PETER SAGAL, HOST:
Finally, a conversation with somebody who has the toughest job in 2017 America, making stuff up that's stranger than reality.
BILL KURTIS: Nora Roberts is one of the most successful and prolific novelists alive. And Peter began by asking her just how prolific she is.
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SAGAL: So how many books do you write per year?
NORA ROBERTS: Totally depends. You know, how long does this one take to write? I don't really plan that out in advance. It just depends on how it flows.
SAGAL: Right, I see. So does a book normally take you, I don't know, six months, a year? It can't be true, right?
ROBERTS: No, it takes till it's finished every time.
SAGAL: I understand. Pretty much. And let's go back - how did you get started? You, of course, made your name - am I correct in that you made your name first as a romance novelist?
SAGAL: And were you one of those fans of the genre who said, oh, I could do this, or even, I could do this better?
ROBERTS: Yeah, I think a lot of us started that way. And I've - I always thought everybody made up stories in their heads - never thought about actually writing them down on paper until I was snowed in with the kids in the blizzard of '79 - 3 feet of snow. I live in a rural area and was stuck. No morning kindergarten - it was a nightmare.
SAGAL: That sounds more like a horror genre than romance, but go on.
ROBERTS: Yeah. I could've, should've, would've started. Maybe I'd be Stephen King now. Who knows?
ROBERTS: But that's how I started, just deciding - instead of another game of Candyland, which, you know, might have been murder-suicide...
ROBERTS: ...I decided to write a book.
SAGAL: Right, I see. What did you do - so in this scenario, you're stuck in the house with your very young children...
SAGAL: ...With nothing else to do. So what did you do with the kids while you decided to sit down and write your first novel?
ROBERTS: We have a lot of closets.
SAGAL: Oh, yeah.
SAGAL: People say that they love your romance novels more than, you know, the mass-market books because you add a little special something that's not the typical stuff. Could you describe what makes a Nora Roberts romance novel different?
ROBERTS: Well, I don't really write romance at this stage, but I write about relationships.
SAGAL: And you don't like to do, like, the heaving bosom stuff and the Fabio...
ROBERTS: I never have...
ROBERTS: I never have. I don't have any myself. So...
SAGAL: In Nora Roberts books, the bosoms remain still. They do not heave.
SAGAL: Now, you also write thrillers under the name J.D. Robb. So why are you writing under a pseudonym?
ROBERTS: I write a lot of books. And at one point way back when, they were building up inventory, and my publisher called me and told me I needed a hobby. And I didn't want a hobby. I just wanted...
SAGAL: Wait a minute. Your publisher said...
ROBERTS: Nora, she said in her New York...
SAGAL: ...To, like, the most best-selling novelist, perhaps, alive - stop writing books.
ROBERTS: And I...
SAGAL: We're selling too many of them. I have too much money. Stop.
ROBERTS: For some reason, they actually wanted to publish other people, too. And my agent had been encouraging me to take a pseudonym, and I really didn't want to. She said, Nora, there's Pepsi, there's Diet Pepsi and there's caffeine-free Pepsi. And that's when my light bulb went off and then, oh, let me rethink.
SAGAL: Oh, I see. So Nora Roberts is your Pepsi.
SAGAL: And J.D. Robb is your Pepsi with murder.
ROBERTS: Yeah. There you go.
SAGAL: Now - can I ask, how long have you been married?
ROBERTS: Thirty - oh, it's math. It's math. It's math. Wait a second. Thirty-two years.
SAGAL: Thirty-two years. And that's a long...
ROBERTS: Thirty-two years this summer.
SAGAL: That's a long time to be married.
SAGAL: And does your marriage provide you inspiration, or did it provide you inspiration for your novels?
ROBERTS: No more than - you know, I don't go out and kill people either, to...
SAGAL: Oh, I see.
ROBERTS: ...Be inspired to write a murder scene.
SAGAL: But that touching scene in one of your novels where the guy fell asleep in front of the TV with his mouth hanging open, that was...
SAGAL: You're telling me you invented that?
SAGAL: I have to ask you one thing because you are so prolific. Have you ever, for one minute in your life, had writer's block?
ROBERTS: I don't let myself believe in it. I feel very strongly writing is habit as much as an art or a craft. And if you write crap, you're still writing.
ROBERTS: And you can fix that. But if you walk away, then you've broken the habit.
SAGAL: Really? But you've never, like, finished a novel and said, I have written about all the relationships I can think of and all the murders I can think of, I got nothing?
ROBERTS: Oh, no. There are 88 keys on the piano, but do you run out of music?
SAGAL: That's a good point.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Oh.
SAGAL: There she is, ladies and gentlemen. Nora Roberts.
SAGAL: Well, Nora Roberts, we are delighted to talk to you. And we've asked you here to play a game we're calling...
KURTIS: You're A Recluse Who Never Writes Anything.
SAGAL: So as we discussed, you write under the name J.D. Robb because you were writing too many books to publish under one name.
SAGAL: So we're going to ask you instead about J.D. Salinger...
SAGAL: ...Who wrote pretty much nothing for the last 50 years of his life.
SAGAL: Answer three questions about the famous recluse, you'll win our prize, Carl Kasell's voice on their voicemail for one of our listeners. All right, Bill, who is author Nora Roberts playing for?
