Deborah Goodrich Royce has led a life of very distinct chapters, the latest of which finds her writing identity thrillers. The former film and All My Children actress published her first book, Finding Mrs. Ford, in 2019, and her latest, Reef Road, hit the shelves in January. Her turn from television and acting to writing still affords her the chance to slip into a character, finding pieces of herself to infuse into the cast. “It’s what actors do,” she says. “You are always looking for motivation.” Reef Road examines conferred trauma—trauma that is not our own, but still has a profound effect on our lives.
There is a belief that “life is a circle.” From acting career to lauded author, where did that “career circle” begin?
When I first came to New York, it was to audition for a musical on Broadway. In college, I danced in a movie and a choreographer invited me to New York to audition. The first threshold I crossed in New York City was that of the Minskoff Theater at 1515 Broadway. Let me say that I was not cast in that project. For all the young people out there, take heart. Forty years later, my publisher took a huge triple electronic billboard in Times Square (one that only the huge bestselling authors have) but because it was Covid it was suddenly affordable . . . My girlfriends and I drove into New York but because of Covid, everything was closed; Broadway, all the restaurants, everything… We were standing there like idiots looking around and we saw three billboards above the door of the Minskoff Theater at 1515 Broadway. It was an extraordinarily full circle. And I felt like if a little angel had said to me 40 years before, “Listen, darling, this isn’t going to work out, but don’t worry. Just keep working and stick around for a long while and your name and face will be up here, but in a different way,” I never ever would have believed it.
You have had a multifaceted career and a rich, complex life. I want to start at the beginning, how many brothers and sisters do you have?
That is seemingly straightforward but it is a complicated question. My mother was my father’s third wife, and my parents lost a son after I was born, in infancy. When I was about 11 or 12, I was playing outside with my cousin Vincent. I must have done something particularly annoying because he said to me, “You have a brother you don’t know about”. And I said, “I do not.” He said, “Yes you do.” It turned out my dad had a son from his first marriage. When his ex-wife and son moved, they decided not to keep in contact. My parents, in the grand old tradition, decided to say nothing, as people did in those days. But life comes in a full circle, which may be the theme of the day. I am very close to my nephew and two nieces who are slightly older than I am by a few years. Whatever complications existed between our parents are not ours, which is very heartening and beautiful.
Forgiveness is a theme of yours. As we age, the more I realize “the circle” has an element of karma as well.
Yes. I think we pick other souls, and we are working out complex heavy-duty issues, like that family drama. The strange healing that comes along is amazing.
Did your mother and father remain married?
They did. My father died when I was 19.
And did your mother ever remarry?
No. For more than 20 years she was with a man I really liked and thought of as a father-type figure, but she did not remarry.
You ostensibly grew up as an only child.
Exactly, for all intents and purposes, I had the experience of an only child, the good and the bad. An only child can be a lonely existence. I watch siblings very closely to see how they interact. I have two daughters and four stepchildren. I always feel a bit like Margaret Mead in a strange culture. I don’t fully understand the comfort level of siblings, the risks they can take with each other, and the fights they can have. Stuff like that makes me nervous.
You and your first husband lived in Paris for a while. What was that all about?
As a young person, I loved the French language. I started taking French as soon as I could in school.
Likewise, I love the French language because of the Madeline books . . .
That is funny because my husband and I have a hotel in Watch Hill called the Ocean House where we have the largest collection of Ludwig Bemelmans’s illustrations, including many original Madeline drawings. A curator recently rehung all the illustrations and we are to reopen soon. Before, we had a lot of the art scattered around the hotel and now the display is much more concentrated in a gallery.
You love languages, yet you pivoted to become an actress?
Yes. I was attracted to French, and then in high school, I took Italian at a local community college. By the time I entered regular college, I was ahead of the curve with French and Italian, which I continued. I did part of my junior study in Paris at a small school. With all of that in my background, I took a crazy tangent to be an actress. When I met my first husband, he was an American who had grown up in Paris. We both felt so lonely being there so young. But returning to Paris as young marrieds was different. I felt more in a community which was wonderful.
What was he doing at the time?
He was in the film business, and I was in between jobs. He ended up working for many years for Julia Roberts. I was a little bit disenchanted with the acting world. We moved to Paris so he could help his mother (my mother-in-law) in her bilingual Montessori preschools. In the weird twists and turns of life’s circles of life, I met a German woman at a dinner party called Evie Fullenbach who was an executive at a French film studio that was putting money into English language films, both British and American. Coincidentally, they needed English native speakers as readers. All studios have readers on the payroll, which is a freelance job. They hire you script by script and you read it. You synopsize the content for the studio heads, so they don’t have to read each script. You do one page of commentary, about what works or doesn’t with a storyline; the structure, characters, and all of that. That was my focus while in Paris in the nineties.
