In an individual spirit of bipartisanship never before seen at the Georgia Legislature, House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams is ready to kill everybody.
Old and young, Democrats and Republicans, friends and political opponents. Everybody.
And the lawyers? If necessary, she’ll kill all the lawyers, too.
No, it’s not the political pressures of the GOP’s power in the House that leads Representative Abrams, D-Atlanta, to such acts. She knocks off all her victims under the pen name of Selena Montgomery in the eight romantic thrillers she has written since 1999. And she warns everybody before she wipes them out of her stories.
"I like to use the names of people I know, and you just have to agree to die if I use your name," Abrams said recently in her office at the Capitol. "You may not die, but that’s a condition — dying."
Abrams, an attorney herself who represents the 89th District in the House, keeps a busy schedule, especially when the Legislature is in session. She writes diligently in the early morning on her latest book, a legal thriller.
She is the first woman and African-American to lead either party in the Georgia House. She also works as senior vice president of NOWaccount Network Corp., a financial services firm she co-founded. She has a law degree from Yale.
As the frantic business of the House Democrats swirled around her before the Legislature’s recent adjournment, Abrams spoke to the Daily Report about Selena Montgomery’s career, which has much more intrigue than all that political stuff.
How many people here know you do this?
I don’t hide it. I think most of my colleagues who have been here for a few years know, but probably none of the new folks do. I just started using the pseudonym because I had published a really long article on tax policy, and at the same time I was publishing [a novel] for the first time. It was sort of, you know, reading about … business tax exemptions and romance from the same writer just seemed like a bad idea, so I decided having a nom de plume would be a much better way to sell romance.
So how did you come up with Selena Montgomery?
I watch an inordinate amount of television and I had sold my first book and I needed to give my editor a name to put on the book. My name is boring, and the names I came up with were boring. My sisters vetoed all those suggestions. It was like 2 in the morning and I was watching an A&E biography of Elizabeth Montgomery, from Bewitched, which was one of my favorite shows when I was younger. Her evil cousin, the dark-haired version, was Serena. Serena, Selena, Selena Montgomery. So it was both insomnia and Elizabeth Montgomery that gave me my name.
How did you decide to start writing the novels in the first place?
I’ve always written, and during my third year in law school I figured this was the last time I’d have this much free time — which is not the way you should think about the third year in law school. But I wanted to write a spy novel, and I started researching, trying to find who would possibly buy an espionage novel by a woman. At that point there really were no women who wrote espionage.
I had a friend in publishing and I asked him, "What’s the deal?" and he said, "Look, publishers don’t think that women read spy novels and they don’t think a man will read a spy novel by or about a woman."
So I pitched him my idea and he said, "Well, if you’ll make the lead character a guy and write under a man’s name you could probably sell it, but otherwise probably not."
I wasn’t willing to compromise what I wanted to write, so I thought, well, I know I’ve read espionage before, what did I read it in? And I remembered it was because I read a lot of romantic suspense novels; that’s how I read espionage.
Plus, I watched a lot of General Hospital with Luke and Laura and Robert Scorpio and Anna Devane, and so, I decided I would make my spies do everything they were going to do, but make them fall in love as they did it.
So I killed a lot of people but eventually created romance. I finished it up, sent it off, and the first editor I sent it to bought it and bought the next two and I’ve been writing ever since.
You skipped the step of writing what would be considered a "romantic novel"?
I’ve always written romantic suspense. The very first book I wrote, the editor was leaving [the publisher] Avon, going to Kensington Press. Kensington wanted to expand into African-American novels. This was 1999, so you didn’t have a lot of mainstream imprints that would publish African-American novels where the heroine was black.
The challenge was that most romance novels are sold by the cover, and the concern was that you couldn’t get mainstream audiences to buy novels that had African-American characters on the front.
Harlequin had broken into that through traditional romance [novels]. Harlequin was able to be on the vanguard because they were so big. Kensington decided they wanted to try it, and Kensington sold the line to BET Books, which was the brainchild of [Black Entertainment Television founder] Bob Johnson, but then they sold it back to Harlequin.
So in a roundabout way I eventually would be writing for Harlequin, but they weren’t there when I started.
