WESTERLY — Watch Hill summer resident Deborah Goodrich Royce, often recognized for her support of the arts and involvement with preservation, cultural and charitable organizations — not to mention her acting career — can now lay claim to another accomplishment: She has just published her first novel.
"Finding Mrs. Ford" is a literary thriller that is already receiving accolades and positive reviews from critics and early readers alike.
Kirkus Reviews called the novel "compelling" and "well-written" with "an effective, twisty plot."
Annie Philbrick, owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic and the Savoy Bookshop and Café in Westerly, called the book "a superb debut."
"I tore right through 'Finding Mrs. Ford,' said Philbrick, who recently completed a six-year term on the American Booksellers board. "She's a pro."
Philbrick said the book, "includes an incredible twist in the middle that will take your breath away."
The book, she added, is written with "self-control and calculating precision," and Goodrich Royce "does an excellent job of keeping us glued to the pages as the characters expose themselves in their intricate lives, and lies."
"Finding Mrs. Ford," centers around Susan Ford, a Watch Hill summer resident "somewhere in the middle years," who is living in "the cocoon of privilege." One morning, after a leisurely stroll through the village with her Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Mrs. Ford returns to her shingled "cottage" with its proscenium arched entrance and lighthouse view, to find two FBI agents waiting for her return. Suddenly, her world is turned upside down.
As Susan Ford deals with her past, readers are taken on a journey out of the idyllic life in Watch Hill and into the gritty world of "a declining Detroit," where we meet Annie, a daring young woman with a reckless but enchanting personality, and a handsome Chaldean Christian from Mosul named Sammy Fakhouri. We are also introduced, by memory only, to Jack Ford, Susan's late husband.
The book will be the focus when Goodrich Royce makes her first public appearance for her new book at a fundraiser for Literacy Volunteers of Washington County on June 30.
The fundraiser, part of the Joyce S. Ahern Speaker Series, will feature the author "in conversation" with journalist Torey Malatia, the CEO and general manager of The Public's Radio, an NPR affiliate.
"Deborah is a strong supporter of literacy endeavors," said Robin E. Springborn, president of the local literacy organization. "We feel very fortunate to take part in the debut of her first novel."
Malatia, who created, along with Ira Glass, the popular radio program "This American Life," said he is looking forward to the event and to asking Goodrich Royce about her craft and about "Finding Mrs. Ford."
The title alone inspires contemplation, he said, and gives an almost "uneasy feeling."
"Why 'Mrs.' and why 'finding?'" he said, "is she missing? The title becomes more and more prophetic."
"Finding Mrs. Ford," he said, has "so many layers of complexity," he added. "It's like a ball of yarn that has to be unraveled."
On a recent spring afternoon, as she sat in a period wing chair in the sitting room of the restored Pendleton-Chapman House at Avondale Farm — one of the many restoration projects in Westerly and elsewhere that she has overseen with her husband, Charles M. "Chuck" Royce, the small cap investment pioneer — Goodrich Royce called her first novel "a contemplation of identity."
"It's an exploration of a woman's identity in two different stages of her life," she added. "One stage when she's young and vulnerable, and the next stage where she's more mature and seemingly more rooted in who she is."
The character of Annie, she said, is sort of a Zelda Fitzgerald figure, dazzling, beguiling and wild. In Susan, Goodrich Royce said, she sees more of herself.
"In the end, I think you put some of yourself into each character," said the author, who calls Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca" one of her favorite books, and "Doctor Zhivago" one of her favorite movies.
Goodrich Royce played the leading role of Silver Kane, sister of the legendary Erica Kane, on the long running ABC soap opera "All My Children," and went on to appear in a number of movies and television shows. She said she took a big risk five years ago when she announced — publicly — that she was writing her first novel.
"I think I embarrassed my dear husband," she said with a slight laugh. "He is very modest and humble."
After making that proclamation in 2014, Goodrich Royce said she began to reorganize her life and priorities.
"I really took a deep dive," she said, carving out some serious writing time and cutting back on her volunteer work and social obligations. That was a challenge for the woman whose charitable work includes serving on the governing boards of New York Botanical Garden, the Greenwich Historical Society, the PRASAD Project, and the advisory boards of the American Film Institute, the Greenwich International Film Festival, the Preservation Society of Newport, and the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach.
She also reconnected with her writing groups, and gave up on the idea of learning how to play bridge.
"Writing a book and learning bridge?" she said with a laugh, "I don't think so."
She also thought about the words of the late actor Gene Wilder, who frequently appeared at the Avon Theatre Film Center, a 1939 landmark in Stamford, Conn., that the Royces helped to restore and reopen.
When he learned about a screenplay she had started but abandoned, Wilder asked her, "Are you a writer or not?"
"Between the writing groups and Gene Wilder," she said, and her youngest daughter growing up and leaving home, she felt ready.
She organized her schedule, developed a writing system, and arranged her writing table — a large round table in an area of the Greenwich, Conn. home, where the Royces spend part of the year. The room is surrounded by windows overlooking the Mianus River.
By the summer of 2015 she had a first draft and by the next year she found an agent who was interested in the "beautiful story with the big surprise."
"I really worked hard on every aspect of the book, on every word," she said.
Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg of Boston and Watch Hill, the author of "Eden," and "The Nine," said that "'Finding Mrs. Ford' is a terrific novel, both for its suspenseful plot and fine prose."
"Local readers will especially enjoy the spot-on descriptions of Watch Hill," Blasberg added.
"Deborah Royce is a gifted writer and storyteller and I was privileged to be an early reader of this work," she added. "I couldn’t be happier to see this novel out in the world.
Mary Carol Kendzia, the executive director of Literacy Volunteers of Washington County called "Finding Mrs. Ford" a "fun and intriguing read."
"It's the the kind of book you don't want to put down," Kendzia said.
Following her first book event for the local literacy group, Goodrich Royce has a number of book signings and receptions scheduled, including one at Ocean House on July 17, one at Savoy Bookshop and Cafe on July 18, another at the Stonington Free Library on July 21, a few in her home state of Michigan, and one at her alma mater, Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, where she graduated summa cum laude in 1980.
"I like this age and stage and feeling more creative" said Goodrich Royce, who is already at work on a second book. "I think now, as a mature woman, I can see how important all the stages have been."
"Our lives as women can be very episodic," she said. Goodrich Royce recently became a grandmother for the fifth time when her daughter's daughter, Annabelle, was born. "We can't leapfrog over stages."
"It is OK to be at the ages we are right now," she said. "All our chapters are coming together to make us who we are."
For more information about the book and about Goodrich Royce's upcoming appearances, visit deborahgoodrichroyce.com