Stacey Abrams published her first book — “Rules of Engagement,” a romance novel about a brilliant undercover agent and her smoking-hot colleague — while a student at Yale Law School. Eager to keep her worlds separate, she used the nom de plume Selena Montgomery, a homage to the “Bewitched” actress Elizabeth Montgomery.
Abrams went on to write seven more Selena Montgomery books (one of which, “Never Tell,” is in development with CBS), as well as two nonfiction works under her own name, while pursuing her day jobs as a tax lawyer, business owner, state lawmaker, candidate for governor and voting-rights advocate, to name a few. It is hard to imagine that anyone who followed the 2020 election does not know who Stacey Abrams is.
And so for her latest book, “While Justice Sleeps,” a legal thriller about a Supreme Court justice whose descent into a coma plunges the court, and the country, into turmoil, Abrams, 47, has used her own name on a novel for the first time. It as if the disparate parts of her life — the public-policy part, the nerdy, abstruse-topic part and the popular-culture-consuming part — are finally coalescing.
“Writing is as much a part of who I am as anything,” Abrams said last month in a video interview from her home in Atlanta. “One thing I am grateful to my parents for is that there was never a moment where they said, ‘Don’t do this.’ What they wanted for us was to explore and try. And writing is native to the way I think about the world.”
“While Justice Sleeps,” out on Tuesday from Doubleday, has a sprawling plot whose features include a proposed merger between a U.S. biotech company and an Indian genetics firm, a cruel disease with a potential cure, a conspiracy involving the top echelons of the American government, a corrupt and ruthless president, a Supreme Court poised to decide a case with worldwide ramifications and an intellectual scavenger hunt that begins with the mention of a famous 19th-century chess match.
Its heroine is 26-year-old Avery Keene, law clerk to the incapacitated justice, who stumbles into a world of trouble when she is made his legal guardian. In common with other Abrams heroines, she is preternaturally talented, with an eidetic, or photographic, memory, a brilliant analytical mind and a knack for attracting and escaping danger.
Like so many things about Abrams, the book is partly a family affair, produced in consultation with her five siblings. Her sister Leslie, a federal judge, advised her on legal issues. Her sister Jeanine, an evolutionary biologist, helped her on the medical aspects of the plot. Her sister Andrea, an anthropologist, counseled her on matters of ethnicity and religion. Her two brothers, Richard and Walter, read early drafts and made suggestions about plotting and pacing.
Richard, a social worker, said in a phone interview that he got his sister to remove a car chase that clogged up the drama. “It was part of an action scene and it was coming to a climax — and I told her to get to the climax faster.” he said.
“I love a car chase,” Stacey Abrams said, wistfully.
The siblings’ love of narrative was instilled by their father, a shipyard worker, and their mother, a librarian, while they grew up in Gulfport, Miss. (they later moved to Atlanta, where both parents became Methodist ministers). When the children weren’t reading voraciously, they were watching television, clustered around the one set in the living room.
A life-changing event occurred when Stacey’s older sister, Andrea, got her own TV set and invited Stacey into her bedroom (“the inner sanctum,” Stacey called it) to watch a new program: the pilot of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” Stacey Abrams, a Kathryn Janeway partisan, has since watched every episode of every “Star Trek” iteration and, if you have a few days, can tell you in exquisite detail which episodes are the best ones, and why.
She maintains running discussions with various brothers and sisters about the late, lamented “Game of Thrones,” the action thriller “Alias,” the time-travel drama “Timeless,” the returning-for-another-season animated sci-fi series “Rick and Morty” and the now-in-syndication crime show “Leverage.” They are also avid consumers of literature, with a family-only book club that meets monthly, give or take.
During the interview, it emerged that Abrams had already read the assigned book — “Ring Shout,” by P. Djèlí Clark — for the next meeting, which was scheduled for a month later. “It’s the story of a Black woman in 1920s Georgia who discovers that the KKK is actually composed of demons,” she said.
That is typical of Stacey, her brother Richard said. Like a normal person, he had put off the assignment until the last minute. “The rest of us try to figure out how we can postpone the book club until we finish the book,” he said. “But there’s nothing spur of the moment about Stacey. She has a plan for everything.”
