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Meet Author Debbie Macomber, Queen of the Holiday Romance Genre

The best-selling writer is beloved for her heartwarming, wholesome love stories

The Christmas Spirit
Ballantine Books / Deborah Feingold

Evergreen trees and homes bedecked in red, green and gold, eggnog, gingerbread houses, wonderfully ugly sweaters, festive office parties, romantic Hallmark Channel movies. Another harbinger of the holiday season for many? The annual Christmas novel from author Debbie Macomber.

The best-selling author, 74, publishes two books a year, including a holiday-themed tale every fall. This year’s, The Christmas Spirit, is a heartwarming charmer focused on two longtime friends, Steve and Hank — an earnest pastor and a free-spirited bartender. Each is convinced that the other’s job is far easier, and they decide to trade places in the hectic midst of the holiday season.

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Like so many (if not all) of Macomber’s books, it’s about the wonderful and unexpected things that can happen when you dare to open your heart. And it’s probably no spoiler to note that each character finds love in the end.  

“I want to give my readers a story that will amuse them” during what can be a stressful time of year, Macomber says in a phone interview with AARP from her home on Puget Sound in Port Orchard, Washington. “They can put away all the concerns about getting the gifts wrapped, the Christmas cards mailed and the decorations up, and just sit down, read a book and relax.” 

A beloved writer

One of the most popular voices in romance and contemporary women’s fiction, Macomber has sold about 200 million copies of her more than 150 books, which include romantic novels (several of which have been turned into Hallmark Channel movies), inspirational nonfiction and even the occasional cookbook (readers had asked her about recipes mentioned in her stories). She is the second overall best-selling romance author, behind Nora Roberts, considering sales since 2004.   

Her romances are hardly 50 Shades of Grey — don’t expect the kind of hot sex scenes you’d find in E.L. James’ steamy series or even a Colleen Hoover novel — that’s one reason why her readers love them. “They’re clean books,” explains Eleanore Ralph, 64, a Macomber fan in Monroe Township, New Jersey. “I don’t have anything against books that can be racy, but sometimes you just want a good, satisfying story. There’s something comforting about hers.”

Readers can relate to the everyday challenges her characters face, according to Shauna Summers, Macomber’s editor. “She captures family, relationships and home and community in a way that is universally relatable,” Summers says. “It’s a theme we see in fan letters: ‘I went through a terrible divorce’ or ‘I lost my husband’ or whatever the struggle may be.”  

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A dream fulfilled

Macomber grew up in Yakima, Washington, dreaming about becoming a writer, but “that dream was so fragile,” she says. She struggled to keep up in her classes, made challenging due to her dyslexia, and recalls a humbling moment in high school: “Each one of us, before we graduated, was asked, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’ It was the first time that I ever said out loud, ‘I’m going to write books.’ I’ll never forget the sadness that came over my principal’s face. She didn’t say the words, but what she implied was, ‘You need to think about doing something in level with your intelligence, Debbie.’ ”

Macomber married at 19 and soon had a houseful of kids. Years later, in her 30s, she started writing in earnest, publishing her first novel, Starlight, in 1983. Her next goal was to hit the bestseller list. To that end, she lingered at bookstores, carefully perusing books, trying to figure out what made them such irresistible reads. Needless to say, she cracked the code.

“Debbie is so humble, and it’s easy to think her success came from being at the right place at the right time,” says Adele LaCombe, Macomber’s daughter and CEO of Debbie Macomber Inc. “Yet to know her and be around her is to witness her discipline, tenacity, determination and how she continually improves her skills over time. … During COVID, she wrote from home for the first half of the day, and then spent every afternoon taking MasterClasses [online classes] for fun. Not just a few, she took over 100 MasterClasses, and you can expect this knowledge to help inform her fiction.” 

Despite her staggering success, Macomber has managed to maintain her small-town sensibility. A devout Christian with 13 grandchildren, she relaxes by digging for clams along the coastline and tending to her garden. She says she’s considering slowing down her writing pace a bit — it can be grueling keeping up with her strict publishing deadlines ­— and sometimes wonders about her legacy.

She has a wall in her home covered with a collection of framed autographs from some of her favorite authors — writers who have stood the test of time, such as Helen Keller, Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Bernard Shaw and Harper Lee. “Every time I walk up those stairs,” Macomber says, “I am reminded of the power of story and my responsibility as an author to create stories that are going to linger.”

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Where to dive in

If you’ve never read a Debbie Macomber novel, the author suggests starting with one of her personal favorites, which include:

Borrowed Dreams (1985). “This is an early book that I really love,” Macomber says. “It’s a tender story.” Carly Grieves journeys to the wilds of Alaska looking for fresh start. She finds that and more — a brawny bush pilot named Brand St. Clair.  

A Walk Along the Beach (2020). After the death of their mother, Willa Lakey has always been there for her younger sister, Harper — raising her when their mother died and nursing her through a serious illness. When Harper announces her plan to climb to the top of Mount Rainier, she encourages a reluctant Willa to take a risk of her own: opening herself up to love.

Between Friends (2001). Written as a scrapbook that’s filled with letters and journal entries, the story traces the lives of two women, friends whose paths diverge as the decades pass: One marries young and struggles with the demands of motherhood and a strained marriage, the other goes off to college and becomes an attorney in New York City. Through it all, they maintain their unbreakable bond.