We've always been big fans of Debbie Macomber's works, so it was a special thrill when she invited us to come visit her at her offices. Erin Kodicek, Erin's mom (who is a big Cedar Cove reader), and I drove a few hours through drizzle-garnished forests to the beautiful little oceanside town of Port Orchard, Washington.
Debbie's offices sat above her yarn store and fifty feet from her tearoom, which was popular for lunch even in the soggy shoulder season. After a lovely meal, I sat down with Debbie in her library and asked her about her relationship with her readers, how she got her big publishing break, and what's next.
Amazon Book Review: Which books do readers most often tell you are their favorites?
Debbie Macomber: The Cedar Cove series, I think because it was also a TV series and had so much wide exposure. They’re always excited to hear that I have other series. When the Rose Harbor series came out, I set it inside Cedar Cove because I knew the readers would be disappointed [at the end of Cedar Cove], and I set up a nice even flow so that they could pick up the first Rose Harbor book, The Inn at Rose Harbor.
ABR: You’ve said that you’ve adapted your writing to readers’ responses. Can you tell me some examples?
DM: I read everything that comes into the office. Guest book entries, email, letters… I listen to what the readers have to say. And based on readers’ feedback, we created the cookbooks. Every time I talked about a recipe or food, readers would ask, “Do you have a recipe for that?” I also wrote longer Christmas books—I doubled the word length. And the Cedar Cove series was a result of the feedback. I had written seven books set in Alaska, seven books in Texas, four books in the Dakotas—and even now I get emails asking if I have any more of those books: “I want to read about so-and-so.” And I realized that the readers didn’t want to let go of the characters—and I didn’t either. So I decided to write a series until all the stories were told. And that came to be the Cedar Cove series.
ABR: Do you think you’ll write more Cedar Cove stories?
DM: No. Going back to a series is like dating an old boyfriend. You’re kind of done with that. [Laughs]
ABR: Can you tell me how you got started writing?
DM: I’m dyslexic, and I didn’t learn to read until I was in the fifth grade. I really struggled in school. I was always at the very bottom of my class. It was only until I was ten or eleven that I understood how the sounds linked to the letters and formed words. But I’d always loved books. The first time anyone ever handed me a book, I was four or five years old, in Yakima, [Washington]. My mom took me to the library for story hour, and the library looked like a castle to me. I thought of myself as a princess going into a castle. And my mom said that when the librarian handed me a book, I grabbed hold of it with both hands and put it right next to my heart. From that moment forward, I’d never go down for a nap or go to bed without a book in my hands. I’m that way to this very day. And the librarian who handed me that book was Beverly Cleary.
DM: Yes. While growing up, the only person I ever told about my dream to write was the high school principal. She interviewed each one of us and asked us what we wanted to do. I said, “I’m going to write books,” and I burst into tears. She patted me on the hand, and though she didn’t say it, I felt she was implying, “Oh, Debbie, that’s not for you.” And she sent me home to rethink it.
When I talk about my dream of writing at writers’ conferences, I talk about how when you burn yourself, you throb with pain. But every time I thought about writing books, I throbbed with joy. There would be this happiness, this anticipation, that would come over me. This feeling of “Oh, you need to do that. You really need to tell stories.”
But it’s very easy to push things off. We’d had four babies in five years. And then my cousin got sick, and we knew he wasn’t going to live. It was a catalyst. I told [my husband] Wayne, “I really want to write books.” He said, “I think that’s a good idea.” So we rented a typewriter. We rented a manual one, because we couldn’t afford the fee on an electric one. So I wrote for five years. I wrote four manuscripts all the way through. I was taking $100 a month out of the family budget, for the typewriter, for the correspondence course I was taking, and so on. I used to feel really guilty. I was contributing nothing; I was just taking. But really, I was teaching our children some of the most important lessons of their lives about believing in yourself, about standing up to rejection. And I kept getting rejections and rejections….
There was a really hard time when Wayne was out of work, and he came to me and said, “Honey, I can’t make the car payment this month. I really need you to get a job.” With four kids, soccer, sports, church, Scouts, dancing—all their different activities—there was no way I could keep up with them, work forty hours a week, keep the house…so the writing was going to have to go.
