The Sunday Magazine·Q&A

Stacey Abrams brings her storytelling power to politics and the page

For author and former politician Stacey Abrams, storytelling isn't just important in book-writing — it's also at the heart of everything she does, whether she's running for office or rousing people to vote.

Her new book, While Justice Sleeps, explores the challenges of having responsibility without real power

Stacey Abrams is a voting rights activist, award-winning author and politician. And in each of her fields, she's also a storyteller. (Kevin Lowery)

Stacey Abrams wears many hats. She's a voting rights activist who founded Fair Fight Action to address voter suppression; an award-winning author of several books, including eight romantic suspense novels; a lawyer and former politician who's been credited for boosting voter turnout in Georgia during the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

But no matter the hat she wears, Abrams will always be a storyteller — and she's used that power to succeed in various careers. 

"You've got to be able to tell a story that by the end has them so energized that they are willing to go with you to make it real," she told The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay.

Ahead of the May release of her legal thriller When Justice Sleeps, Abrams sat down with Chattopadhyay to discuss her novel, politics and power both on and off the page, and why storytelling is at the heart of everything she does.

I want to begin by asking you about the year that was. How are you holding up? 

It has been a complicated year and 2021 is doing its best to keep pace. But I take a long view on those things, so I'm good. 

We won the elections here in Georgia for the U.S. Senate, and the day the conclusion came to its end, we found ourselves that afternoon facing an insurrection trying to not only undo the election, but to really dramatically harm our democracy. 

We are in the midst of an extraordinary vaccine opportunity to help save millions of lives, and we still find ourselves arguing about the existence of the disease with those who should know better. 

I would say on almost every metric where there is something good and promising, we are constantly reminded of how much more work there is to do.

My deep concern is that we don't take for granted the success of 2020 and 2021, not just if you're a Democrat, but more importantly if you're an America.- Stacey Abrams

What are you thinking about the state of your country at this point? How would you describe it? 

It's this persistent dichotomy. 

The most prevalent one for me [is] that we saw record turnout, in part because we were able to mitigate voter suppression…. And in the states where it changed the outcome to the detriment of Republicans, we are watching these aggressive voter suppression laws take shape. 

My deep concern is that we don't take for granted the success of 2020 and 2021, not just if you're a Democrat, but more importantly if you're an American. 

We had elections that, for the first time in a number of years, actually allowed the most people to participate fully, and the response has been a backlash that really echoes the insurrection. And it's an attempt to rewrite history and worse, to write a new story for our future where citizenship takes a back seat to partisanship, and that should never happen.

You've got this new novel coming out, and in it, you take what can be described as a very dull technicality … and turn it into something thrilling and with very big consequences. What was the spark behind While Justice Sleeps?

Teresa Roseborough. She's actually a character in the novel, but is a real, fantastic, amazing woman who was one of my mentors when I first became a practising attorney. 

We have a really fantastic friendship, and once I left the law firm and was years into my time as a legislator, she invited me for lunch. And while we were talking, she would always sprinkle these titbits before me like breadcrumbs just to sort of spark my imagination. 

She said, 'Have you ever thought about the fact that the U.S. Constitution has a provision to address a president who is incapacitated … but federal judges, including the Supreme Court, get a lifetime appointment? And unless they commit a high crime or misdemeanour, there is no mechanism for removing them from office simply for being incapable of doing their job?' 

It just caught my imagination, and I started thinking about people in persistent vegetative states and long-term comas, and While Justice Sleeps was born.

Abrams' new book, 'While Justice Sleeps,' explores the question of when you have responsibility but no real power, how do you decide to act? (Doubleday)

The story opens with a Supreme Court justice slipping into a coma … and [his law clerk, Avery Keene] learns that, just before going into a coma, he named her his guardian and gave her power of attorney. Are there parallels here between a young Stacey Abrams and Avery Keene, at least professionally?

I've never had that level of responsibility for anyone, but what intrigued me about using Avery as the foil for this conversation is that as a young lawyer, as a young leader, you sometimes find yourself with responsibility, but with no actual power. 

I found myself facing that as a young lawyer, as a young legislator, as an entrepreneur, where you get to do things and sometimes it's above your pay grade, but people are expecting you to get it done well without thinking about the ancillary challenges that you'll face. 

In fact, one of the pieces in the story where I delve into bureaucracy came from an experience I had where I was interning for a federal agency and had this amazing set of responsibilities, but didn't have the authority to order my own plane ticket. 

That juxtaposition, that tension feeds throughout this story.

The other really important thing about Avery is her blackness. In all your novels you place Black Americans at the centre. But they also aren't defined by their blackness. How do you walk that line and what are you trying to say with all of that? 

I think you articulated it perfectly. They are certainly identified by race and by gender, but they aren't wholly defined by that.

My goal is to expand the notions of what we can experience. That action and adventure and intrigue and complications have so many other facets than the traditional tropes that we see trotted out. But also that there are some universal experiences where your race and gender will inform parts of how you think about it, but they don't inform the situations necessarily that you find yourself in. 

What I want readers to be able to do is see themselves in it and to know that while my characters are Black, it could be anyone. 

When you can name someone's reality, when you can give it texture and you can give it truth, then they believe that you're talking to them, and then you're on the journey together.- Stacey Abrams

Their blackness … will prescribe some of their behaviour, but they do not confine them in the reach of their ambition and the fun and exciting lives that they could lead.

At the crux of each of the roles you play, whether it be novelist, activist, politician … is storytelling. You are constantly creating narratives. Why is [the power of storytelling] so key to tell a story in the real-life work you do? 

My parents raised us with stories. My mom was a college librarian who would read to us regularly. My dad would tell us these wild and fantastical [bedtime] stories and ... he had to satisfy an audience of six, so he had to remember what he said the last time and cater to each child's imagination. 

But my parents were also civil justice workers. They did the work of meeting people where they are and trying to help their lives get better, and [they] would take us with them. 

I watched how they engaged, and later on when they became pastors, how they preached and how they taught. And it was always about telling a story that invites someone in so they can hear you, but keeps them there because they want to know where you're going. 

You've got to be able to tell a story that by the end has them so energized that they are willing to go with you to make it real. 

Abrams says a big part of engaging with a group of people is recognizing their truths and laying out a framework for addressing them. 'Then they believe that you're talking to them, and then you're on the journey together,' she said.

We saw that power of storytelling translate into your political power for many years, but … I think we really paid attention to how it played out in your state of Georgia during the U.S. election last fall.  What was the story you told that brought so many people out to vote? 

Often, people don't move because they don't think they deserve to get to the next place, or they've become so numbed by the inability to make progress that progress seems not just mythical, it seems impossible. 

So my first story is you have the right to this. This is yours. And I'm going to tell you that I understand why you are suspicious. 

The worst way to get someone engaged is to pretend that their truth isn't so, and a big part of my work was to call it out. That's part of what has angered those who opposed me so much; that I actually named it, I talk about voter suppression, I talk about what it looks like. And not just in the experience of Black voters, but brown voters, Native American voters, young people, the disabled. 

When you can name someone's reality, when you can give it texture and you can give it truth, then they believe that you're talking to them, and then you're on the journey together. Then we start talking about what happens next.

Written by Mouhamad Rachini. Interview produced by Jessica Linzey. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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