote a column for The Chronicle, I was in Maxwell and I was a public policy major.

TC: Can you tell me a little bit about your newest book, “Privilege?” What are some important themes and elements of the plot that you can share? 

MA: It takes place on the campus of a Southern, fictional university called Carter, and it’s the story of a sexual assault told from the perspective of three women: the victim, the girlfriend of the accused and his student advocate. 

At this university, anyone in the judicial process is assigned a student advocate that provides emotional support, and so it’s the story of this assault and really the aftermath of this assault from the perspective of these three women. Two of them are students, and one of them is a barista at the campus coffee shop. 

TC: Carter University is referred to in descriptions of your book as “the Harvard of the South,” which is a title sometimes applied to Duke. Is Carter University based on Duke?

MA: Of course, in the sense that I drew from my experiences when I was at Duke. And then there are some other little references. There is a bridge where all the kids paint graffiti at Carter, so that’s obviously totally Duke-inspired. But I intentionally made it a fictional university because I wanted the freedom to make it its own place and not be restricted to attributes of Duke. It’s a fictional university—I made it up.

It’s interesting to me that I’ve gotten some different comments like this. Someone who went to Vanderbilt University, for example, thought that the book was definitely set at Vanderbilt. I think that there’s a certain kind of Southern university that all have so many similarities that it feels like it could be any of those schools. 

TC: How much of what you wrote about in “Privilege” is generalizable to all college campuses? Is it specific to elite Southern universities? Do elite Southern schools have a longer way to go in terms of campus politics than state schools or community colleges?

MA: I don’t think it’s a Southern thing at all. I do think it may be an elite thing, or a big university thing. “Privilege” is, go figure, about privilege, and how privilege affects judicial outcomes at a university. 

The cover of “Privilege”—the cover designers designed it, not me—is this collegiate Lady Justice. Traditionally, Lady Justice has the sword and blindfold and scales to represent impartiality. The scales are for weighing the evidence, and the sword is for being able to enforce the outcome. The Lady Justice on the cover of the book, though, the college one, is not blindfolded. It’s saying that justice is not actually blind. 

TC: Your biography says that you went to Yale Law School. Did you go straight to law school after Duke? How did you ultimately decide to become an author? 

MA: I took a couple of years off after Duke. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a writer, but I also was really interested in the law. So, I moved to New York and started to kind of figure things out, and then I ended up applying and going to law school. Even in law school I knew that I wanted to write—I just thought that I would probably do both. 

Once I graduated from law school and became a lawyer, it took me very little time to realize that I did not actually want to practice law and that I wanted to be writing. I left law after I’d been practicing for a year and just worked odd jobs so that I could afford to pay my bills while I worked on my first book. 

That’s really how my writing career started, but from there it took longer than I thought it would. I think I thought I would write a novel in a year and get it published, and then my writing career would be made, and it actually took me six years to write the novel, find a literary agent and sell it to my publisher. By then, I had actually already written a draft of my second novel. 

TC: How and when did you initially get the idea to write this book? How long did it take you to write?

MA: I had the idea for it in summer 2015, and started working on a draft then, and I wrote versions of it between 2015 and 2018. That was really interesting, because I started this book before the #MeToo movement, before the Brock Turner case. All of that was happening while I was writing drafts of this book. So it was really interesting and challenging to work on because I was writing about something that was very much in flux in the world. The way sexual assault was talked about, but also specifically the way it’s dealt with on college campuses, was changing. 

TC: How do you think the reception of your book would have been different if you had published it before the #MeToo movement took off?

MA: That’s such an interesting question to think about because I feel like it would feel outdated now, like it took place in a different time. So I’m actually glad that it took a few years for me to write it and sell it to my publisher, because the published version feels like it took place in the present and not the past. 

TC: Did the ideas in your book stem from things you experienced during your time in college or things that you observed after graduating?

MA: Things that I observed after college. They actually handle these issues way better now than they did then. In terms of the fact that I was drawing from my own college experiences and realized that they were so long ago, I didn’t want it to feel out of date, so I hired some readers. They were people in college and recently graduated from college, and they read the draft of my manuscript to weigh in on how contemporary it felt, including little things. Someone told me nobody wears khaki shorts anymore.

TC: What is one thing that you hope readers will take away from “Privilege,” beyond the plot?

MA: I hope that it changes how people hear sexual assault stories, which I know maybe sounds like a grandiose hope. But one reason I wrote the book is there were perspectives I felt like I was never hearing, like the perspective of the woman who is the partner of the accused, or the perspective of the person whose job it is to represent the accused, and even the perspective of the victim when she’s grappling with what happens and whether she wants to admit to herself what happened. 

The nuances of all of those female perspectives I think is an under-told story and something I tried to include. I would love it if, after reading the book, people became more cognizant of those possible perspectives. 

TC: What do you think is one of the most important changes that is needed on college campuses nationally? 

MA: That’s a really hard question. I think it’s important for schools to continue to question whether their procedures are best practices or not. In general, as a culture, we’re still discovering the dynamics of sexual assault. I think being open to letting these processes evolve and letting best practices evolve is important. 

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