Stacey Abrams talks the shared values of her political campaign and writing romance
Stacey Abrams is many things – a lawyer, the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, and the woman currently making a bid to be the first African-American woman to hold the office of Governor in the United States.
In addition to her political efforts, Abrams is also a writer – of nonfiction with her recent release, Minority Leader: How to Lead from the Outside and Make Real Change. And perhaps more unusual for a politician – of romance fiction. Under the name Selena Montgomery, Abrams penned eight romance novels beginning with 2001’s Rules of Engagement.
For Abrams writing is just as essential to her political work as campaigning, serving on committees, or any other assortment of responsibilities. “I don’t know how not to write,” she tells EW. “It’s a pivotal part of how I think about the work that I need to do. Telling stories and making sure that I get to delve into other worlds and really think about how the world affects other people.”
As her gubernatorial campaign ramps up for the November 6 election in Georgia, EW caught up with Abrams to get her thoughts on why romance is the perfect genre for a politician, how her experiences as an author feed her values and ideals, and more.
You’re a lawyer and a politician. Was writing romance also always a life goal of yours? Or how did you end up pursuing it?
I actually wrote my first romance novel during my third year in law school. So I was writing it at the exact same time I was writing my final massive paper for law school. One was on the operational dissonance of the unrelated business income tax exemption and the other was Rules of Engagement, which was both a romance novel and an opportunity to punish my ex-boyfriend by using his dissertation to do things he would never do. Writing has always been an integral part of how I think about everything I do whether it’s writing romance or my most recent work writing Minority Leader…Romance is one of the most amazing genres to use because you have carte blanche to create any universe you want and to explore any set of archetypes and experiences with the common conversation of how people overcome their differences and find themselves in love.
You wrote in Minority Leader and you were a fan of the spy genre, so how did you find your way to romance?
My ex-boyfriend was doing his PhD in chemical physics and he sent me his dissertation to read. We had a conversation about the things he discovered [this chemical] could do, and I had these flights of fancy that became the genesis of the spy novel. As I started pitching the idea to editors, I was told multiple times women don’t read spy novels and men don’t read spy novels by or about women. As an African-American writer who wanted my characters to look like my experience, that was also not really a pathway. I knew I’d read espionage stories with women as primary characters and with women front and center. I realized that I was watching General Hospital and reading romance novels. If I made my spies fall in love, I could turn it into a romance novel and I could get it published.
How do you feel, if at all, that writing romance and tackling the challenges of publishing has prepared you to run for office?
Part of the challenge of owning your sense of self and finding your passions and your ambitions is acknowledging the challenges and the barriers and then moving past them anyway. And being thoughtful about how you do it. It was my belief that I could tell these stories in ways that are engaging, but are also reflective of the complexity of women’s lives. Whether I’m writing about an ethno-botanist or a woman who’s raising orphans in South Georgia the challenge of telling their stories is the same challenge I face as a legislator who has to talk to someone about passing a bill on kinship care, helping grandparents raising grandchildren, or blocking a tax bill because I’m using expertise they don’t realize I have. I revel in having been able to be a part of a genre that is read by millions and millions of women, in part because it respects who they are. It respects the diversity of our experiences, and it creates space for broader conversations.
Do you feel romance is inherently political as a genre?
I would say we all lead political lives. The nature of making decisions of having to meet our choices and find pathways for opportunity — that’s what politics is. Romance is a genre that invites people to explore lives that are not their own, but who understand there’s a common thread for all of us. We may be making choices that don’t necessarily benefit us but we’re all impacted by the decisions that are being made.
Do you feel that the values of romance – essentially that everyone deserves a happily-ever-after – are reflective of your political values?
There’s a through line from Rules of Engagement to Minority Leader, which is whether I find the happily-ever-after by solving the crime or resolving the mystery or by finding my ambition and figuring out how to confront my fears, those are all part and parcel of getting the happily-ever-after. One of the challenges that people often miss in romance is it’s a conversation of how do you identify what you want? How do you identify the obstacles in regards to getting there? Your fears? The best romance novels excavate your personal fears and how they impact your ability to have relationships, and then, the best part is the denouement. How do I meet those fears and not ignore them but turn them into a way to be successful anyway? In the case of a romance, how do I turn that success into falling in love and finding my happily-ever-after?
