“I kill a whole lot of people in my books,” Stacey Abrams says with a smile. It’s a sunny weekday morning in Atlanta, and the renowned voting rights activist, lawyer, and bestselling author is in her office, between meetings, chatting via Zoom about storytelling. “I’ve written serial killer novels. I wrote a novel about a religious fanatic and his very weird approach to his cult. I love writing propulsive stories that suck you in and hold you tight.”
Abrams has written eight romantic suspense novels under the pen name Selena Montgomery—the first while in law school in the 1990s—and two page-turning nonfiction books. The latter titles, Minority Leader and Our Time Is Now, blend leadership advice, self-help, and memoir and have over 300,000 copies in print, according to Henry Holt.
Abrams’s latest, the legal thriller While Justice Sleeps, is out in May from Doubleday. It stars a law clerk, Avery Keene, whose boss, a Supreme Court justice, appoints her as his legal guardian days before he falls into a coma. The justice, who was secretly researching a proposed merger between an American biotech company and an Indian genetics firm, has left Avery clues she must unravel to expose a conspiracy.
The spark for the novel came in 2008, while Abrams was at lunch with a lawyer friend, chatting about judges who hold lifetime appointments. “If you’re an Article III judge, you can only be removed for high crimes and misdemeanors or death,” Abrams explains. “So I thought, ‘Oh my God, what if you had a judge on the Supreme Court who was in a coma? There’s literally no mechanism in federal law and the Constitution to address that issue.’ And I sat down and wrote the first scene.”
Remarkably, the novel Abrams completed in late 2011 features a corrupt president, a deadly virus, and even a character conspicuously named Jared. Finding a publisher took nearly a decade. “No one wanted to buy it!” she says. “They thought the president seemed far-fetched, and that the Supreme Court was not that interesting of a subject.” It was only in 2019, when a Hollywood producer asked if she was working on anything new, that she pulled the manuscript from a drawer and sold it. “It turns out back then I was far-fetched and now I’m prescient, so there you go.”
Born in 1973, Abrams grew up “genteel poor”—as her mother phrased it—in Gulfport, Miss., as one of six kids. “I loved romance novels,” she recalls of her youth. “I remember the first time I saw a Black woman on a book cover. It was revelatory. I also loved action and adventure. I would watch all the James Bond movies, and there was notably one Black person in those movies. And so for me, I wanted to write stories that were just as exciting, just as thought-provoking, but with people who looked like me.”
When she was in high school, Abrams and her family moved to Atlanta so that her parents—a librarian and a shipyard worker—could study to become ministers. Abrams attended Spelman College, where her activist roots took hold. As a freshman, she burned the Georgia state flag, which had a Confederate emblem, on the capitol steps. (Yes, she had a permit.) She went on to earn degrees from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas and Yale Law School. She then worked as a tax attorney in the 2000s—while writing romance on the side—before entering politics.
Abrams served 11 years in the Georgia House of Representatives then ran for governor of Georgia in 2018, becoming the first Black woman to be a gubernatorial nominee of a major political party. After losing that election, which she says was marred by voter suppression on the part of state election officials, she founded Fair Fight, an organization that promotes fair elections, and took to the streets, helping to register hundreds of thousands of Georgia voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election. She was an instrumental figure in turning Georgia blue for Joe Biden and in helping two Democratic candidates win their Senate runoff elections there. “Victory is a great way to prove your point,” she says. “I was incredibly happy.”
For her monumental work on voting rights, Abrams has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. “I’m honored by the parliamentarian in Norway who thought so highly of me, but I find it incongruous,” she says. “I’m deeply appreciative, but it’s hard to reconcile that with the fact that I know me.”
Abrams is modest, but her record and character speak for themselves. “Stacey is 100% who she seems to be,” says her agent Linda Loewenthal. “She’s a person of integrity and authenticity who’s driven by a sense of mission and a cause greater than herself. And she’s abundantly creative and a renaissance person. I don’t know when she sleeps.”
Jason Kaufman, Abrams’s editor, adds, “The amazing thing about Stacey is that she’s a real force of nature politically, but she’s also a top-tier thriller writer.” He recalls working on edits with her in the heat of the 2020 election season. “I’d see Stacey doing an interview on television, talking about her strategy to personally get to all 159 counties in Georgia or something, and the next day she’d send me fantastic revisions of things we’d talked about, and nuanced plot points, and I’d think, ‘How’s she doing this?’ But she’s just a very focused person. It made my own sense of multitasking seem pretty inadequate.”
Abrams has now added producer to her long list of credits. She coproduced the voting documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy, and her 2004 novel, Never Tell, about a killer roaming New Orleans, is in development at CBS, with more adaptations to come. “There’s a lot of activity—Stacey’s the real deal,” says her film and television agent Jason Richman, who coheads the Media Rights Group at United Talent Agency.
“I never imagined While Justice Sleeps would see the light of day,” Abrams says. “I’m excited to have others read about these characters that have lived in my head for so long.” Her upcoming projects include another thriller and a children’s book. As for her political future, she says, “What I thought was going to happen in 2018 didn’t happen, and that created a new set of opportunities that I’m still figuring out.”
Is she considering a presidential run? “Yes, but not now.” She is clear on one thing: “My work in politics isn’t done.”
Elaine Szewczyk’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s and other publications. She’s the author of the novel I’m with Stupid.