"There are cool writers, and then there's me," says Luanne Rice, 51, which "seems ironic," she adds, "since I live in Manhattan, where there are so many people who really are cool writers."

Rice's hangout is the Half King, the casual Chelsea bar and restaurant co-owned by Sebastian Junger, which holds regular readings with certifiably cool authors like Darcey Steinke, Elizabeth Gilbert and the co-owner himself, and where the wait staff greets Rice by name. Rice relishes low-key... and private, revealing little about her personal life (although she's all too happy to share pictures of her three cats ), while her fiction goes deep into family interactions and romantic longing, “the mysteries under people's roofs,” as she says.

The popular author of 23 novels, 16 of them consecutive New York Times bestsellers—for a total of 16 million copies in print (not to mention film and TV adaptations)—writes two highly anticipated books each year. This July, Bantam, the house she's been with since 1994, will publish What Matters Most, the sequel to 2006's Sandcastles, bringing readers back to Ireland and to Hubbard's Point, the Connecticut beach town that figures in many of Rice's novels.

Place resonates with Rice. She grew up in Connecticut and spent childhood summers in a beach community very much like the fictional Hubbard's Point. She still summers in the family cottage and revels in her water views, both from there and from her New York City apartment. Rice's writing is infused with the details of real life: homes, clothing and relationships.

In What Matters Most, the characters Seamus and Kathleen grow up together at a children's home in Ireland, with their quest to find each other again part of the plot. So what made Rice want to write about two kids in an orphanage? “When I was growing up,” she says, “there was a big brick building we could see from my house. We called it an orphanage, but it was probably closer to a sort of foster home. The kids came to our school, and there was a boy in my kindergarten named Billy. He was my first crush, and I thought about him every day for years after he left when we were 11. It still brings tears to my eyes to talk about him; I have no idea where he is now or how his life turned out.”

Children without homes have also inspired Rice to become involved with Habitat for Humanity's Women Build program. With the release of What Matters Most, Bantam will officially kick off the “What Matters Most” Web site, where readers can share what matters most to them—and for each post, the publisher will donate $1 (up to $25,000) to the charity.

Writing has brought Rice great commercial success and is, she says, “how I make sense of my life.” She left Connecticut College before graduating to help care for her dying father and she never did get her degree. Instead she took a series of odd jobs (including one with a rich Newport, R.I., family that informs parts of the new novel) in order to write, publishing her first book, Angels All Over Town, with Atheneum in 1985.

Rice's publisher, Irwyn Applebaum, sums it up: “Luanne is one of the best-loved storytellers writing today, especially for woman readers. She works tirelessly to build a relationship with her readers and to expand her audience.” Rice “will go places other authors won't,” Applebaum says, citing her speech and award acceptance last summer from Anderson Merchandisers, the group that puts her books into Wal-Marts around the country. “A lot of authors would turn up their nose, but not Luanne.” Pretty cool.