Stacey Abrams: A Point of Entry
Stacey Abrams talks about her new book, Rogue Justice, and the systems that influence American life from the shadows.
Stacey Abrams is a politician, author, and voting rights activist. She served in the Georgia House of Representatives for 10 years, she fought two closely contested gubernatorial races, and has been at the forefront of expanding voting rights in Georgia and beyond, with her organization, Fair Fight Action.
Our lives are a Human Venn Diagram, and yet the currency, again, of politics is as pretense that they're not an at all connected. And that leads to so many different, not just controversies, but it undermines our faith in the common belief that we are in this together.
I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.
My guest today is Stacey Abrams, a politician, author, and voting rights activist. She served in the Georgia House of Representatives for 10 years.
She fought two extremely closely contested gubernatorial races, and she's been at the forefront of expanding voting rights in Georgia and beyond with her organization, Fair Fight Action.
Her new book, Rogue Justice, is a fictional political thriller.
Stacey, welcome to Burn the Boats.
Thank you for having me.
You are such a mission driven leader, that is obvious to anyone who follows you. I am wondering how you bring that to the job of writing a political thriller when you're creating a protagonist like Avery Keene.
How do you balance the need to sell books on one hand with the challenge of educating readers about something important in the world?
Well, first of all, I appreciate that question. The way I think about it is that books are designed to both entertain and educate, and the question is in which order.
And so, if I'm writing non-fiction, education comes first, entertainment usually is second. But you have to entertain them if you want them to get to the end. And in fiction, it is always entertainment first.
And part of my mission is to take topics that seem very partisan or polarizing and really explain how they are universal.
So, in this book, I range from talking about the FISA Courts to dealing with issues of cybersecurity and the Feres Doctrine, (which I know you're familiar with) to talking about the power grid.
And in each of those conversations, the mission is to share information. You can do with it what you will, but my job is to make sure you have it and that you have it in a way that is bite sized to start comprehensive by the time you finish. But you don't feel like you sat through a lecture, you felt like you went through an adventure.
How do you pick that material? Because it can seem esoteric at first. Your last one, the first in this series dealt with Biogen warfare. As you said, you take on the FISA Court here, which has enormous impact on our lives, but most Americans don't really know anything about it.
How do you pick something like that and decide, “This is what I'm going to educate Americans, (at least my readers) about.”
I pick things that we are expected not to understand, but that if someone took the time to give us a point of entry, it makes sense. But I also, want to grapple with issues that are so critical to the way we live our lives.
As you point out, the FISA Court is one of the most powerful bodies in America that most Americans know nothing about or know very little about. When I wrote While Justice Sleeps, it was at the very front end of the conversation about CRISPR and what that could be.
And so, for me, it's how do you take something that seems both complicated and inaccessible and deconstructed and make certain people feel that they at least have a handle on it, or the next time they hear a story about it, they don't feel completely out of their depth.
Does your personal experience factor into that? I'm thinking about your description of cyber-crime and the intricacies of how that plays out in the dark web and elsewhere. And it reminded me of the completely baseless accusations against your campaign in 2018 of cyber-crime.
How much do you integrate the things that have happened to you with your plot lines in a book like this?
Absolutely, they become a part of the conversation for two reasons. One is that they spark for me, if I'm warrantly accused of something, I want to understand what it is I was supposedly responsible for doing.
And so, when you get accused of a cyber-crime, you want to know what it is they think you know how to do. But once I started looking into it, I became fascinated by the dark web, by the conversations of what happened.
And you and I have a mutual friend, Eseosa, who has done a lot of work on misinformation, disinformation. And cybersecurity is an integral part of that conversation.
The other piece for me is that I love learning things. I wrote romantic suspense novels about ethnobotany and mark off decision processes. So, this gives me an excuse to go down my own rabbit holes.
But in this case, and as I try to do in these books, it's really thinking about what are salient, timely conversations that we feel either excluded from or remote from. Exclusion tells us we're not allowed and remote from tells us it doesn't apply to us.
