Persistence pays off for novelist

Sunday, May 19, 2002

ROCKFORD, Ill. -- Friends of Joyce Lamb are wondering how much of her first novel, "Relative Strangers," is based on their lives. One told the Rockford native that he recognized himself in it.

Lamb was surprised. Parts of him are in the romantic thriller, but not as the character he named.

Two important pieces of Lamb's life are indisputably part of the book: not in the story, but in the 20-year journey of getting it published.

One is this: Lamb was not raised by the sort of parents who squash a child's dreams of a glamorous future by telling her to prepare for something more likely to pay the bills.

When Lamb's parents asked her what she was doing back in the 1980s when she was sitting on the bedroom floor in her pajamas and typing on her father's old Selectric, the 17-year-old told them she was writing a book.

"Good for you," said her mother, Pat. "Go for it," said her father, Joe.

The other trait that flowed through the past two decades is this: Lamb does not give up easily. She took her book with her to Northern Illinois University, and then to newspaper jobs around the country, including one at the Rockford Register Star.

She collected rejection letter after rejection letter. She gave up weekends of "vegging," nights out with friends and untold hours of sleep to write letters in search of an agent and publisher.

Lamb found an agent seven years ago and followed the agent's advice to shape the manuscript into publishable form. She cut it by half, changed its location and updated it. She rewrote and re-edited pages and whole chapters. She met newspaper deadlines during the day and publishing deadlines at night.

Finally, at age 37, she can walk into a major bookstore and see "Relative Strangers" in its bright red-orange jacket, with yellow letters spelling out the name of the author: Joyce Lamb.

"It's a thrill," she said. "It's not about money. It's about: 'At 17 I sat down to write a book, and now I have one in print."'

The romantic suspense novel is based on idea that has intrigued Lamb since she was a child -- mistaken identities. In her story, twin girls separated as toddlers cross paths as adults. One is a jewel thief in big trouble, the other a journalist with questions about her past. When they both end up in Florida, their identical looks lead to confusion and danger.

Lamb doesn't expect the book will make her rich. She got an advance, which she spent promoting the book. She'll get 10 percent of the wholesale cost of each book sold -- 15 percent if she sells 5,000 or more.

She'll probably make a few thousand dollars, which is an insult if it's considered a fair wage for 20 years of work. But to Lamb, it means a lot more than that.

She's drafted a few other books over the years. One is already in her agent's office. If "Relative Strangers" does well, her dream of making a living as a novelist might yet come true.

Lamb says her books will stay in the realm of romantic suspense. If people of more sensitive literary taste don't care for them, too bad.

"Look, I didn't set out to write the Great American Novel," she said.

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