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A Constitutional Quirk Inspired Stacey Abrams' New Thriller, 'While Justice Sleeps'

May 9, 2021
Originally published on May 9, 2021 7:43 am

A Supreme Court justice is gravely ill, ideological control of the court hangs in the balance — throw in a ruthless president and an international conspiracy, and what you have is the plot of Stacey Abrams's new novel, While Justice Sleeps. Yes, that Stacey Abrams, the Georgia politician, and she's written a thriller ripped straight from the headlines — inspired by a conversation over lunch with her mentor.

"One day she was just musing about this strange phenomenon in the Constitution, and she asked me if I had ever thought about it for a book," Abrams recalls. "And I said, no, I'd never really given it thought that Article III, which is the only provision in the Constitution that gives someone a lifetime appointment, has no failsafe for a person being physically unable to do the job."

This is far from Abrams's first book. She's been writing romance novels since her time at Yale Law School — but she managed to write this new thriller in the midst of the 2020 election cycle, in which she played a pivotal role.

"Luckily, I started the book more than a decade ago and I had an extraordinary editor," she says. "I would tell him, just ignore the pings on your computer that will happen around 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. — and we we were able to get it done."


Interview Highlights

On why writing is important to her

I love writing. I learned to write almost as soon as I learned to read. I went through a teenage phase where I wrote Christian rock and country music. Turns out those are not genres for me, but I see it both as a passion, but it's also an avocation. I used to say when I wrote my romance novels, I could pay car notes but not buy a car. And now I'm in a place where the purchasing power of my writing is slightly higher and I appreciate it.

On the main character, a Supreme Court clerk named Avery

Avery is smart and guarded. She's cynical, but she loves her friends. She's got a mother who struggles with drug addiction and she's her mother's primary caretaker. She is also driven and wants to be more than her circumstances would suggest she could become. And when she comes into work one morning, she is summoned to see the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and learns that she has been appointed the legal guardian of her boss, the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, and the swing vote for major cases.

On what political thrillers say about the nature of government

I am not a conspiracy theorist. I am someone who recognizes that fiction, good fiction relies on getting as close to the truth as possible and then twisting it into suspense, fear. - Stacey Abrams

The nature of government, the nature of bureaucracy requires that we relinquish so much information, but there is always embedded in there the possibility of someone misusing what you provide. As someone who was a bureaucrat who's read these copious reports during my time as a program analyst for the OMB, there's a lot of information out there and we may choose to allow more access, but it needs to be a choice as opposed to something that just happens around us.

I am not a conspiracy theorist. I am someone who recognizes that fiction, good fiction relies on getting as close to the truth as possible and then twisting it into suspense, fear. And it has to seem like it could happen if it's going to work.

On recent Republican efforts to restrict voting

Well, I want to push back first on the notion that this is simply a Democratic versus Republican debate. The challenge is that these laws do not use partisanship as their language. They target communities based on their behaviors. And what we have seen happen in Georgia, in Florida, what they did in Iowa is to identify behaviors that they found to be anathema to their victories. While the targets may be communities of color or young people or the disabled, eventually the harm is to all of our communities because we are diminishing the ability for our fellow Americans to participate in elections. And that's what should be frightening to all.

Communities of color have disproportionately been supportive of Democrats and thus have become a target of Republican changes to voting rights. But what I worry about is that rather than both parties having to compete based on their ideas and their policies, we are instead seeing a rigging of the game, a changing of the rules, because that's easier than actually having to argue for a community to support your ideas.

On the viral video of her response to Senator John Kennedy, and the possibility of being underestimated

I can't speak to Senator Kennedy's intent, what he expected of me in terms of my performance. My hope is that what people saw and what they respond to is that I'm not simply engaging in hyperbolic denunciation of these laws, that I know what I'm talking about. And I think for especially for women and women of color in particular, we are expected to know what we're talking about with a degree of specificity that is often not expected always of our counterparts.

When you are fighting for something, when there are those in power who do not want you to have it, you have a superior obligation to try to demonstrate the importance of change. And I find that the best way to do that is to have all the information at my disposal and to tell a good story about why it needs to be done differently.

This story was edited for radio by Ed McNulty and Ian Stewart, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

A Supreme Court justice is gravely ill. Ideological control of the court hangs in the balance. Throw in a ruthless president and an international conspiracy, and what you have is the plot of Stacey Abrams's new novel. Yes, that Stacey Abrams - the Georgia politician - and she's written a thriller ripped straight from the headlines and inspired by a conversation over lunch with her mentor one day.

STACEY ABRAMS: She was just musing about this strange phenomenon in the Constitution, and she asked me if I had ever thought about it for a book. And I said, no, I'd never really given it thought. That Article III, which is the only provision in the Constitution that gives someone a lifetime appointment, has no failsafe for a person being physically unable to do the job.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is far from Stacey Abrams's first book. She's been writing romance novels since her time at Yale Law School, so I began by asking her this.

How in the world did you find the time to get out a thriller in the midst of the 2020 election cycle, which you played a pivotal role?