What brought you stateside?
We had a friendship of several years with Julia Roberts, who came to visit us. She was about to sign a deal at Disney, and she hired Pliny, my first husband, as her producing partner. So, we moved back to the States.
You were at her wedding; you were the bridesmaid?
I was in two of her weddings. I was at her wedding that didn’t happen to Keifer Sutherland. That was a more formalized bridesmaid process with the dresses and the planning and the shower. We even did the bachelorette trip to the Canyon Ranch before the whole thing blew up. I was also at her wedding to Lyle Lovett, which was more of a last-minute thing. We packed whatever we had and met in Indiana because he was doing a concert there.
Are you and she still in touch?
No. Pliny worked with Julia for seven years. It is always hard to work with friends. That kind of relationship is a strained relationship because everybody wants something, right? We stayed in touch for a while. Pliny and I broke up right when she and Benjamin Bratt broke up. My life changed. Her life changed. Female friendship is something I want to write about because I think it is a very important relationship in our lives. Making a friend is as magical as falling in love. People might computer date you with any one of 10 people in a room, but oddly you become friends with number 11, the one that no one would ever have thought.
Celebrity is hard. I don’t think anyone truly understands the toll it takes on both the celebrity and those around it.
I always thought it would be easier for someone to be board into celebrity like Prince William and Harry than it would be for someone to acquire it later. Julia became a star of a magnitude that I have never seen. It was really like the old Hollywood days, with film stars of the studio era. It was stupendous, the scale was unimaginable, and I think it would be hard for anyone to handle. Conversely, maybe people who are raised with that level of celebrity handle it better. But that may not be true and perhaps it is playing out a little differently. To continue that theme, I think celebrity’s partner, which is a certain kind of power, is difficult to manage.
Tell me about your husband Chuck.
Chuck is an interesting person and a very successful man. I have watched how he has handled that success. Because it came from years of hard work and building what he created over a long period of time, he handles it quite beautifully. I think many people want things from him, but he is very graceful in how he handles it. He always gives young people time.
Time is the most important thing you have.
Yes, he always does. My first marriage broke up precipitously; it was unforeseen by me, and it was shattering. I don’t really have another word for it other than it was really one of the darkest periods in my life. Bizarrely not very long after that, I met Chuck. I was not looking for a relationship, and he did a very interesting thing. He spent the better part of two years talking to me about my first husband. What were his dreams? Where would you have seen him succeeding more? What was his family of origin? It was a very compassionate look at what went wrong.
Do you think in so doing, Chuck was giving you a lesson on what not to do in the future?
Perhaps, but he was also teaching me to forgive my first husband. A marriage is like writing a book, a story that you create together, that the two of you come together because you believe in something and you continue to recreate this thing you believe in. Suddenly, amid believing in something, the other person says, “Sorry, I’m checking out,” and it is dismaying and painful and can be anger making. A part of me was very angry and in that period of two years, I came to completely understand, forgive, and realize that it wasn’t about me or our family, it was more unresolved things of his own.
Did you fall in love with Chuck over those two years? Or was that two years of healing and then you fell in love?
Boy, that’s a profound question. I think it was unfolding simultaneously. I was not looking for love. I was really a broken bird and it happened over that two-year period.
Is he your best friend?
In many ways, yes, but not always . . . I am so grateful to have raised children with him. When I met Chuck, my girls were only nine and 12. I don’t think I could have done the rest of the child-rearing without him. The teenage years were hard. Girls are complicated. I adure them beyond words. But he was really a partner in that, in an incredible way. My stepchildren are a little bit older. I have one stepdaughter who’s just a couple of years older than my oldest, but he has three who then jump a decade or more. Ours has been a companionship and a partnership. I do talk to him about almost everything. I also love my female friends, and I think they are important relationships.
Durable friendships or the ones we “end up with” are not always the ones that we necessarily expect. Why is that?
I think there are soul connections. Friendships can end sometimes because they have simply run their course.
The difficulty with raising young women is . . . fill in the blanks?
They feel so deeply.
The greatness of raising young women is . . . fill in the blank?
They feel so deeply. It’s a double-edged sword.
Do you think with time young women’s depth of feeling is muted?
Certainly, with myself, yes, with age everything softens and evens out. There is less hysteria over the years.
You have acted in a number of soap operas and films. What was your favorite and why? Just one.