So I went to bed that night, and my heart was so heavy. I couldn't sleep. Wayne woke up at about three or four in the morning and said, “Honey, what’s wrong?” I said, “Well, you know, I think I could have made it as a writer. I do.” And he didn’t say anything for a long time. Then he sat up and he said, “All right, go for it. Go for it! We’ll just do what we have to do.”
Now, it was another two and a half years before I sold my first book, so we really sacrificed to make this dream come true. We all sacrificed. There was no camp for the kids, no family vacations, just so I could be the writer.
I signed up for a workshop at a big writers' conference, and they had two editors who were going to review ten manuscripts, and mine was chosen. I was absolutely convinced this book would sell. Well, the editor didn’t like the book and had everyone laughing at what she called the “infeasibility” of my plot. But that’s where my strength is—plotting. So I went up to her afterward, and she told me to "throw it away." It was a tough time. I didn’t go to bed, I sat up all night, feeling depressed. And then I thought, Well, if there’s ever a time for me to think positive, it is now. I attended a writing workshop where an author said, “Find the home for your book.” That little bit of hope was all it took. So I went home, excited, and I wrote a query letter to a publisher in New York. And then I couldn’t wait for the answer—I couldn’t stand to listen anymore to those ugly voices inside saying, You’re a nice little girl but you’ll never accomplish anything—so I mailed off the manuscript. But when I got home from the post office, the response to my query letter was in my mailbox, saying, “Do not mail us your manuscript.” And I thought, I just cannot do this anymore. I was ready to give up.
And then three weeks later, New York called and they bought the book. If I had waited even a half hour longer, I would never have mailed it.
ABR: What themes do you keep coming back to in your books?
DM: You know, it’s amazing, I haven’t had too many horrible things happen in my life, but a lot of my themes are forgiveness. I find that in a lot of my books.
ABR: I think that sometimes the themes that authors put forward in their books are something that they are very good at themselves. Not something that they need from other people, but something that they find important to do.
DM: Well, I’m trying to expand my themes beyond forgiveness, but there’s always some form of forgiveness, especially in reconciliation. A Girl’s Guide to Moving On is about two women who are divorcing. I based it on the Book of Ruth from the Bible—they are mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. They have new lives, but they have to let go of the past. It underlines everything.
ABR: I love how complex your books are. I love how A Girl’s Guide to Moving On interwove their backstories with their future. They couldn’t cut off their past—they had to come to grips with it and find closure.
DM: Oh, thank you. I loved writing that book. I had surgery on my foot last year, and I was thirteen weeks immobile. I wrote the book during that time. There were no interruptions; I didn’t even go out of the house. It was like a writing frenzy. I couldn’t wait to get to the computer. I think I wrote it in four weeks.
ABR: How often does that happen?
DM: It’s not uncommon, but it’s not common either. I can remember when I was writing one of the mercenary books years ago— I swim in the mornings, and I literally hit the pool wall, I was so deep in thinking about the story. There are certain books that flow so naturally, I can’t wait to get to them. And there are some that I struggle with.
ABR: What’s next?
DM: The next book that’s coming out is Twelve Days of Christmas. I was looking for something different to do, and I came up with the idea of doing an experiment in kindness. He isn’t a grouch; he just isn’t a morning person. She’s chirpy. They live in the same apartment. She complains to her friend, who says, “Why don’t you just kill him? Get him out of your life?” She says, “Kill him?!” And her friend says, “Yes! Kill him…with kindness.” So she does a twelve-day experiment of killing him with kindness. It was fun to write.
Before we end the interview, is there anything else you want to say?
DM: I want to say how impressed I am with the changes in the publishing world, and it all came about with Kindle. It was like a revolution, like what happened in the music world. It happened in the reading world, and it has expanded and broadened my own reading experiences. That has introduced me to a lot of authors who have amazing talents, and I’m grateful for that. Amy Harmon—she’s not with a publisher—but she is so talented, oh my goodness. I love her book Making Faces. There are so many authors to discover.
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Thank you to Debbie Macomber, her daughter Adele, and everyone in Debbie’s office who gave us such a warm welcome and made us feel at home during our visit to Port Orchard. I'm looking forward to Sweet Tomorrows, Debbie's next Rose Harbor novel. --Adrian
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