|photo: Paul Crave
Kimberla Lawson Roby is the author of the Reverend Curtis Black series. The Ultimate Betrayal, just out from Grand Central Publishing, is the 12th book of the series and Roby's 22nd novel overall. She and her husband live in Rockford, Ill.
In the third grade, Mrs. Ellson told Kimberla Lawson Roby, "You have a lot to say." As an elementary school child, that characteristic sometimes got her into trouble. But it was this statement and others like it from her teachers that helped Roby make the decision that would change her life.
When considering college and careers, Roby explored writing possibilities. But the financial allure of the business world won out. By the age of 30, however, Roby thought maybe she'd made a mistake.
"I was working in corporate American--and then as a financial analyst for the city--and I just felt like there was a void in my life," Roby said. So she sat down to figure out what was missing, and the voices of the teachers who had praised her writing years ago returned to encourage her once again. This time she opted to pursue her passion rather than money.
While maintaining her full-time job, Roby wrote nights, weekends and holidays. Family and friends helped to make it possible, picking up the household slack where it was needed. "I wrote the very first three chapters over a week and half. Then I was editing and tweaking them for a month. Finally a friend said, 'these chapters are fine. You have to move on.' " Reluctantly, she did, and Roby learned to save the larger parts of her editing for when the first draft is complete. She also began writing in chapters. "It felt complete to finish a chapter. I never finish writing for the day in the middle of a chapter. I don't feel like I can sleep at night otherwise."
Seven months later, Roby completed her first book, Behind Closed Doors. She did her due diligence and found a list of agents she knew were interested in African-American contemporary literature, agents she felt could be a good fit for her writing. In her naiveté, she wrote to them all, thinking she would have her pick of representation. Instead, she received rejection letters from every agent. Then she tried submitting her manuscript to publishers directly, only to receive more rejection letters.
Instead of giving up the dream of publishing, Roby used her business background and started her own company. "I read every book on the subject," she said, "and I learned what I would need to do to get the book out on a national level." She put together a release party, inviting influential individuals she knew personally and they in turn drew coveted media attention--as well as more than 500 guests. Behind Closed Doors went on to be a #1 Blackboard bestselling book. With that success in hand, Roby returned to the agents and found a more receptive audience. Her established record of sales persuaded Kensington to publish her second book, Here and Now.
These days when Roby is writing the initial draft of a new book, she doesn't have to worry about a day job. She's been writing full time since the release party for Behind Closed Doors. She carves out six to eight weeks with no travel or outside appointments and dedicates 10 to 12 hours each day to writing. "Everyone knows Kim's on her writing deadline," she said about her family. Roby's process starts with an outline of about half the book. But, she said, "Things start to change from the outline as characters begin taking on a life of their own. And I never know the ending until about a week before I write it."
Casting the First Stone is Roby's third novel and the first in her Reverend Curtis Black series. But she admitted, "I never wanted to write a series. I was afraid it would be too much and I wouldn't be able to keep it fresh." The repeated queries from her readers asking when Curtis Black would return ultimately nudged Roby into telling more of his story. "I wrote the fourth book and then the fifth book, but readers never stopped asking about Curtis Black. I couldn't believe people wanted to see someone who was so bad, but readers love to hate him and they love to see him get his just deserts."
In the current novel, The Ultimate Betrayal, it's Curtis's daughter, Alicia, whom readers love to hate. Roby says, "Alicia is her father's daughter; like Curtis, she doesn't learn her lesson." Alicia was married to Phillip Sullivan in The Best of Everything, an earlier entry in the series. The outcome wasn't favorable, but she's getting a second chance with the good pastor in The Ultimate Betrayal. However, Alicia's ex-drug-dealer boyfriend is out of prison and set on winning Alicia back. Roby puts Alicia into an ethical tug-of-war where she's forced to confront the question, "What do you do if you know that someone is your soul mate?"
While Alicia is her father's daughter, Roby has learned that readers aren't as apt to forgive her female characters. "There's a double standard, " she said. "Men can have affairs and people look down on them, but they aren't going to be ostracized. Readers have had a lot more to say about the women in Curtis's life." An interesting situation, possibly one for the good Reverend to explore in a future novel.
Born and raised in and around the church, Roby hasn't had to do a lot of research about the church's inner workings or its congregants. But other concerns Roby addresses in the books have required research. "I want to address the issues we don't talk enough about," Roby explains. One such topic in The Ultimate Betrayal is anorexia. With Alicia's good friend Melanie--a successful nurse practitioner in her late 20s--Roby explores how self-esteem issues can strike even the unlikeliest of candidates.
Giving voice to important issues, creating characters readers love to hate, passionately pursing her goals--these have all resulted in much success for Kimberla Lawson Roby. She's an NAACP Image Award winner, a recipient of the AAMBCA Female Author of the Year award and a bestseller on many respected lists, including the New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Post. Another secret to her success is her connection with readers. For Roby, "It's always been trying to connect with one reader, one book club at a time. Social media has created a whole new avenue from when I first started writing. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram give us a chance to interact in real time. It's fun for the readers and for me to have more of a personal connection. It changes the whole landscape of the reader-author relationship, and they become readers for life."
With no shortage of readers and a hugely successful series that was never meant to be, Kimberla Lawson Roby is evidence that you never know where life is going to take you, but with passion and faith, anything is possible. --Jen Forbus of Jen's Book Thoughts