Stacey Abrams’ father, Robert, loved to tell bedtime ghost stories to his six children.
“Dad’s a wonderful storyteller,” says Abrams, 32, an author, lawyer and budding politician who fairly bubbles with ideas. “He pretty much induced nightmares in us all.”
If Abrams induces anything in her readers it’s hardly nightmares. Her latest novel, Hidden Sins, tells the story of Mara Reed, a con artist whose grandfather stole gold in a train heist in the 1930s. Dangers ensue in the quest for the gold, and Reed finds herself rescued by a man she once loved but betrayed. It’s escapist fiction — with some serious ideas amid the breathy action — from a woman who considers writing just one facet of a multi-pronged career.
Abrams grew up in Mississippi and transplanted to metro Atlanta when her parents entered theology school in mid-life, and she began dishing up romance and intrigue in the unlikely setting of Yale Law School.
“I wanted to write a book before I graduated,” she says. “I wanted to write a spy novel with a woman as protagonist. But publishers told me men don’t read spy novels by or about women, and women don’t read spy novels at all. To me, that was absurd. I did a little research and discovered that women actually do read them, they’re just called romance novels. So I made my spies fall in love.”
She also made them African American. “I wanted my characters to look like me, although I’m not a culturally specific writer,” Abrams says. “My stories are universal. The characters just happen to be African American.”
The upshot was a ripping yarn about Raleigh Foster, a brilliant spy out to recover stolen environmental technology in tandem with Adam Grayson, a former love. Abrams sold the book for $2,500 to Kensington Publishing, and Arabesque Books (BET Publications) eventually released it in 2001. “I was so excited,” she says. “I couldn’t believe someone was actually buying my book.”
But she chose a nom de plume, Selena Montgomery, because she also penned articles on tax law. “In fiction, it’s very important to brand yourself,” she says. “If I wrote under Stacey Abrams and people searched for my novels under that name, they’d also pull up articles on the charity income tax. It would be like reading a romance novel by Alan Greenspan. You probably wouldn’t.”
Indeed, those seeking passionate embraces in Devolution’s Discord: Resolving Operational Dissonance with the UBIT Exemption — an Abrams article in the Yale Law and Policy Review in 1999 — are looking for love in all the wrong places.
Romance is a genre known for its prolific writers, and Abrams does not betray the tradition. Typically, she writes in staccato bursts on weekends and can crank out 3,000 to 5,000 words a day, which means it takes her only about 30 writing days to finish a novel.
Rules of Engagement, her first novel, was followed in 2002 by both The Art of Desire (there’s this ancient obelisk on a tiny island rife with political tension … ) and Power of Persuasion (scientist caught in international intrigue). By book four, Never Tell (2004), she was with St. Martin’s Press, which paid her $7,000. In it, a heroine with a shadowy past solves linguistic riddles to track down a serial killer.
Her readers, she says, are mainly African-American females but also Caucasian women, with a smattering of men who like suspense.
Abrams is now under a two-book contract with HarperCollins (Avon Romance), which will pay her a mininum $20,000, depending on sales, admittedly her Achilles’ heel.
“I enjoy the writing and the research but not the selling,” she says. “I don’t promote my books as much as most writers do. For one thing, I don’t have the time.”
Who would doubt? After graduating from Yale in 1999, Abrams joined Sutherland, Asbill & Brennan in Atlanta, where she specialized in taxation and health care law. Then in early 2003 Abrams signed on with Mayor Shirley Franklin’s administration as deputy city attorney, heading a 12-lawyer team that provides legal advice to the mayor’s office, municipal departments and city-created boards.
“Best job I ever had,” she says. “I really enjoy seeing the juncture of policy and law. For one thing, I was able to work on economic development issues, including homelessness.”
Says city attorney Linda DiSantis, “Stacey brought an amazing amount of energy and creativity to the job. She’s very good at getting you to look at an issue in a different way.”
Abrams resigned the city post this spring. She is currently a consultant on Atlanta’s new $2.8 billion BeltLine project, but spent the summer campaigning for the 84th District House seat in the Georgia General Assembly. The district stretches from tony Druid Hills through Abrams’ own transitional neighborhood in Kirkwood to some poorer stretches of south DeKalb County.
On the stump, the Democrat stressed economic development, education and transportation issues. Her brief: Spur growth in poorer areas, promote learning above testing in schools and protect the environment, in part by expanding public transit.
