Kimberla Lawson Roby: Teacher’s bet

As a teen, Kimberla Lawson Roby’s instructors dubbed her a storyteller. Twenty books later, it turns out they were right.
By Bill Conger | Published: August 11, 2014


RobyFinalAuthorPhotoKimberla Lawson Roby never had any aspirations of being a writer. Entrenched in corporate America, she whiled away the days as a financial analyst in Illinois, but as her 20s came screeching to a close, Roby realized her reality wasn’t what she wanted. At age 30, a premature mid-life crisis propelled her into an introspective dig deep into the recesses of her past.

“I started feeling like something was missing, as though I had something else that I thought I should be doing,” Roby recalled during an interview from her hotel room in Nashville, Tenn. She was taking a brief respite from the previous day’s tour stop for her 20th novel, A Prodigal Son, in Memphis, a four-hour drive from the western part of the Volunteer State. Her mid-May visit thrust her into the lobby’s chaotic celebratory festivities of graduations, weddings and bachelorette parties. Gazing into the hazy Saturday afternoon sky of the Country Music Capital, where humid days are as oppressive as tunesmiths are plentiful, Roby was a couple of hours away from her next book signing in neighboring Brentwood.

A New York Times, USA Today, Essence and Publishers Weekly best-selling author, Roby is a Christian but not a Christian author, as some reviewers peg the novelist. While she keeps graphic language and sexual content out of her tomes, she head-on tackles an array of social issues, including drug and gambling addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, sexual harassment and racial and gender discrimination in the work place. She may be a late bloomer, but her new career with the Rev. Curtis Black series and her stand-alone titles have met with success.

With more than two million copies of her novel The Reverend’s Wife in print, she is the 2013 winner of the NAACP Image Award, Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction. She has been the recipient of the 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2013 Author of the Year – Female Award from the African-American Literary Award Show in New York, and she took home the Blackboard Fiction Book of the Year Award in 2001 for Casting the First Stone.

You had a late start in life as a writer. How was your journey, and did you face many rejections in the beginning?

I remembered those teachers all the way through junior high and high school and even some of my professors and instructors in college who had encouraged me to write. They felt like I had a gift with storytelling. I wanted to do something different, something that I felt like I could enjoy every single day, and just took a chance at it. What I was not prepared for was when I finished the manuscript and started submitting query letters to literary agents and then, ultimately, to editors at the publishing houses, I was rejected by every single person I contacted. I had made up my mind to walk away from it, and my mom was hearing me say that. She said, “Well, I don’t know anything about publishing, but I know that we have passed around so many copies of your manuscript to people here locally, and they’re saying they can’t put it down until they finish it; I just think that means something, and you shouldn’t give up.” Finally, my husband was the one who said, “You have this background in business, so why not start your own company and publish the book yourself?”

In June 1996, your debut novel, Behind Closed Doors, was originally published via your self-publishing company, Lenox Press. Was going the self-publishing route very challenging?

I didn’t find that it was really challenging, but I think it also helped me that I purchased every book that I could on the subject. When I finally came across the self-publishing manual by Dan Poynter, that book really told me everything that I needed to know to get the book out there, the marketing, what I needed to do to get it placed with Baker & Taylor and Ingram, to go straight to the corporate offices at Barnes & Noble to get into the system, and then to start getting it into libraries. I think my business background – though it certainly had nothing to do with creative writing – really helped me in a tremendous way when it came to starting a business and getting the book out nationally.

What are the pros and cons of self-publishing versus being with a major publisher?

The cons really involve more or less that no one knows who you are. You’re not a major publishing house, so people may not take you as seriously if you really are trying to schedule book signing events. Some of the independent book stores are open, but a lot of the chain stores are not. In terms of the pros, because I had to self-publish without doing that willingly at first, I really was forced into learning every aspect of the business of publishing, and that has still been a major benefit to me today.

In the Curtis Black series, you deal with a prominent minister and his family. They’re not exactly stereotypical churchgoers. Do you feel like the books still tackle inspirational or religious issues?

They do. You do have the corruption in the church, but I always make sure to incorporate an underlying message. It’s still always about what happens when you don’t treat people the way you want to be treated. You definitely reap what you sow. If you make bad choices, if you do terrible things to others, there will be consequences. On the flip side of that, I always like to make sure to show redemption and how important forgiveness is no matter what someone has done.

