Not only has Nora Roberts written more bestsellers than anyone else in the world (according to Publishers Weekly), she’s also created a hybrid genre of her own: the futuristic detective romance. And that’s on top of mastering every subgenre in the romance pie: the family saga, the historical, the suspense novel. But this most prolific and versatile of authors might never have tapped into her native talent if it hadn't been for one fateful snowstorm.
As her fans well know, in 1979 a blizzard trapped Roberts at home for a week with two bored little kids and a dwindling supply of chocolate. To maintain her sanity, Roberts started scribbling a story -- a romance novel like the Harlequin paperbacks she'd recently begun reading. The resulting manuscript was rejected by Harlequin, but that didn't matter to Roberts. She was hooked on writing. Several rejected manuscripts later, her first book was accepted for publication by Silhouette.
For several years, Roberts wrote category romances for Silhouette -- short books written to the publisher's specifications for length, subject matter and style, and marketed as part of a series of similar books. Roberts has said she never found the form restrictive. "If you write in category, you write knowing there's a framework, there are reader expectations," she explained. "If this doesn't suit you, you shouldn't write it. I don't believe for one moment you can write well what you wouldn't read for pleasure."
Roberts never violated the reader's expectations, but she did show a gift for bringing something fresh to the romance formula. Her first book, Irish Thoroughbred (1981), had as its heroine a strong-willed horse groom, in contrast to the fluttering young nurses and secretaries who populated most romances at the time. But Roberts's books didn't make significant waves until 1985, when she published Playing the Odds, which introduced the MacGregor clan. It was the first bestseller of many.
Roberts soon made a name for herself as a writer of spellbinding multigenerational sagas, creating families like the Scottish MacGregors, the Irish Donovans and the Ukrainian Stanislaskis. She also began working on romantic suspense novels, in which the love story unfolds beneath a looming threat of violence or disaster. She grew so prolific that she outstripped her publishers' ability to print and market Nora Roberts books, so she created an alter ego, J.D. Robb. Under the pseudonym, she began writing romantic detective novels set in the future. By then, millions of readers had discovered what Publishers Weekly called her "immeasurable diversity and talent."
Although the style and substance of her books has grown, Roberts remains loyal to the genre that launched her career. As she says, "The romance novel at its core celebrates that rush of emotions you have when you are falling in love, and it's a lovely thing to relive those feelings through a book."
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Roberts still lives in the same Maryland house she occupied when she first started writing -- though her carpenter husband has built on some additions. She and her husband also own Turn the Page Bookstore Café in Boonsboro, Maryland. When Roberts isn't busy writing, she likes to drop by the store, which specializes in Civil War titles as well as autographed copies of her own books.
Roberts sued fellow writer Janet Dailey in 1997, accusing her of plagiarizing numerous passages of her work over a period of years. Dailey paid a settlement and publicly apologized, blaming stress and a psychological disorder for her misconduct.
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Excerpted from the March/April 2002 issue of Book magazine.
One afternoon when Nora Roberts was four, her two oldest brothers broke into a violent argument while they were baby-sitting her. "I peeked out of the bedroom, and they're beating the hell out of each other," Roberts says. Then her mother walked in, with a grocery bag in each hand. "One bag goes here, one bag goes there, she steps right in the middle of these two six-foot guys and she goes, boom, bam. Two backhands. And both of them go, 'Maaaaaawwwmm.' I thought right then, There's the power. She's the power."
Elly, as her family still calls her, the youngest of five and the only girl, was a quick study. "She bossed her brothers around," says her mother, Eleanor; today, "her brothers have got her on a throne." Roberts reigns over more than her family, which now includes her husband and two sons. Since her writing debut in 1981, she has helped lead American romance away from its clichés of simpering heroines and heroic rapists toward more complex characters and contemporary, multifaceted plots. Of course, sex -- passionate, tender, delayed, avoided, forced, in castles, in fields, in treetops -- continues to be a central hook. And often, the prose remains purple; Roberts herself has a propensity for phrases like "she rocked them both toward madness." But the genre with which her name is synonymous is one -- the only one -- that always puts women at the center of the universe.
