Stacey Abrams published her first book – “Rules of Engagement,” a romance novel about a brilliant undercover agent and his smoking colleague – while a student at Yale Law School. Eager to keep her worlds separate, she used the pen name Selena Montgomery, a tribute to “Bewitched” actress Elizabeth Montgomery.
Abrams continued to write seven more books by Selena Montgomery (one of which, “Never Say”, is in development with CBS), as well as two non-fiction works under his own name, while continuing his day jobs as a tax lawyer, business owner, state legislator, gubernatorial candidate and voting rights advocate, to name a few. It’s hard to imagine anyone who watched the 2020 election not knowing who Stacey Abrams is.
And so for his latest book, “While Justice Sleeps,” a legal thriller about a Supreme Court judge whose coma plunges the court and the country into turmoil, Abrams, 47, used his own name on a novel for the first time. It’s as if the disparate parts of his life – the public policy part, the old-fashioned and abstruse part, and the popular culture-consuming part – finally merge.
“Writing is as much a part of who I am as anything,” Abrams said last month in a video interview from his home in Atlanta. “One thing I’m grateful to my parents for is that there was never a time when they said, ‘Don’t do that’. What they wanted for us was explore and try. And the writing is native to my way of thinking about the world. “
“While Justice Sleeps”, released Tuesday from Doubleday, has a sprawling plot whose characteristics include a proposed merger between an American biotech company and an Indian genetics company, a cruel disease with a potential cure, a conspiracy involving the highest echelons of the American government, a corrupt and ruthless president, a Supreme Court about to decide a case with global ramifications and an intellectual treasure hunt that begins with the mention of a famous 19th century chess match.
Her heroine is Avery Keene, 26, an incapacitated legal counsel, who falls into a world of turmoil when she becomes his legal guardian. Like the other Abrams heroines, she has a supernatural talent, eidetic or photographic memory, a brilliant analytical mind, and a knack for attracting and escaping danger.
Like so much about Abrams, the book is partly a family affair, produced in consultation with his five siblings. Her sister Leslie, a federal judge, advised her on legal matters. Her sister Jeanine, an evolutionary biologist, helped her with the medical aspects of the plot. Her sister Andrea, an anthropologist, advised her on questions of ethnicity and religion. His two brothers, Richard and Walter, read the first drafts and made suggestions on the layout and pace.
Richard, a social worker, said in a phone interview that he asked his sister to pull down a car chase that obstructed the drama. “It was part of an action scene and it was coming to a head – and I told him to get to the climax faster. he said.
“I love a car chase,” Stacey Abrams said wistfully.
The siblings’ love of storytelling was instilled by their father, a shipyard worker, and mother, a librarian, while growing up in Gulfport, Mississippi (they later moved to Atlanta, where both parents became Methodist ministers). When the children weren’t reading voraciously, they watched television, clustered around the one in the living room.
A life-changing event happened when Stacey’s older sister Andrea bought her own television and invited Stacey to her bedroom (“the inner sanctum,” Stacey called) to watch a new show: The Pilot. from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Stacey Abrams, a supporter of Kathryn Janeway, has since watched every episode of every iteration of “Star Trek” and, if you have a few days, can tell you in exquisite detail which episodes are the best and why.
She maintains talks with various siblings about the late “Game of Thrones”, the action thriller “Alias”, the time travel drama “Timeless”, the upcoming sci-fi animated series. season “Rick and Morty” and the crime show “Leverage”, now in syndication. They are also avid consumers of literature, with a family-only book club that meets monthly.
During the interview, it emerged that Abrams had already read the attributed book – “Ring Shout”, by P. Djèlí Clark – for the next meeting, scheduled a month later. “This is the story of a black woman in 1920s Georgia who discovers that the KKK is actually made up of demons,” she says.
It’s typical of Stacey, her brother Richard said. Like a normal person, he had postponed the mission at the last minute. “The rest of us are trying to figure out how we can postpone the book club until we finish the book,” he said. “But there’s nothing momentary about Stacey. She has a plan for everything.
“While Justice Sleeps” has its origins in a lunch that Stacey Abrams had with a friend over ten years ago. The subject of thrillers arose. “Have you ever thought about the fact that Article 3 of the Constitution makes no provision for a Supreme Court judge who simply cannot do his or her job?” asked the friend.
Well, no, Abrams hadn’t.
