Novelist Nora Roberts celebrates another kind of love: for family, for community and for grandchildren.
Like some preternatural beast clawing its way from the womb, [the fire] burst to life with a cackle that rose to a roar. And changed everything in one magnificent instant.”
Three years after Nora Roberts wrote-in Blue Smoke-of a fictional fire, life imitated art: the treasured eighteenth-century landmark inn, the Boone Hotel in Boonsboro, Maryland, was gutted by fire. Nora and her husband, Bruce Wilder, watched it in horror-they own the Boone Hotel and had been renovating it as part of their commitment to the preservation and charm of the village’s rich history (the town was founded in 1792 by cousins of Daniel Boone).
The fire changed plans and timetables but had no effect on the determination of Nora and her family to see it through; nor did it deter Nora’s fans: More than a hundred of her devoted readers traveled to Boonsboro the day after the fire for a previously scheduled book signing-an event that spontaneously erupted as a touching outpouring of consolation and affection for the novelist (there are over 300 million of her books in print).
“I was heartbroken,” Nora says. “We all loved the inn, and at first we thought it was completely destroyed. It was especially devastating because we were about 60 percent finished with the renovations.”
When Nora and Bruce surveyed the damage-the fire was caused by a propane tank used by the construction crew-they were shocked.
“It was surreal. It looked like a bomb had gone off.” Still, “Nobody was hurt. My crew got out; my crew got other people out who were asleep in the building next door. I was relieved that the fire didn’t do any more damage to the town.”
As Nora and Bruce sprung into action to help people displaced by the fire and to begin the long and painful process of rebuilding the inn, the community of Boonsboro responded to the crisis in what Nora says is a typical way for this town of 3,200 people. Less than 24 hours after the fire, town volunteers were sweeping up glass shards from the street, power washing the smoke from adjacent buildings on Main Street and setting up fans to blow away the stench of smoke in the air. And across the street, in the shadow of the burnt-out building, fans lined up around the block for the book signing at the Turn the Page bookstore, owned by Nora and Bruce; Bruce is the proprietor.
Nora said, “People come together when times are good, but they always want to pull together in bad times. That is so typical of this community. That’s why I chose it to be my community. I live about eight miles from here, outside of Keedysville. It’s home. Washington County is home,” she explains. “I raised my children here. My two sons and their wives-Dan and Stacie, Jason and Kathryn-are here. My two grandchildren, Kayla and Logan, are here. And I am hoping for more! Jason and Kathryn were just married.
“Of course, Kayla and Logan are the most beautiful, the smartest, children ever born,” she laughs. “They’re such a joy. They’re so much fun. I think that’s the thing with grandkids. You get all the fun stuff. And they love you so incredibly and unconditionally. It’s just a completely different thing.
“Kayla was born with a copy of Women’s Wear Daily in her hand. She is the girly-girl fashionista. She’s always been that way. Her mother Stacie was a tomboy. Kayla teaches her mom. She says, ‘No, you don’t put purple with red. It’s just wrong!’ Stacie wanted her to play soccer. I thought, ‘Well, that’s never going to work.’ They went to the tryout and Kayla was dressed all in pink. She went out, fell down, got up, fell down a second time, and went over to where her parents were standing and said, ‘I’m leaving here now and I’m never coming back.'”
“Logan, on the other hand, is such a boy, all boy. For over a year and a half now, Power Rangers have ruled. That’s usually the first thing he’ll say. ‘Nana, Nana, look at my new Power Ranger.’ I know them all, too. He’s rough-and-tumble and incredibly funny in what he says.”
Less than two years apart, the children are very close. “They are completely in love with each other. If we’re out and I’m going to buy him something, he wants to know, ‘What are you going to buy for Kayla?’ And she’s the same way.”
Sleepovers are the times for Nora and Bruce to enjoy Kayla and Logan the most. “They love to have sleepovers. We’ll have dinner and they like to help with that. In the summer they like to take a walk around the garden. I have an indoor pool, so they get some swimming in. And then we have a ritual. We have to have movies and snacks-not just popcorn-all the movie snacks. Then, of course, they can stay up as late as they want!”
Nora says she’s determined to finish the renovation of the Boone Hotel before the new year.
“We’re now hoping to open it around Christmas. There are six guest rooms. The seventh is a penthouse suite. The other six are all themed toward a literary couple with a happy ending.” The suites will celebrate literary lovers: Elizabeth and Darcy from Pride and Prejudice; Jane and Rochester from Jane Eyre; Marguerite and Percy from The Scarlet Pimpernel; Titania and Oberon from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Nick and Nora from The Thin Man, and Eve and Roarke from Nora’s own In Death series.
Starting over is nothing new for Nora. Born into an Irish family in Silver Spring, Maryland, the only girl and youngest of five children, Eleanor Marie Robertson developed her discipline and grit from years of a Catholic school education. She began writing only after failing at other jobs.
“I was the worst legal secretary in history. I would have fired me.”
Nora knew she loved to make up stories, but she didn’t know it could be a career.
“I thought everybody made up stories. I always read; I come from a family of readers. Books and stories were essential” [she met Bruce, her second husband, when she hired him to build bookshelves], “but I never considered writing a book.”
Then, in 1979, isolated for days with her two small sons during a snowstorm, “I started writing an actual book-in a notebook with a pencil. I fell in love. A year and a half later, I sold my first book, Irish Thoroughbred. That was really the moment. I thought, ‘Why haven’t I done this before? Oh, this is so cool.'”
As we sit and chat in the town pizzeria, owned by Roberts’s son Dan, her fans-who have been gathering since 6:30 a.m. for an afternoon book signing-visit Kayla and Logan’s lemonade stand to get some relief from the hot summer sun.
For Nora, time with her family-including her extended family of readers-never gets old. Of the women who make up her legion of loyal fans, Nora says, “They love me and I love them. They’re fun and they’re well informed. They know better than I do what’s in my books. They’ve been coming for 12 years. We’ve made a lot of great friendships over those years.”
The nurturing of family, fans and community is Nora’s wellspring as she maintains an eight-hour-a-day writing schedule. Her newest book, Pagan Stone, is due out around Thanksgiving. (It’s set in a small town in Maryland where three boys share a birthday-July 7, 1977. On the eve of their 10th birthday, the three boys meet in the woods, where they perform a blood-brother ritual cementing their friendship forever.) This is her third book in the Sign of Seven trilogy (the first two were Blood Brothers and The Hollow).
Every new book means starting over again.
“It’s tiring, but it’s still a joy. Writing is tremendously hard work, but it’s the best job in the world. Sometimes the writing flows wonderfully and everything goes well, and then certain days are just hell.”
But then…there’s the community, the family-and the grandchildren.
“My husband talks about it all the time. He’ll stop by Dan and Stacie’s house on the way home to drop something off, and the children’s faces light up and it’s like they say, ‘Oh Grandpa, you’re the most wonderful person in the world. We’re so glad to see you.’
“It’s amazing someone is that happy that you merely exist.”