The home of Nora Roberts, hidden among the hills in the rural, western Maryland town of Keedysville, is not the Xanadu-like estate one might expect to be the abode of a bestselling romance author who by the end of this year will have written 126 novels, with over 42 million copies in print. It is in fact the same modest country ranch to which Roberts came as a 17-year-old bride over 30 years ago.
There have been some improvements, notably a BMW and a Land Rover now parked in the driveway and a fantasy closet full of designer clothes and shoes. But this is the same house in which Roberts, a 29-year-old stir-crazy housewife stuck indoors with two small sons during a snowstorm in 1979, made her first stab at writing romance fiction. And Roberts isn't going anywhere. "When I came here," she says, "I realized I was home. Sometimes you just recognize it."
Loyalty to her roots is also evident in the way Roberts manages her house of fiction. Although she broke out into hardcover bestsellerdom in 1996 with her fourth hardcover for Putnam, Montana Sky, Roberts, unlike some in her genre, continues to write original paperback romances. "I am a popular writer and proud of it," she says. "And I really believe in the category romances. I was there with two young kids, and the shorter format saved my sanity. I remember exactly what it felt like to want to read and not have time to read 200,000 words."
Today, Roberts has no problem with words. She's probably the fastest writer in the business, with an amazingly prolific output that pretty much makes her the Joyce Carol Oates of the romance. The occasion for this interview is the publication of her sixth hardcover for Putnam, Homeport, a thriller about an art historian from Maine immersed in the international world of art forgery. But Roberts was already off and running this year with the number-one mass market romance bestseller Sea Swept, from Jove in January, and Secret Star, from Silhouette in February. Also forthcoming this year are close to a dozen more books in a flurry of genres and formats.
"I just have a fast pace; it's like having green eyes," Roberts says. A petite, auburn-tressed woman with a strong-willed, practical manner, she seems to have always had boundless energy -- and a free spirit. The youngest child of five, whose parents ran a lighting company in Silver Spring, Md., Roberts says her mother was ready to lock her into her room rather than let her get married as a teenager. But she was determined. After becoming a Keedysville housewife (she has since divorced and remarried), Roberts tackled leisure-time arts and crafts with extraordinary zeal. "I made jam, did the whole earth mother bit. I could have needlepointed a car."
But in an awakening that could fit within the pages of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Roberts soon turned to fiction. "Subconsciously, I was looking for an outlet for creativity. When I started writing, it was like, 'This is it. Why didn't I realize it before?'"
Roberts also says that her work ethic is due to an inherent discipline that "comes from being raised Catholic -- if you're not working, there's the near occasion of sin and all that." Indeed, no nun could find fault with Roberts's daily regimen: a morning swim and workout (in the small pool/gym area that used to be the basement of her home) followed by a basically nonstop 9 a.m.-5 p.m. writing stint.
The Rise of Silhouette
Roberts entered the field at an opportune time. Although it took her three years to break into publishing, she did it with few connections or contacts. A casual acquaintance who worked as a ghostwriter in New York knew she was writing romances and tipped her off to the formation of Silhouette in 1980, an S&S imprint meant to be an American counterpart of Canadian-based Harlequin, which at that time tended to buy only British writers and had already rejected Roberts's early submissions. Roberts quickly sent some manuscripts, unsolicited, to Silhouette, "back when you could do that," and Nancy Jackson, then an acquiring editor for the house, eventually picked The Irish Thoroughbred from the slush pile. The manuscript, a horsebreeding tale set in Roberts's own backyard in Maryland, would become her first published romance in 1981. That, in 1984, Silhouette merged with Harlequin "has been a final irony," says Roberts. "I thought, 'Well, now they're writing the check after all.'"
For help with her first contracts, Roberts followed a friend's recommendation and called Amy Berkower, a new agent at Writers House who was looking for clients. Roberts recalls hiring Berkower "over the phone. I guess that wasn't too professional."
But it worked. Berkower remains Roberts's agent today. It was Berkower who assessed when it was time to test the waters with a trade house -- Bantam, in 1987. And when that house didn't necessarily publish to Roberts's preferred pace, Berkower facilitated the move to Putnam in 1992. And although Roberts, an avid Mary Stewart fan, immediately wanted to write romantic thrillers, her agent advised her to wait. "Amy said, 'Build a foundation, just keep at the categories and put that away for a while,'" recalls Roberts. "She was right. When the time came, and I had developed a following, it was just like she said."
Berkower also managed to persuade Roberts to don the J.D. Robb pseudonym for a Berkley mass market series. Set in the year 2058 and featuring police lieutenant Eve Dallas, newly married to roguish and mysterious high-tech billionaire Roarke, the series was a Putnam response to handling the Roberts output. Although Roberts had already understood the practicality of changing a name (her birth name is actually Robertson), she was reluctant in the case of the Robb books. "I thought it would be a dilution of my readership. But Amy knows me and said, 'Look it's like having Coke and Caffeine Free Coke.'" Roberts came away convinced of the efficacy of such brand proliferation. The initials J.D. denote her two sons, Jason and Daniel, both now in their 20s, while the new surname has a distinct marketing advantage: Robb books almost always appear right next to Roberts books on bookstore shelves.