And my job as a writer, is to bring you in and then to let you know you have the right to understand.
Most of the time, you seem to be warning us about material threats like cyber-crime. But every once in a while, you get philosophical about the larger Meneses we face.
And I'm drawn to this quote in particular, no spoilers here, but would love your thoughts on how you approach things like this philosophically.
You say that, “One of the threats of the modern age was incredulity. Even at the highest levels of power, leaders habitually, instinctively rejected the improbable as wholly impossible. And they grounded their doubt in a phony pessimism that (quote) blind hope.”
I am loading this question with the context of the ‘24 presidential race and the incredible wishful thinking and naivete that is going into the Republican primary. That has to be part of your philosophical approach to this point, right?
It is. I mean, part of the notion of democracy demands that we explore all facets. That we create space for things to be different than we expect. And because we refuse to engage, we create this binary that is just not sustainable once you go outside.
And unfortunately, you and I both know this. In politics, it's the currency of the realm. Your ability to reject possibility becomes the way you get reelected.
If you can deny the legitimacy of another person's thought, another person's idea, another person's reality, you can then submit your own as the only truth. And you cannot have a common conversation when you have completely separated an incompatible truths.
And the reality is life is not like that. There are very few decisions that are so stark and so completely devoid of intersection.
Our lives are a Human Veen Diagram, and yet the currency, again, of politics is this pretense that they're not an at all connected. And that leads to so many different, not just controversies, but it undermines our faith in the common belief that we are in this together.
You cannot be a nation that doesn't believe that we're supposed to actually be connected.
One of the things I like to do before I speak to authors is read regular people's reviews. I read the other reviews of course, and the Amazon verified reader reviews aren't out yet for Rogue Justice.
But going back to While Justice Sleeps, I read a bunch of those and your impact is obvious on your fan base. They love you, they're incredibly loyal.
But how often do you have people reach out and reflect back, kind of what you just said, “You changed me, you opened up my mind to something.” How do you balance your mission of persuasion with your mission of entertainment, and what are you hearing about that?
There is a really lovely article written by Charlie Bethea in the New Yorker. It's in New York, I think that's what it was. He actually talked to Republicans who are not considered my natural audience. And they said they enjoyed the book even though they may disagree with my politics.
I've done my job as a writer when someone can lose themselves in the story and not lose themselves in whatever Twitter thread they read about me, because writing has been with me a lot longer than any political bet that I've held.
But they're tied together because why I write, why I work, why I do the work I do is because I want people to understand. And yes, I've been very heartened by some folks when I'm on the campaign trail.
This is a true story. I was at a NASCAR race and someone who I would not have presumed to be a natural audience member to my work came up to me and said, “I loved your book. When's the next one coming out?”
And it was a lovely conversation and I never discount the fact that people who aren't my presumed natural audience will be there. Because my most recent fan girl moment was I got to meet Lyle Lovett and the people around me like, “You know Lyle Lovett?” I'm like, “I own everything he has ever recorded. So, yes.”
So, I try not to presume about those who might engage. And I think that's one of the joys of writing. That people who may not think that they have something in common, they may not think I have a story they want to hear, they get lost in the story and they come out of it thinking, “Well, maybe she's not as bad as I was told.”
What do you want readers talking about with each other when they put your book down? I have the galley copy. It is dogeared and it got rained on, but I hope you'll take that as a compliment, because-
… I've been going through it a lot. There isn't a book club prompt in the back yet, and there's pages on hold. I hope you do something like that. And even if not, what are you hoping that people are talking about at the water cooler when they put it down?
One, I hope they talk about Avery. She is one of the most fun characters I've ever gotten to create. And I love Avery because one, she doesn't go it alone. She may be the person who's at the front, but she never travels by herself.
And I think that's not just a metaphor, but it's an intentional design on my part for her to have friends and allies who come in with different ideas, different thoughts, different backgrounds.
