Though Nora Roberts's writing career may have had a rocky start, her perseverance has paid off in spades. After moving to Keysville, west Maryland in the late 70s, it took a vicious weather system to move her to write when she was snowed in at her house.
The resulting manuscript was shopped around to various publishers, but ultimately rejected. While subsequent novels were doomed to the same fate, Nora struck pay dirt with Irish Thoroughbred, which was published by Silhouette in 1981 and sold three-quarters of a million copies.
Since then, Nora has produced a long list of successful novels under various publishers. Her work has been published by Silhouette Sensation, Silhouette Special Edition and Silhouette Desire, as well as Silhouette Intrigue, and MIRA's reissue program.
Nora's novel The Pride of Jared MacKaye, which was published in December of 1995, was her 80th book for Silhouette and her grand total recently passed the 100 mark! In addition, this prolific writer has found time to write numerous short stories and novellas, and has contributed for almost every collection Silhouette has published.
Nora attributes her obviously natural ability to her genes: she points out that her mother is of Irish stock while her father is Scottish, adding that the Irish are storytellers.
Over the years, Nora's work has not gone unnoticed. As well as being a New York Times bestselling author and being published in hardcover, Nora has received dozens of awards for her achievements.
Nora is married to a carpenter, whom she claims to keep busy building additions onto their home. While she still remains in charge of the day-to-day operations of her household, she writes full-time, beginning every morning around 8:00 and finishing at 4:30. "I'm always afraid that if I stop writing, I'll lose it," she says.
With over 100 million copies of her books in print worldwide, Nora Roberts is truly a publishing phenomenon.
Nora loves to hear from readers via her email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Nora Roberts doesn't buy the adage "Write what you know." If it were true, the prolific novelist who famously began her writing career in the midst of a blizzard, stuck at home with two young sons and no chocolate, would be writing about life in small-town Boonsboro, Maryland. "You don't write what you know, or you would write one thing," she quips.
"You write what you want to find out." With her signature blend of romance and suspense, memorable characters and snappy dialogue, it's clear she knows how to tell an irresistibly entertaining story. Roberts has written more than 200 novels, and with more than 500 million copies in print, they've collectively spent more than 1,000 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.
From the same home where it began, Roberts has taken her readers to places near and far—the shores of the Chesapeake, the cliffs of Ireland, New York City in the future (as pseudonym J.D. Robb), and in her latest novel, the verdant expanse of the Pacific Northwest. In The Obsession a young Naomi Bowes uncovers her father as a serial killer, and in the aftermath of her discovery, her life and family are torn apart.
Years later, as a successful photographer with a new name, she hasn't stayed in one place for long until she buys an old house in Sunrise Cove. She meets Xander Keaton, and as she finally starts to put down roots, her past makes an unwelcome appearance.
Regan Stephens spoke with Roberts on behalf of Goodreads about making up her own rules, the similarities between how she writes and cooks, and her in-demand "recipe" for deviled eggs.
Goodreads: The Obsession is one of your darker novels. Where did the idea come from?
Nora Roberts: I have no idea where the idea came from! Ahh, inspiration, it's just not part of my process. I've wanted to set something in that area because I thought it would be a really interesting canvas, and I just wondered about what it would be like to be a child of a serial killer.
You think about the murderer, the killer, and the terrible things he's done, and the victims and the families of the victims. But what about the family of the person who does these horrible things? So that was a springboard. What would that be like? When I write, it's more of a building block thing instead of a "poof." It's not something that came to me out of the blue; it's really more of a process.
GR: How—if at all—does your process differ when writing a standalone novel versus a series?
NR: Not at all. The process is the process; whatever avenue of the highway I might be on, I'm still driving the car the same way.
GR: Naomi and Xander's first meeting is a wink to a classic "damsel in distress" scene, except instead she's a strong and independent heroine. From the beginning you've written your female protagonists in this vein. Why is this important to you?
NR: I'm not interested in writing about the damsel in distress unless the damsel can, at least, learn to take care of herself. I like writing about strong characters, layered people, so that's just what I've always done one way or the other.
I think when you're writing a relationship book, the way I've always felt, when there's a strong relationship in the story, then you need two people who are both interesting and layered and strong, or people who find their strength through the course of the story. If it doesn't interest me, I can't write it so it's going to interest anyone else. This is the kind of person that interests me.
GR: The novel highlights Naomi's transformation, which is mirrored in her restoring a big old house in her new town. Did you draw from your own experience restoring Inn BoonsBoro?
