Stacey Abrams' latest novel, "While Justice Sleeps," feels modern until the protagonist comes home from a horrendous day and listens to first annoying, then menacing voice mails — left on a landline, attached to an answering machine, that beeps in between calls.
Why did she make such an anachronistic choice for the fictional 26-year-old U.S. Supreme Court law clerk at the heart of this sprawling thriller?
"I keep a landline and an answering machine," said Abrams, 47. "I keep a landline because if your service goes out, a landline still works."
It's a choice born of practicality, analysis and admitted nerdiness on Abrams' part, qualities imbued in Avery Keene, the main character in "While Justice Sleeps," published in May by Doubleday.
Over the past 21 years, Abrams has published eight romance novels under the nom de plume Selena Montgomery. Her first novel, "Rule of Engagement," was written while she was a law student at Yale. The following seven were penned during a career that spanned tax attorney; deputy Atlanta city attorney; business owner, and state House minority leader.
While running for governor and after a bitter loss to now Gov. Brian Kemp, Abrams wrote two books of nonfiction. And she has continued working on a children's book and a teen superhero novel while advocating for voter rights and equitable economic development with her organizations Fair Count, Fair Fight Action and the Southern Economic Advancement Project.
Her national profile has soared since the run-up to the 2020 election, and now three of her earlier romance novels are being reissued in 2022 by Berkley Publishing Group. "Never Tell," published in 2004, is currently under development at CBS, with Abrams attached as a producer.
"While Justice Sleeps" is the first novel published under her name. It poses the question: What happens if a Supreme Court justice is comatose and unable to resign? And what if that vacancy leaves a split court with national security hanging in the balance?
"I write because I need to write," Abrams told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in an interview. Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: There's been research on people who take 20-minute naps at intervals over the course of 24 hours rather than sleep a dedicated number of hours each night. The nappers claim they get an extra 20 years of productivity over the course of a lifetime. Is that you, because how do you find the time to write these books given the other demands of your professional life?
A: I've always been able to subsist on less sleep, and I'm also very organized and methodical about my writing. I'm organized and methodical about my life. And particularly when I have a contract, which I've had since my first book, I've had the responsibility of delivering it just like I have to deliver any other work product.
Q: You're not the type of writer then, who, plot-wise, can't see beyond what's in the beam of their headlights, just discovering the path as they go along?
A: I've got MapQuest. I printed it out. I know the turns.
Q: So, when you map a book out, do you use a white board? Spreadsheets?
A: I will start with a spreadsheet. For fiction, I translate it to notecards: Create the problem; complicate the problem; solve the problem. But the solution to the problem has to create a new problem.
And for nonfiction, I use giant Post-it notes because that's more about having a theme. Understanding "What's the problem? Why is the problem? How do I solve it?" But that doesn't require the kind of connection that fiction does.
Q: Hacking, Supreme Court deliberations, the workings of the human genome, you seem well versed in all of it. How much time is spent on research?
A: I've done this for every book I write: I immerse myself in the research. My mom not only was a college librarian, she was a research librarian. In our family, if you were told to go look it up, it was, go look it up. And if you had to go to the college with my mom to look it up in books, you will look it up.
So, I love the research part of things, but what I like about my brain is I don't get caught with analysis paralysis. Because of the authenticity of a story, especially when you're doing suspense or thrillers, you have to have enough legitimacy to the story that an expert might raise an eyebrow but won't completely dismiss it right away.
When I have specific questions, my family is my own personal Google. I can call my sister, the scientist, or my sister, the anthropologist, or my sister, the judge, or my brother who's a social worker, or my brother, who reads all these thrillers. They all have great imaginations, but they're critical. They'll tell me, "No, this doesn't make sense," or, "Yes, that can happen, but not the way you did it."
Q: There are leading characters of different races and ethnicities in the book, but there's a moment where three Black characters try to unlock a deeply coded clue, and it was striking because we don't often see the genius of Black characters in thrillers. Did you read other Black thriller/mystery writers like Walter Mosley, Eleanor Taylor Bland, Barbara Neely along the way who featured strong, smart Black sleuths?
A: I read Walter much later in life. And I love his storytelling style. But for me, it was much more, "This is a story I want to tell." I want people to see themselves in these stories. And while race is very clear, it is not the story.
Often, there's this presumption that when a character is a person of color, when a character is Black, that the story is all about their blackness. How decisions are made, and how lives are lived, and who we become is absolutely grounded in race. But it cannot be the only identifier for who we become.
Q: If you run for a higher office, do the thrillers and romance novels continue or will you stick to nonfiction?
A: I will never choose what I write based on the office I'm in. I write based on what I want to tell.
Rosalind Bentley is a staff writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
While Justice Sleeps
By: Stacey Abrams.
Publisher: Doubleday, 384 pages, $28.95.
Event: Stacey Abrams in conversation with Cari Champion, via Zoom. 6 p.m. June 22, hosted by Next Chapter Booksellers. Register at bit.ly/3fVrrbi.