Best-selling novelist Nora Roberts was only 21 when she fell in love at first sight. Although she became internationally known as a romance writer, this love affair was for a place—not a man. And like the happy endings she creates, this love affair has lasted for three decades and shows no signs of slowing down.
“As soon as I saw it, I knew,” says Roberts, 54, of her hometown of Keedysville, Md. (pop. 482), which is nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. “I realized I was home.
“I live about a quarter-mile off the main line, and it has no street lights,” she says. “It is really dark at night. I love the owls in the summertime. It is just it for me.”
Roberts, the first author inducted into the Romance Writers Hall of Fame, is one of the nation’s most successful writers, with more than 280 million copies of her 160 books in print in numerous languages. She’s had 115 New York Times best sellers, including Key of Light and Dance Upon the Air, and she’s releasing five new books this year.
With her financial success and a job that allows her to work from home, she could live anywhere in the world, including those exotic destinations she’s described in her books that would allow her to dine at the finest restaurants and shop for her beloved Manolo Blahnik shoes at the most exclusive stores. But those big-city conveniences pale in comparison to the peace and satisfaction a small town offers her soul.
“I never lived in a big city; I never want to,” says Roberts, sitting in the lounge of the Ritz Carton Hotel in San Francisco while on tour for the novel Northern Lights. “I love going to New York a couple of times a year. I like seeing my friends up there and the restaurants. I had a great time here today for a couple of hours because we don’t have shops. At home, I can shop online.”
But Roberts will gladly sacrifice shopping convenience for the warm sense of community and security offered by Keedysville. Her husband, Bruce Wilder, owns Turn the Page Bookstore, housed in a pre-Civil War townhouse on Main Street in nearby Boonsboro (pop. 2,803), just a few doors down from the Italian restaurant owned by her son, Dan. Another son, Jason, works for the Shakespeare Project in Frederick, Md. (pop. 52,767).
The only bookstore in the area, Turn the Page serves as an unofficial community center, hosting a monthly story time for children and fundraisers for the local library. Roberts launches her book tours there and often is joined by local writers who also happen to be her close friends. Afterward, writers such as Mary Kay McComas, Mary Blayney and Patricia Gaffney follow Roberts to her house for a home-cooked meal.
“I like the interactions in small towns,” she says. For instance, a video store employee buys books from Roberts’ husband and then walks down the street to buy dinner from Dan. Dan returns the favor by visiting the video store on his way home.
“You go to the post office in Keedysville; there is one person working there,” she says. “They know you by name, you chat a little bit, you buy your stamps or send your mail, go next door to the bank and do the same thing. That is very comforting that they know me and I know them: ‘How are you and how’s your kid?’”
Roberts fondly recalls the time her son Dan thought he could skip school to eat at the Red Bird restaurant without getting caught, forgetting that family friends would spot his car in the parking lot. “If the kids did anything wrong, I heard about it. They were always mystified, ‘How did you know?’ I know everything. That is comforting.”
She’s also comforted by living so close to her son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren—Kayla, 2, and Logan, 10 months. “Kayla is old enough now to be doing the things that Dan did,” Roberts says. “She likes to throw rocks in the creek like Dan did when he was 2 years old. That kind of continuity means a lot to me.”
The beginning of the story
Roberts, who was born in Silver Spring, Md., inherited her gift for storytelling from her parents, both of whom told numerous family tales to their five children, embellishing the stories to make them more dynamic. So, when she began putting pen to paper in elementary school, she didn’t think it was anything special. She believed that everyone lived inside his or her head the way she did.
“It is nurture and nature,” she declares. “I grew up in a family of readers. That certainly influenced me. Also, my father was a movie projectionist and a stagehand when I was young, so I was not only influenced by books, but by movies and plays. I don’t know how you can write if you don’t have a passion for stories.”
However, rather than pursuing a writing career, she married soon after high school, moved to Keedysville and worked as a legal secretary while starting a family. But her life was changed forever in February 1979, when she and her sons were stranded in their house upon a hill for an entire week during a blizzard. After endless games of Candyland, she was hungry for something more creative to do. She picked up a pad and began to write, never dreaming of the incredible journey that would result. After a few initial bouts of rejection from publishers, her first book, Irish Thoroughbred, was published in 1981.
“I am sure that writing and I would have found each other at one point, but I think that the impetus with me was to be going just a little nuts,” she says with a smile. “Before that I was doing crafts. I was insane when it came to crafts. I macraméd two hammocks. I can’t pick up an embroidery hoop today. When I first started writing, I knew it was what I had been looking for.”
Love of the land
Living in the foothills not only gives Roberts the quiet she needs to weave her tales, but access to a lot of land—a lot of incredibly rocky land. To satisfy another of her creative outlets, gardening, she’s had raised flowerbeds built. Otherwise, she says, “You can’t even plant a tulip without a pick.”
To relax, Roberts escapes to her little piece of Eden after an eight-hour day of writing, crediting her discipline as the end product of a Catholic school education. When the days are long enough, she loves to dig in the dirt, but even when that isn’t possible, she will pour a glass of wine, head outside and check on what is blooming and, perhaps, pull a few weeds.
Most recently, she has incorporated her passion for growing things into a series of books dubbed the “Garden Trilogy.” It began with Blue Dahlia and will be followed by the Black Rose in June, concluding with Red Lily in November.
While most writers strive to write one book a year, Roberts is so prolific that she has taken the pen name J.D. Robb (J for Jason, D for Dan and Robb for a shortened version of Roberts) to add a bit of science fiction to the romantic suspense genre. Her most recent, Survivor in Death, was released in February, and Origin in Death debuts in August.
“I still think writing is the greatest job in the world,” Roberts says. “I love being able to have a job doing something that I really love. I didn’t have to make the choice that a lot of women have to make, especially since I was a single parent for a while. I could be home and earn a living, plus I was doing something I loved to do. I feel very blessed. Not everyone has opportunities like that.”