“While Justice Sleeps” has its origins in a lunch Stacey Abrams had with a friend more than a decade ago. The subject of thrillers arose. “Have you ever thought about the fact that Article 3 of the Constitution does not make any provision for a Supreme Court justice who just can’t do their job?” the friend asked.
Well, no, Abrams had not.
She went home that night, fired up her laptop and wrote a scene envisioning such a scenario; it has essentially remained the book’s opening chapter 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 romance and into a new genre. She resurrected it in 2015 — she was the minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives at the time — but was discouraged once more.
“I was told that it was too complicated and that the president was too far-fetched — that it seemed absurd that we would have a president who was involved in international intrigue — and that nobody cared about the Supreme Court,” Abrams said.
Four years later, she had better luck when the manuscript found its way to Jason Kaufman, a vice president and executive editor at Doubleday and the longtime editor of Dan Brown.
“You have tempered expectations with a high-profile person. You never know what you will see on the page,” Kaufman said in a phone interview. “But when I first started reading, it became clear that she is as much a writer as anyone I have ever worked with.”
He particularly admired Abrams’s commitment to some of the more tedious aspects of the editing process, even during the busy autumn of 2020, when she was working round the clock with Fair Fight, the voting-rights organization she founded after losing the Georgia gubernatorial race in 2018.
“It was amazing how she was able to dedicate so much precise attention to plot points and to editing leading up the election last fall,” Kaufman said. “The book is complex with a capital C, and you don’t always find that in commercial fiction. Stacey had mastered each of the elements — she could talk in detail about chess and politics and biotech companies and what goes on in the judicial system.”
Inklings of Abrams’s own biography bubble up in the book. Both she and Avery have uncannily precise memories, though Abrams said hers has abated over time.
“I don’t have a true eidetic memory in the manner of Sheldon on ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ though I’m pretty good at remembering where I was and what happened and picayune details with lots of information,” she said. “I’m also pretty able to recall plots. One of the fun things for my friends is I can tell you what other shows actors have been on.”
Both Abrams and Avery have drug addiction in their family: Avery’s mother, a pivotal supporting character in “While Justice Sleeps,” is a longtime addict, as is Abrams’s brother Walter, who is currently in recovery.
Abrams said she wanted to show that addiction is complex and that addicts are not binary beings — either on or off — but people who maintain their humanity despite their drug dependency.
“Typically when you read about addiction in fiction, there’s a villain and a hero,” she said. “It’s hard to have a sympathetic addict who hasn’t gone through recovery. But the reality is that people’s personalities don’t metamorphize with addiction. There are times when my brother is one of the kindest, most thoughtful, generous people I know. It doesn’t change the legitimacy of that when his addiction makes him do things that are vile or reprehensible.”
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. That also might be read as the story of Abrams, whose advocacy work is so rooted in her identity as a Black woman in the South, but whose interests transcend generalization or pigeonholing.
“Race is always an issue, and the question is how much primacy you give it,” Abrams said, speaking of Avery but perhaps also of herself. “Avery’s Blackness is evident — there’s nothing hidden about it — but it isn’t used as performance in the story. It doesn’t define who she is. There’s nothing stereotypic about who she is.”
Abrams, who never took formal writing classes, said her approach was shaped by three things. Anne L. Alstott, a professor of taxation at Yale Law for whom Abrams worked as a research assistant, taught her to ask, 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 her think about plot, character and pacing.
And at Spelman College, where she went as an undergraduate, the poet and playwright Pearl Cleage taught her that “in any really good fiction, something has to live and something has to die — meaning that if there are no stakes, then there’s no payoff,” Abrams said.
She plots out each book in advance and determines the exact amount of time she will need to write it. All things being equal, she can produce 3,000 words a day. “I give myself time to cycle through the ‘I hate books, I hate writing, I hate the English language, but I’m going to write it anyway’ stage,” she said. “I’m a very efficient user of time.”
When she is not writing a book, Abrams said that after work, she generally 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 her, I say, ‘You’re doing too many things, and you should take a break,’” Richard Abrams said. But his sister seems disinclined to follow that advice.
She has other fiction in the works: There’s a children’s book that she’s been writing “for years,” she said, as well as “a teenage superhero book.” And at some point there’s the possibility of a sequel to “While Justice Sleeps.”
“All of my lives continue to collide,” Abrams said.