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Writers in the running for RITAs

Three Washington Co. authors nominated for award

April 02, 2011|By MARIE GILBERT | marieg@herald-mail.com
  • From left, Gail Barrett, Nora Roberts and Susan Donovan, all Washington County residents, are finalists for RITA awards for excellence in published romance fiction.
By Kevin G. Gilbert/Staff Photographer

WASHINGTON COUNTY — She looks a lot like Oscar, but her name is RITA.

And she enjoys a good love story.

She’s a golden statuette that symbolizes excellence in published romance fiction.

And each year, during an Academy Awards-like ceremony, she goes home with the best writers of treachery, heartache, heroes and heroines.

This summer, three Washington County authors are hoping to walk away with the coveted trophy.

Nora Roberts, Susan Donovan and Gail Barrett have been named finalists in the 2011 contest, which is presented by the Romance Writers of America.

The event is named in honor of the organization’s first president, Rita Clay Estrada.

Nora Roberts received nods in three of the 12 categories: Contemporary Single Title for “Happy Ever After”; Novel with Strong Romantic Elements for “The Search”; and Romantic Suspense as J.D. Robb with “Indulgence in Death.”

Donovan was nominated for “Not That Kind of Girl” (Contemporary Single Title), while Barrett was nominated for “Meltdown” (Contemporary Series Romance: Suspense/Adventure).

“It’s amazing that there are three nominations from our little corner of the world — Washington County,” Donovan said. “I think that’s pretty extraordinary. And to be in the company of such incredible writers, I’m honored.”

Although this is Donovan’s second RITA nomination, “it’s just as thrilling as the first,” she said.

Her book “The Kept Woman” made the finals in 2007.

“I didn’t win, but it was such a head rush,” she said. “I feel the same way this time around.”

Donovan said she has been penning books for 10 years but had the writing bug even as a child.

In junior high school, she was nicknamed “Arthur” by friends who knew of her ambition.

Donovan studied journalism at Northwestern University and worked as a reporter for about 10 years with several newspapers. She also worked for a member of Congress and did part-time fundraising for the Maryland Symphony Orchestra.

But she always told herself she would have her first novel written by the age of 40.

“When you’re 25, you tell yourself that because you actually never think 40 will happen,” she joked. “It sounded like some other life prior to death.”

Then, one day, she was 39 and decided “if you’re really going to do this, then you better get going.”

A self-proclaimed “impatient woman,” Donovan said she gave herself one year to achieve her goal.

“If I didn’t have a book contract by that time, I was moving on,” she said. “But by the end of that year, I had written almost three books, had a contract with St. Martin’s Press and an agent.”

Today, she has written 12 novels and four novellas, which have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

“I am awestruck,” she said. “I get to do what I love. It’s so rare and I feel so lucky.”

She’s also awestruck, she said, to be nominated with the likes of Roberts and Barrett.

“They are such incredible writers,” she said. “This is very special.”

It was a nomination she wasn’t expecting.

“The title of the book is ‘Not That Kind of Girl’ and it’s about a woman who runs a website called i-vomit-on-all-men.com,” Donovan said. “But she falls in love. It’s an out-there idea for a story, definitely not your norm. And that it got nominated tells me the judges have a sense of humor.”

Donovan said she definitely will be attending the awards ceremony this summer in New York City, which means “I’m now forced to purchase a dress, which is always traumatic. When you’re nominated, there’s a slight chance — a remote chance — that you might have to go up there on stage. And you might be photographed. So I’ll need a dress.”

But, seriously, she said, “it’s all very thrilling. I’m feeling pretty excited.”

For Barrett, recognition of her writing is a dream come true, she said.

Although she always wanted to be a writer, she also loves languages and studied Spanish literature at the University of California, Universidad Complutense de Madrid in Spain.

Returning home fluent in a foreign language, she realized she had a marketable skill. So instead of writing, she began teaching Spanish. Barrett married a Coast Guard officer, followed him around the country, earner her master’s degree in linguistics and continued teaching. She taught for a number of years at St. Maria Goretti High School.

But Barrett never lost her passion for writing.

She continued to submit articles for professional and educational organizations, and had short stories and essays published in newspapers.

Eventually, she decided to pursue her longtime goal of becoming an author — a writer of romance, in particular.

She began attending workshops and conferences, and consumed everything she could about the craft of writing and the business of publishing.

Barrett said she had been actively writing for nine years (with five unpublished manuscripts) before she sold her first book, “Where He Belongs.”

It was released in November 2005 by Silhouette, which is owned by Harlequin, the largest publisher of romantic fiction. It later won the Golden Heart, a prestigious national award given by the Romance Writers of America.

Having a book published “was an incredible feeling — joy, shock, disbelief,” Barrett said. “I’d been writing for so many years that it took a long time for the reality of it to sink in.”

Since then, she has continued to churn out award-winning romance novels. She has won the Golden Leaf Award, the National Readers Choice Award, the Book Buyers Best Award and Holt Medallion, to name a few. Later this year, her 10th published book will be released.

“It feels amazing,” she said. “Every time I see one of my books in the stores, I still can’t believe that it’s real.  Every book is a thrill. I can waste an entire day staring at a new book cover on Amazon.”

But the life of a writer isn’t an easy one, she said. Very disciplined, she usually starts writing by 7 a.m. and averages about six or seven hours at her computer each day.

She also spends a lot of time doing research for her books, especially with “Meltdown,” the book that has been nominated for a RITA.

The book deals with a woman who only has hours left to rescue her famous grandfather and stop a deadly terrorist attack.

“I had a huge list of questions about weapons, airplanes and nuclear materials, so answering those took a lot of time,” Barrett said. “In general, though, I enjoy doing research because I like to learn new things. I also love to travel, but usually only get in one travel/research trip each year.”

Though her hard work has paid off with much recognition in the world of romance writing, nothing compares to being nominated for a RITA, Barrett said.

“Finaling in the RITA is by far the biggest honor I’ve received,” she said. “The judges are all published novelists, so it means a lot that they respected my work.”

Barrett said she received the phone call about her nomination a little more than a week ago.

“I knew the RWA board members would be calling finalists that day, so I went for a long walk to try to take my mind off it,” she said. “I got the call shortly after I came home. After that, I spent the rest of the day celebrating.”

According to the Romance Writers of America’s website, the nominees were selected from about 1,200 romance novels, with a panel of judges narrowing the competition to about 100 finalists.

A final round of judging will determine the 12 winners, who will be honored during an awards ceremony at RWA’s annual conference in June.

A few years ago, Barrett was standing in a high school classroom teaching Spanish.

This summer, she and her husband will be standing on the red carpet in New York City, where the awards ceremony will take place as part of the Romance Writers of America’s national conference.

If she’s fortunate enough to win, she said, “I’ll put the statue on the shelf above my computer so I can see it as I work.”

For Roberts — who has authored about 200 books — winning a RITA isn’t anything new. By her count, she’s brought home 22 of the golden statuettes.

The first seven years they were known as Golden Medallions.

She also was the first author to be inducted into the Romance Writers of America’s Hall of Fame.

But each honor and each nomination is special, she said.

“It’s absolutely a thrill each and every time I get that call from RWA about being a RITA finalist,” Roberts said.

“This year, it was particularly wonderful,” she noted, “as I’d been so busy with other things, I’d forgotten it was RITA day and the call came while tidying up the house for a party the next day. It felt good to be told I triple-finaled while I was Swiffering dog hair off the floor.”

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