Interview with Nora Roberts

Posted by Goodreads on April 4, 2016
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Interview by Regan Stephens for Goodreads. Regan lives in Brooklyn and contributes to

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Comments Showing 1-33 of 33 (33 new)

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message 1: by Jacquie (new)

Jacquie Love her honesty and integrity!

message 2: by Mary (new)

Mary Beth She is my all time favorite author. Love both sides of her! I go to the library and just grab everything of her's that's available. Trying to make it through her whole list.

message 3: by Sarah (last edited Apr 05, 2016 10:35PM) (new)

Sarah I love the writing advice - "You write what you want to find out". From the first book by Nora Roberts I ever read (It was 'Blue Smoke') to now, she never ceases to entertain me.

message 4: by Judy (last edited Apr 06, 2016 07:03AM) (new)

Judy I so enjoy all her books. By far my favorite are her magic series books, including witches. Have read them all and most of her stand alone fiction. I have lost a lot of sleep, because I usually read all Ms. Roberts books in one sitting. There is no such thing as a Nora Roberts bad book! It is like the old potato chip commercial, "you can't have just one!".

message 5: by Cheryl (new)

Cheryl Wright Love this interview. I love that Nora follows her own rules. And she is THE BEST at creating and developing characters. They all feel like family and you don't want them to leave! You rock Nora.

message 6: by Elina (new)

Elina Mavromatis The best part of a Nora Robert's book is the integrity that she gives her characters both male and female! They have come from every walk of life, every career...and been treated with respect!

I have learned about scuba diving, jewelry making, and on and on because of the research she has done when creating her stories...that is probably one of the reasons I reread them so often!

Write on to paraphrase a phrase from the sixties!

message 7: by Carol (new)

Carol Mcclellan I think the fact that she writes strong women characters is one of the things that make her books as good as they are. It's nice to read books that don't have any real wimpy characters.

message 8: by Leigh Neely (new)

Leigh Neely There's a reason her books keeps selling. She's a damn good writer!

message 9: by Judith (new)

Judith D Love all her books I have most of them my favs are the jd Robb books. I'm going to get obsession now

message 10: by Gina (new)

Gina Briganti Sarah wrote: "I love the writing advice - "You write what you want to find out". From the first book by Nora Roberts I ever read (It was 'Blue Smoke') to now, she never ceases to entertain me."

My first was "Dance Upon the Air." I still have the original trilogy. Loved "Blue Smoke."

Nora Roberts was my inspiration for writing, and she still is today! Such a legacy!

message 11: by Gina (new)

Gina Briganti Judy wrote: "I so enjoy all her books. By far my favorite are her magic series books, including witches. Have read them all and most of her stand alone fiction. I have lost a lot of sleep, because I usually rea..."

My boyfriend was mystified the first time he saw me read all night. I read most books for about an hour a day. but my Nora's and my J.D. Robbs' are too good to put down.

I also love her magic books. I started with the Three Sisters Island trilogy.

message 12: by Heidi (last edited Apr 06, 2016 01:06PM) (new)

Heidi Bonisa Guess I'm going to have to rent a storage unit...I collect ANY Nora Roberts book. Re read and re read. She is THE ULTIMATE IN WRITERS. Have Obsession on order. I use a bit of my son's garage and a friends...however...I really like to have some of them handy. Thanks for being in this world NR.

message 13: by Samantha (new)

Samantha Harris Nora, I've been reading your books since I was a kid in the '80s. One of my first "adult" books was Reflections. I stole it from my grandma's bag and read it in one afternoon. I fell in love with ballet and the Bannions, and have been following your work ever since.

Thank you for your hard work, your integrity, and most of all, for your dedication to writing!

message 14: by Misty (last edited Apr 07, 2016 06:55AM) (new)

Misty I just love Nora Roberts. My all time favourite female author. Her stories take you places, feed your soul, entertain, romance you, and more. I especially love the trilogies and the in death series. I even have Ireland on my to do list just because of her, and im from the Caribbean, black, with Irish roots.
Thanks for the books Mrs. Roberts

message 15: by Christine (new)

Christine Mazurk I was at the same lunch table with Nora at a National Conference in '05. I sat in awe for she already was and still is one of my all time favorite authors!! I've read THE VILLA more than a thousand times!!!

message 16: by Naomi (new)

Naomi I LOVE Nora's writing. I read anything of her's that I can get my hands on....a book, an ebook, an audiobook - whatever I need for the situation I am in. I sometimes have had a story on all 3 so wherever I am, I can enjoy. I can find one of her books that seems to fit my mood...and she's one of the very few authors that I re-read and re-read. I think I have read the " Death" series about 3-4 times in it's entirety.

message 17: by Britney (new)

Britney Nora is my girl. You can't get any better.

message 18: by Patricia (new)

Patricia Schendel She is one of my all time favorite authors. I just finished Dark Witch and loved it.

message 19: by Dale (new)

Dale DePrima My all time favorite author! Every book is a escape into another world.

message 20: by CHRIS CATING (last edited Apr 08, 2016 03:15AM) (new)

CHRIS CATING I love having Nora's books on my ereader. I can get a whole series as 1 book so I can read Chesapeake Bay Saga straight through - which I have done several times. Plus it means the books are always with me.

message 21: by Florence (new)

Florence Turkovich like her books. read them all

Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* Great interview - I like hearing about the writing rituals authors have. Hers sounds well balanced.

message 23: by BOAZ (new)

BOAZ Olaosebikan GREAT

message 24: by Daniel (new)

Daniel Didonna I only started reading nora 5 years ago,but am hooked,love all her work,consider her,as well as james patterson to be greatest writers of this generation.currently working on j.d robb books.

message 25: by Georgia (new)

Georgia You Rock NR...

message 26: by Marci (new)

Marci Z You sound just like Dallas ;-)

message 27: by Amanda (new)

Amanda Doss Jacquie wrote: "Love her honesty and integrity!"

So do I! I have to agree with you. I also like that part she said about the damsel in distress. :)

message 28: by Vero (new)

Romanian people loves your books

message 29: by Tina (new)

Tina Kindelan Loved it!

message 30: by Joyce (new)

Joyce I'm a new author. I've just published my first novel, and I'm so inspired by her statements. I appreciate her candidness.

message 31: by Mei (new)

Mei Great interview, Regan!
And thank you Nora for your honesty!

...if you sacrify a chicken you have to cook it after! Non a bad idea! LOL

message 32: by Christy (new)

Christy M. I adore her series books. All her books are good but I have a very hard time putting any of her series books down especially to sleep. Does she plan on writing any more books similar to the Innsborro trilogy or the Bride Quartet were my absolute favorites.

message 33: by David (new)

David Lucero Do you write all of your books by yourself, Nora? I'm a writer myself and cannot possibly fathom being able to write so many.

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