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Ten years ago, before Stacey Abrams was a household name and a hero to many, she was an attorney who geeked out on tax law and wrote romance novels on the side. She’d also written a novel about a Supreme Court Justice who is quietly amassing evidence about a conspiracy to essentially undermine democracy. When he's found in a coma, it's up to his brilliant law clerk, Avery Keene, to pick up where he left off and save the day. That political thriller was rejected by publishers on two separate occasions.
Over a decade later, While Justice Sleeps finally made its way to bookstores across the country, on May 10. Since penning it, Abrams has served 11 years in the Georgia House of Representatives—including seven as its minority leader—and ran for governor of her home state in 2018. She's also gone on to become a patron saint of voting rights, credited as a key player in swinging Georgia to the Democratic side in the 2020 election, and helping land President Biden in the White House.
Abrams is a Renaissance woman who is not only a writer, activist, and politician, but also sits on the board of the Women's Basketball Association and is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She's the founder of Fair Fight, Fair Count, and the Southern Economic Advancement Project, too.
And, it turns out, she can also write a labyrinthine, pulse-pounding thriller. As Oprah Daily's books editor, I wanted to know: How does she do it? So we had a chat.
You wrote While Justice Sleeps 10 years ago, but when you sent it out to publishers, they rejected the book. That didn’t happen this time around…
I’ve written eight other novels and two works of nonfiction, which have all gotten published, so I can't complain. This was the only one I'd written that hadn't gotten published, but I'm delighted that it’s finally seeing the light of day. It was a story I just had to get on paper all those years ago, but no one was interested in a thriller by me set in the Supreme Court. This is the only book I’ve written that no one initially wanted to buy.
But a couple of years ago, I was in California talking to producers about my romance novels, and someone asked if I had any other story ideas. When I described While Justice Sleeps to them, they were excited. One thing led to another. Now, not only is the book out, but I've also signed a deal with Working Title/NBC Universal to executive produce a TV show based on it. It's all worked out.
What’s your writing process like?
The genesis of this book was a conversation I had with Teresa Wynn Roseborough. She was Assistant U.S. Attorney General under Bill Clinton and is one of the first Black women to make partner at Sutherland, a major law firm in Georgia where I was hired to work some years ago. By the way, now Teresa's the general counsel for Home Depot. She's just extraordinary. I was starting out as a tax attorney there, and I also happened to be an author of romance novels, which took some explaining to the firm. Teresa was very supportive of my writing, and I often talked through story ideas with her. Sometime after I left to work in the Georgia House of Representatives, we were having lunch together and she said: "I've been thinking about something, and I wonder whether this is an idea you'd care about."
What was her idea?
She asked if I’d ever thought about the fact that while the Constitution provides solutions for what happens if the president or a member of congress is incapacitated or must be removed from office for whatever reason, there are no such provisions for what to do if a federal judge can no longer perform their job—and that appointment is for life. You can replace federal judges for high crimes and misdemeanors or for being in debt, but not for incapacitation.
And you went,"Whoa, that’s a great idea for a novel?"
It’s fascinating. The founders didn’t anticipate that the kind of extraordinary measures taken today to extend someone’s life would be put into practice. Certainly back then, no one lived for years in a coma. After our lunch, I couldn’t stop thinking about that. It became the construct of the story. I had this vision in my head of Howard Wynn—the Supreme Court Justice for whom my main character, Avery Keene, clerks—sitting in a chair, arguing with the fates and nature, knowing he is ill and will soon be unable to function.
And after that scene?
I need to know what the end will be before I really start writing a book—I’m very methodical. So I crafted a synopsis to tell myself how the story would unfold. That became the bones of the book. Then I did a storyboard and plotted out each chapter. I asked myself what every chapter’s problem was and what its solution would be. Especially with thrillers, you have to be aware that if the plot slows, people may put down the book and walk away. So I constructed it in such a way that you have to get to the next page in order to get the answer to the next mini-mystery. My storyboards are typically massive walls of Post-Its, and that was the case here.
In exchange for your friend Teresa’s idea, in the novel, you name the female chief justice after her, right?
I did indeed. I think she should be on the Supreme Court anyway.
How important is representation in fiction?
I write a variety of characters, but I never ignore the importance of identity. I just don't allow it to be used as a defining moment that negates the possibility of experience. I grew up reading fiction. If I was trying to read a thriller, if I was reading a romance novel, the characters were invariably white. And I knew it because the only time they mentioned race explicitly was to tell me that the character they were talking about was Black, or, say, Hispanic. They would only identify the character by race if their race was not white, which meant that whiteness was universal and everything else was other. And when you're reading fiction, especially when you're reading thrillers, you want to get immersed, to get pulled along with the action. So it's always very jarring to me when all the other characters aren't being identified by race but a person of color is.
So you decided consciously not to do that.
I want to write stories where the reader doesn't get thrown out of the story because they don't see themselves. But I also never want to ignore how race and gender affect how we think, how we live, how we engage, though that shouldn't limit us and our capacity for adventure and excitement, or the adventures of our mind.
You’ve described writing as “cathartic, but also demonstrative.” What do you mean?
I'm in high-pressure positions. I'm in politics. I'm also an entrepreneur. These are spaces where things quickly get very intense and there isn't a lot of relief. So for me, writing is an opportunity to, for example, take out my frustrations: I kill a lot of people in my books! But besides that, it's also an opportunity to work through the way I'm thinking about an issue, or the way I conceptualize experiences. It lets me explore other facets of myself.
What do you hope your fictional characters will communicate to readers?
When you're crafting characters, you're crafting people. And they should be so distinct that without having their names on a page, anyone could read the dialogue by itself and know who’s talking. That's my test. In my day job, I need to appreciate the uniqueness of every person I serve. It’s the same in fiction: It’s important to comprehend the interconnection of our lives and the challenges we all face. And to realize that that connectedness does not require uniformity. It requires understanding.
Last question: How does it feel to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?
It is an extraordinary honor, though something I feel very unworthy of. In saying that, I’m not trying to diminish the work I've done or its impact. But there are many other things being accomplished all over the world, by many others, and I’m acutely aware of that.
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