ABRAMS: Luckily, I started the book more than a decade ago, and I had an extraordinary editor. I would tell him, just ignore the pings on your computer that will happen around 2 or 3 a.m.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

ABRAMS: And we were able to get it done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Explain to me why it's important to you to - just to write generally. I mean, you are an accomplished writer.

ABRAMS: I love writing. I learned to write almost as soon as I learned to read. I went through a teenage phase where I wrote Christian rock and country music.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Now, there's something I didn't know.

ABRAMS: Turns out those are not genres for me, but, you know, I see it both as a passion, but it's also an avocation. I used to say when I wrote my romance novels, I could pay car notes but not buy a car.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

ABRAMS: And now I'm in a place where the purchasing power of my writing is slightly higher, and I appreciate it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) So let's talk about the book. The main character is called Avery. She's a clerk at the Supreme Court with a photographic memory, and she works for a very demanding Supreme Court justice who ends up in a coma. Tell us about her and where she finds herself when the unforeseen events take place.

ABRAMS: Avery is smart and guarded. She's cynical, but she loves her friends. She's got a mother who struggles with drug addiction, and she's her mother's primary caretaker. She is also driven and wants to be more than, you know, her circumstances would suggest she could become. And when she comes into work one morning, she is summoned to see the chief justice of the Supreme Court and learns that she has been appointed the legal guardian of her boss, the associate justice of the Supreme Court and the swing vote for major cases.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You believe in American democracy, I think it's safe to say.

ABRAMS: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But there is something about thrillers that are based around the rot that is hidden in the world of the powerful, right? That's, like, their sort of central premise. And I want to read something that you dropped into the book. Here's a quote - "Despite knowing how vulnerable technology can be, bureaucrats put their faith in the myth of privacy. Their job relied on the fairy tales Americans told themselves about their government despite ample evidence to the contrary." I just wonder, when you write things like that, is that a warning sort of based on your own experience or concerns?

ABRAMS: The nature of government, the nature of bureaucracy requires that we relinquish so much information, but there is always embedded in there the possibility of someone misusing what you provide. As someone who was a bureaucrat who's read these copious reports during my time as a program analyst for the OMB, there's just a lot of information out there. And we may choose to allow more access, but it needs to be a choice as opposed to something just - that just happens around us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But thrillers do sort of feed into this idea that there are vast conspiratorial forces at work sort of operating in the shadows.

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAMS: I am not a conspiracy theorist. I am someone who recognizes that fiction, good fiction relies on getting as close to the truth as possible and then twisting it into suspense, fear. And it has to seem like it could happen if it's going to work.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to take a little bit of a turn because what many Democrats say these days is the attempt to subvert democracy doesn't happen sort of in the shadows. They say it happens in plain sight. I'd like to talk to you about what we're seeing to restrict voting access across this country in Republican-leaning states. Democrats like yourself are complaining about it, but what can actually be done to challenge those restrictions?

ABRAMS: Well, I want to push back first on the notion that this is simply a Democratic versus Republican debate. The challenge is that these laws do not use partisanship as their language. They target communities based on their behaviors. And what we have seen happen in Georgia and Florida, what they did in Iowa is to identify behaviors that they found to be anathema to their victories. While the targets may be communities of color or young people or the disabled, eventually, the harm is to all of our communities because we are diminishing the ability for our fellow Americans to participate in elections. And that's what should be frightening to all.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In 2019, you wrote that it would be, quote, "strategic malpractice" for Democrats to not fully invest in Georgia because you argued a winning path went through new voters, demographic changes in the suburbs, protecting voters' access to the polls. Since the 2020 elections, though, Georgia has new restrictions on voting, as we've mentioned. And just this past week, The New York Times featured a piece headlined "Why Rising Diversity Might Not Help Democrats As Much As They Hope." Do you feel that the path you described is now closed?

ABRAMS: No, not at all. In this current moment, communities of color have disproportionately been supportive of Democrats and thus have become a target of Republican changes to voting rights. But what I worry about is that rather than both parties having to compete based on their ideas and their policies, we are instead seeing a rigging of the game, a changing of the rules because that's easier than actually having to argue for a community to support your ideas.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to ask you about the viral video of you responding to Senator John Kennedy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN KENNEDY: Just give me a list of the provisions that you object to.

ABRAMS: I object to the provisions that remove access to the right to vote, that shorten the federal runoff period from nine weeks to four weeks...

KENNEDY: OK.

ABRAMS: ...That restrict the time that a voter can request and return an absentee ballot application and eliminate...

KENNEDY: Slow down for me because our...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of the things about that was - especially among women, is the feeling that you were underestimated.

ABRAMS: I can't speak to Senator Kennedy's intent, what he expected of me in terms of my performance. My hope is that what people saw and what they respond to is that I'm not simply engaging in hyperbolic denunciation of these laws, that I know what I'm talking about. And I think for - especially for women and women of color in particular, we are expected to know what we're talking about with a degree of specificity that is often not expected always of our counterparts. When you are fighting for something, when there are those in power who do not want you to have it, you have a superior obligation to try to demonstrate the importance of change. And I find that the best way to do that is to have all the information at my disposal and tell a good story about why it needs to be done differently.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Stacey Abrams. Her new thriller is called "While Justice Sleeps." Thank you very much.

ABRAMS: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.