Real Romance: How Nora Roberts became America’s most popular novelist

Here is a “classic” article written by for The New Yorker and published in June 2009. To read the complete article, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Illustration Credit: Robert Risko

* * *

Last summer, Sarah Wendell, an editor of the Web site Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, posed a question to her readers: “So what line of dialogue from a romance has rocked your socks to the point that, long after those socks were lost in the dryer, you still remember it?” Jane Austen got a few votes (“You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope”). There were nods to Georgette Heyer (“I remember every word you have spoken to me”) and Connie Brockway (“You are my country, Desdemona. . . . My Egypt. My hot, harrowing desert and my cool, verdant Nile, infinitely lovely and unfathomable and sustaining”). The runaway winner was Nora Roberts—La Nora, the Queen, or, simply, NR. One reader nominated “Carnal Innocence,” in which the plantation heir Tucker Longstreet is questioned by an F.B.I. agent about the murder of an ex-lover who turns up dead in a local pond:

Burns: I’m informed that you and the deceased had a relationship.

Tucker: What we had was sex.

Another chose “The Heart’s Victory,” as Lance Matthews, a race-car driver, walks in on Cynthia (Foxy) Fox taking a bath:

Foxy: I’ve decided to hate you.

Lance: Oh? Again?

In “Sea Swept,” the first book in Roberts’s Chesapeake series, the Quinns are a trio of foster kids raised as brothers on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Their adoptive father, Ray, dies suddenly, leaving a younger boy, Seth DeLauter, in their care. Cam (a peripatetic speedboat racer), Phillip (an advertising executive), and Ethan (a commercial fisherman) are forced to move back into the house in which they grew up. Together, they drive to the mall to get some shoes for Seth:

Cam: You can’t buy decent socks for twenty these days.

Ethan: You can if you don’t have to have some fancy designer label on them. This ain’t Paris.

Cam: You haven’t bought decent shoes in ten years. And if you don’t pull up that frigging seat, I’m going to—

Phillip: Cut it out! Cut it out right now or I swear I’m going to pull over and knock your heads together. . . . I’ll dump the bodies in the mall parking lot and drive to Mexico. I’ll learn how to weave mats and sell them on the beach at Cozumel. . . . I’ll change my name to Raoul, and no one will know I was ever related to a bunch of fools.

Seth: Does he always talk like that?

Cam: Yeah, mostly. Sometimes he’s going to be Pierre and live in a garret in Paris, but it’s the same thing.

The first time she read it, Wendell wrote, she laughed so hard that she fell out of her beach chair. One reader, a court reporter, confessed that she planned to “feign sickness for the next three to six days so I can lay in bed and reread all my NR yet again.”

As a Quinn brother might say, it had better be one hell of a cold. Roberts, who, as J. D. Robb, also writes futuristic police procedurals, has written a hundred and eighty-two novels, in addition to short stories and novellas. In a typical year, she publishes five “new Noras”: two installments of a paperback original trilogy; two J. D. Robb books; and, each summer, what her editor, Leslie Gelbman, refers to as the “big Nora”—a hardcover stand-alone romance novel. To keep track of Roberts’s output, Amy Berkower, her agent, maintains a dry-erase board in her office, along with a running catalogue of factoids. Twenty-seven Nora Roberts books are sold every minute. There are enough Nora Roberts books in print to fill Giants Stadium four thousand times. Since 2004, the cover of each Roberts release has featured a monogram in the upper-right corner—“the official Nora Roberts seal guarantees that this is a new work by Nora Roberts.” Her books outnumber her intimates. Only one J. D. Robb novel features a dedication—to a friend whose brother is a priest, and who promised, in exchange for the mention, to get him to grant Roberts perpetual absolution.

According to Publishers Weekly, Roberts wrote three of the ten best-selling mass-market paperbacks of 2008: “The Hollow,” the second book of the “Sign of Seven” trilogy (three blood brothers find love and fight a demon); “High Noon,” a reprint of her hardcover romance from 2007 (a hostage negotiator in Savannah meets a cute sports-bar owner while talking down a suicidal bartender); and “The Pagan Stone,” the third book of her “Sign of Seven” trilogy. “The Hollow” sold 1,912,349 copies, exceeded only by “The Appeal,” by John Grisham. Penguin, Roberts’s publisher, shipped six hundred and thirty-seven thousand copies of last year’s hardback release alone, for a total of more than eight million books in 2008. In addition, Roberts sold five and a half million copies of backlist titles, and J. D. Robb sold four and a half million books.

Roberts grosses sixty million dollars a year, Forbes estimated in 2004, more than Grisham or Stephen King, who is, incidentally, a Roberts admirer. “Nora Roberts is cool,” King said, on the jacket blurb for “Tribute,” last year’s big Nora. Antoinette Ercolano, a vice-president of trade-book buying at Barnes & Noble, said recently that Roberts is the bookseller’s top romance writer. (The chain’s top mystery writer, after Janet Evanovich, is J. D. Robb.) Diane Pershing, the president of the Romance Writers of America, told me, on the subject of Roberts, “You know that movie ‘Amadeus,’ where Salieri was jealous because Mozart seemed to be taking dictation from God?”