Only one possible selection? I suppose the process of making a film called April Fool’s Day up in British Columbia was more fun than any other film. It was an ensemble film with a group of actors I liked enormously, including an actor name called Clayton Rhoner. My first two films were with Clayton, and I remember thinking I hope I don’t do every film with Clayton, as much as I like him. It was a very intelligent tongue-in-cheek horror film that had a twist ending that became the precursor of the Scream franchise, which happened in the next decade. The director, Fred Walton, was so smart and very responsive to the actors. He would come in the next day having changed dialogue based on things he heard us say or on our relationships that were unfolding. It was a fabulous experience.
What were you most proud of in your acting career?
Comeda, because comedy is hard. I am always proud when I do something funny. I did one episode of a TV show with Julia Louis Dreyfuss called Day by Day. This was before she did Seinfeld, and it was hilarious. The premise was going back to a high school reunion 10 years later. Because she did not have a date, she brought some younger kids. I was her rival, and it was hilarious because it was a choreographed dance competition between the two couples. I thought it worked very well. It was funny.
You acted in every modularity and now have written your third book? What was the first book you authored?
The first was Finding Mrs. Ford.
Reuters, Forbes, I’ve read the list of critical acclaim. It was very well received. Why?
I like to call my books identity thrillers, not a genre. Thrillers are a very broad category because the storyline can go from international spy thrillers to police procedurals to locked room mysteries like Agatha Christie. I didn’t even set out to write thrillers when I wrote Finding Mrs. Ford. A representative with CAA, a huge agency, fell in love with the draft and asked me to bring it more into the realm of thrillers. It took some work and some puzzle pieces to make it more complicated with twists and turns. In any kind of story I write, I begin by examining the secrets that people keep. I think if you live long enough on this planet, you meet enough people, you realize everybody has a secret. Lots of secrets. Most of our secrets are quite benign. I have had the experience in real life of meeting people and later it comes out they are hiding something tremendous. I am blown away by the magnitude of secrets, the how and the why intrigues me. I am also a huge fan of Alfred Hitchcock’s body of work; he was a complete genius. His subtle, sophisticated nuances, and the unfolding of his puzzles, are what I most enjoy. With Finding Mrs. Ford, there were a few things I wanted to examine. The storyline is of a woman in her mid-fifties whose dark past catches up with her. I wanted to examine at a more macro level the idea of social climbing. How much can a person reinvent him or herself ? I begin the book with the past arriving at her doorstep, when the FBI comes, to a beautiful house, asking the protagonist about an Iraqi, Caldian man. I began the book in August of 2014, a moment in time when Isis was first in the news. They were rampaging across the north of Iraq where the Caldians originated. Caldians are Iraqi Catholics, not Eastern Orthodox. Imagine this moment when the FBI comes to her door, and they ask her about a man named Sammy Falcori, who is an Iraqi Caldian. When she claims that she doesn’t know him, they respond, “He just took a plane from Baghdad to Boston, and we picked him up in a car on his way to your house.” From the first chapter, the reader knows she is lying. From the onset, there is a lot of information laid out for you, but there is also so much that you don’t know.
What is your writing process? Do you build a skeleton and then put the flesh on it or is your writing a stream of consciousness?
I do a little of both. I had an idea. I wanted to explore an idea of a secret from the past and the interplay with female friendship. When you go back to her youth, which is in Detroit, a college student meets this glamorous, gorgeous, risk-taking young woman who convinces her to make a very bad life choice; to take a job at a very sketchy disco populated by men from Iraq, which is the setup. I wanted to explore the friendship between two girls and deconstruct why the sensible one follows the wild one down a risky path. After I complete timelines, I start writing, and then I go back and forth. Sometimes the writing changes the timeline.
Do elements of your real-life slip into the stories?
Are there any characters that are you?
In a weird way, I think every character is me. Like the actress I was, I try to slip into each character and find what it is about that character that is real to me. Where I can, I inject real feelings and real thoughts into a character that is made up. It is what actors do. You are always looking for motivation.
Your second book, Ruby Falls, has an interesting genesis. I have not read as many critical acclaims of your second book as I did the first. Why?