Two Mercedes -- a Kompressor convertible and an M-Class SUV -- and a Chrysler PT Cruiser are parked outside the rural Keedysville, Maryland, home Roberts shares with her husband. Inside, several gauzy photographs of nude models hang above the bed in the ground-floor master bedroom, and a rendition of the Casablanca movie poster -- with the couple painted in as Ilsa and Rick -- is prominent above the fireplace. Three ebullient dogs and one gnarled old mutt track in dirt and litter the house with deer bones that they've found outside.
Since moving here twenty-nine years ago, Roberts has divorced her first husband, raised their two sons (Dan, now twenty-nine, lives with his wife down the lane; Jason, twenty-six, is just over an hour away) and remarried. She has also added on a few rooms and an indoor pool; a few years ago, she bought twenty adjoining acres so she could continue to shoo deer out of the garden in her underwear without worrying about neighbors. She and her husband own a tiny bookshop in nearby Boonsboro, but Roberts spends most of her time in an upstairs office where she types, smokes and drinks diet colas eight hours a day, five days a week. It's a routine that's produced an average of seven books a year since 1981, many of them bestsellers.
Roberts knows that her work is commercial fiction and doesn't lose any sleep waiting for National Book Award nominations. The high-art literary tradition isn't what's gotten her to where she is; what has is her "real talent for storytelling," as author Jennifer Crusie (Fast Women; Welcome to Temptation) says, and a commensurate skill with plot and pacing. Readers are pulled into her story lines (which often bounce from one continent to the next) and her well-drawn characters. Fans especially admire Roberts' tough, independent heroines. "When they fit with your own circumstances," says Elizabeth Mayfield, a database administrator from Norwalk, Connecticut, "you think, Gee, there's hope for me." Roberts, however, contends that she's not writing to provide role models for anyone. "I'm gonna tell a good, entertaining story," she says. "I'm not looking to change the world."
Roberts was born Eleanor Marie Robertson, and she grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, about an hour from where she lives now. Her father worked as a projectionist at the local movie theater and as a stagehand until 1964, when he started a lighting company -- which is where most of the Robertson family still works. Her mother ran the family. "Mom was a very strict disciplinarian," says Roberts' brother Buzz, who is now the president of his dad's company, "but as long as you followed the rules and were polite, you didn't have a problem." He says Nora had it a little easier than her brothers. "Us boys, we knew we were low men on the totem pole. Mom was tickled pink when she had Nora."
"Her daddy worked two jobs all his life, and during the Depression, I took in roomers," says Eleanor Robertson, who at eighty-five still lives in Silver Spring and is now secretary-treasurer of the company her husband started (Bernie Robertson died in 2000). "She knows how hard we worked to give them an education and a nice home." Roberts went to Catholic schools as a child and credits much of her success to the nuns who taught her -- the discipline and guilt in her formative years did her a lot of good.
In her sophomore year of high school, Roberts transferred to public school, where she met Ronald Aufdem-Brinke; she married him at seventeen, in 1968, right after graduation. The young couple moved to Keedysville and had a small house built in the woods. While Aufdem-Brinke worked at his father's sheet-metal business and later the Robertson lighting company, Roberts took care of their two children and the house. "Oh God, I had craft addictions," Roberts says, taking a drag on a cigarette. (She runs through a pack of Winstons at a pace that doesn't quite catch up to chain-smoking but runs several steps beyond casual.) "You name it, I made it. I macraméd two hammocks once. I did ceramics, I sewed the kids' clothes. I even put flies into overalls -- that is sick. I was a sick woman. I baked bread once a week. I canned jellies and made my own spaghetti sauce using my own tomatoes."
Sometime during the next decade (she calls the period her "Earth Mother" years), Roberts started to read Harlequin novels -- the short books were easy for her to finish while the kids were napping. During a blizzard in 1979, trapped inside with little more than her three- and six-year-old sons and a game of Candy Land, Roberts sat down with a pencil and wrote a manuscript of her own, a romance that she's since described as "very bad." In the next year and a half, while her kids were napping or at T-ball practice, she wrote at least six manuscripts in longhand. She submitted some of them to Harlequin, which at the time was using mainly British writers. Roberts didn't hear back, but her enthusiasm wasn't subdued. "I became a writing junkie," she says. Although she was rejected several times, she continued to write -- but started filing her manuscripts in a back drawer rather than submitting them.
