While Justice Sleeps, to be published 27 May, is Abrams’ second book to come out in less than a year, following the bestseller Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America. It is also the first work of fiction to be published under Abrams’ name.
Wasn’t Stacey Abrams a bit too busy helping Joe Biden get elected, turning out the Democratic vote everywhere, helping flip her state of Georgia blue and then the US Senate, plus tending to her three organisations to produce, of all things, her first political thriller, set in Washington, DC, a city where, according to her ever-evolving spreadsheet of life goals, she aspires to reside someday as president of the United States?
The thriller, Abrams said in a Zoom interview from her Atlanta home last month, concerns “a president who’s involved in international intrigue and a Supreme Court justice who’s fallen into a persistent vegetative state, and this law clerk has to save the world.”
Her law clerk, Avery Keene, is beautiful, brilliant, black and a recent Yale Law School graduate with a photographic memory. Abrams also graduated from Yale Law and has an excellent memory, though not an eidetic one. While Justice Sleeps delivers a fusillade of plot lines: biogenetic engineering, chess, pharma mergers, drug addiction, stealthy military shenanigans, a rare genetic neurological disorder that shares its name with a garlicky cheese, and a pernicious Republican president.
As it turns out, Abrams first wrote While Justice Sleeps a decade ago, before she became the Georgia House of Representatives minority leader – the sort of position that can hamper fiction writing.
Before she decided to revisit the manuscript a few years ago, one literary agent passed, viewing Abrams as a writer solely of romance. Because under the nom de plume of Selena Montgomery, Abrams has penned eight romance novels, including, as she puts it, “a serial killer romance novel”. A second agent also passed, informing Abrams that her fictional president seemed “too absurd and nobody cares about the Supreme Court”.
I am not one of those writers who wakes up at 3 o’clock every morning or 6 o’clock and writes
Meanwhile, other stuff happened. In 2018, Abrams ran for governor, narrowly lost to former Republican secretary of state Brian Kemp, and refused to concede because, as she put it at the time, “the erosion of our democracy is not right”.
By this time, with a former reality-show host as president, her fictional Brandon Stokes seemed less absurd and many, many people cared about the Supreme Court. “I’m more Cassandra than I realised,” says Abrams, 47. Her book was acquired by Doubleday’s Jason Kaufman, who edits, among other authors, Dan Brown of The Da Vinci Code fame.
While Justice Sleeps’ first printing of 150,000 comes with a bells-and-whistles book tour featuring guest interlocutors, broadcasters Robin Roberts and Katie Couric, and Sarah Michelle Gellar – yes, Buffy (Abrams is a fan and has tweeted about the character’s romantic choices). It’s akin to Michelle Obama’s Becoming promotion, but conducted virtually, from the comfort of Abrams’ home. Despite being a novice thriller writer, Abrams plucked blurbs from nine heavy-hitters, including Nora Roberts, Scott Turow, Lee Child and Michael Connelly.
Though the book includes all the hallmarks of a great airplane read, it drags in parts, and Abrams’ lack of familiarity with Washington is sometimes evident. Adams Morgan is depicted as a neighbourhood where people go to score hard drugs instead of $800,000 condos. Takoma Park is misspelled like the city in Washington state; shockingly, a character who appears to be Republican resides there. There’s also a reference to a “flophouse down on Wisconsin” Avenue. Uh, no. Where, precisely, would that be, Georgetown or Cleveland Park?
Early reviews have run tepid. “More of a curiosity for political junkies than a satisfying story of international intrigue,” writes Kirkus Reviews. “More Brad Meltzer than Scott Turow,” notes Publishers Weekly, “fans of the TV drama Scandal may feel at home, but Abrams’ many political supporters may be disappointed that she didn’t choose to ground her plot in real-life issues.”
In addition to advocating for her three organisations, Fair Fight, Fair Count and the Southern Economic Advancement Project (where she also serves as executive director), testifying before Congress about Georgia’s new restrictive voting law, and campaigning against an economic boycott of her state due to that law, Abrams is working on two more books, a children’s tale and a young-adult superhero novel. This week, Berkley announced it had obtained the rights to reissue three previous romance novels, currently out of print, to be published in 2022 under “Stacey Abrams writing as Selena Montgomery”.