Ruby Falls is a Victorian gothic genre and I don’t think it was as timely as the other one involving the Middle East. In Ruby Falls a young and vulnerable woman in Europe meets a tall and handsome stranger that she marries without knowing him. As he changes, you start to question his intentions and if he is an honorable person. The idea of Ruby Falls began while I was still working on Finding Mrs. Ford, but it wasn’t sold yet. It was a finished book but was still in this weird process. The first two chapters of Ruby Falls completely downloaded in my head, something that had never happened before. The storyline begins with a little girl by the name of Ruby who goes with her father to Ruby Falls Cave, which is near Chattanooga, Tennessee. They turn off the lights and she can hear this waterfall, but she can’t tell where it is in proximity to her person. She is scared witless when her father lets go of her hand and she is abandoned in this cave by her father, a seminal event of her life. She grows up to be a soap opera actress in New York and is fired from her soap opera job, which is when she goes to Europe and meets this stranger. I do not know where that came from. After they are married, they move to the Hollywood Hills, a very iconic place to the whole world, with more than a hundred years of American cinema; one location everybody knows is Hollywood. If you think about Rebecca, it begins with that line. Last night, I dreamt I went to Manderly again. So right hen, you know that Manderly is a place that this person can’t go to, but why? Intrigued by Manderly, it creates a spooky, ethereal feeling much like Hollywood. In Ruby Falls it was important for me to write about Hollywood, a place we moved from when we moved to Paris and then New York.
Were you in the Hollywood Hills?
For a period, we lived in the Hollywood Hills. I wrote Ruby Falls in exactly the house we lived in, on Primrose Avenue. The house does not exist anymore because it was knocked down. I had been away from Hollywood for many years, when one of my daughters Tess, moved back. It felt like a haunted place to me when I went back there to visit her; it is a place that is populated by ghosts from the past. Three friends had died since I had been there, and everything was so overwhelming. I think if you live in one place for a very long time, no matter all the life experiences you have there because you see it every day, it is not overwhelming. But if you go back to a place where you haven’t been, and you have had a lot of history there, it does feel haunted.
It awakens your memory.
Exactly. That feeling swirls through Ruby Falls. It is a strange book and I love it because it is a different book. If I were to pick a director for Ruby, it would have to be someone more like Darren Aronofsky. If you think of The Black Swan or M. Knight Shyamalan, if you think of The Sixth Sense. It is that kind of book.
Tell me about your most recent novel, Reef Road.
My mother’s best friend was murdered on December 10th, 1948. It is an unsolved crime. My mother and her friend were 12 years old. Great suspicion fell on a much older brother who was 19. It was one of those life events that had a huge effect on my mother and by extension me. I have always known about it, or at least had an awareness of it for many years. I am intrigued by people around the tragedy, who have similar experiences. Dominic Dunn, whose daughter’s murder caused him to completely change his life. He went from being a movie producer to being this reporter of sensational murder trials for Vanity Fair. Or you think about Michelle McNamara, she wrote, I’ll Be Gone In the Dark, which really helped to solve ionthe case of the Golden State Killer. This book examines conferred trauma, trauma that is not our own, but that enters us and changes our lives. There was an inflection moment in March of 2020, while I was still on a book tour for Finding Mrs. Ford when Ruby Falls had not come out yet, and the world closed down. We were in Palm Beach, Florida, where I have a house. I decided to dig into the real crime and do the research and was surprised at how much material was on the internet about that crime, years of newspaper articles on a completely unsolved murder. I was able to get the coroner’s report, which was quite extensive. I spoke to the Pittsburgh Police Department. They would not release anything to me, but I also happened to know that the case was reopened in 2008. I was telling the story to a friend of mine who ran the New York State Prosecutors Training Institute. He was so intrigued by the case he said right away the murderer was the brother. “How do you know?”, I asked him. I thought maybe he knew this case. He said, “You don’t stab someone 36 times unless it’s personal.” My mother believed it was a stranger entering the house, but she was just a child.
Did the brother manifest bad behavior?
When the case was reopened it was revealed he had a series of arrests for exposing himself, which in itself does not make you a murderer; they are mental health and impulse control issues. The case was reopened in ‘08. They found fabric, and they sent it to the FBI lab in Quantico, Virginia, but the fabric was degraded, and the case was dropped again. I started examining the case in 2020 and decided initially to write it as non-fiction. I was not interested in invading that family’s life, but just to look at the truth of what I was examining and not the facts of what happened. But I didn’t want to be so married to all the factual details of that actual murder. For example, the real murdered girl had two brothers, a fact. But it was confusing in an early draft of the book. An early reader asked, “What is with the second brother?” I decided not to mention a second brother for clarity and ease of reading. I was examining how one single act of violence affected people beyond the victim.
Is that historical fiction . . . where a story is built upon or around an actual historical event?
Yes, there is a historical fiction element to the book. There is also another storyline that I put in the book about a younger woman who is married to a very handsome fellow from Argentina named Miguel Alonzo. Alonzo and their children disappear three weeks into the covid lockdown. The car is found at the long-term parking lot at Miami International Airport and security camera footage reveals Alonzo—the husband, and the children in their face masks getting on a plane bound for Bueno Aires. Because of the pandemic restrictions, and international quarantines, she cannot follow. The book is also about their lives; a writer researching her mother’s best friend’s murder, and a mother and wife whose family disappears. A common thread is that both women live in Palm Beach.
