Kimberla Lawson Roby is just like us: She can’t stay out of Target, loves herself some Luther, and adores making pit stops at the Cheesecake Factory. When we see her pretty chocolate face smiling out at us from her books, we feel as if we know her. And the laid-back midwesterner wouldn’t have it any other way.

“When I go on my book tours and meet my readers, I always see myself,” says Roby, 40. “We experience the same relationship struggles, childhood secrets, problems at work.” Perhaps that’s why we see ourselves in sometimes hilarious detail in the author’s spot-on portrayals of our lives. Lately these tales have Roby occupying the highest-priced literary real estate in the world, the New York Times Best Sellers List: Last year, through strong word of mouth, her seventh novel, The Best-Kept Secret, peaked at number 16 on the list. And her legion of fans will likely take Changing Faces (William Morrow, $23.95), in stores now, even higher.

In this juicy saga of sister-friendship with all its twists and turns, Roby focuses on three Chicagoans with enough baggage for Greyhound. There’s Whitney, a customer-service manager who’s an emotional eater with 100 extra pounds munching away at her self-confidence. Then there’s Taylor, an up-and-coming attorney who ignores symptoms of a problem “down there” because of paralyzing fear of a hysterectomy. And Charisse, the Scripture-quoting surgical nurse who’s holier than everybody but has a past shocking enough to put Jezebel to shame. As with so much of the Rockford, Illinois, author’s storytelling, this trio’s tale isn’t simply about the business of book writing; it’s personal. Whitney’s weight struggles, for example, mirror the author’s: “The character came alive to me before I began to take my weight problems seriously. As I was writing about how Whitney was eating six glazed doughnuts at a time, I knew that our eating habits were the same.” Roby—who stands five feet nine without her signature black boots—gained more than 30 pounds during the three years she cared for her beloved mother, who died in late 2001. Today, with the help of a weight-loss program, she’s a comfortable size 8, though she does indulge in the occasional slice of German chocolate cheesecake when she hits the road with her husband to meet and greet fans at Black Expos, book signings, book-club meetings and luncheons.

While on tour for her latest release, the down-to-earth author will no doubt glean inspiration from sisters and brothers for A Rock and a Hard Place, her ninth novel, due out early next year. “I know who my characters are even before I begin writing about them,” she laughs. “But getting out with the readers, I’m always taken in new and surprising directions.” And you know we’ll really be enjoying that ride, too.

Photo Credit: Jason Imber
Photo Credit: Bill Boyd