One morning in December, Roberts was at Vesta, a pizzeria that her older son, Dan, runs with his wife in Boonsboro, Maryland. She had driven into town from nearby Keedysville, where she lives with her husband, Bruce Wilder. Once she had taken off a pair of fleece gloves and a purple sequinned beret, she advanced a philosophy of her profession. “You know, writing’s creative and all this, certainly, but you don’t just wander around dreaming,” she said. “That’s not what you’re getting paid for.” Roberts scoffs at the notion of inspiration, divine or otherwise. She continued, “People go, ‘Oh, you work six or eight hours a day, oh my God.’ ‘Well, yeah, how many hours do you work?’ ‘Well, yeah, but . . .’ But nothing. I think this is my job. And I think people who”—she hesitated for a moment—“have more of an artistic bent, they’re just not as productive, and their writing is probably not any better than mine at the end of the day.” According to my calculations, it takes Roberts, on average, forty-five workdays to write a book.

In March, as the publishing industry withered, Harlequin, the Canadian romance house, posted profits of $18.4 million, up thirty per cent from that time last year. Romance is not a genre that suffers slow, or abstracted, authors, and Roberts, who has red hair, hooded green eyes, and a pursed half smile, is what used to be called a tough broad. Among her friends, she is known as N.F.R.—Nora Fucking Roberts. According to the writer Patricia Gaffney, “She sets high professional and personal standards for herself and the people around her, and the ones who can’t live up to them don’t always get a lot of sympathy.” Roberts is not a hugger, or a crier. She has a dirty mouth, a smoker’s voice, and a closet full of Armani. Shopping is her main form of self-indulgence—she once ordered a Land Rover over the telephone when it was “snowy and crappy” and her Z had stalled out—but you will not find her in bedroom mules or a marabou boa. Her sense of humor can be wicked. “I hope to write the first romantic suspense time-travel paranormal thriller set in Mongolia dealing with Siamese twins who tragically fall in love with the same woman who may or may not be Annie Oakley,” she once joked. At Vesta, she said that she has one key commandment of writing: “Ass in the chair.”

“You remember Lou.”

“You remember Lou.”

Roberts and Wilder own several businesses in Boonsboro, including Turn the Page, a bookstore that Wilder, a sweet and lanky former carpenter, manages. On the day we met, Turn the Page was hosting a Roberts signing. There were Nora T-shirts, Nora water bottles, Nora stadium cushions, and, as door prizes, some Nora audiobooks that Nora had signed. It was a Roberts reader’s Lourdes. Her devotees amass collections as much as libraries. “The Official Nora Roberts Companion,” published in 2003, includes a two-hundred-and-six-page concordance featuring the plotlines and cover images from “Affaire Royale” to “Witness in Death.” Roberts, who is fifty-eight, once told USA Today, “I want to die at age one hundred and twenty at my keyboard after having great sex.”

“It was awesome,” she said. “My kids were like, ‘Can we have breakfast?’ I was like, ‘No eating until I’m done!’ ”

Roberts took a swig from a can of Diet Pepsi. Someone passed around a plate of homemade oatmeal cookies. Listening to the give-and-take between Roberts and her fans was like eavesdropping on the collective unconscious of American women: bichons frises, migraines, Christmas shopping, marital problems.

A woman in her twenties handed Roberts a copy of “Morrigan’s Cross,” from 2006. “I usually read these as soon as they come out, but I have a six-month-old,” she said.

An older woman chimed in, “You’ve got to learn to rock him and read.”

“Yes, or read to him,” Roberts said. “ ’Cause they really can’t understand those parts.”

“My five didn’t!” the older woman said.

A girl approached carrying a souvenir tote bag. “Everybody’s reading Nora,” it said.

“J.D. is offended, but I’m not,” Roberts said. She added, in a stage whisper, “She’s a bitch, anyway.”

“Does your hand hurt from all that writing?” someone asked, as Roberts, wearing a Celtic thumb ring (she also has a Celtic tattoo on her ankle), scrawled her autograph.

Roberts replied, “I’m going to treat it with alcohol internally later.”

Smart-alecks make bad pupils but excellent students of human nature: Roberts is good at what she does not only because she is prolific but also because she can write zingy dialogue and portray scrappy but sincere characters. She is known for her particularly believable heroes—according to Wendell, “100% real dudes.” Her female characters frequently possess an entrepreneurial streak, and they are more independent than many of their peers, and certainly their predecessors, even if some among them still have a propensity for crumpling like tissues at the sight of bodily fluids. “ ‘Oh. Oh my,’ was all she managed before her eyes rolled back,” Roberts writes, of Faith Lavelle, who, in “Carolina Moon,” has agreed to help the bachelor veterinarian Wade Mooney perform an operation on an injured sheepdog. Roberts’s colloquial style can be inelegant, but it deflates the more vaporous of her scenes—Wade revives Faith, and, in a few sentences, they are back to talking about “dog poop.”

* * *

Here is direct link to the complete article.

Lauren Collins began contributing to The New Yorker in 2003 and became a staff writer in 2008. Her subjects have included Michelle Obama, Donatella Versace, the graffiti artist Banksy, Emmanuel Macron, the refugee crisis, and equal pay. Since 2015, she has been based in Paris, covering stories mainly from France. She is the author of “When in French: Love in a Second Language,” which the Times named as one of its 100 Notable Books of 2016. She is working on a second book, about a coup d’état perpetrated by white supremacists in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898, and its effects over the past hundred and twenty years.

Posted in

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.