She went home that evening, turned on her laptop and wrote a scene imagining such a scenario; it has essentially remained the opening chapter of the book ever since. She finished a draft about a decade ago, but put it aside when her then agent said it would be hard to break out of the romance and move on to a new genre. She resurrected him in 2015 – she was then the minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives – but was once again disheartened.
“I was told it was too complicated and that the president was too far-fetched – that it seemed absurd that we had a president involved in international intrigue – and that no one cared about the Supreme Court” , said Abrams.
Four years later, she was luckier when the manuscript found its way to Jason Kaufman, vice president and editor of Doubleday and longtime editor of Dan Brown.
“You have tempered expectations with a top person. You never know what you’ll see on the page, ”Kaufman said in a telephone interview. “But when I started reading it became clear that she is as much a writer as anyone I have worked with.”
He especially admired Abrams’ commitment to some of the more tedious aspects of the editing process, even during the busy fall of 2020, as she worked around the clock with Fair Fight, the rights organization. vote she founded after losing Georgia’s gubernatorial race in 2018.
“It was amazing how she was able to devote so much precise attention to plot points and editing ahead of last fall’s election,” Kaufman said. “The book is complex with a capital C, and you don’t always find it in commercial fiction. Stacey had a mastery of each of the elements – she could talk in detail about the failures, the politics and the biotech companies and what’s going on in the justice system.
The Inklings of Abrams’ own biography pop up in the book. She and Avery have eerily vivid memories, though Abrams said hers had faded over time.
“I don’t have a real eidetic memory like Sheldon’s on ‘The Big Bang Theory’, although I’m pretty good at remembering where I was and what happened and picayune details with a lot. information, ”she said. “I am also quite able to remember the plots. One of the funny things for my friends is that I can tell you what other shows the actors have been on.
Both Abrams and Avery are addicted to drugs in their families: Avery’s mother, a key supporting character in “While Justice Sleeps,” is a long-time drug addict, as is Abrams’ brother Walter, who is currently recovering.
Abrams said she wanted to show that addiction is complex and that addicts are not binary beings – whether intermittently or not – but people who maintain their humanity despite their drug addiction.
“Usually when you read addiction in fiction, there’s a villain and a hero,” she says. “It’s hard to have a sympathetic addict who hasn’t recovered. But the reality is that people’s personalities don’t morph with addiction. There are times my brother is one of the nicest, most caring, and generous people I know. It doesn’t change the legitimacy of it when his addiction makes him do mean or bad things.
Avery’s racial identity, as the daughter of a black father and a white mother, is central to the character but incidental to the plot. It could also be read as the story of Abrams, whose advocacy work is so rooted in her identity as a Southern black woman, but whose interests transcend generalization or classification.
“Race is always an issue, and the question is how much primacy do you give it,” said Abrams, of Avery but possibly herself. “Avery’s darkness is obvious – there’s nothing hidden about it – but it’s not used as a performance in the story. It doesn’t define who she is. There is nothing stereotypical about who she is.
Abrams, who has never taken formal writing classes, said his approach was shaped by three things. Anne L. Alstott, professor of taxation at Yale Law for whom Abrams worked as a research assistant, taught him to ask himself when approaching a project: “What’s the problem, why is it a problem and how do you solve it? ” Aristotle’s “Poetics”, which Abrams read in high school, made him think about plot, character and rhythm.
And at Spelman College, where she went to undergraduate, poet and playwright Pearl Cleage taught her that “in all great good fiction, something has to live and something has to die – which means if there isn’t is no stakes, then there is no winning, ”Abrams said.
She traces each book in advance and determines the exact time it will take to write it. All other things being equal, it can produce 3,000 words per day. “I give myself time to walk through the ‘I hate books, I hate writing, I hate the English language, but I’m going to write it anyway,’ she said. “I am a very efficient user of time.”
When not writing a book, Abrams says after work she usually watches a few hours of TV, then reads for a few more hours (on her current list: “The Race Beat”, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff; “Good Neighbors” by Sarah Langan; “Black Sun” by Rebecca Roanhorse; and a biography of Napoleon).
“When I visit him, I tell him, ‘You are doing too many things and you should take a break,’” said Richard Abrams. But her sister seems reluctant to take this advice.
She has other fictions in the works: There’s a children’s book she’s been writing “for years,” she says, as well as a “teenage superhero book.” And at some point there is the possibility of a sequel to “While Justice Sleeps”.
“All of my lives keep colliding,” Abrams said.