Hanging onto every one of Nora Roberts' words

Ignoring Terp fever, scores of fans crowd a mall to meet their favorite author, a master of the romance novel.

Out & About

April 07, 2002|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN ARTS WRITER

The Waldenbooks at the Marley Station Mall is located near the pointed end of an area shaped much like a triangular kite. At 7:22 on the night that the Maryland Terps were to play for their first-ever NCAA basketball championship, 183 people were standing in line to meet best-selling romance novelist Nora Roberts.

Like the tail on a kite, the line of fans wound past Victoria's Secret, where a remodeling project temporarily has shelved its display of floral-and-lace bras. It flowed past Bath & Body Works, where shoppers can buy a Candy Apple Body Splash or a Silking Salt Scrub in Warm Vanilla Sugar, and finally tapered out in front of Lerner New York, with its selection of casual and career clothing "that fits the life you lead."

Roberts, a mother of two and a longtime resident of Keedysville in Washington County, is a very big deal in a very big industry. According to the Romance Writers of America Web site, romance fiction generated $1.37 billion in sales in 2000, and accounted for 37.2 percent of all fiction sold. (The second-most popular category, mystery and suspense novels, made up a comparatively paltry 28.1 percent of fiction sales.)

In the United States, only J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter children's series, sells more novels than Roberts. Last year, an average of 34 of Roberts' books was sold each minute, and she made the New York Times best-seller list every week but one.

John Grisham, eat your heart out.

Speedy writer

Over the past 22 years, Roberts has written 145 books -- between six and seven a year -- under her own name and that of a pseudonym, J.D. Robb. Book No. 145, Three Fates, was released Monday; No. 146, Face the Fire, will be published in late May. Most of her books feature tough, independent heroines in nontraditional careers (Three Fates has three: a professor, a stripper and a tour boat operator) and exotic locales (Three Fates has three: Helsinki, Prague and rural Ireland. Four, if you count New York.)

Obviously, Roberts is a speedy writer, but as several readers independently told her: "You cannot write fast enough for me." The "Noraholics" as her fans call themselves, are every bit as rabid as Terps fans, albeit better behaved.

One new mother brought her 11-day-old son, Tristan, and fed him a bottle while waiting in line. Another woman showed the author an itemized list of the books by Roberts that she owns. There were 103 titles, printed on pink paper. Still another had Roberts sign a box of Godiva chocolate. When Roberts commented pleasantly that she hoped the woman would enjoy the candy, she elicited this response: "Oh no. This is not ever going to be opened."

Romance readers are predominantly female, but not exclusively; the RWA Web site estimates that 9 percent are men. And indeed, a big, burly guy in an Old Navy T-shirt with a slightly embarrassed grin waited patiently in line and asked Roberts to sign his book, "To Ron."

Roberts is a model of efficiency; she has the book-signing routine down pat. Even so, the average wait to stand face to face with the elfin woman with the red-brown hair and round green eyes was about two hours. Two hours for a contact that lasted about 40 seconds, slightly more if you had bought multiple books, or if you wanted your picture taken with the author and had remembered to bring a camera.

Each year, Roberts carves three weeks from her hectic writing schedule to go on a book tour, and her fans have learned to make the most of a limited window of opportunity. A few stood in line to meet Roberts at a book-signing Saturday in Boonsboro, then returned two days later and stood in line at Marley Station so they could meet her again. Some Noraholics brought gifts of M&Ms and Diet Coke that the novelist is known to crave, and a woman who works at a day-care center brought a storybook for Roberts' grandchild-to-be.

Roberts brought along her own pens -- pens with a nice, thick barrel for comfort of holding, and a nib that flows smoothly across the page at the least possible pressure. She began the night with a pile of eight pens lying on the table to her right, and as they emptied out or stopped working, she transferred them to the left side of the table. By 9 p.m., the pile on the right had dwindled to two pens -- and even they ended up on the floor, as the night got later and the novelist's elbow got looser.

When no specific salutation was requested, often she would write: "4 / 1 Cheers. Nora Roberts" in a large, flowing script that slants to the right. She has learned to sign books by moving her arm while keeping her wrist and hand immobile. It reduces the stress on these parts, she explained. It is a pity she can not smile with her arm, as well.

Welcomes her fans

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