Despite the Critics, Nora Roberts Kept on Writing

From a New York Times story by Lulu Garcia-Navarro headlined “The Critics Scoffed. Nora Roberts Just Kept Writing.”:

It’s no exaggeration to say that the writer Nora Roberts has shaped how generations of people, especially women, think about relationships and sex — not to mention, what makes a great story. Before Roberts, the romance genre was dominated by tepid and virginal women who were overpowered by brooding men. Roberts changed all that by thrusting romance into the modern era.

Her record is astonishing. Over a four-decade career, Roberts has written nearly 250 books, at an average of roughly six per year (including the In Death series of near-future detective procedurals, which she writes under the pseudonym J.D. Robb). A whopping 224 of her books have been New York Times best sellers — many at the No. 1 spot. Collectively, Roberts’s books have sold over half a billion copies. As one romance critic told me, “Nora Roberts is the sun” around which the entire genre orbits.

I was a teenager when I started sneaking into my older sister’s room to steal her Nora Roberts books. I’d devour them under the covers, late into the night. They were like nothing I’d read before. Instead of pirates and princesses, the heroines were women with regular jobs who faced challenges with wit, ambition and strength. Love in a Nora Roberts book wasn’t about conquest and submission, as it was in most romance novels at the time, but rather about equality and partnership. These stories became deeply meaningful to me: less of an escape, and more of a possible road map for my adult life.

I recently spoke with Roberts, ahead of the publication of her new book, “Inheritance,” about how she came to her own views of relationships and empowerment, the sexism directed at the romance genre over the decades, and why she’s never been precious about her craft. “Inspiration is not part of my makeup,” she told me. “I don’t wait for the muse to land on my shoulder. I just sit down and put my fingers on the keyboard, and my butt in the chair.”

Nora, I want to start by asking: What makes a good Nora Roberts heroine?

Oh, I think you need a strong woman or a woman who finds her strength through her journey in the story. Independent, strong, interesting — those are really important qualities. I don’t want to write about a weak person, especially a woman. But she’s going to be flawed, because who wants perfect?

How did you understand women’s roles in the world when you were growing up?

I grew up with four older brothers. I was the only girl and the youngest, and I still remember very clearly making their lunches for school, and wondering, Why? And I think I became a feminist at about age 12 because it just didn’t make sense to me that this was my job. Why weren’t they making my lunch? Or why didn’t we take turns? That really did start the wheels turning for me. But my mom, at that time, had very definite ideas of: “This is what girls do. This is what boys do.”

Then, when I was about 13, my father started his own business, and my mother ran that business. And that was kind of an epiphany for her. It changed her attitude considerably. She became more open to the idea that women weren’t just supposed to slap peanut butter on Wonder Bread and make their brothers’ beds.

When did you start dating?

Probably ninth grade, just barely dating. And then in high school, I started dating my ex-husband. Gosh, I guess I was 16. And I was married the first time when I was 17. Don’t ever do that. You’re not mature enough to really know yourself at that point. And you will change, or you should. Which I did.

So you married young. Is this when you started to read romance novels?

I had always read. But when I had kids, my reading time was carved down. And I discovered category romance novels, Harlequins, because I could read one while the kids were napping. I could take an hour or two, just for me, and read.

There’s this seminal story about how you started writing. It’s almost cinematic: You’re at a kitchen table, there’s a blizzard, sleeping children. …

That was in February of 1979. We had a blizzard. And we lived down a back lane, about a quarter of a mile. I didn’t have four-wheel drive at that time, so I was stuck. My oldest son was in kindergarten, or maybe pre-K, and the radio would announce every day, “No morning kindergarten.” It was about 10 days before things got back to normal. So there were endless games of Candy Land and that sort of thing, until I thought I would go out of my mind. And so when they were napping, I decided I would just write one of these stories in my head. I’d just write it down. It wasn’t very good, but I did it. And by the time I finished, I had a beginning, middle and an end. And I had characters, a plot, so to speak. And I fell in love.

The book you started writing that night didn’t get published, but in 1981, a few years later, your first book came out in print. And a couple of years after that, you and your first husband divorced. Eventually you became extremely well known for your female characters. A Nora Roberts book featured women with jobs — maybe a regular job like a graphic designer — whose loves and lives are worthy of a novel. All of a sudden, the characters didn’t have to be pirates or duchesses.

Absolutely nothing wrong with a pirate, but yes, you could be a gym teacher, or a secretary. But hopefully you were the C.E.O. You could be divorced, you could be widowed, you could have kids, you could not have kids.

Did you have a sense back then that you were embarking on a new type of romance novel?

No, I just knew what I wanted to read, and the kind of characters that I wanted to see doing the kind of things I wanted them to do.

I want to understand where you were intellectually in this period. You described yourself as a feminist at the early age of 12. Was that something you were actively trying to infuse into your writing?

No, it was just organic. It was just natural. I’m a child of the ’60s, you know, and I’m an old hippie on top of being a feminist. I guess it’s just in my wiring.

I’m asking about feminism because you made your fortune in a genre that was looked down on by certain elite feminists. There was this whole idea that elevating romantic partnership went against gender equality. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” and all that. What did you make of that tension: that you were writing for and about women, but that it wasn’t seen as feminist?

I didn’t pay any attention to that, because I don’t see romantic relationships as inherently unfeminist. Not if they’re partnerships. Isn’t that what we want? To be a partner with someone, a life partner? Whether it’s a man or another woman, it’s someone you love that you build a life with.

That idea of romantic partnership, it’s changed over the 40 years you’ve been writing. I just reread your book “Playing the Odds,” which was published in 1985 and became your first best seller. You used the word “plundering” in that book to describe the male protagonist’s kissing technique. It’s this conquesting kind of male stereotype that now feels pretty retrograde.

