In the new novel Finding Mrs. Ford (Post Hill Press, June 2019), Susan Ford is living a comfortable middle-aged life in the seaside village of Watch Hill, Rhode Island, until the FBI unexpectedly pays her a visit. The agents’ questions spark the unfurling of a mystery, one that slowly—and then quickly—unfolds as the book’s narrative weaves together modern-day scenes with flashbacks to the summer of 1979, when the main character and her best friend spent a season working at a louche discotheque on the edge of Detroit, and a series of events sent their lives spinning in directions they (and the reader) would never expect.
It’s a thriller, yes—an engrossing read. But among its main themes is one familiar to many women: Identity, and how and why it shifts over time. “I think one of the major themes of the book,” Royce says, “apart from the actual plot, is: What is a woman’s identity? Who are we really? Are we different in different settings? Can we reinvent ourselves? If there’s some event that we’re trying to escape, can we?”
Those are questions that the book’s author, Deborah Goodrich Royce, has faced in her own life. Like her main character, Royce grew up near Detroit. Since then she’s been, by turns, a Hollywood actress (her breakout role was as Erica Kane’s scheming sister, Silver, on All My Children), a story editor for a major entertainment company, a preservationist/building restorer, and, now, a novelist. “My life has been very episodic, and I would say that can be true of many women,” says Royce. No surprise, then, that she’s created a complex character whose life can be divided into “before” and “after” on many different levels.
Not to mention, after all that… Why a novel? Why now? “When my youngest child left the house, I got the real estate in my brain back,” Royce says, not entirely joking. It was only once her nest was empty that she was able to make writing a priority in her life. Her screenplay editing role at Miramax had served as a strong education for her (“It really was like some sort of graduate writing program for me,” she says, “getting to work with writers the caliber of which they were hiring and whose work they were buying”), and now she could begin focusing on her own writing.
The book didn’t come together overnight, however. She started writing the novel in the summer of 2014, and finished the first draft almost exactly a year later. It took another year to find an agent, and another two years—and plenty of rejections and revisions, Royce says—before it was purchased by a publishing house. Seeing a novel to fruition is not a quick process. But, as Royce says of taking on any massive endeavor in life, “I don’t think it’s helpful to look at the entirety of what stretches in front of us.”
Encouraging touchpoints along her four-year journey—receiving positive feedback from editors, landing an agent—showed her she should persevere.
It didn’t even start out as a thriller. Royce says she originally wrote a work of literary fiction “with a whopping surprise,” as she characterizes it, and it was her agent who saw what the book was really aiming to be and encouraged significant revisions. “I’ve always loved Hitchcock; that’s the level of thriller I like,” Royce says. “So it was kind of fun to play with it and push it a little bit farther and increasingly farther into a thriller.”
Royce admits to having woven elements of her current life into the book. “Of course I shamelessly draw from the people I know and the places I know,” she says. “My husband, Chuck Royce, is absolutely the model for Jack Ford.” The book mentions a boat Jack has restored called Venus, which exists in real life, named Aphrodite. The very next page sees Mr. Ford buying jewelry for Susan at Betteridge in Greenwich, the town where Royce lives with her husband. Why did she choose to set the story in Watch Hill rather than Greenwich? “I wanted the much more sealed bubble of a summer community,” Royce says. “It was completely opposite to the declining suburban Detroit setting of the book. I loved the contrast of it.”
But the choice also has something to do with the fact that when she began writing the novel, Royce was fresh off an intense restoration of Ocean House, now a luxury hotel in Watch Hill, one of many buildings she and her husband have restored over the years. “When Chuck and I met,” Royce recalls, “one of his courting gambits was to purchase the Avon Theatre” in Stamford, Connecticut. The couple restored the theater and currently run it as an independent art house cinema with carefully considered programming. It’s also where she met the late actor and screenwriter Gene Wilder, who proved an enormously supportive presence as she was writing the book. When we spoke, she was days away from breaking ground on the restoration of another theater called the United, in Westerly, Rhode Island, that will have an even wider array of programming. What many of the restoration projects have in common is restoring not just the buildings but also a sense of community in the towns where they’re located, she says—helping to revitalize the downtown areas by creating anchors in a Main Street setting to draw people in.
She’s having to set future restoration projects aside for now, though, as she embarks on a book tour for Finding Mrs. Ford…and continues working on a second novel called Ruby Falls, also a thriller. “Now that I’ve made my commitment to myself to write,” Royce says, it and her restoration work “are not really compatible activities on a daily basis” since both are so demanding, time-wise.
Ruby Falls is a cave near Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s where we first meet the book’s main character, as a young girl, whose name is also Ruby—and it’s the setting for a formative experience in Ruby’s life. The book finds Ruby again 20 years later, recently married to a man who seems to be harboring some secrets…as Ruby herself is also. “Things get scarier and scarier with her husband,” Royce says, “and she maybe starts to unravel.” You’ll again find elements of Royce’s past in the novel. (For one thing, Ruby is an actress who worked on a soap opera).
And, as with Royce’s first novel, Ruby Falls deals heavily with the idea of identity, a topic that never seems far from Royce’s mind. “I think for many [women], our lives can take us in different directions,” Royce says. “What of us do we bring with us, and what of us do we reinvent? It’s a question that intrigues me.”