NR: Well, certainly I know the ins and outs of that pretty well. I married a carpenter. I know about rehab and construction and how it can take over your life for periods of time. So some of the details, certainly. But Naomi's bringing that house back to life didn't mirror what we did in real life.
Though, with the Inn in Boonsboro, it was very personal. It was a building that meant a lot and something that we wanted to do well, with respect for its history. I think she felt it was important to her or she wouldn't have been attracted to that house and that place. But she needed to make it her own.
GR: You give readers such a keen sense of place—from the exotic Middle Eastern city of Jaquir in Sweet Revenge to The Obsession's Sunrise Cove. How do you achieve this? What's your research method?
NR: Part of my process is that I have to be able to see it. I have to be able to feel it and smell it. What does it look like when the sun comes up? Even if you're not necessarily putting that into the story, you just have to know. I have to see it myself in order to translate that and paint that picture in the story.
For The Obsession I got a lot of books and went online a lot and looked at photographs. I've been to that area, but it's been years. And a little vacation doesn't give you enough. But I know small towns, and I know about living outside of a small town, so I could use that. You don't write what you know, or you would write one thing. I never understood that. You write what you want to find out.
So I wanted to find out what it would look like when she got up in the morning, with the water right outside, and the woods, and all of that. And being a little bit isolated because she needed that isolation; that was part of what she needed and part of her attraction to that house, in that place, at that time.
GR: Has this method changed over the span of your career?
NR: Well, there wasn't a handy "Google it." When I started out, you had a big shelf of encyclopedias. In fact, I only let go of my ancient set of encyclopedias about five years ago. I used the library a lot in the early days, and now I have a bookstore, so rather than paying the library fees—I would always be late! I needed to keep those books through the course [of writing the novel].
I researched right through the course of the book, and you can't mark up library books—so I will tell my husband what to order, and then I can steal them from him. Plus I use the Internet a lot.
There are really gorgeous photographs of that area, of Washington state, and they really helped put me there. You can see so clearly the way the water and land look, all of it. I used photos to put myself there and articles from people who traveled there to give me a sense.
GR: I know you've been asked this before, but as you continue to tell compelling stories, I think it warrants revisiting. How do you continue to find inspiration for each new character, setting, story? And the motivation to tell it?
NR: Motivation is a much better word than inspiration to my process. I'm motivated because it's what I do. Writing is my job. It's a passion. I love what I do, but it's also my living. What would I do with all the stories and characters half-baked in my head if I didn't cook them the rest of the way through?
You will see something, and for some reason it will stick, and you don't even know it stuck until you're writing something and think —oh yeah, I remember that, and you weave it in.
But for the most part I'm always just thinking, "What happens next? And who does it happen to? What are these people doing together? What are they doing in this place?" Why did Naomi become a photographer? Well, that's what I wanted her to do because I wanted her to be an observer.
I could have made her an artist, a painter, but she needed that distance. So that's very important to me: not only what they do but why they do it. Why did she choose to become a photographer? Why did Xander become a mechanic? Why does he still play music? All of that. It's really central to who they are, and the character, for me, always drives the story.
GR: Goodreads member Estelle asked this, and I share her question: "Do you find that the expectations from readers in general have changed over the years? And for your books in particular?"
NR: The Internet has a lot of pros and cons. I'm more on the pro side, since I use it every day, and it's a tremendous communication tool as well.
But with that communication and social media, there are a lot of entitled readers out there who want to tell you what to write and how to write it. I did that infamous "Bite Me" blog post finally, because enough is just enough. They were telling me I'm satan because I wrote about witches. It has to stop.
But I think by and large, with those exceptions, readers just still want a really good story. They want to be emotionally invested. In honor of Harper Lee—I really consider To Kill a Mockingbird to be as close to a perfect book as ever written—I sat down to read that for the 10 millionth time this weekend.
I know the story, I know the words, it doesn't matter, I'm right there. I think that's what most people want out of a book. Take me there. Show me that. Make me feel. Make me angry or make me fall in love.
Readers want that or they wouldn't be a reader. And something like Facebook or whatever does give an anonymous voice for some people, but, like they say, haters gonna hate. People would come up to me or write me letters, but now they just connect with me on the Internet.
GR: How have your own life changes affected your writing (characters, subjects) throughout the span of your career?
NR: I really don't think there have been any changes that have affected it. It certainly became easier a million years ago, when both my boys went to school and I had that block of time rather than at night, or when I chained them down for a nap or whatever. Now I have grandchildren who come up here often after school.
Their mom works, and they're old enough to take care of themselves, but I actually like seeing them. I'll schedule my workday around them.