“I believe government is a ministry,” she says. “It’s supposed to serve people. I’d call myself a pragmatic liberal — a liberal with a little ‘l.’ Government can’t fix everything, but it has an obligation to step in when markets fail and when individual desires collide with the needs of society as a whole.”
Poverty dismays Abrams. “It’s a waste of human capital and is economically inefficient. It makes no sense that our society values economics so highly and yet does such a poor job of understanding how systems could work more efficiently [to raise income levels].”
Abrams has a trio of political heroes: Barbara Jordan, Lyndon Johnson (“but without the ethical lapses”) and Robert Moses, the famed New York City mega-builder.
“Barbara Jordan had the fortitude to speak truth to power and was willing to work on the ground with her constituents to get them what they needed,” Abrams says. “LBJ understood the responsibility of government to have big ideas and to try to solve big problems. Robert Moses was the first to see how parks and trails can connect communities, although too often he discounted the poor and people of color.”
Add Mayor Franklin to that list of heroes.
“More than anyone in recent memory, she proved that when you make tough choices and do things that are remarkably unpopular on their face but need to be done, people will listen to you,” Abrams says. “In the mayor’s first four years in office, she raised taxes and fees, cut jobs and cut services, yet was re-elected with 91 percent of the vote.
“That’s because every time she did something, she had a reason for it,” Abrams says. “It’s the job of politicians to get things done. If they’re honest about what they’re doing, people will believe them. But all too often they underestimate the voters.”
The $2.8 billion BeltLine project is that rarity: a think-big initiative in 21st-century urban America, the kind of project that would have fired the blood of Moses. Using historic rail lines, the 22-mile loop encircling Atlanta’s central neighborhoods is slated to connect neighborhoods with transit, parks and trails. Build-out is envisioned over a 25-year period.
As for the legislative seat? Abrams won her primary and, with no Republican opposition in November, is headed to the Legislature. “I’m excited about joining my colleagues in the General Assembly and advancing the issues I believe in,” she says.
As a young girl Abrams loved the classics — Dickens, the Brontë sisters, Jane Austen — as well as Nancy Drew mysteries. “We weren’t snobs,” she says. “Good writing was the criterion.”
Today Abrams admires such writers as romance queen Nora Roberts, science fiction author Orson Scott Card, Colson Whitehead and Haruki Murakami. She calls Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle “one of the best books ever written.”
Community involvement came with the territory. Her mother, a research librarian, did volunteer work with the poor. Her father, employed in the local shipbuilding yards, ministered to prisoners in his off time while overcoming his own burdens. “Dad’s dyslexic,” she says. “He didn’t become a strong reader until he was in his 30s, and he did it by reading to my youngest sister.”
Abrams was 14 years old when her parents decided — in their 40s — to turn their charitable work into a profession and become Methodist ministers. Carolyn Abrams now has her own church in Wiggins, Miss., while Robert runs an outreach ministry that has been focusing on Hurricane Katrina relief.
Abrams’ academic career was — big surprise — eclectic. She attended a performing arts magnet public high school in DeKalb County, graduated as valedictorian, and then went across town to Spelman College, starting out in physics and philosophy with a minor in theater, morphing into chemistry and English, and winding up with an interdisciplinary studies degree. “I think they just wanted me to get out of there,” she says with a laugh.
Abrams is far from the only go-getter in her family. Older sister Andrea has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Emory; sister Leslie also graduated from Yale Law School and is an attorney; Richard teaches autistic children; Walter is assisting their parents with the Hurrican Katrina outreach; Jeanine is beginning doctoral work in evolutionary biology.
“There were three obligations with my parents: Go to church, go to school and take care of one another,” says Abrams, the second-oldest child. “Failure in any of those areas was not an option.”
The future holds more novels for Abrams. She’s now deep into two legal thrillers. One involves a Supreme Court justice who lapses into a coma as a pivotal case comes before the high court. The other centers on a third-year law student who ends up representing two orphans accused of murdering a judge. She has also begun a children’s book and a science-fiction novel for teenagers.
“I write books that I’d like to read,” Abrams says.
The disparate genres will call for different pen names. “One is probably going to be Sy Abrams — my first and second initials along with my last name. My mother would like to have a book with my last name on it.”
Count her parents among Selena Montgomery’s most loyal fans. Carolyn likes to read the novels to Robert when they go on car trips together. Stacey would rather not think about what happens when Mom gets to the steamier passages. Does the rear-view mirror fog up?
“In my world,” Abrams says with a laugh, “she just skips over them.”