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Kimberla Lawson Roby: Staying the Course

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This best-selling novelist happily lives a quiet life in Belvidere, but when she travels the nation on book-signing tours, her fans turn out in droves. Discover how this talented writer became a New York Times best-selling author.

Kimberla Lawson Roby works on her stories from the comfort of her Belvidere, Ill., home. (Tom Holoubek photo)

Early on, it was never a slam dunk that Kimberla Lawson Roby was going to pursue a career as a professional writer.

“Not at all,” says the Rockford native. “I always wrote because it was fun, not because I thought I was going to make a living at it.”

But that’s exactly what happened to the New York Times best-selling author, who lives in Belvidere with Will, her husband of 23 years.

Roby has sold more than 2 million copies of her 19 novels, and has two more ready for publication this year. She’s developed a loyal following all over the country; her books deal with social issues such as corruption, addiction and racism.

“If I didn’t have the relationship with my readers like I do, I wouldn’t keep doing it,” she says. “There would be no career without them, and I love it when they say, ‘I finished your book last week and I don’t know what I’m going to do now.’ Or when they say my books have helped them to deal with a problem they’re having in their own life. That’s priceless. I’m blessed to have that kind of support.”

A devout Christian who spent much of her childhood participating in church-related activities, Roby has always been surrounded by strong support. It was her sixth-grade teacher, Mr. George Groff, from Ellen Stiles Elementary School, who first noticed her potential.

“He always encouraged me,” Roby says. “If he gave his students an assignment to write a paragraph, I came back the next day with a page. If he wanted a page, I turned in two or three pages. He always said, ‘Kim Lawson, why is it when I ask you the time, you build me a clock? You really have a gift of storytelling.’”

At Eisenhower Middle School, Roby wrote for the student newspaper and served as co-anchor of the school’s television news program. In 1982, she graduated from Auburn High School’s Renaissance Academy, then moved on to Rock Valley College and Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, where she earned a bachelor’s in business administration.

“To be honest, I compared the salaries of writers versus those in business, and I decided to pursue a business career rather than become a writer,” she says.

Following college, Roby returned to Rockford and found work in the government contracts department at Sundstrand Corporation.

“I really enjoyed having Kim on our team,” says Kathy Vigna, who was the section manager of contracts at the time. “She was such a determined young woman, so professional and driven. She’s worked extremely hard for her success. I have a lot of respect for what she’s accomplished.”

In 1994, Roby accepted a position with the City of Rockford, where she worked as a financial analyst. It was at this point in her life that she decided to take a stab at writing a novel. “There was something missing in my life,” she says. “I felt like there was something else I should be doing.”

Each day after work, Roby came home to spend long nights and weekends hammering out page after page of her book. The final result, Behind Closed Doors, is about the relationship of two women who struggle to rebuild their seemingly perfect marriages as they put their lives into perspective.

“I wanted to write the type of story that I would like to read,” Roby says. “For me, it wasn’t about happy endings. I’m not a romance writer. I wanted to write about real-life social issues, even if they tend to be a little tough, controversial or taboo. I also show forgiveness and redemption.”

The book was met with plenty of rejection notices – 21, in fact. “I was disappointed, because I enjoyed the process of writing, creating characters and a storyline,” she says. “But being published wasn’t a lifelong dream, so it wasn’t the end of the world. My attitude was, ‘I’m just going to move on.’” In an effort to move up the corporate ladder, Roby decided to return to school to earn her MBA.

But at the urging of husband Will, a retired Chrysler technician, and her mother, Arletha Stapleton, Roby came up with another plan to get her book noticed.

“My mom said, ‘We’ve passed around so many copies of your manuscript, and they couldn’t put it down. I think that means something. You shouldn’t give up.’” So in 1996, her husband borrowed money from his 401(k) account so she could self-publish 3,000 copies of Behind Closed Doors.

The risk paid off. Book orders came pouring in from independent booksellers around the country. Roby sold 10,000 copies in the first six months. Then she found a publisher to purchase the rights to her second book, which wasn’t yet written.

“It’s very humbling to have people tell you that they read your work and enjoy it,” says Roby, whose mother passed away in 2001. “I’m happy my mom got to see our hard work pay off. She was involved and proud until the very end.”

Early in her writing career, Roby’s books were labeled as “black literature.” But that perception has evolved. “Because I’m a black woman, and there are black models on my book cover, my audience was primarily black women,” she says. “But over time, my readers shared my books with co-workers, friends and neighbors of all color. When I started writing my series, men began reading my books, so it became more of a mainstream audience.”

Roby is prolific in her work. She cranks out two books a year: one is a stand-alone; the other is part of her popular Reverend Curtis Black series, which debuted with her third book, Casting the First Stone. She wasn’t keen on penning a series at first, but an outpouring from fans over the Curtis Black character – a womanizing and corrupt individual – forced Roby to take notice. “Readers would come to me at book signings and tell me similar stories about their own pastors,” she says. “That’s when I realized this character was alive and well in every city. That was very disheartening to me. But I write about him more now because people should be aware of who their leaders are.”

The 11th installment in the Curtis Black series, The Prodigal Son, is due out in May, and her 21st book, a novella called A Christmas Prayer, will be released later this year by her publisher, Grand Central Publishing.

“Kim’s a complete pro,” says Beth de Guzman, vice president, digital and paperback publisher at Grand Central Publishing. “She knows her audience, and the kinds of books they’re looking for. She’s found a way to keep her characters fresh and engaging. With her books, you can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next. And she’s not afraid to handle tough topics. She wants to show you what real life is all about. People find that irresistible.”

As with many writers, procrastination is Roby’s biggest adversary. She often locks herself away in her den for grueling 12-hour writing sessions, to meet her deadlines. Recently, Roby left her house just twice over the course of a month, in order to finish a book. “I tend to wait as long as possible,” she admits. “I’m always terrified that I won’t be able to pull it off again; that I won’t be able to give my readers what they want. I do crazy things like look into other possible careers,” she says, laughing. “But it always comes together in the end.”

Roby has been approached by movie producers to adapt her work to the big screen. Last year, she and Will traveled to Los Angeles, where she was honored with the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Work – Fiction, at a ceremony that aired on NBC.

“That was the highlight of my career,” she says. “To win the award took it to a whole other level. I’m grateful to have had the experience. But I’ve never considered myself a celebrity.”

Without question, touring the country to meet doting readers is a rush, but there’s more to life than fame and fortune, says Roby. Whether she’s out for dinner and a movie, or spending a quiet night curled up in front of the TV with Will, life in the Rock River Valley suits Roby just fine.

“Being here is my absolute favorite place to be,” she says. “This is when I’m happiest.”

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