An article on Nora from The (Toronto) Star. Wish I could consider a life of frequent travel, large charitable donations and lots of spending money (and Christmas gift money) ordinary....
The ordinary life of Nora Roberts
A chat with the bestselling author of more than 200 romance, mystery and suspense novels, including the Cousins O'Dwyer Trilogy
By: Deborah Dundas Books, Published on Fri Oct 03 2014
“No more patience, no more careful explorations. They came together in a fury, all wild need and desperation. Rough hands rushed over her, took greedily while her own yanked and pulled to free him of the rest of his clothes.” from Blood Magick, Book 3 of the Cousins O’Dwyer Trilogy
Nora Roberts is the bestselling author of books like the one above, but on an average night you’d likely find her watching TV in the house she’s lived in since the early 1970s with her husband of almost 30 years.
She has more than 400 million books in print around the world and is estimated to gross $60 million a year, but the exotic, exciting lives of many of her characters aren’t for her.
Roberts, 63, lives in Boonsboro, Maryland, at a population of 4,000 or so “the biggest small town in southern Washington County.” It’s historic, close to American Civil War sites, Harpers Ferry and the Appalachian Trail.
She owns an inn right on the town square, “really a boutique hotel,” in the first stone building built in Boonsboro.
“I married a carpenter, that’s really smart,” she says of her husband. “Someone who can fix your toilet on Sunday is worth more than a million dollars.” He also runs a bookstore in town.
Roberts’ raspy voice crackles through the phone line in an early morning conversation.
She starts work at about 8 a.m. and tries to end by 3 p.m. so she can get in a workout: “I’ve been sitting on my butt all day.” She cooks dinner, has “a conversation with my husband” and watches TV, which she says she loves.
“I don’t know if you’ve seen Outlander,” she says, her voice animated, talking about how the TV series is also a fabulous book.
“Boy, it couldn’t be more perfectly cast, but at the core of that is a relationship . . . between Jamie and Claire, and how it evolves. Most books that you read are going to have a relationship in them.”
And that, not the money, is what seems to define Roberts: “relationships” in both her life and her writing.
Besides her inn (she takes no credit for its success; “I mean, I’m not going to be serving their breakfast”), Roberts has a charitable foundation, run by her son and his wife, that focuses on literacy. Although it has a national bent, “we . . . try to keep a lot of the money local,” she says.
Noting sports are already well funded, she gives money to the art and drama departments at the local school “because they don’t have the booster club like football does,” and there’s a scholarship for a student going to college to study journalism, English or creative writing.
But the money she makes does allow her to have some fun.
“I remember the days when I put two dollars a week in a Christmas club so I could, by Christmas time, have the money (for gifts). And I don’t have to do that anymore. So money makes life easier and it allows me to live the life I want, which is fairly ordinary.”
And it allows Roberts and her husband to travel, including going to Ireland every few years. It’s there — at Ashford Castle on the country’s west coast — she first got the germ of the idea for her O’Dwyer Trilogy, the third instalment of which, Blood Magick, comes out at the end of the month.
On one of those trips, they went for a walk in the woods “and I came upon this stone cabin, a ruin, vine covered and incredibly cool. And I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to use this . . . and I made that Sorcha’s cabin, back in the 13th century.”
From there, she says, she figured out the rest of the book: characters, plot and so on.
“It really is sort of a ‘what if’ game,” she says about the initial spark for a book. “Sometimes, as in this case, the canvas comes first.”
With the vine-covered stone cabin, for example, “I just knew that this was the spot and this was the area I wanted, and then you have to figure out what to do with it.”
Other times, the character comes first. Her big hardcover book this year, The Collector, released in the spring, came about like this: “What if I had this woman and she’s a professional house sitter, so she doesn’t have a home of her own and so she house sits, in New York City, let’s put it in New York. . . . So what happens from there?” Roberts says.
“It’s just a basic character type and I build from that.”
Characters are the key, whether romance, suspense or mystery.
“For me, at least as a reader and as a writer, if I don’t care about the characters I don’t care about the story.”
Roberts began with romance. Famously, in a blizzard in 1979, when she was snowed in with her two young boys — “the snow was three feet high” — she decided to pick up a notebook and write down some of the stories that swirled around in her head.
