Kimberla Lawson Roby’s flawed hero hits home

Photo credit: Paul Crave

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
March 9, 2008

In 1997, Kimberla Lawson Roby couldn’t get an agent or a publishing house interested in her first novel. Today she’s a New York Times best-selling author who writes a book every year for a major distributor. Her latest juicy work of fiction is Sin No More, which revisits her most popular character, the Rev. Curtis Black.

“When I first began writing about him, I had no idea that readers would want to know more about his life,” says the Belvedere resident. “But I’d get e-mails and letters from people who said they knew who I was writing about — that he went to their church. Curtis is a fictional character, but I do know that there are men like him out there, and I think that’s why so many people are interested in him.”

Black is a paradox. A well-respected preacher, best-selling author and devoted father, he also is a lapsed philanderer. When he meets and marries Charlotte, he vows to remain faithful to her. Sort of. After she cheats on him with her cousin’s husband, he retaliates by having an affair with a woman who will seriously impact both his marriage and career.
He could easily have been received unsympathetically. But readers not only like him, they root for him. Not that Roby agrees with all his choices.

“People need to face consequences when they do inappropriate things,” says Roby, 42. “I thought I might get some flak for writing Curtis the way that I did. This is strange, but I’m telling you the truth — no one has ever written or said anything negative about him to me. Frankly, I was sure they would. I’ve actually had some pastors’ wives thank me for writing about this, because religious people are often idealized. They appreciated that I wrote about things that happen every day.”

They also appreciate her diligence. Roby’s writing schedule includes turning in a manuscript to her publisher every January (to be published the following January). This year she’s working on two projects, including a novella called One in a Million that is scheduled to hit stores on June 16. Without giving away the cliffhanger, the plot revolves around a complicated married couple.

“Imagine a woman who has the best news ever and is dying to tell her husband the great news,” she says. “Before she can tell him her surprise, he reveals a secret that is life changing.”

She knows what you’re thinking … that the woman is pregnant and her husband is gay. Maybe, but she’s not going to reveal the surprise (and frankly, neither are we). But she’s hoping readers find it to be another page-turner.

“Because I’m African American, as are many of the characters, people sometimes think that I’m writing for an African-American audience,” Roby says. “That’s simply not true. I’m writing about characters that I relate to in a way, but their stories are universal. Cheating spouses come in all colors and sizes and practice different religions and the consequences often are the same.”

Roby was always a good writer, but her favorite subject as a child was math. When asked what she wanted to grow up to be, she matter-of-factly would answer, “A gynecologist.”

“My sixth-grade teacher actually encouraged me to be a writer,” she says. “But I didn’t think it was possible to make any money as a writer. So I worked in corporate America, concentrating on finance and marketing.”

While working for the City of Rockford, Roby worked on her first novel for seven months every night after work. No one would represent her or publish her book. So she self published Behind Closed Doors through Lenox Press — her own company. That book became the No. 1 Blackboard best-selling book for paperback fiction in 1997.

“My mom and my husband, Will, were instrumental in that book even being written,” Roby says. “Will brought me food home every evening so I didn’t have to stop to cook. And my mom offered to do laundry or anything else that needed to be done so I could concentrate on writing. I honestly think they had more faith in me than I did at that time!”

Roby was all set to get her MBA if the writing thing didn’t work out. She scrapped that plan after her books took off.

“Balance is a nice thing in life, and my life certainly wouldn’t have ended if I hadn’t made it as a writer,” Roby says, laughing. “But it sure is much nicer being paid to do something that I truly love. It really is a blessing.”

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