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Stacey Abrams has twice been the Democratic candidate for Governor in Georgia (unsuccessfully), founded FairFight Action to increase voter registration, and is currently the Senior Counsel to Rewiring America, a nonprofit that seeks to switch all households to using electricity. She was recently appointed as an endowed chair at Howard University. And she’s found time to write at least 12 books.
One could be forgiven for expecting her books to be policy-heavy. And yes, she has written a lot on tax law, but she also writes genre fiction, both under her own name and the pen-name Selena Montgomery. Her newest book, Rogue Justice, is the the second in a series of legal thrillers about feisty Supreme Court clerk Avery Keene, an impeached President, a suspicious FBI agent and a shadowy character who knows how to work the levers of the U.S. government.
Abrams talked to TIME about the role fiction has played in her life, voting rights and whether she will run for political office again.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
People who only know your political career may not know that you’ve written four bestsellers, including at least one legal thriller and eight romantic suspense novels. You have so much to do. Why write?
I do not remember a time when writing and reading weren’t important to me. My mom was a college librarian, and I used to nap among the stacks. Writing has never been far from what I do or who I am.
I wrote my first attempt a novel when I was 12. It was called The Diary of Angst. I was a very, very obnoxious 12 year old who was just assailed by all the travails of the world. Novels have always been a part of how I think about writing. During law school, I wrote two things that got published: my first romantic suspense novel and an essay on the operational dissonance of the unrelated business income tax exemption.
Do you find novels a useful way to critique politics?
For me, the novel is a way to tackle complicated conversations, to address questions that intrigue me or pique me. You didn’t enter Rogue Justice necessarily knowing you wanted to know about the power grid or about the FISA court, but I hope when you’re done, you have answers, and you also have new questions.
Did the writing of the novel lead you towards accepting the position at Rewiring America?
I’d say that it informed why I understood the importance of the issue. This was one of those happy coincidences. After the campaign the opportunity for Rewiring came up and I thought, well, I now know much more about electrification than most people would realize… Although, you know, I thought I’d be doing something else after the election.
Your book involves a massive leak of data. Do you see any similarities with the massive data leak we are living through?
I do. I think we have entered an age when the aggregation of information and the incredible speed with which technology allows us to access it, and the sheer volume of it we can amass, makes us vulnerable. And I think we have to stop being surprised by leaks. Instead, we have to anticipate that they’re going to happen. Part of what I’m investigating in this book is where there are vulnerabilities.
You don’t worry that writing novels will make people take you less seriously?
Politics is about meeting people where they are and setting a vision for where you can go. I love storytelling. And I think that there’s very little in our society that levels the playing field more than a good novel does. It’s just a different part of how we have conversations and how we investigate our world.
Has your increased understanding of cybercrime given you sympathy for people who don’t trust computerized ballot counting?
Of course. We have to recognize that trust is earned not given. And part of my responsibility on the civic side is to work hard to make certain that we can and do trust our systems. The Dominion lawsuit mattered because it’s not simply a question or defaming a company; you’re also attacking a process that is embedded in how we have elections. Our fundamental responsibility is not only ensuring access, but validating the trust that people place in our democracy.
Are you satisfied with how much change you’ve been able to bring to Georgia’s electoral system?
I think we’ve made improvements. Unfortunately, even this year, we saw the state continue to retrench on voter suppression and make it more difficult for people to participate. My worry is that we think that because there’s no massive disaster, that that means there is no fault. Democracy is fragile and that is why I will continue to be engaged in defending it, even if it is watching a community lose their last access to voting because they shut down a precinct in a community without public transit. When no one can reach the voting place, does it really exist?
You started your career as a tax attorney. If you could change one part of the tax code, what would you change?
Immediately I would lift the exemptions. Right now our tax code gives privilege to communities who already enjoy it. Multibillion dollar companies pay nothing, and the janitor who cleans the floor of one of those companies pays an extraordinary sum of their income. I would right-size it so that we all pay our fair share.
Do you want to run for governor again?
I will always be involved in politics and I may run again, but that’s not my focus right now. One of the reasons writing this novel was so important to me is I wrote it as I was planning to run for office. I do not see a separation between being a writer and being in politics and running a business. In my mind, they’re all of a piece, a very complicated piece, but that’s why God created novels. So you can tell multiple stories all at once.
Interesting that you put novels on God. Was that on the eighth day?
My mother was a librarian. So clearly, there was a lot of intentionality there.
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