KURTIS: Allen Bush of Bethlehem, Pa.
SAGAL: All right, you ready?
ROBERTS: I guess.
SAGAL: All right, here's your first question. J.D. Salinger came to literary fame relatively late in life. He was in his early 30s. But - so before he became a famous author, he did which of these jobs? Was he A, a cruise ship entertainment director; B, a professional hand model; or C, a competitive ballroom dancer?
ROBERTS: Oh, geez. Really?
SAGAL: Yes. He was one of those things.
ROBERTS: Oh, he was one of those things. I'm going to say a ballroom dancer.
SAGAL: Oh, I wish. He was actually a cruise ship entertainment director.
SAGAL: Can you imagine that?
ROBERTS: No, I can't (laughter).
SAGAL: All right, you phonies, it's time for bingo.
SAGAL: All right, you have two more chances. Famously, as we now know, J.D. Salinger became a recluse at the height of his fame. Some blamed his difficulty with public attention or his experiences in World War II. But what other trauma might have sent him fleeing from human contact? A, the X-ray specs ordered from the back of a comic book did not turn out to work; B, his girlfriend was once stolen from him by none other than Charlie Chaplin; or C, he once accepted an award and discovered afterwards his fly was down the whole time?
ROBERTS: (Laughter) I would love it to be three. Gosh, he seems a lot younger than Chaplin. I'm going to say the fly just because it's funnier.
SAGAL: Remember, Charlie - I'm going to say about Charlie Chaplin, it wasn't a question of whether Charlie Chaplin was older than J.D. Salinger. The question is whether the girl was.
ROBERTS: Well, that's true. Isn't it?
SAGAL: Yes. So I'm trying to give you a big hint here is what we do.
ROBERTS: Oh, you're giving me a break on that?
ROBERTS: I should go with my first instinct of Charlie Chaplin?
SAGAL: Yes, you should.
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SAGAL: Yes. In the '40s, J.D. Salinger dated Oona O'Neill, daughter of Eugene O'Neill. And then she, in short order, became Oona Chaplin, and J.D. was mad. All right.
SAGAL: Your last question - for most of his life, J.D. Salinger did, in fact, remain a recluse up in New Hampshire. And he turned down many tempting offers such as which of these - A, a chance to be a guest judge on Season 1 of "American Idol..."
SAGAL: ...B, an offer from Jerry Lewis to adapt and star in his novel "The Catcher In The Rye"; or C, a spot on those American Express do-you-know-me ads from the 1970s in which he would say, do you know me? No? Good - and run off camera?
ROBERTS: Boy, they're all pretty good, aren't they?
SAGAL: They are.
ROBERTS: I'm going to go with Jerry Lewis.
SAGAL: And you're right.
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SAGAL: It was, in fact, that.
SAGAL: It turns out that Jerry Lewis was obsessed with the character of Holden Caulfield and constantly demanded that he be given the rights to star in a movie adaptation.
Bill, how did Nora Roberts do on our quiz?
KURTIS: Two out of 3 - Nora, that's really good.
SAGAL: Congratulations, Nora. That was awesome.
ROBERTS: (Laughter) Thank you.
SAGAL: So I'm just going to ask - I know you have a book coming out, but do you have the next one already underway?
ROBERTS: Actually, the next is "Come Sundown." It'll be published by St. Martin's Press. And that's set in Montana, a suspense novel under my name.
ROY BLOUNT JR: Are you writing something right now?
ROBERTS: At this very minute? No.
SAGAL: We appreciate you taking the break. Nora Roberts is an award-winning and best-selling author of over 200 books. Her latest book, written under the name J.D. Robb, is "Echoes In Death," available now. Nora Roberts, thank you so much for joining us.
ROBERTS: Thank you, Peter.
SAGAL: Thank you, Nora.
SAGAL: That does it for our show today. Support for NPR comes from NPR stations and Home Instead Senior Care with a range of in-home senior care services to keep senior loved ones at home, providing help with bathing, medication, reminders and Alzheimer's and dementia care at homeinstead.com/npr. American for the Arts - dedicated to advancing an arts industry that employs 4.8 million people in towns and cities across the country. Learn more at americansforthearts.org. And Lumber Liquidators, a proud sponsor of NPR, offering more than 400 styles, including hardwood, bamboo, laminate and vinyl with flooring specialists and hundreds of stores nationwide. More at lumberliquidators.com or 1-800-HARDWOOD.
WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME is a production of NPR and WBEZ Chicago in association with Urgent Haircut Productions - Doug Berman, benevolent overlord. Philipp Goedicke writes our limericks. Our house manager is Tyler Greene. Our intern is Layne Gerbig. Our web guru is Beth Novey. BJ Leiderman composed our theme. Our program is produced by Jennifer Mills and Miles Doornbos. Technical direction is from Lorna White. Our CFO is Ann Nguyen. Our production coordinator is Robert Neuhaus. Our senior producer is Ian Chillag. And the executive producer of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME is Michael Danforth.
Thanks to everybody you heard today on our show, including of course Bill Kurtis, all of our panelists, all of our guests, the amazing Carl Kasell and, of course, all of you for listening. I am Peter Sagal. We will see you all next week.
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