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How Stacey Abrams turned heartbreak into a career plan — and romance novels

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When she was 18, Stacey Abrams suffered heartbreak: Her second boyfriend, a guy named Chad, broke up with her. Rather than wallow in a tub of ice cream, Abrams sought comfort in the computer lab at Spelman College, where she spent the evening creating a spreadsheet mapping out the next 40 years of her life.

Becoming the nation’s first black female governor — a position she’s now vying for in Georgia — was not part of the plan. But as she explains in her book “Minority Leader,” a memoir-cum-self-help book subtitled “How to Lead From the Outside and Make Real Change,” her goals were nonetheless lofty: By age 24, she planned to be the author of a bestselling romantic spy novel. By 30, she’d be a “millionaire running a corporation whose purpose I had not yet figured out.” By 35, she’d be mayor of Atlanta.

Now 44, the Democratic candidate has achieved one of those three goals — at least partly. None of Abrams’s eight novels became a bestseller, but the books did achieve another of her objectives: to show herself and other black women that they could be “as adventurous and attractive as any white woman.” Abrams, a longtime fan of James Bond films and the soap opera “General Hospital” (she organized her college class schedule so she wouldn’t miss an episode), wanted to help put more black women in starring roles and on the covers of novels — and she has.

“Her presence as a woman of color writing romance was a positive step,” says Beverly Jenkins, a critically acclaimed romance novelist. “Representation matters.”

Writing under the pseudonym Selena Montgomery, Abrams weaves intricate plots that befit their tantalizing titles. In “Reckless,” a successful Atlanta lawyer becomes embroiled — professionally and romantically — with a handsome sheriff. “Secrets and Lies” pairs up sexy ethnobotanist Katelyn Lyda and Sebastian Caine, who may be a thief involved in the murder of Lyda’s uncle. “Hidden Sins” follows the exploits of Mara Reed and Dr. Ethan Stewart as they spar and spark, chasing down a buried treasure.

Abrams’s strong, complicated female characters both seduce and are seduced; they solve crimes and win cases. Her prose heats up when it needs to: “Summoning a will she didn’t realize she possessed, Mara flattened her palms against his chest,” reads one scene in “Hidden Sins.” “The heart beneath raced with a vital speed, and her resolve wavered. Fevered kisses snaked a chain along her throat, burning away reason.”

A graduate of Yale Law School and the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, Abrams wrote her first romance novel, “Rules of Engagement,” during her third year at Yale. She worked on the books in the evenings and on weekends. Her last Selena Montgomery book, “Deception,” was published in 2009.

“I miss her,” Abrams writes of her alter ego, adding that she has other novels in various stages of completion, “including a teenage amnesiac superhero story, a kids’ book about the mishaps of a nine-year-old alien, a finished legal thriller awaiting edits, and a final Selena Montgomery story.”

Will we ever see those books in print? By email from the campaign trail, Abrams answered these and other questions about her life as a writer.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Q: How has writing romantic suspense novels prepared you to run for — and hold — office?

Leadership requires the ability to engage and to create empathy for communities with disparate needs and ideas. Telling an effective story — especially in romantic suspense — demands a similar skill set. Effective storytelling takes the reader into a life that is both familiar and foreign, enough of both to make space for others to feel empowered to tell their stories.

When I began writing novels, I read Aristotle to learn how to perfect structure, Pearl Cleage to sustain tension and Nora Roberts for characterization. Good romantic suspense can never underestimate the audience, and the best political leaders know how to shape a compelling narrative that respects voters and paints a picture of what is to come.

Q: Several of your novels have recently been reissued. Why did you decide to put them out there rather than hide this part of your career?

I have been privileged to write across multiple facets of my life: to write romance novels, to write memoir, to write about leadership, and to write tax and social policy articles. The act of writing is integral to who I am. I’m a writer, a politician, a tax attorney, a civic leader and an entrepreneur. I am proud of what I’ve accomplished.

Q: In “Minority Leader,” you write that your mother, who was a librarian for much of your childhood, taught you that books shape our “sense of the possible.” How did they do that for you?

My parents instilled in my siblings and me a love of reading and an active interest in the world around us. Our mother was a college librarian, and I remember leaving school as a young child and sleeping in the stacks, surrounded by books. In our home, we constantly read, and my father would tell us incredible bedtime stories.

My exposure to a diversity of experiences, ideas and places so distinct from my own opened up worlds, and those pages offered me possibilities families like ours, who weren’t of means, might not have imagined. My reading tastes have always varied widely — from novels to the sciences and to historical works — but they are constantly grounded in curiosity and trying to place moments into context.

Q: What will become of your unfinished book projects if you’re elected governor?

I’m always writing; however, right now, my focus is on winning this election and serving the people of Georgia as our state’s next governor.

Q: Many readers find it easy to make fun of romance novels. What do you have to say to critics of the genre?

Telling a well-crafted story is hard. Full stop. Regardless of genre, good writing is good writing. Romance is one of the oldest forms of storytelling, and I’m honored to be in the company of extraordinary writers.

Q: Do you read any novels by other politicians? Fellow Georgian Newt Gingrich? Bill Clinton? How about political novels — any favorites?

I prefer my political writing in biographies, and my favorite is Robert Caro’s compendium on LBJ.

Nora Krug is an editor and writer at Book World.

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