What do you see as the difference between Christian fiction and mainstream fiction?

I think the difference may be for the most part is when you have Christian fiction, you’re probably not going to see profanity, and you’re not going to see really any sex scenes at all. In contemporary fiction, pretty much anything goes. Mine crosses between both because I will see where writers of magazine articles and newspaper articles or sometimes if I’m doing a TV or radio interview, they will say New York Times best-selling Christian fiction author or they’ll say contemporary fiction or mainstream. It just depends on who I’m talking to or how someone perceives what it is I actually write. My books are free of profanity. The first few maybe had a few words here and there, but never a lot. Starting with about my seventh or eighth book through now the 20th one, I never use profanity. The sex scenes are there, but you don’t graphically see them, so to speak. The reason it’s still considered contemporary fiction is because there’s lots of drama, and it involves issues that are sometimes controversial and sometimes very taboo.

Are you interested in trying Christian fiction someday?

I think that I would. I guess I would have to really figure out what kind of topic I could focus on. When you’re talking about certain topics that I write about, I would probably have to tone them down to some degree, which for me would almost feel like I would have to sugarcoat some of what is reality, and I’m not sure that I would be able to do that.

The Curtis Black novels have worked very well for you. When did you realize they would be a series rather than a stand-alone book?

It was my intention just to write a stand-alone book. This was my third title. I actually went on to write a fourth and a fifth and had not even considered writing about Curtis Black or any of the characters in that book again. Readers kept asking me year after year once the first book, Casting the First Stone, came out. Finally, my agent started hearing requests for it, and requests were coming into the publisher. She said, you have this really loyal supportive group of readers, and when you have that, you really have an obligation to give them what they’re asking for. I went on to write the second book and then the third and thought I would call it a trilogy. Even once the third book came out at the end, people were contacting me or coming to my book signing events saying: “When is the next Rev. Curtis Black title coming out?”

Do you see an end in sight?

I don’t really have an ending in mind. I think now I’m able to have a little bit more steam with it because the children have all grown up. With this book, it’s the two sons. The book that I’m working on now for May 2015 will be back to Curtis’ older daughter. There’s even another child who is younger. It has really turned into more of a family saga, which is something else I had not planned on.

Describe how the writing process works for you.

I would love to be able to write every single day, and it never works out that way for me. What I do is I decide what topic I want to center my story around. Then, once I know what that is, I build the characters around that. Then I write an outline. I will outline anywhere from 15 to 20 chapters before I ever start writing the actual book. I may start with chapter one, decide what that’s going to be, and that will be one or two pages. I’ll do the same thing for chapter two and so on. Then, when I’m ready to go and start writing the book, I make sure I can carve out a good five or six weeks where I don’t have a lot of outside appointments. I don’t have any real travel. I don’t do a lot of communicating by phone or email with friends or family members. I really more or less lock myself away for that first draft. I have my outline in hand, and I start writing one chapter after another after another. When the first draft is complete, that’s when I, of course, go back and do all my rewrites and edits.

Is there any particular place you prefer to write?

I’ve done it different over the years. There was a point where I wrote in my home office on my desktop computer. Now, I take my laptop into our den at home, and that’s where I sit. I’m not a person who can have music or anything else. I have to have total silence while I’m doing it. It’s a matter of staying focused. I feel like the characters are going from one thing to the next. They’re going in and out of each day; as I’m going to bed, sometimes maybe they’re going to bed. By doing that first draft every single day, as much as I can without missing any days, that just allows it to flow a lot better for me, I think.

Do you see your work change from the first draft to the finished product?

Not so much for me. With the exception of me doing the rewrites and the edits to really tighten it up and to make sure it’s really in the best shape that it can be, the overall story line pretty much stays the same even when I submit it to my publisher.

When you get into the story, do you feel like the characters
are taking over and you’re sitting back listening to their conversation?

Oh, yeah, for sure. It almost sounds crazy, but it is very true. Even though I outline, there are changes in the story that will come about that I had not planned on, but you have to go with it. The characters really do take on a life of their own. A lot of times I have no idea where I’m headed with a certain character, or I may have decided in my mind what I’d like to see that character do or what I’d like to see that character overcome, and it may not end up that way at all. I never ever know the ending of any of my books until I’m just about getting ready to write it.

