Nora Roberts, queen of quality -- We talk to the popular romance novelist

The Road to Romance novelist Nora Roberts’ house is perilous: After winding through the flat, featureless landscape outside Keedysville, Md., it turns into a pitted dirt path before reaching the author’s modest home. A white Nissan 300Z sits in her driveway, but Roberts, who is in her mid-30s, admits she rarely uses it to make the 45-minute trek to town: ”It gets stuck in the mud,” she says. Besides, Roberts has other means of escape. ”That’s what romance novels are for,” the author admits, ”to dive in and go someplace else.”

Roberts should know. She is one of the most popular writers on the romance circuit, having published 78 novels since 1981, when Irish Thoroughbred appeared. Translated widely, her stories have fueled the dreams of 25 million readers. Her next book, Genuine Lies, is due out this month. In accounting for Roberts’ success, people point to her sincerity. ”So many romance writers get caught up in the process, but one of the unique things about Nora is that she’s clearly writing from the heart,” says Melinda Helfer of Romantic Times.

Perhaps that’s because Roberts enjoy sharing her heroines’ rich fantasy lives. After feeding six stray pets and packing two teenage sons off to school each morning, the author retreats to her airy attic office. To focus her imagination, she communes with semiprecious stones, including a large crystal suspended above her computer. ”I use them for intuition,” she says.

If crystals provide her intuition, Roberts locate her inspiration in a less likely place — her parochial-school upbringing. ”A lot of romance novelists are Catholic,” she claims, ”but it’s not the religion. It’s the discipline — the sense that if you’re not being productive, you’re heading into sin.” And Roberts is never less than productive.

She claims the breakneck pace is a pre-requisite for success in the rapidly changing romance market. ”Romance novels reflect the culture,” she says, ”so as society changes, they change too.” The strongest elements of her novels are her thoroughly modern heroines. ”I try to make them strong, independent — they’re certainly not waiting for their prince to come home,” she says.

And neither is Roberts, Seven years ago, the author, then divorced, hired Bruce Williams to remodel her kitchen. A year later, she married him. ”After my divorce I thought, ‘This is it, I’m not going to get married again.’ So I have no idea how this happened,” Roberts says. Perhaps fate, the standby of romance novelists, brought the lovers together. More likely, though, it was the fact that Williams has a four-wheel-drive vehicle.