Roberts then heard that a new romance publisher, Silhouette, was looking specifically for American writers, so she sent in her work. In 1980 she got a call from Nancy Jackson, a Silhouette editor, saying she had plucked one of Roberts' manuscripts -- Irish Thoroughbred, a slender love story about an Irish stable hand and her boss -- out of the slush pile. Jackson told Roberts she wanted to publish it. Eleanor Aufdem-Brinke changed her name to Nora Roberts because she says she assumed all romance authors used a nom de plume. The book "didn't make waves when it first came out," says Isabel Swift, her current editor, but it sold well in reprint. Roberts was hooked on the process, though, and published five more books the following year, eight the following and ten the year after that.
Roberts hit it big in 1985 when she wrote the first of her MacGregor family series, Playing the Odds. The book, which focuses on a matchmaking Scottish patriarch and his brood, became an immediate bestseller. Romance readers began associating the name Nora Roberts with multigenerational sagas: In addition to the MacGregors, she has written about the Donovans, a modern family of Irish magicians; the Calhouns, a family of pigheaded sisters in Maine; and the Stanislaskis, tempestuous Ukrainian immigrants.
From the beginning, Roberts' heroines were not content to wear aprons or take dictation. In Irish Thoroughbred, though Roberts' heroine was young (early twenties) and virginal (well, she was a virgin), she was a horse groomer with an independent streak. Roberts wasn't alone in giving her female characters more authority in the workforce; other American romance authors -- like Jayne Ann Krentz, Sandra Brown and Elizabeth Lowell -- were doing the same. "I think one of the great things the American writer has brought to the romance novel," Krentz says, "is a modern interpretation of women's roles and women's values." Author Janet Evanovich adds, "The genre reflects the increased power and opportunity afforded today's women. We see more variety in the genre in terms of heroine age and occupation. And today's heroine is stronger, more self-reliant. Of course, Nora was always ahead of the pack. Her heroines were always strong."
Rebecca Sullivan, a heroine in Roberts' latest romantic suspense, Three Fates, is a quintessential Nora Roberts lead: She runs the family business (giving boat tours off the western coast of Ireland) and engineers the search for the family's lost treasure. Rebecca's a smart, capable lady with a sense of humor. In the course of the story, she falls in love with a computer expert who eventually marries her -- the book ends in Ireland with the assumption that the husband will help her with the business. "I'm not interested in telling stories about weak women," Roberts says. "Or if they're weak, I want to show how they grow and how they become strong. I'm not writing about Cinderella sitting waiting for her prince to come and take her away. She'll get out of it herself. The prince is a bonus, a completion, another element -- but it's not the answer to all of her problems."
Perched on a stool next to her kitchen counter, Roberts doesn't look like a purveyor of dreams. She could be any of a million women, taking a break from a million jobs, looking toward the end of a million days. Right now, her husband is outside, working in the yard before heading to town. Later on, he'll pick up groceries, and Nora will cook dinner; favorites are pasta with red sauce or Cajun chicken. Around 7:30, the two will retire for the evening, probably settling down for a while in front of the television -- it's Thursday, so they'll probably tune in for some of Friends or ER. And that's a typical end to a typical day for the world's most popular romance author. "I always wonder if they asked Agatha Christie if she was homicidal," Roberts says with a laugh. "I don't have a romantic lifestyle."
Still, she says, it's romance books she turns to when she wants to escape reality, so maybe the queen of the realm is, finally, one of its true citizens as well. Roberts, after all, spends her days holed up in her office, writing, researching and investigating the backgrounds for her books. She loves it, she says, but it's work. And when she's done, she's done. "When I read for pleasure," she says, "give me a story."
If today's romance is escapism, millions of its readers would argue that it is also girl-power between pastel covers: adventures that belong to characters who are at their strongest -- and sexiest -- because they are women. So Roberts essentially shrugs off the contempt reserved for romance novels as sexist and ignorant. Still, she recognizes that the genre carries a lot of baggage -- even she finds herself sneaking reads when she's out in public. A lot of the embarrassment, she says, has to do with the way the books look. "It's mostly hard for me when she's falling out of her dress, and he has his mouth on her tit," Roberts says, describing what she calls "nursing mother" covers. She taps her lighter against the counter and rolls her eyes. "To sit on an airplane and read that?"
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