DON GONYEA, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.
Go to your nearest paperback book rack and odds are you'll see two or three or four or, well, a lot of books by Debbie Macomber, an author The Sacramento Bee has dubbed the reigning queen of women's fiction. Macomber has sold 170 million books in print. The newest, "Rose Harbor in Bloom," has just been released.
Her publisher, Random House, celebrated her selling power this past week with a fan retreat at the Gaylord Opryland Resort in Nashville where 400 women gathered for a weekend of tea, knitting and literary fellowship. NPR's Petra Mayer reports.
PETRA MAYER, BYLINE: These women came from everywhere: Alabama, Missouri, Ohio, as far away as Vermont and from right here in Nashville, hundreds of them mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. And they were ready to party.
DEBBIE SUMMERS: Well, I have on my head what is called a fascinator, and my earrings are a teapot on one side and a cup on the other.
MAYER: That's Debbie Summers, who came from California with her partners in crime, Barbara Cook, Janet Howland and Millie Thomas. They're all festooned with tea-related accessories because tea features prominently in Macomber's books. Every Monday, they have dinner and a movie and swap their books around. Millie says they love the familiar feel of the stories.
MILLIE THOMAS: They remind us of people we know that could live next door. The man is always some doofus who doesn't realize he's in love until it's too late.
MAYER: Later that night, there was a sock hop featuring, what else, an Elvis impersonator.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Where's Miss Debbie at?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Right here.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Right here.
MAYER: And there were a lot of costumed bobby soxers on the dance floor. But when I ran into Miss Millie in the ladies' room, she showed off her original poodle skirt, the same one she'd worn as a girl.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN#1: (Singing) Love me tender, love me sweet...
MAYER: Out in the hallway, Jeannie Simerly was knitting with her friends who've all driven from the other side of the state. This is her first big outing after a serious illness.
JEANNIE SIMERLY: Past three years, I've been really sick. And I always can reach for a Debbie Macomber book, and it makes you kind of forget your illness.
ROSEMARIE SHIELDS: She writes about things that we're interested in: family and food and knitting, and it's all here this weekend.
MAYER: That's Jeannie's friend, Rosemarie Shields. Both women say they feel a personal connection to Macomber. In fact, everyone here this weekend seems to feel that way. They all refer to Debbie by her first name. They know her husband Wayne and her underwear-stealing dog Bogie and her children and grandchildren. And Macomber loves them right back. She signs books, she compares recipes, and she poses cheerfully for endless pictures.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: And actually, I'm going to stand because I look much thinner.
MAYER: Almost everyone I met this weekend said I just missed Debbie. She'd only just stopped by to chat.
DEBBIE MACOMBER: I think that's exactly what an artist does. They want you to feel that connection.
MAYER: Macomber tells me she wants to be a blessing to her readers.
MACOMBER: To help someone who's having a hard time going through cancer to be able to escape in a good story and forget their problems.
MAYER: Though my tastes run more toward the bodice-ripper, I got ready for the retreat by reading several of Macomber's books, and that is exactly what I found: gentle, friendly, comforting reads that function almost like self-help manuals in fictional form. No matter your troubles, you can forget them and follow along with Macomber's characters as they battle their demons on the road to love and fulfillment. And for some readers, the books really do affect their lives.
MARCIA BANAS: My name's Marcia Banas, like marshmallow bananas. I got a catchy name.
MAYER: Banas says reading Debbie Macomber helped her reconnect with an uncle who'd been diagnosed with cancer.
BANAS: And I have lots of good memories of him. And I called him and told him I loved him and how much I remembered that and how much I appreciated it. And he thanked me. He did not know that.
MAYER: But though Macomber sells millions, it's mostly through word of mouth. You won't find her in The New York Review of Books. Instead, women like Marcia Banas devour the books and then share them with friends and family, which is why Macomber's publisher Random House thought a weekend-long party might be a good way to attract some mainstream media attention. Random House publicity director Theresa Zoro.
THERESA ZORO: For certain authors who have large fan bases and write certain kinds of books, maybe books that tend to be a bit more commercial, the review coverage or some of the space in traditional media isn't always there. And so we've created these opportunities.
MAYER: This weekend's Debbie Macomber retreat is the first of its kind, but Zoro says Random House is planning several more with other authors. And while they haven't decided yet who'll feature next, fans of women's fiction in general might want to start saving up. It's sure to be a blast. And if you don't believe me, listen to Jeannie Simerly.
SIMERLY: We feel like we have got our money's worth.
MAYER: Petra Mayer, NPR News.