Oh, absolutely.

And to be clear, I loved that stuff back then.

All of us did! Times change, and society changes. I certainly wouldn’t write that today. But at that time, that was the market. And I hedged it by having the heroine on equal ground, sexually. I mean, sometimes she was the plunderer! But I did use that sort of visual a lot, that sort of language. Because that was the time we were in.

I want to ask you about a broader shift in the romance writing community. Many novelists, yourself included, have chosen not to refer to themselves as romance writers anymore. You call yourself a novelist. Is that because of a certain connotation, perhaps, that romance writing is “less than,” that it is not as elevated as other types of writing?

I’ve never thought that, ever. That’s just insulting to anyone who reads and writes romance. It’s hard to write a romance novel well. It’s really hard work. To make it sing, you need all the elements that you need to write any story. It’s just got a different framework. But the stories that I wanted to write just didn’t slide right into the genre anymore.

Romance has been looked down upon in the broader culture, though. If you read early profiles of you, there is a tone that’s snide.

Oh my God, yes. No question about it. When Janet Dailey plagiarized me, the national media made fun of it like it was nothing.

Janet Dailey was a famous romance novelist who was a contemporary of yours. She was found to have plagiarized your work, and you sued her.

She plagiarized several of my books over a number of years. And when the story broke, journalists had a field day making fun of it. I don’t think that would have happened in any other area of fiction. But romance? “Women, you know, aren’t they silly?” And, “Oh my gosh, the books have sex in them!” So I guess we have to snicker behind our hands. That’s all so juvenile. It’s irritating. Of course it is. And it’s demeaning, but I never subscribed to that.

So it bothered you.

Of course it did. It bothered me a lot. It bothered everyone I know who was writing in the genre during that era. You just had to say: “I’m just going to write my books. Screw it.” And that’s what most of us did. You couldn’t fight it. I could stand up for the genre and for my own work when I did an interview or when I was asked. But otherwise, I was just going to write my books.

Why do you think the genre was so dismissed?

Because women were writing books for and about women. It’s not that men didn’t write them or read them, but primarily, this was a woman’s business. Most mysteries you read, they catch the bad guy. They solve the mystery. That’s just the way it works in genre fiction. You have reader expectations, and you want to meet them. But I think it was just such a rich target that these were women writing these books, and they had been housewives or secretaries or nurses and now they’re writing romance novels. That’s just how a lot of us got started.

And the critics just didn’t think that the pedigree was right?

No. It was very easy to dismiss the entire genre and all the readers because they’re not reading something you think is good for them, like broccoli. Women buy books, and they buy them often. And they buy them sometimes by the bag full. And what’s wrong with that? I think we should all be able to read anything we want to read. Because when you think about the illiteracy rate in this country alone, every book read for pleasure is a miracle, a celebration. It’s glorious. And we have no right to demean someone’s choice of reading.

All of these questions about sexism and writing are, at the end of the day, political ones. So I want to talk a little bit more about the relationship between your books and what’s going on in the world. You’ve described yourself in the past as a progressive. In our interview, you’ve talked about yourself as an “old hippie.” However, you have said that your books are apolitical. Why was that a choice you made?

It really wasn’t. It’s just that I don’t want to write about politics. I pay attention to politics, but I don’t want to write about it or push viewpoints on the reader. I’m trying to tell a story. I’m not pushing ideology. I think some of it certainly comes through. If you read the J.D. Robb books and you can’t figure out where I stand. I mean, in “Naked in Death,” there’s a gun ban, and prostitution is legalized.

These books are set in the future, to be clear.

In 2058! So in my future world, I made changes that suited me and that I wanted to write about. But I don’t like to push.

Your most recent book, “Inheritance,” is about a haunted house, a murdered bride. It does feel disconnected from the real-world challenges women are facing in ways that maybe your earlier books didn’t.

I’m not writing about current events. I’m writing fiction. And in “Inheritance,” the main female character also starts her own business. She has to go out on her own, has to meet challenges. And certainly living in a haunted house is a challenge.

And yet in your personal life you have been more political. You’ve been speaking out about book banning.


Your own books have been pulled off the shelves. I think it’s eight at last count.

I’m honestly not sure. It’s just astonishing to me that we could be in 2023, and we are banning books. We’ve learned nothing. People who ban books are never the good guys. Ever. And it’s not going to be any different this time.

Speaking of 2023, I understand that today is your birthday. Happy birthday!

Thank you.

How do you feel?

The same as I did yesterday, really.

How do you feel about being in your 70s?

Well, I’m very, very grateful to be married to the same man for about half of my life, because I sure don’t want to train another one. I think this is just fine.

You’ve made a career writing books where, pretty reliably, there’s a happily ever after, an “H.E.A.,” as it’s known. I’m just thinking about how, as people get older, you see all the different ways lives can go. So what does a happily ever after mean to you now? Do you feel like you have a more expansive view of what that can mean, at 73?

Are we talking about life, or are we talking about fiction? Because if you’re talking about fiction, when I write, someone has to win. It’s really important that somebody meets their goal. That’s a happily ever after. “This is what I achieved. This is what I was working for throughout this story, and I got there,” whatever that may be. That, to me, is the correct ending for a book that I write. Not for everyone, but for me, someone has to win.

And in life?

You just hope you get through it, and that you’re happy in your relationships with your family and friends. If you’re a woman and you don’t have a circle of women, then find one, because there is nothing more supportive than a circle of women. And if you’re kind to people, you hope they’ll be kind back to you. And if not, find somebody else.

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