Number two, I want people to understand the power of the FISA Court and the vulnerability of our justice system. It is not to say we shouldn't have it, but you cannot strengthen something you don't recognize as vulnerable.
I mean, that's part of the reason I chime so much in on the issue of democracy. Democracy is both resilient and fragile, and both things can be true.
I want folks to pay attention to cybersecurity, not just what's happening on your phone, but what's happening around you. And as AI and deepfake videos become more and more part of our lives, we've got to again, strain our credulity.
And then I think people need to understand the Feres Doctrine, which is the conversation we've really never had in America, which basically denies our military access to our civilian courts under most circumstances.
And that's disturbing on a number of levels. And I explored a bit in the story without giving things away, we should as a nation grapple more strongly with what we ask of our service members and what we offer them in terms of actual justice.
What were the hardest parts of Avery Keene to write? And I hope you'll get a little autobiographical here because I'm drawn to this one passage in particular, and maybe I'm reading too much into it.
But you wrote of your heroin Avery, “All the years of law school and clerkships had been to help her escape the uncertainty to plot a way to a nice normal, steady, boring, predictable life.”
“Her life plan had included August in Martha's Vineyard with other bougie girls from Spelman and Yale who'd made good or had never had to look for their path to success. She had no idea where that Avery had gone or if she really truly wanted to find her.”
So, when I was 27, 28, I was a tax attorney at a law firm. I was proud of the work I was doing, but I was also, not at all the person I thought I'd be. And that's this moment in our lives, that quarter life decision making where we've been in a job long enough to know if this is a job or a career.
And for Avery, I mean, there's certainly heightened expectations. For me, it was a decision of whether I was going to stay with the private sector work that I had trained for.
I mean, I'd spent a lot of money getting my degrees at Spelman, and Yale, and University of Texas. And the cost of those degrees showed up in the mail every single month.
And I had to decide was I going to stick with this path and go on a partnership track, or was I going to leave and follow what had always driven me in my mind and in my family work, which was, was I going to take a more civic path?
And I ended up leaving my job at the law firm and going to work for the city of Atlanta. And it was an amazing job. It was an extraordinary role, but as my mother put it, I began my trajectory of downward economic mobility because I left a really nice cushy job to go and work for the city of Atlanta as Deputy City Attorney.
But it was one of those pivotal moments where the person we imagine ourselves to be, and the person we become constantly evolves if we're lucky. And the challenge is to track and mark those changes and make them more intentional than not, but not for stall opportunity when it appears.
Indeed. I'm sure you get asked a lot about how you draw inspiration for characters. And your mom's a librarian. That makes its way into the book in some really beautiful ways, like the reading from The Picture of Dorian Gray. Your sister's a judge, I believe.
I'm most interested in how you craft your villains. Who do you draw on for that? Because I don't imagine they're in real life as close to you as the heroes of your stories.
So, in this book, our antagonist is inspired by a dear friend who served 22 years in the military and is a cyber expert. She's not at all like Hayden.
But she inspired me because of her strength.
Sometimes what I do is I think of who's someone I really admire and what would their antithesis be like? Or just if you changed, not everything, but just slight things about them, if you made things rougher or if you removed one part of their moral fiber, what would you get?
Will Vance is another one. It's based on a dear friend of mine who I'm like, “What if he had this much power and no consequences? If he were in bazaar world, what would it look like?”
And so, I try to create villains that you don't revile, but you dislike and you want them to lose. But when they're so caricatured that they're just absolute evil, there's no point.
And even with Brandon Stokes, I wrote him 10 years before we had a president who was more like some of the aspects of him. But even then, I respect Brandon. I don't like him. I think he's done terrible things, but I don't want him to be a caricature of evil.
He is someone who has made terrible decisions because of too much power and too much privilege.
And going back to the point of credulity, no one is immune from being their worst self. So, how do you find someone who's yeah, problematic and how do you extrapolate what that looks like.
But I never use their real names when I do that because I really need to be able to go home for Christmas and say hi to my friends at reunions.
