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Stacey Abrams has a knack for being ahead of her time.
Her riveting new legal thriller sounds ripped from the headlines. It follows clerk Avery Keene as she becomes embroiled in a conspiracy involving a president with totalitarian tendencies and her boss, a Supreme Court justice whose failing health threatens the future of the American legal system. But the novelist and voting-rights activist conceived of the story back in 2008 during a lunch with a fellow lawyer from Abrams' former firm.
"She was pondering this gap in the Constitution that if a federal judge was incapacitated, [they] could not be removed," Abrams recounts to EW. "That night, I wrote the first scene."
Lynsey Weatherspoon for EW Stacey Abrams
Abrams was then a Georgia state legislator and a published romance author. She worked on While Justice Sleeps between political campaigns, voter-registration projects, and novel-writing under her pseudonym, Selena Montgomery; literary agents passed on the thriller because it seemed outlandish. "[They] basically were like no one really cares about the Supreme Court, that's been overdone and we wouldn't have a president who would do something like this," Abrams tells EW.
That was 2015. Fast-forward through her run for Georgia governor — which brought her to national prominence — and four years of the Trump administration, and suddenly, not so outlandish after all (though Abrams did have to change the flip-phones in the book to smartphones).
Justice may seem a jump for Abrams·(who's also published two works of nonfiction: Lead From the Outside and Our Time Is Now), but she sees it as an extension of her life's work. "It's all about storytelling," she reflects. "It's just the degree to which my storytelling has to be grounded in fact versus the ability to fictionalize, but what I think I do well, even in my fiction is that I can be far-fetched and absurdist, but it still seems real and possible."
As Selena Montgomery, Abrams published romantic suspense novels, which came with their own thrills. "My first romance novel was intended to be an espionage novel," she explains. "But back in 1999, I was told publishers don't run espionage by or about women…. I was like, 'I know I've seen women spies before.' Where did I read them? In romance."
Abrams, who supported the Romancing the Runoff auction organized by romance authors for voter rights, has never been shy about her allegiance to romance. Even as she pivots away — for now — from romance and into political fiction, Abrams explains that publishing under a pen name was meant to provide clarity. "I sold [my first romance] while I was in law school. I also published my first treatise on the operational dissonance of the unrelated business income tax exemption," she quips. "[That] was going to confuse people. It was easier to create a brand identity for my romance. It's hard to publish tax policy under a pseudonym. But now that people know I'm a tax nerd and a romance novelist, the brand-identity issue is no longer as salient."
In other words, Abrams is forgoing a pseudonym because her increased presence on a national stage means she no longer has to fit herself into pre-established boxes. Indeed, Berkley has just announced that they'll be repackaging and publishing Abrams' first three Montgomery novels, long out of print, with the new byline, "Stacey Abrams writing as Selena Montgomery."
Lynsey Weatherspoon for EW
Abrams draws on her experience writing suspense for her new novel but also taps into an interest in (literary) bloodshed: The conspiracy theory that Avery uncovers in Justice revolves around an Indian genetics company and an American biotech firm, both of which have malevolent motivations. "It is very cathartic to kill a bunch of people," she jokes. "The tension and stakes have to be high. I don't want to be Game of Thrones about it, but a good body count's important."
As for the biomedical terrorism component, Abrams points to her interest in probing moral grey zones. "It's one of the few conversations that has a moral tension to it," she reflects. "And I like telling stories where the morality of the issue isn't so clear. The moral ambiguity makes you have to think, 'Do we really want this? Do we not? Is it worth the promise if this is the threat?'"
For many, Abrams' dedication to political rectitude and voting rights has made her a moral beacon. At the very least, she's in the spotlight more than ever before, as the left anoints her a democratic savior, and the right paints her as an election-swinging villain.
It threatens to add pressure to imbue her writing with political messaging — with great power comes great responsibility — but Abrams brushes it off, framing her work as symbiotic (and for the record, she would write a suspense novel about voting rights so long as she could couch it in high enough stakes).
"I write from my moral core," she asserts, "and I want my heroes to actually have to grapple with things, and to understand that you can be good and right and still make mistakes, and still cause pain and harm — and still not get everything you think you deserve."
While Abrams' storytelling may or may not be what we deserve, it is what we need.
While Justice Sleeps hits shelves May 11.
For more from EW's Summers Books Special, find it at Barnes & Noble stores beginning May 14. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.