That’s when “I fell in love with the process of writing.”
Her first book, Irish Thoroughbred, was rejected by Harlequin, the big romance publisher at the time, so she turned to a new start-up, Silhouette, which aimed to take the Harlequin structure and modernize it, something that appealed to Roberts.
“I wanted to write about strong women who stood on their own,” she says. She also “wanted to know what the hero was thinking and feeling.
“If I’m writing a book about two people falling in love I need to know both of them.”
She and other American writers helped push these changes and that, Roberts says, is how the genre evolved from the poor governess being rescued by a rich man, who would be “this incredible bastard.”
The romance genre isn’t restricting, Roberts says; rather it’s “so fluid that you can . . . include suspense, you can include the paranormal, fantasy, anything . . . it makes it a lot of fun. All you need is that relationship, then you can have anything else you want.”
That includes time travel: in Blood Magick to the 13th century or in her . . . In Death series, to 2058.
Why the time bending? “Well it’s fun,” she exclaims. “It’s a lot of fun. And boy, if you can’t have fun at this job then you should get another one because it’s too hard not to have a good time with it.”
The people at the heart of her stories don’t change with the times.
“Morality, mores and society change, but at the core people are people, but what goes on around them, technology, changes and that changes some of the rules and how we live,” she says.
“But you still have people falling in love, people still kill each other over, you know, anything. There’s still greed, there’s still courage, all of those things, so I thought that would be interesting to use that as a canvas, you know, let’s just pop this a few decades in the future and play with it.”
For those who think that Roberts is some kind of Mozart being dictated to by God, she says, “Some days it flows really well; other days it just seems like nothing; you’re just chipping at granite with a toothpick.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking she makes it look easy. Roberts comes out with five books a year and now has more than 200 published. Her publishers, in fact, couldn’t keep up. “You need a hobby,” they told her.
They encouraged her to take up a pseudonym to capitalize on her prodigious output (without, presumably, oversaturating the market with Nora Roberts books), which she resisted for a long time.
Then, “My agent said one day, ‘Nora, it’s like Pepsi, Diet Pepsi and caffeine-free Pepsi.’ And then the light bulb went off.”
She agreed on the condition she could do something different.
That different was the . . . In Death series of books written under the name J.D. Robb. The two main characters, Eve Dallas and her husband Roarke, are an unlikely crime-solving duo. But the books are still focused on the relationship:
“I wanted to explore what happens after marriage,” says Roberts. “Because when I write a relationship book or I write a trilogy, after the happily ever after or we solve the crime and we have the bad guy, it’s done. So what if we can continue that and we can watch these two people at the core of the books evolve?”
They’ve been evolving for 39 books now, with no signs of slowing down.
Roberts is asked about marriage and sex in the context of her books and characters like Eve and Roarke in Festive In Crime, and Branna and Fin in Blood Magick.
“If you’re writing about people and relationships, and especially romantic relationships, and you don’t have sex . . . I mean, really … then you’re really missing something.
“You know,” she says, “we love lovers.”
Millions of Nora Roberts fans sure do.
Nora Roberts, the reader
“If you’re not a passionate reader I don’t know how you think you have the chops to sit down and write a story yourself.” Here are her favourite books.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The writing is amazing and it takes you on such a journey. The character of Yossarian is so odd and interesting and he’s just caught up in war. It’s such an anti-war book. It’s not getting out and protesting; it’s just showing you why it’s useless and what it does to people and how they survive it.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
It’s the grandmother of every Gothic novel. The characters: Rochester and Jane and the mad woman in the attic and the atmosphere at Thorndike Hall — all of it beautifully, beautifully written. I don’t even know how many times I’ve read it. And at the end, she’s back, it’s triumphant.
The Stand by Stephen King
What a book, a tour de force. It is good vs. evil in a huge way, but it is also community and character and interaction and how we survive, what we do to survive. The writing is so brilliant and the story, it takes you all over the place. It’s also . . . how we learn and how crises — huge, huge crises — bring out the very best and the very worst in people, what choices they make.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
I reread it about once a year. It’s as close, in my opinion, to a perfect book as any that’s ever been written and as close to a perfect movie adaptation (directed by Robert Mulligan and starring Gregory Peck) that’s ever been done.