You write romantic suspense and your stories often deal with crime, spies, and more. You are also very outspoken on criminal justice reform – do you feel your stance is expressed through your fiction or that writing fiction is a different or more potent way to change hearts and minds?
My principles flow through and are evident in everything I write. I believe in the independence of women and people, especially those who are from marginalized communities who are more often unseen or unheard. They deserve a space and a platform. We have a responsibility to those around us. No one’s alone, and it’s our obligation to serve and to help one another. We have challenges as a society that cannot go ignored by those in power and if that means more people in power who have experienced those, [then all the better]. In a scene in Never Tell, my protagonist meets a woman who’s a victim of domestic violence. She says, “Sometimes we need someone to believe in us until we can believe in ourselves. “ These are moments that really reflect my sensibility both as a writer and as a political leader. We have this higher obligation to create space for people’s success and that means removing barriers or giving them the tools they need to remove and dismantle those barriers on their own.
You write in the introduction to Minority Leader about facing racism in publishing, such as having your books placed only on shelves for urban black writers – what was your reaction to that and how did that experience prepare you for what you’re facing now in your campaign?
At the time it was deeply frustrating. I do know that it stunted my sales. [People would] read my book and write me and say, “I wouldn’t have found this but for someone giving it to me because the cover would’ve thrown me off.” In my campaign, there has certainly been a conversation about the role that race and gender play in my candidacy. In both cases, I am proud of the cover, but the cover should never blind us to the content. [It should not blind people to] what I was able to do with a story, what I am able to do as a legislator, as a business owner, as a writer. We have to stop relegating things based on purely what we see and give ourselves space and responsibility for going past the cover and into the interior and understanding that experience.
Do you feel this part of your identity is something that could help you connect with certain voters or are you concerned about bias towards the genre?
I’m excited for people to know about Selena Montgomery. I’ve never hidden her. I started publishing in the early 2000s. That was just at the start of Google and at the exact moment I published Rules of Engagement, I was also publishing my master’s thesis on the unrelated business tax exemption. If you looked me up, you would find both of those things and it occurred to me it would be like reading romance by Alan Greenspan. It was a bad marketing ploy. I came up with a pseudonym that was much more evocative and sounded more romance novel-ish. I’m proud of who I am and what I’ve done. I’m proud of the stories I’ve told and the experiences I’ve gotten to live vicariously through these books. I hope that anyway who worries about my dual identity understands that I’m someone who can meet people where they are and can engage and understand and who has a shared experience that will make me a really strong leader.
You now have turned to nonfiction with Minority Leader, which is part memoir, part advice tract – did you find that writing it was very different from writing romance?
My very first publication was in high school. I wrote a piece on Mesopotamian astronomy that got published in a physics journal at the local university. My very first public work was nonfiction. I’ve always been very comfortable moving between genres and moving between ideas. It’s one of the most parts I found the most fun about being Selena Montgomery. I got to write about cognitive science and forensic anthropology, which gave me the opportunity to research all those areas. Writing Minority Leader was the first time I was being so directly inward. Having to excavate your own personal life as a pathway to tell stories to help other people can be very daunting, but I wanted to write this book because I think we’re at a reflection point in our nation. I was having conversations with young women, with people of color, in rural communities where people were starting to doubt their capacity to shape their lives. Minority Leader is about creating not just a narrative, but a handbook. It’s not just what you can do, it’s here’s how you can get it done. There are lots of things that tell you what you should do; there are very few things that tell you how to do it. I wanted to write a how-to book. That part was a lot of fun, especially realizing all the places I’ve been wrong myself.
You write of being “genteel poor,” which means always having books in the house – how essential do you feel books are to having a path to success?
I could not imagine my life without words. My parents loved reading and storytelling. My mother was a college librarian; my dad was dyslexic and had challenges with reading until he was in his 30s because he was undiagnosed. [He] still told some of the most fantastical, wonderful stories and made sure we had access to all the books we could. My mother would read to us every night. What books symbolize is the broader world that’s available. For every young mind, books create a pathway and a vista that allows us to see things that, especially if you grow up in a low-income household, you may not have any contact with. I remember reading Louisa May Alcott, Barbara Cartland, and Charles Dickens and getting to explore other worlds that reminded me of my own but gave me a different vantage point. I knew I wasn’t alone in this and my opportunities were greater than anything I could have imagined.