How do you develop your characters?

What I first do is walk around creating them individually in my head. I don’t write anything at all. I found that to be really beneficial for me because I start to picture them and I can see them. I can really see them in terms of what they look like to me. Of course, when the books come out and I can describe a character or not describe a character, if you were to ask five readers what a character looks like, each would tell you something different. For me, I really have to get to know them in that way. I have to think about them mentally of who they are. Are they married or are they not married? Do they have any serious childhood problems? Are they doing well in life right now? Are they really struggling with a mental issue? Do they have a relationship with their parents? I’m asking myself all sorts of questions for each of them, and then, I finally sit down and come up who they are once I place their names on paper.

It seems like you churn out quite a bit of work each year. How long does it take you to write a novel?

If you count the good six weeks that I usually have to take for the actual first draft and then the process for doing the rewrites, if you added it all together, maybe about three months, definitely, no more than four. Of course, that might stretch out over five or six because there is travel sometimes, and there are other personal things that may come up where I’ll take some time off from it.

It sounds like you don’t have an issue with writer’s block.

If I have it, it’s when I’m actually doing the outline. I’m trying to plot and figure things out at that point. I will get stuck for a few hours and sometimes maybe even a day, but I think the outlines really have made the difference for me, because when I start writing those actual chapters, I am able to go on from one to the next without a whole lot of problems.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

Make sure that this is your passion. Write something every single day. Figure out what your own style of writing is. Never, ever try to mimic another author. Really believe in your craft and in your story. Once you have your project complete, I always share that writers need to learn every single thing that they can about the business of publishing.

Bill Conger is the author of Rejoice in the Lord Always: The Jeff Hillman Story and Images of America: Mount Juliet. He has written for a variety of music publications and websites, and was a TV producer for 10 years

Excerpt from The Prodigal Son by Kimberla Lawson Roby

THE PRODIGAL SON - FinalMatthew stared at his wife of ten months and shook his head.

Racquel, who was sitting at the opposite end of the chocolate brown, leather sofa, looked over at him and frowned. “What?”

Matthew shook his head again. This time, his eyes screamed disappointment. But all Racquel did was purse her lips and turn her attention back to the flat screen television. It was a noticeably warm Friday evening in May, and though Matthew was a bit tired from his long day at work, he would have loved nothing more than for the two of them to be out somewhere together; maybe have a nice dinner and catch whatever new movie was playing. But as usual, Racquel was contently curled up—like an unconcerned couch potato—doing what she did best: watching some awful, ungodly reality show.

Matthew leaned his head back onto the sofa and closed his eyes. Not in his wildest imagination—not in a thousand lifetimes—would he have ever pictured himself being so miserable. But miserable he was, and worse, he now realized that getting married at the young age of nineteen had turned out to be a horrible mistake. He’d now turned twenty, but he could kick himself for giving up a full, four-year, academic scholarship to Harvard University, something he’d worked very hard for his entire childhood—and now this was all he had to show for it? This, a tiny, two-bedroom apartment, a twelve-dollar-an-hour job at a bank, and no love life of any kind to speak of? Not since the day he’d been born had he ever had to struggle financially. Even before he’d met his father, which hadn’t happened until he was seven years old, Matthew had lived a pretty good life because his maternal grandparents had always seen to it. Then, of course, when his mom had married his dad, he hadn’t gone without anything.

He must have been crazy in love or crazy out of his mind to think he was doing the right thing by getting married. He also couldn’t deny how right his mother had been, every time she’d warned him about having unprotected sex. He still hadn’t spoken to either of his parents in more than a year—not even when they’d mailed him a ten-thousand-dollar check, and he’d torn it up—but his mom had been correct in her thinking. Matthew wasn’t sure why he’d been so careless and irresponsible. Although, he was proud of the fact that he’d immediately manned up as soon as he’d learned of Racquel’s pregnancy and had decided to be there for both her and the baby. Then, as it had turned out, Racquel’s parents had told him that they would take care of little MJ until he and Racquel finished college, so off to Boston he had gone—and life had been great until that dreadful day in January when Racquel had gone into labor much too early.

Excerpt reprinted with permission from Kimberla Lawson Roby © 2014, Grand Central Publishing.