Love Language

Brenda Novak knows a fine romance when she writes one. As the Auburn-based best-selling novelist gets set to release her newest love story and embark on a cross-country Airstream book tour, she talks about her own happily ever after, her days slinging books at the State Fair and living the California dream.
An illustration of Brenda Novak reading in front of an Airstream
Illustration by Matt K. Shrugg

Brenda Novak’s 75th novel, The Seaside Library, due out on April 11, is lovingly dedicated to one of her fans—a woman named Kathy—singled out from among the 26,000 members of Novak’s Facebook book club for “making everyone’s day just a little brighter” with her active participation. For a devotee of Novak’s brand of gritty-yet-swoony chick lit, that’s doubtless a bit like being pulled up onto the stage to dance with Bruce Springsteen.

Novak’s knack for fan service is legendarily heartfelt. Her followers feel they know her because she interacts with them on a daily basis, bestowing encouraging comments along with heart and prayer-hand emojis. Then there’s the glossy print magazine, Reading with Brenda Novak, which you can thumb through while sipping coffee out of a Brenda Novak wine tumbler, wearing a Brenda Novak charm bracelet, sitting on a Brenda Novak beach blanket that’s a replica of the one on the cover of Summer on the Island. You can even go to sleep on a pillowcase that says, “Shh… I’m reading a Brenda Novak.”

Brenda Novak Author Photo

“If you look at any genre—mystery, thriller—they all have a formula,” says Brenda Novak. “With romance, it’s not about whether they’re going to get together—of course they’re going to get together! It’s the journey.” (Portrait by Rudy Meyers Photography, courtesy of Brenda Novak)

To spread the word about The Seaside Library (a picturesque seaside resort mystery with more smoldering looks than sweaty skin between the covers), Novak, 58, will be heading out on a cross-country tour in the “Bookstream”—a 1963 Airstream that is mid-renovation in a barn in Newcastle, just a short jaunt from her home in Auburn, when she gives me a sneak peek one January morning.

“It’s going to be a cute little traveling bookstore,” Novak says, with a sweeping gesture. “It’ll have my frontlist and backlist, and signed copies of books by other authors.” That backlist includes Novak’s novel Watch Me, which—small world alert—appeared on the same The New York Times best-sellers list in 2008 as Dear John by the Fair Oaks-raised Nicholas Sparks. And those other authors include Catherine Coulter, who is among the fellow A-list genre masters joining Novak for intimate sit-downs with fans at various stops on her tour, like Susan Elizabeth Phillips in San Diego, Janet Evanovich in North Carolina, Nora Roberts in Maryland and J.A. Jance near Seattle.

“This is a community of people that we’ve grown to love and know and that are so supportive not only of us, but of each other,” Novak says of romance readers. Both she and they are restless, having been cooped up for so long thanks to Covid, and this stylish aluminum bubble will let her relax and get up close and personal far better than any conventional series of bookstore events.

She turns to her Airstream renovator, Michael Sypolt of Baxleigh & Company. “Michael, have you thought of adding a teeny plaque here to show that it is one of yours, like an author or artist signing their work?” she asks. Being Brenda Novak takes a village and she wants everyone in it to get credit. 

Today, her slim, athletic form (she’s a ringer at pickleball) is clad head to toe in smart denim, her blonde bob sleek and bouncy despite the stormy weather outside. Her personality is bouncy too, yet wryly knowing. In a sitcom of her life, she might be played by Anna Faris or Swoosie Kurtz. It’s easy to see why 26,000 book clubbers want to be friends with her. I know I do. “[The Bookstream] will feature a tiny coffee shop,” she says, “and my hubby will be serving as barista.” That would be Ted Novak, her spouse of nearly 39 years who doubles as her primary sounding board. “When I write a new book, I read the whole thing to Ted aloud while he drives us around, because that keeps him focused. We just did it last weekend. We were gone for two days, down to the Delta.” 

The Delta is where one of her local heroines—Skye Kellerman of the Sacramento-set Last Stand series—lives. Skye is an assault-survivor-turned-firearms-instructor, with a scar that makes her pretty face more interesting. Phoenix, the protagonist of This Heart of Mine, No. 8 of the Whiskey Creek series—set in a fictional Gold Country town—has a scar on her face too, from a prison razor-blade fight (ah, but was she wrongly convicted?). There are no princesses or heiresses in Novak-land. A Novak damsel in distress always unties herself from the train tracks, and the dreamy men are the ones being emotionally rescued.

