The story Nora Roberts likes to tell of her transformation from harried homemaker to published novelist reads like something from one of her novels: Stuck at home with her two young sons during a 1979 snowstorm, the Silver Spring native started writing longhand, and the epiphany hit: “ ‘This is it . This is the thing I am meant to do.’ The sun came out and the snow melted.” The moment her first book, “Irish Thoroughbred,” was accepted for publication in 1980, Roberts recalls, “was better than sex.”
Three decades later, the apres-affair puff lingers. Today, Roberts, 61, has published her 200th novel, “The Witness,” and is at the helm of a cottage industry: about 400 million copies of her books in print, multiple TV movies based on her work, the Nora Roberts Foundation (which recently gave grants to McDaniel College in Westminster, Md., to support the writing of romance novels) — there’s even a jewelry line based on her books. She and her husband, Bruce Wilder, also co-own the Inn BoonsBoro near Keedysville, Md., where they live.
Roberts’s productivity is remarkable, even in an era of instant mass-market paperbacks and e-books. By the end of this year, Roberts will have published 203 novels, some of them futuristic police procedurals written under the pen name J.D. Robb. That’s more original novels than James Patterson (93) and Danielle Steel (84) combined — and 199 more than Marilynne Robinson, whose first novel also came out in 1981.
Roberts, whose prodigious output is matched by her ability to sell her work — 176 of her books have been on the New York Times bestseller list — attributes her efficiency to her time at St. Michael’s school in Silver Spring.
“I was educated by the nuns,” says Roberts, who grew up near downtown Silver Spring. “Guilt and discipline — combine those and you’ll be pretty productive.”
What the nuns might say about the content of her books is another matter. Two hundred novels is a lot of hot and heavy. How many kisses? “Oh probably thousands,” Roberts says. “But there are probably less orgasms than kisses. Maybe the dead bodies and the orgasms are about on par — I’m not sure.”
Her new book is no exception. A romantic suspense novel, it combines Roberts’s hallmark mix of sass and sex. The heroine is Elizabeth Fitch a.k.a. Abigail Lowery, a ferociously uptight computer security expert who is slowly seduced by Brooks Gleason, the sheriff of the small Ozarks town where she has settled in an effort to hide from the Russian mob.
“I’m very strong for my build, and have exceptional endurance,” she warns Gleason. “You’re the sexiest thing, in the strangest ways,” he replies. He then “peeled her shirt up and away.”
Roberts considers herself a feminist and says that her books show women that “you can have this incredible guy — if you work for it. You don’t sit by the window and wait for Prince Charming. You open the window and get what you need, and then you ride off into the sunset. You make a partnership.”
Roberts scoffs at spineless heroines, including Anna Karenina, whom she doesn’t find compelling. “Weak, passive people don’t make good characters,” she says. She is equally brutal about needy men: “If a man wants someone to take care of him, he should get a dog as a companion and live with his mother.”
She credits her mother — who was trained as a nurse and then “worked her butt off” as a stay-at-home mother and later for the family lighting business — for inspiring her strong female characters. At the family home on Mississippi Avenue, her mother, Eleanor, had her children wrapped around her apron strings. Even Roberts’s four older brothers knew “you didn’t mess with Ma,” Roberts says. Roberts recalls long afternoons roller-skating and riding bikes around the neighborhood till the streetlights came on, and her mother’s whistle called her inside. Watching her mother, Roberts says, she knew early on, “she is the power.”
Roberts’s father, Bernard, traveled a lot with ABC News as a “lighting man,” says Roberts, who remembers him helping presidents — Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson — “look good” on television. “My father was a clever man,” she says. “When Eisenhower was dying, my father said they’re going to need lights for the funeral, so he started buying [them] and renting to the networks. That was the springboard for his business,” R&R Lighting, which is still in the family, on Silver Spring Avenue.
When mingling with her fans, Roberts deftly shifts her persona between down-to-earth everywoman and vampy celebrity. At a signing last Saturday at Turn the Page bookstore in Boonsboro, which she co-owns with her husband, Roberts, clad in a body-skimming leather dress and spiky leopard-print heels, buddied around with her readers, talking about clothes and her new jewelry and posing for pictures. The line to see her snaked around the store for hours, allowing people to check out the Nora paraphernalia — tote bags and T-shirts emblazoned with zingers from her books, scented toiletries and necklaces named after her characters — and, of course, stacks and stacks of her books.
The crowd of more than 200 — most of them women, some with camera-toting husbands — clutched their books lovingly. For many Roberts fans at the event, the books were more than just stories; they were prized possessions.
“I don’t give up my books for anything,” said Alice McGuckin, 46, a payroll clerk from Erial, N.J., who says she owns all of Roberts’s books. (Her daughter, a 21-year-old University of Maryland student, has all of Roberts’s future books pre-ordered on her Kindle.)
Janell Pulido, 36, a nurse from Potomac, said she kept the books in trunks in the basement of her 5,000-square-foot-house. Pat Christopher, a 58-year-old retired federal government employee from Stevensville, Md., said she has two bookcases in her bedroom devoted to Roberts’s books. “I’ve reread all of them,” she says. “You dive right in, and she carries you on every page.”
The appeal of Roberts is simple, says Sarah Wendell, co-founder of the romance-review blog Smart B-------, Trashy Books: “She’s consistent. She’s ubiquitous. Readers know that if they take a Nora Roberts on vacation, they won’t be disappointed.”
Many critics haven’t been so kind — when they bother to take notice. Like many romance novels, Roberts’s books are typically overlooked in the mainstream media, and the silence is often more complimentary than the reviews. Writing in the New York Times, Janet Maslin dismissed Roberts’s 2001 novel “The Villa” as an example of “feminine wish fulfillment.” Maureen Corrigan wrote in The Washington Post that Roberts’s 2009 novel “Black Hills” “isn’t much of a suspense story, and the romance is so silly that it isn’t even good fantasy fodder.”
Roberts claims not to care about what she calls the “literati war on women.” Just because many women “like to read about emotions,” she says, “doesn’t mean we don’t have intellect.” And anyway, she adds, “Why is it not healthy to believe in love? Why is it not valuable to write about strong, healthy women finding a strong, healthy relationship?”
Such battles don’t interest Roberts much. She says she’s living her own romance novel — and the sunset is still off in the distance. How many more books does that mean? “It depends how long I live,” she says. God willing, and based on her current rate of output, we can probably expect her 300th novel sometime around 2032.
Krug writes the monthly New in Paperback column for The Post.