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ATLANTA -- Nora Roberts is the queen of the $1.2 billion-a-year romance novel industry, but she doesn't live a royal life of luxury. The 54-year-old grandmother writes eight hours every day in her modest home in Maryland.
She takes breaks from time to time to garden, travel, shop for designer shoes and watch "Deadwood" on HBO, but her passion is writing. Since jotting down her first story in a notebook 23 years ago, Roberts has written 161 novels, most under her own name, others under the pseudonym J.D. Robb.
She is as popular as she is prolific. Every four minutes somebody in America buys a Nora Roberts novel, according to her publisher, and her books have spent a total of 632 weeks on The New York Times Best Seller List. She writes at least two novels a year and would write more if her publisher would let her.
"I just have a fast pace, and I really love to write," says the petite, auburn-haired Roberts. "It's a habit, like exercise. And I have strong discipline because of the training in Catholic schools."
Roberts considers herself a romance writer, but her novels are not cliched bodice-rippers. Her heroines are strong-willed, independent women, not terrified 18-year-old virgins who stand around wringing their hands waiting for a man to rescue them.
"As society has changed, so have the women in romance novels," Roberts says. "You have romances from male and female points of view, and women in every profession. The heroine may have been divorced or she may be a widow. There's no limit to what a romance novel is. But when my readers pick up a book by me, they want it to end with good overcoming evil and love conquering all."
In her latest novel, "Blue Smoke" (Putnam, $25.95), the protagonist is a female arson investigator who finds true love while tracking down a serial arsonist and killer.
"I didn't want to write about fighting fire," she says, "I wanted to write about someone who investigates a fire and finds out why and how it started. To me, that was more interesting."
Roberts has been fascinated with storytelling since she was a child in Washington, devouring the historical novels of British author Mary Stewart. She didn't attempt to write anything, though, until 1979, when a blizzard dumped three feet of snow and trapped her at home with her two small children. Bored and desperate, she began writing one of the stories that had been floating around in her head.
"It was awful," she says, laughing. "I put in every element of every romance novel I had ever read. It was rejected, but it taught me that I could finish a book."
More novels and more rejections followed until an editor at Silhouette plucked one of Roberts' manuscripts out of the "slush pile" - where most unsolicited, unagented submissions go - and bought it for an undisclosed sum (The average advance for category romances was about $4,000).
"Irish Thoroughbred," the story of a young woman who falls in love with a horse breaker, was published in 1981 and launched Roberts' career as a best-selling romance novelist. She followed that novel with several series of family sagas about the O'Hurleys, the Calhouns and the MacGregors.
Roberts stands out among other romance writers because of her storytelling skills, says Nicole Kennedy of the Romance Writers of America, a professional organization that has inducted Roberts into its hall of fame.
"Every character is unique, and she always tells fresh stories," Kennedy says. "Nora says writing is like music. There are only 88 keys on the piano, but you can create infinite tunes."
Even Roberts' publisher continues to be surprised by her productivity.
"It's a mystery to me," says Leslie Gelbman, Roberts' editor and publisher of Putnam Berkley. "Her books aren't formulaic. She weaves in romance, relationships, family and suspense and comes up with a story you can't put down. And her relationships are so real and absorbing you can see the characters change and grow.
"The bottom line is, she's a great storyteller."
Now married to her second husband, Bruce Wilder, a carpenter she met while remodeling her house, Roberts writes from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day. In addition to writing under her own name, Roberts publishes a futuristic series as J.D. Robb, a pseudonym she adopted to deal with her publisher's concern about saturating the market.
Set in 2059, the series features police Lt. Eve Dallas and her high-tech billionaire husband. In the latest Robb novel, "Origin in Death" (Putnam, $24.95), Roberts combines a standard murder investigation of a plastic surgeon with a glimpse at the future of cloning and the morals of humanity.
The Robb books have all been best sellers, but Roberts was reluctant at first to use a pseudonym.
"I didn't like the idea of having another name on a book I had written," Roberts says, "but then my agent explained to me that it was a marketing gimmick, like Coke and Diet Coke. I realized I could be different brands."
It's one thing to have different names on her books, but another matter altogether when the name on her work is not her own. In 1997 she sued author Janet Dailey, claiming she had lifted several passages from Roberts' novels.
"It's stealing," says Roberts, "and it's the one big line in my field that you don't cross."
The suit was settled out of court, and Roberts donated the money she received to literacy organizations. The ordeal was unsettling to Roberts, who stopped writing for several months- or long enough to write another book - but some critics scoffed at the scandal, contending that all romance writing is interchangeable anyway.
"I don't think those critics have read the books," Roberts says. "Romance is an easy target. It has sex in it, and Americans are basically puritanical. It's so easy to take something out of context.
"The point is that novels about relationships celebrate the human spirit and love and commitment and family and all those emotions," she adds. "I don't know why that isn't something to respect."
Don O'Briant writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail: email@example.com
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