I appreciate that nuance because too often when depictions descend into caricature, they're just too easily dismissed. And when you're writing about things that have real world implications, I think that the mapping of a book like this onto real world experience is important.
We just spoke to Mary Trump a couple days ago, and even with someone like the former president, it's important to understand that they're not a caricature, they're a real person. There's a backstory there that is worth understanding if you want to really understand their current menace.
So, thank you for that. Thank you for not falling into the trope of many people who write villains.
What are you taking on next? Because you've taken on a number of topics that most Americans should know about but don't. I would imagine the list has got to be a mile long. I mean, please tell me the electoral college is on there somewhere.
I'm fairly certain it will come up in some way. I will tell you, I try to layer in a few topics in each book that are … I don't want to overwhelm you, but I do want to intrigue you. And so, this one, as I said, we go from cybersecurity, to terrorism, to the power grid.
I think AI is a topic that is getting a lot of attention, but not a lot of depth to the conversation. And part of what I try to think about are what are the things that are common part of our daily lives. But one, what if we extrapolated it to not it's like absurdist end, but some people who aren't that happy with us, what could they do?
And then I also, like to think about what are topics or issues that bubble just beneath the surface but we haven't had a moment to really dive in. But I also, like just to have things confront me.
So, I didn't know when I sat down to write this book, all of the pieces I would incorporate. But once I started, part of the joy for me in writing is that I get a chance to explore topics that I didn't think about or didn't know about.
I spent a lot of time studying the dark web. I spent a lot of time understanding the nation's power grid.
And so, part of this is going to be (because Avery has a third book that's going to be due soon) I want to figure out what does she need to know and what do I want to learn, and that'll guide my ideas.
And so, if you've got anything for me, send them my way.
I will. And we may pull the readers and the viewers on that one. Where does your love of tech come from? That isn't just an artifact of these books? I mean, it goes way back, right?
You're a sci-fi fan. You appeared on Star Trek. But growing up as the daughter of a librarian, that wasn't a natural path, was it?
No. So, my mom's a librarian, my dad was a shipyard worker. And we didn't have any money, so tech was never a big part of our lives.
However, as you said, we watched a lot of science fiction. We read widely. I love Dr. Who. So, I've been immersed. PBS had the license to run Dr. Who in the United States. So, I used to watch it every Saturday with my siblings.
But one of my first jobs that really involved tech was a summer internship in grad school. And I interned for the Office of Management and Budget looking at the TEOP Program, basically the technology program. And this was in it early ‘90s, so people weren't deeply embedded, or mid ‘90s.
But I traveled the country as part of this internship. I was working for OMB evaluating programs that have received federal funding and really understanding how technology was implicated in everything from healthcare, to education, to the food we were eating.
And for me, that became just a lifelong intrigue, wanting to know more, wanting to explore more deeply. And so, in a number of my books, I find ways to explore technology conversations and understand more.
I'm a frustrated physicist. I thought I'd be a physicist, but it turns out I really hate differential calculus. And so, that dream died early in college.
But that part of my brain has always been very active and that part of my spirit says, “As much as I love the concrete nature of words and as much as I enjoy the philosophy of thinking, technology is both poetry and science, and I want to know more.”
Books were such an important part of your childhood and obviously, your continuing contribution today. When you look at these growing efforts to ban books, to limit what young people can read, do you perceive it as a real phase shift, an existential threat?
Or is it the kind of thing that's going to burn out once it's exposed and once the silliness of groups like what is it, Moms for Liberty are exposed, how worried should we be?
I would say it's both existential but it's also, temporary. We have faced this crisis before and we have righted ourselves before, but each time we go through it, we let it go a little further than it should. And what worries me is how far we will let it go this time.
It is a natural part of the rise of authoritarianism and the resistance to demographic or social and cultural change to try to eliminate the stories of that change as a way to protect who you are and to protect the now, or worse to try to protect the then.