The cover of The Seaside Library by Brenda Novak, showing a woman laying on a beach, reading a book

Courtesy of Mira Books

2021’s The Bookstore on the Beach was named one of Apple’s Books of the Month and dubbed “an escapist treat with emotional heft,” a description that holds true for The Seaside Library. Novak’s latest starts with a pact among a trio of childhood friends to provide an alibi when one of them is accused of murder. Did he or did he not commit the crime? And which one of these fetching childhood friends, now grown women, will he end up with? It’s a hot love triangle with the innocent charm of Dawson’s Creek and a mystery with the edgy undertones of Big Little Lies, and a cast of supporting characters who routinely steal the show—let’s just say that we all know and despise a Melanie, and here we get to love to hate her and cheer when she inevitably loses the guy. The page-turner is an exquisite and utterly guilt-free pleasure. 

“I think romance is unjustly maligned,” Novak says. “If you look at any genre—mystery, thriller—they all have a formula. It’s about making sure readers get that payoff. With romance, it’s not about whether they’re going to get together—of course they’re going to get together! It’s the journey.” 

Novak’s own romantic journey kicked into high gear when she was still Brenda Anderson. During the summer after her sophomore year at Brigham Young University, the Utah native ditched her full-ride scholarship. “I was the quintessential good girl who never colored outside the lines. Then along came Ted,” she says, referring to her then boyfriend and husband-to-be. “He was like, ‘We’re not going [back] to college, babe, we’re heading to California!’ ” The couple sold insulation door to door, got married and bought their first house in Citrus Heights in 1985 when she was only 20, and a year later had the first of five children—three girls and two boys.

And that might have been the couple’s HEA (that’s Happily Ever After in romance lingo) if not for a dramatic turn of events: Novak caught her children’s babysitter drugging them with cold medicine so that they’d sleep all day. “I thought she loved them!” Novak exclaims, the indignation and incredulity still fresh. “She’d come over for holidays, she’d take them to church. I had no idea.” Novak immediately quit her job as a loan officer to stay home with the kids, but then—plot twist!—Ted’s speculative real estate venture crashed.

“The whole thing was just sailing down the river,” she says. “We lost our home and our cars, everything. I was like, ‘I’ve got to do something. What can I do from home? Well, I can write a book.’ It’s a good thing I didn’t know how hard it was to get published. I just went for it.”

She spent five years learning how to write, during which time she had two more children and weathered a bankruptcy. Then in the late ’90s, two of her manuscripts were named finalists for the Romance Writers of America’s Golden Heart Award, celebrating the best unpublished works. The recognition led to an offer from HarperCollins for an advance of $5,000. (Since then, the RWA has nominated Novak’s titles for the annual Rita Award, which honors that year’s best romance novel—the genre’s equivalent of a best picture Oscar—a total of eight times.)

“It wasn’t going to do much to support a family of five kids,” Novak says of the book advance for her first novel, Of Noble Birth. “So that’s why it was important to become prolific.” And that’s exactly what she became, averaging three books a year ever since. “I would sit down and the whole day would go by. Ted would say, ‘Have you eaten? Have you gone to the bathroom?’ ”

“We’d meet once a week and I’d have three pages [done] and she’d have three chapters,” adds fellow best-selling local author Theresa Ragan (aka T.R. Ragan), laughing. “Once she got going [as a writer], she never looked back.”

Novak began building her audience signing books each year at a booth at the California State Fair, while Ted carried a supply of books in the trunk of his car everywhere he went, pressing copies into the hands of everyone he met. When The Sacramento Bee ran a feature on her in 2009, “it was like becoming a rock star,” she says.

Over a decade later, the two-month, 32-stop Bookstream tour will kick off on April 6 with a pre-release shindig and book signing at the Blue Goose in Loomis before carrying on cross-country. Then it’s back home to work on yet another novel, because Novak has never missed a beat—or a deadline. Inspired by her vehicular adventure, who knows, maybe that book will turn out to be a road trip romance. Either way, as Novak noted earlier, it’s about the journey, not the destination. So in the meantime, she’ll just sit back and enjoy the sweet ride.

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