Seasoned pols usually wait until they’ve stopped running for office before publishing fiction. Bill and Hillary Clinton have his-and-her thrillers due out later this year. There’s a sense that it isn’t dignified for the brand. The Art of Desire isn’t the sort of title usually associated with an ascendant politician, and Abrams is considering another run for elected office, including her oft-stated goal of the White House.
But writing fiction is part of Abrams’ identity and endears her to many supporters. She’s never hidden her work as Selena Montgomery. And she has a predilection for multitasking.
“I write very quickly,” she says, meeting deadlines and producing as many as 3,000 words a day. “I am not one of those writers who wakes up at 3 o’clock every morning or 6 o’clock and writes,” she adds, possibly because she sleeps only five hours nightly. Her mantra: “I write either to idea or to contract.”
She wrote Our Time Is Now after she launched Fair Fight, and the book Lead From the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change (originally published as Minority Leader) while she was running for governor.
“Yeah, don’t try this at home,” she confesses about the extreme multitasking required to publish that book, which also was a bestseller.
When she was a tax attorney at a large Atlanta firm, Abrams also taught at Spelman College, her alma mater, and inked romances.
Among Abrams’ myriad spreadsheet goals was to become the bestselling author of a romantic spy novel by the age of 24. While Justice Sleeps features a spy of sorts and a romance, though – and this seems positively scandalous for the author of eight romance novels – it’s confined to a solitary smooch. To be fair, it is seismic: “The kiss stretched beyond time, beyond promise.”
In a 2019 appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Abrams squirmed (“Can I leave now?”) when the host launched into a steamy passage from Reckless. It wasn’t her writing that made her so uncomfortable, she explains now, but the public act of sharing it: “I’m very private and I wouldn’t read anyone’s romance novel out loud.”
Mid-interview, Abrams’ phone chirps. “Hello, Ambassador,” she says, apologises and zips off Zoom for a while. Upon her return, she explains that it was former Atlanta mayor and UN ambassador Andrew Young, who is 89. “So when he calls, I take the call.”
The key is, “I’ve always done multiple things at once,” says Abrams. She’s reading four books simultaneously while watching, by her own admission, “an inordinate amount of television”. Abrams is a fan of police procedurals and Guy Fieri’s food game shows.
“For me, it’s just about being intentional with my time,” she says. Writing fiction “truly is just another part of how I think about the world and how I get to kind of muse about what I want to see happen,” she says. (In 2019, Abrams told Vogue that she was “terrible” at dating and that her romance novels were an exercise in “self-tutelage”.) “I do things I love, things that animate me, things that meet my needs to make my life complete.”
If writing fiction brings pleasure, it also keeps Abrams in the news, allowing her to promote work on issues like voting rights, to speak out against a boycott of Georgia in the face of the state’s latest election laws (“My message is stay and fight”), and to demur, like a seasoned pol, when the question turns to a specific run for higher office.
Her romance Never Tell – the serial killer romance – is in development at CBS with Abrams serving as a producer. Other books may be optioned as well. Does this include While Justice Sleeps? Abrams offers a political non-answer: “I’m in conversations about other books but nothing is finalised.”
She planned a final volume of a romance trilogy that has yet to happen. Abrams wants to write another thriller, possibly a sequel to While Justice Sleeps. She’s fond of brilliant, beautiful Avery Keene and promoting smart, accomplished black women as protagonists.
Meanwhile, Abrams is determined to help Congress pass comprehensive HR1, or the For the People Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.
Once, Abrams planned to be mayor of Atlanta, like Andrew Young. It was there on her spreadsheet. But she realised the policy issues that she wanted to accomplish were best done at the state level. There is talk of her entering the governor’s race next year.
“I’ve not decided what I’m doing there yet,” she says, “but I will run for office again.”
Including president. “If I think the policies I believe in are important enough, I want to do it first in Georgia. But why wouldn’t you want the job that lets you have the broadest reach for the most good?”
The coronavirus pandemic, which Abrams has spent largely within the confines of her home, hasn’t exacted much of a toll on her. Abrams is a self-professed introvert despite the constant – albeit remote – public appearances. She exhibits little discomfort before cameras and crowds.
“I love the policy. I like being able to serve people and solve their problems,” she says. “I really want us to have democracy.”
Abrams has “learned to do the public piece, but it is not my favourite part of the job,” she says. “Apparently, you cannot secretly run for office.”