Do you love writing?
Mostly, yes, but there are times when it is challenging.
Is it willpower that drives you or do you write to purge something deep inside of you?
I think about these two things. I wrote for years in small increments, quietly and without announcing it. I belonged to a couple of writing groups, which were fun. But there was a moment in my mid-fifties, when my children were grown and flown, and this force of willpower just entered in. I had stories that I had been called to tell. There was a tremendous force of will that drove me to become serious and very committed.
How many hours a day do you regularly focus on writing?
The minimum would be three and the maximum would be eight hours I write daily. My writing “sweet spot” is three to six hours.
How do you balance writing with living?
I schedule writing time because I have a life with other obligations. I can’t just write from x time to y time daily, like some might. I have other things that call me away, so I schedule writing time on my iPhone or on my computer. Once I have blocked time to write I am obedient. I gave up things like lunches because it would kill the day. How do I balance? I do not write at night.
Do you and your husband talk about your books?
I will talk to him about certain things in a book, not all of it, but some of the contents.
Is he proud of you?
I think he is. I have led a life of very distinct chapters, a big life in many ways. Writing is a whole new chapter; I don’t think he had any idea of what to expect. I don’t think Chuck understood my life in movies or the scale. He married what he thought was one person, and now he has a new person. I think it is a lot of fun and hopefully, he is very proud of it. I think at other times it can be a little dismaying.
In his perfect world, you would be singularly focused on him?
No, he is not that simplistic. I think he enjoys this, but there are times when he says, look, I need this. I need that. That is the wonder of being male, something we as women are not quite so comfortable saying, “Clear the decks. This is what I need.” He has no problems with that.
Are you an introvert or an extrovert?
I am really an introvert who can function as an extrovert. I recharge myself by being alone, but I am able to perform with people and enjoy people. Sometimes I just need to be very quiet.
How much travel is required to promote a book like this last novel Reef Road?
I have been on the road for two months. There is a specific and distinct period with a book that has just been published, which requires travel but then the need to promote and travel slows down. It was important to give Reef Road its due, go out there, and meet with readers personally. I think it is a game changer when people understand who you are as a writer, the why, and the what you are doing. You build a readership bit by bit. It is like the old studio system in Hollywood when stars would have to go out on the road and promote their movies.
To get through a book tour, do you train yourself to simply “lean in” to the experience?
That is a function of age and is an important question. When I was a young actress, there was no intentionality. I will lean into this and really enjoy this experience as an author. The younger me thought this is just so great. There was no end goal, just a feeling that the experience might always happen and grow and grow. But life took certain turns, and I made different decisions. Now I’m completely intentional as a practice of being grateful for this and enjoying it; a game changer.
How many hours a day are you promoting your books?
It varies. Today, for this interview an hour in the morning, and something similar for two hours in the afternoon. I will have lunch talking to people, and then later this afternoon I’ll get on a plane, and I will go home for the first time in many weeks. Tomorrow is my granddaughter’s birthday, so I will see her.
Were there ever any moments during these two months where you said, what in the goodness gracious world am I doing?
No, because I have experienced this in an earlier life as a young actress being stuck in a motel at the side of the road north of Dallas when we were shooting in Waxahachie, which is south of Dallas. I spent weeks alone and lonely, which was harder than this.
Can you give one takeaway or advice, that might have changed you, had someone told you as a young woman, that really would have impacted you?
Have faith and don’t worry. Have faith that you really are on a path. Have faith that if you work hard and really take the opportunities that are coming to you and really throw yourself into what you’re doing, it really will be okay. You don’t have to worry so much.
Do you worry?
I am a worrier. That is in my nature. People at times say, you seem so serene, and I am not serene. I have meditation practice and I have things that I try to do . . .
To find serenity?
Exactly. But that kind of intentionality you mentioned is required because I am a worrier.
What do you worry the most about?
Now my children; that was not always historically true.
What was it before?
Oh, success, money, relationships, the big ones.
What’s your legacy?
My children and grandchildren. I would hope that I have been able to say something that is true, that resonates with people, that touches people. I think that is why we are here. We are all together, communicating at some level. There is nothing more meaningful than reading something somebody wrote or watching a film where a thought or a feeling was expressed that resonates and connects us to the truth.
What do you want to be remembered for?
I hope I am remembered for doing something that is good, giving.
You are a giver.
I hope so.