My belief is that it will always happen in a society that is changing, that people are going to try to hold on to their truth by eliminating every other truth.
We have to be smarter than that, we have to be more resilient than that, and we have to be more assertive than that. I do not support book manning.
My mother was a college librarian, so she was a librarian out of college. She would let us read what we could reach, but she would always help us contextualize it. She would make sure we understood it.
Neither of my parents, they never said, “Don't learn something.” They tried to make sure what we learned we could understand and if it wasn't appropriate for our age, they tried to find a way for us to learn it in a moment that was accessible for us.
The minute we tell children knowledge is not a native good, we are damning ourselves. And that's the existential crisis.
When we tell children that the way to confront challenge is to close your eyes, cover your ears, and hum along, hoping you can drown out the noise of difference, we are undermining the very strength that made us who we are. And we are cutting ourselves off from the catalyst that makes us better in the next generation.
Libraries used to be (and most of the country, they still are) the opportunity for children to do that. If they had nothing else in their community, they had the school library or they had the county library.
And I'm lucky in Ohio in that we still invest heavily in our library system. But if you needed your imagination to run wild, if you needed an outlet, the library was always there. And it's no coincidence that that is now, the target of the reactionary right.
I am wondering, when you talk about we have to fight back, how do we do it outside of our own communities where we have power to make sure that kids in those far flung communities where a minority of adults think that they can shut down with the heckler's veto, that access to imagination in other worlds.
How do we fight back in places like that? There are states now, that are totally defunding libraries.
Yeah. One, we cannot abandon our responsibility to speak up and to show up in the state legislatures, to show up in the county commission offices, show up at the school board meetings and demand access.
Even if your children are safe and protected, you live near a community where this is under threat, I promise you, no matter where you are. And so, show up because we are all our children's keeper.
Number two, we have to take advantage of programs that are out there that want to get books into the hands of kids. So, look for a program in your community, in your state, donate to that program, volunteer if you can.
But more than anything, we just have to keep pushing back. I mean, the trope is if you see something, say something. Well, if you see something, do something.
And it is not just about a child's ability to read a book that may or may not be questionable. It is about a child's right to learn and grow. We are the guardians of that responsibility. We are the protectors of their access.
In addition to the work I do as a fiction writer, I write children's books and I celebrate books, I celebrate reading because that is why I am where I am. And I want every child to have the same opportunity.
Part of me wonders if the reactionary grownups we're talking about are less interested in protecting their kids from these ideas than they are afraid of their own children and what the next generation will do once they are exposed to the outside world. Is that an overreach?
I don't think it's an overreach. I don't think it's a holistic explanation. It defines some. For others, there are legitimate kernels of concern, but there are other sources of solution. And that's the problem.
When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And sometimes you need a scalpel. Sometimes you need a screwdriver because it wasn't really a nail, somebody just stained off the top a little bit.
So, we've got to be able to find the right tool to solve the specific problem. But the wholesale banning of, or worse, the refusal to engage is the most dangerous response that I can imagine.
I don't like everything I hear, but I will defend the right for it to be said.
Two last questions. One about Avery Keene, one about you. Will we see Avery Keene on the big screen?
We're working on it. So, she is under development for a TV series right now, so we can see her as many times as we can. But there's this little writer strike going on, so there's a bit of a pause.
And how about you, what's your next step? And please tell me you're going to take another swing at elected office?
So, I believe that politics are an essential part of doing good. And for me, it's how I try to meet my mission of making the world better and helping those who have less.
So, yes, one day, I will run again, but my focus right now, is on using my ability as a writer, as a producer, as a business owner, as a civic activist to keep getting good done. And if politics comes in again, I'll be right there.
Great. Thank you so much, Stacey. It's been an honor having you.
Ken, it's been my pleasure. Thank you so much.
Thanks again, to Stacey for joining me. Make sure to check out her book, Rogue Justice and visit fairfight.com for more information about how you can help protect democracy.
Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael Dealoia, and David Moss.
I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.