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“Nobody saw it as contemporary.” Why Stacey Abrams’s new novel went unpublished for a decade.

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April 26, 2021, 11:43am

On May 11th, Doubleday will publish national powerhouse Stacey Abrams’s novel While Justice Sleeps, a thriller about a Supreme Court justice who slips into a coma, leaving his law clerk responsible for untangling a conspiracy involving the president of the United States. The novel’s court- and corruption-focused plot feels particularly of-the-moment given the last presidential administration—but Abrams revealed in an interview with the Wall Street Journal Magazine that she wrote it ten years earlier, and publishers passed twice on the book before Abrams finally sold it in 2019. In her WSJ interview, Abrams detailed the book’s winding road to publication:

I wrote my first draft I think between 2010 and 2011. I wrote it on spec. And when I first tried to sell it in 2011, publishers thought that the president’s role in the story was illogical, and that people didn’t really care about the Supreme Court . . . Nobody saw it as contemporary. And so I actually revisited it in 2015. I cut a few chapters, tried to sell it again and once again got a “Nice try, but we just don’t think this seems very realistic.” You have to remember, this is also the age of Obama. And this notion that all of these things that I pour into this book could actually happen just seemed so far-fetched. But when I revisited it in 2019, suddenly it seemed prescient and absolutely relevant in this moment. And so they were finally willing to buy it. I don’t think it hurt that I had become more well-known than when I sent it out . . . [And] because we had this rising conversation about the Supreme Court, given the fact that Trump was able to appoint three justices, there was a renewed understanding of how important the court was because so many consequential decisions had been made.

It’s a heartening reminder for every writer with a draft consigned to a drawer: you never know when your work will resonate, receive a new frame, suddenly become relevant. (Anybody whose writing accidentally predicted the COVID-19 pandemic knows this all too well.) And it’s a case against “writing to the moment” and instead writing to your interests: Abrams’s deep knowledge of the courts allowed her to anticipate contemporary political concerns. For everybody who isn’t Abrams, you can always hope the next president enacts the exact plot of your book.

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