It doesn't affect how I work; I live in the same place. Like Naomi, I like my solitude. A house in the woods; nobody bothers me except the dogs sometimes. Otherwise, I'm here at the keyboard, that's what I do.
GR: A love of food comes across in your books. With that in mind, Goodreads member Leah asks, "In all of your books there has been a signature meal or meals made by the characters. Would you ever put together a cookbook so your readers could make a Warrior Pizza or a bookmaker sandwich or Irish soda bread?"
NR: If they want the Warrior Pizza, they can come get one at Vesta; that's our restaurant. I wouldn't know how to make one [laughs], but the people who work there do. I'm going to do a blog post next weekend about how I don't use recipes because every time I do a personal blog post—I did one this weekend, I made beef stew and deviled eggs, my husband had a yen—but every time I do something like this I say I don't really have a recipe.
People ask me to share the recipe, and I'm going to write a post and explain that when my younger son got married, his wife Kat, my treasure, she asked me to put together a cookbook of my recipes, so I did. She really loved my deviled eggs, and she said, "but I'm reading the recipe. How much mustard, how much mayonnaise?" She ended up just watching me because I do it by eye, by smell, by experience.
That's how I cook, and I'm going to try to correlate that to writing, too. I don't work on an outline. I cook the same way. I might have a base, a spine, and when I cook, I have the basic recipe, which I might have gotten online, but I'm going to make it my own because maybe I don't like onions.
GR: Is that an Irish thing? I'm Italian, and that's how we cook.
NR: I don't know. My mother was a terrific baker. Cooking, she was an old-fashioned Irish cook. They never thought of adding a spice or an herb to anything, I learned that on my own, how to beef up a meal. Baking—in fact, my granddaughter and I are baking.
Saturday, we're going to make my mother's famous pound cake, so there'll be three generations in the kitchen, since it's my mother's recipe. I do approach writing much the same way as I do cooking. Be a little creative, have a little fun with it. When I first started, I didn't know all these rules.
There were all these rules. I remember having a writer who was more established than I was, very early on, she came up and asked me point blank, "Why are you allowed to break the POV rules?" And I made some mouth noises and then had to go ask somebody, "What is the POV rule?" I didn't even know what POV was.
I didn't know I was breaking a rule. Who made up that rule? I cook pretty much the same way; I'm just gonna do this until it looks and smells and tastes right.
GR: Can you describe your writing process? Do you have any sort of ritual you follow? For example, do you drink a cup of coffee? Light a candle? (Is it different now than it was when you started?)
NR: Sacrifice a chicken? [laughs] I'm an early riser, and I wish I wasn't. But I'm often up by 5 or 5:15 a.m. It's ridiculous. When my kids were up, we got up early because we had to catch the bus, we live in the country, and I would think, when they're old enough I'll be able to sleep until 7 or 8 a.m. Well, now I'm up at 5 a.m. It kills me! I got used to it. It just seems to be the way my body works.
I get up early, before the dogs, and play around for a while. Check Facebook, play a game or read stuff, right now it's politics. Then the dogs get up, my husband gets up, and I count down the time until he leaves for work because he's just breathing my air, [laughs] even though he doesn't bother me.
And then if he's gonna be around through part of the morning, I'll just ignore him and start work anywhere between 7:30 and 9 a.m. If I haven't started before 9 a.m, then I'm just fucking around.
Then I'll work until 2:30-3:30 p.m., it depends. Are the kids coming? Am I making dinner? Then I go work out, then fix dinner or warm up leftovers. Then I watch TV or read a book and then do it all again the next day.
GR: Speaking of reading books, have you read anything you've really enjoyed lately?
NR: I had just started the new Robert Parker (rest in peace) Jesse Stone novel, but I set it aside to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I actually watched the movie, too, because I think it's the perfect adaptation of the novel.
GR: What authors or books have influenced you?
NR: Influence is a difficult word. Every book you read influences you, one way or the other, pro or con. I have writers that I will go back to and will read anything they write. Mary Stewart was someone whose books I adored, and I will reread them, her very first one, Madam, Will You Talk?, in the '50s.
John Sandford, Robert Parker, Stephen King, Terry Pratchett, there's a million of them. I like a good story well told. I love popular fiction. I'm not a great literary reader, though that's certainly To Kill a Mockingbird. And Jane Eyre and Catch-22 are both something I'll read over and over again.
GR: What are you working on at the moment?
NR: I am just getting ready to start 2017's hardcover. Just. I'm just doing some prep work. I hope to write the first words tomorrow. We'll see what happens after that.
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