In all her writing, Roberts is known for her wry humor and the use of different narrators, two devices that were once rarities in a genre that, says Roberts, "was usually about a terrified 18-year-old young virgin and all from her point of view." Remarried 12 years ago to Bruce Wilder, a carpenter who first came into her life when he was hired to oversee her house-expansion project and now owns and operates the local Turn the Page Bookstore Cafe, Roberts says she could hardly relate to that.
"I never did 'the virgin,'" she says. "My heroine may have problems, she may be vulnerable, but she has to be strong, she has to be intelligent. She has to be independent and so does he, or I'm not interested in telling their stories."
Roberts says she enjoys the short format of category romances, which she calls "charcoal sketches," as much as she does the more fully fleshed-out plots of her hardcovers. Many of her romance series grew out of creating intertwining families and friends whose relationships and subsequent generations expanded beyond the confines of a single book. And along with other writers in the genre, Roberts keeps pushing the envelope of the romance form, writing about a hero with supernatural powers (Night Shadows, for Silhouette in 1991) and about witches (the ongoing Donovan Legacy series for Silhouette). Roberts credits her editors -- Silhouette's Isabel Swift, who has worked with Roberts since 1983, and Putnam v-p Leslie Gelbman -- for allowing her to take such leaps.
But Gelbman did initially worry that her author often relies on surfing the Internet for background research. Montana Sky, for example, was crafted without traveling to the state in which it is set, in part because Roberts has an aversion to flying. "I don't believe in the journalistic style," she says. "I don't have time to pop out and go there."
"I know they say, 'Write what you know,'" Roberts continues "But I write what I want to know." Her characters are as fanciful as her settings. Although Homeport heroine Miranda Jones has a determined air as well as "hair the color of a Tonka toy fire engine," Roberts says the resemblance stops there. "She's so much smarter than I. She's got a Ph.D. and all of that. Plus she's tall."
Lately, Roberts's online research has "become totally addictive," she says, and takes up several hours of her daily regimen. From her gabled top-floor windowed writing room, one of her husband's many renovation projects, Roberts now maintains various subject folders and chat rooms on America Online and other sites. One extremely vocal group of fans have their own "Noraholics" web site and came to a signing Roberts held at her husband's bookstore (which has its own web site and does a healthy online and mail business in orders for Roberts's backlist). "It was wonderful to see how my books helped bring about relationships among these women," she says. And in a Valentine's Day promotion this year, Roberts began a tale on America Online that was completed by readers. It's a project she hopes will inspire some budding writers. "I would have loved to have had that help to get me started," she says.
The Plagiarism Affair
But Roberts still sees red over the inadvertent "help" she gave Janet Dailey, who last year admitted that two of her books, Aspen Gold and Notorious, and a forthcoming novel now pulled from publication, contained passages from Roberts's works. The shock that Dailey, a prolific romance writer and a longtime acquaintance of Roberts, could pirate her work even caused Roberts to stop writing for while. "It's like mind rape. To think how far along it's been going... it's like being stalked," she says.
As of press time, Roberts was in the pretrial discovery phase of the lawsuit she has filed against Dailey. In lieu of damages, Roberts is asking Dailey to make a donation to the Literacy Volunteers of America, a cause dear to the Romance Writers of America, an organization of which Roberts is a charter member and its first Hall of Fame inductee. Roberts is also requesting that Dailey reveal the full extent of the plagiarism so that all the tainted books can be pulled from the shelves and so that Roberts doesn't have to read through Dailey's entire body of work. "We would like to know the scope of the copying without me having to read until my eyes bleed," says Roberts. As of press time, Roberts's suit had been amended to also charge that Dailey's Tangled Vines plagiarizes Roberts's works. The suit estimates that Dailey has lifted from at least 13 of Roberts's novels.
While Roberts admits the media attention around the plagiarism has probably increased her name recognition ("I'm sure some people went into stores and said, 'Oh, that's her,' and picked up a book"), she says it also forced her to defend the genre against reporters who implied that all romance writing is interchangeable. "They have no business to sneer," she says. "I don't think it would have happened in any other genre. It was 'It's romance, let's take a shot. Let's talk about heaving bosoms.' Mysteries, for example, have their formulas too."
For Roberts, the romance formula leads to a "celebration of emotions," which she says readers desperately crave. She sees the experience as providing a fix of "that wonderful rush of feeling when you first fall in love." Roberts firmly believes that providing that feeling in a popular genre is an important service. "I get e-mail all the time from people who say, 'I liked this thriller, but why couldn't they have put in a love story, too?'" she says. 'That's why it's always at the core of my work."
Thanks to her "magic drawer" of stockpiled romance manuscripts, Roberts is working typically a year ahead. Although Homeport completes a three-book contract for Putnam, the house has already committed her to three more. And Roberts has no intention of reducing her output in order to focus on her hardcovers. "That would be only one book a year," she says. "Whatever would I do?"