And so I refused to change. I knew my character was a chemical physicist who was African-American. There was nothing culturally specific about my book that made it different from any mainstream romantic suspense novel, except that the way I described my characters was different.
Just describing them as African-Americans?
Exactly. They did not have pale, creamy skin, they had mocha or chocolate or caramel skin. Skin-color descriptions are the bane of every romance writer’s existence.
What does your audience look like?
My audience is fairly mixed. Part of it is determined by self-reporting on who buys your books. Most of mine have been put in the romance sections, not in the African-American sections.
If I go by my fan mail, my readers are culturally distinct. I have a lot of readers who are readers of color who are pleased that I didn’t stereotype my characters. I also have a group of men who read my books. I write really good suspense. My brothers read my books. My first three were spy novels and the next one was a murder mystery. Then I did two adventure novels.
So there is romance, but it’s not …
I’m not a Fifty Shades of Grey writer. I was always aware that my parents had to read my books, that I was a tax attorney for a major white-shoe law firm, and once I was running for office that my constituents would read the books.
For me, the romance is a vehicle to tell the stories I want to tell. I have the greatest respect for romance writers. I think the character-driven novel is a lot harder to do in some ways. I love plot-driven novels and I use romance for a couple of reasons. It’s the most popular type of book for women, and by writing romantic suspense I get to write about really interesting, thoughtful issues.
But I get to couch it in romance and in suspense. One of my characters was a cognitive scientist, so I got to spend three weeks on MIT’s website teaching myself about cognitive science. I get to do all these things and talk about areas and issues you normally wouldn’t read about.
What’s the raciest thing you’ve ever written?
The raciest book was The Art of Desire, mainly because there is a scene where the hero and heroine meet and nearly get killed, and passion overcomes them in the parking deck of Atlanta Hartsfield Airport. Very racy.
Who would you compare yourself to?
I think the nicest compliment I ever got was one that described me as Nora Roberts meets Beverly Jenkins meets Dan Brown. I think Nora Roberts is an incredible character writer. You forget you don’t know these people when you’re done.
I think Beverly Jenkins is among the pantheon — not only just a solid writer in her own right and a writer who really was creative about who and what she wrote about, [but also] her willingness to be on the vanguard of African-Americans writing in genres where they weren’t familiar to readers was just exceptional.
And then Dan Brown I think is a great storyteller. I wouldn’t say he’s the strongest writer I’ve ever read but he is an exceptional storyteller. And that I think is an art.
Who inspired you to start writing?
My parents. My mom was a librarian so I literally used to sleep in the stacks. I don’t remember not reading. My dad was dyslexic but he was a phenomenal storyteller. He would tell us bedtime stories but it would be like the normal stories you read. It would be like "terrifying — oh my God — do you not realize we are children? — please tell us again" stories. He was sort of our version of Stephen King.
They loved stories, they loved language and they were always intentional about that being part of our lives. I just grew up writing.
I wrote my first attempt at a novel when I was like, 12, called The Diary of Angst.
Very effective. For Christmas a couple of years ago my mom found it and had it bound for me. But yes, The Diary of Angst. I was so tortured as a 12-year-old.
When do you write?
I write early in the morning and I write on weekends. I’m a very organized writer and I write very quickly. I can do about 3,000 to 5,000 words a day. It’s amazing. They either want the book or their money back, so I get the book done.
What time do you start in the morning?
Oh, that’s not so bad.
Well, I don’t go to bed until about 1. I don’t sleep a lot.
What are the chances of killing off, say, Republicans in a book?
In While Justice Sleeps, which is the legal thriller I’m finishing up, a lot of my colleagues do make appearances, but in name only. I like to use the names of people I know, and you just have to agree to die if I use your name. You may not die, but that’s a condition — dying.
This one is premised on Article 3 of the Constitution, which says that federal judges can only be removed for resignation, high crimes, misdemeanor or death. The complete inability to do the job is not a disqualifier, unlike the 25th Amendment, which deals with the presidency.
So what if a Supreme Court justice fell into a persistent vegetative state in the middle of a really important case? What if it were Anthony Kennedy? So, I have a taut novel, hopefully, that addresses all kinds of legal issues while people are being gunned down and trying to evade capture. We’ll see what happens.