Stacey Abrams breaks down the politics of her Supreme Court thriller

Stacey Abrams speaking at TV One’s Third Annual Urban One Honors, on May 16. | TV One/Getty ImagesStacey Abrams wrote a thriller. People said the president was too evil. Then came Trump. In between organizing for voting rights and helping convince Georgia to vote blue in a presidential election for the first time since 1992, Stacey Abrams somehow found the time to write a thriller. While Justice Sleeps, out now, is Abrams’s ninth novel and first straight thriller. (Her previous eight novels, all originally published under the pen name Selena Montgomery, were romantic suspense.) She’s also written two nonfiction books. To find out how she does it all, I called her up on the phone. While Justice Sleeps is an unusually wonky thriller. It begins when Supreme Court Justice Howard Wynn, a cranky libertarian and the Court’s swing vote, falls into a coma right before the Court is set to consider a case involving a pharmaceutical merger. With Howard out of commission, the Court faces an existential crisis. The only way to vacate a Supreme Court justice’s seat is for them to die or retire. So what do you do if a justice isn’t dead or retired, but definitely isn’t in a position to hear cases anytime soon? To rid the country of this pesky ambiguity, shadowy forces threaten Howard’s life — including, we gradually learn, a war hero Republican president, who is drawing on his military connections to try to get Howard assassinated. The only person who can protect Howard is his law clerk Avery, who is mystified to find that shortly before falling into his coma, Howard designated her his legal guardian and granted her power of attorney. With assassins lurking around every corner, Avery slowly learns that Howard is playing a complicated chess game, one that seems to have involved seeing his coma coming. Now it’s up to her to decode his strategy. While Justice Sleeps is a political book, and its author is one of the most interesting organizers in American politics today. So I wanted to ask Abrams about how she built the political landscape of her fictional world, and how she sees it interacting with our own world. Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, is below. You were writing under a pen name for the first part of your career. Why did you first adopt your pen name, Selena Montgomery, and when did you decide to stop using it? I used my pen name from 2001 through 2009, which is the last time I wrote romantic suspense. The pen name was truly born of my dual obligations in writing. I was writing romantic suspense, and I was also starting to publish tax treatises and social justice policy papers and op-eds. It is much easier to separate your identities than to try to explain why Alan Greenspan is writing romance. I was always very clear that I was Selena Montgomery. I had my face on my website. My face was in every book. There was never an intent to disguise that I wrote romantic suspense. It was just a very different dynamic. This was also at the time that Google was coming into being. But now the need to separate my identities is no longer necessary. At the time, no one really cared who Stacey Abrams was. Now it’s slightly more relevant, and I am perfectly happy for people to know all nine of my novels, including While Justice Sleeps, as well as my two nonfiction works. I know you first worked on this book some time ago. And I read that one of the reasons you put it aside was that publishers said the president was too evil for people to believe in, and that changed after the Trump presidency. Which is so interesting to me, because the fictional president in While Justice Sleeps seems in so many ways like a Bush-era figure, especially in terms of the press focus on his military credentials and his evangelicalism. So how do you think the post-Trump landscape changes the way readers approach this character? It was my agents that I sent the book to, because that’s the first step to getting it in front of the publisher. And each time, there was pushback. The first time I pitched it was in 2010, 2011, so it was in the midst of the Obama era, and I think part of what the pushback was, was really around the president character’s involvement in international intrigue. Although, to your point, this was not anathema to who American politicians had been before. I think what happened this time is that the very clear and slightly caricatured behavior of Trump, as someone who openly courted international interference, who openly courted and rebuked our political norms, made my character, by comparison, seem a lot less far-fetched. And then there’s the figure of Justice Wynn, who’s in kind of a tricky place, right? Because he has to be the crucial swing vote on the Supreme Court for the plot to work, but he also has to have a really clear, stringent moral code. So how did you develop the politics for this fictional character? I really did study Supreme Court justices who have found themselves in positions of high inf

May 19, 2021 - VOX
Stacey Abrams speaking at TV One’s Third Annual Urban One Honors, on May 16. | TV One/Getty ImagesStacey Abrams wrote a thriller. People said the president was too evil. Then came Trump. In between organizing for voting rights and helping convince Georgia to vote blue in a presidential election for the first time since 1992, Stacey Abrams somehow found the time to write a thriller. While Justice Sleeps, out now, is Abrams’s ninth novel and first straight thriller. (Her previous eight novels, all..