Despite initial resistance to the genre, romance books shape local writer’s world


PITTSBORO — “Write the book.”

It’s a literary-specific paraphrase of the more familiar Nike slogan: “Just do it.”

But whichever three-word motivational mantra you pick, they’re words by which Dolly Sickles has lived.

Her expansive resume reflects such forward-motion drive and determination. Should she forget, the words “write the book” are memorialized in a prominent tchotchke resting on a bookshelf in her home.

At 46, she’s not only written the book, she’s also been a newspaper writer, author of children’s literature, book reviewer, grant writer, blogger, college writing instructor, marketing director and project manager in the corporate arena as well as a wife, a mother and, throughout all, an optimist.

Sickles lives in the quiet countryside — there are neighbors, yes, but they’re not too close — a few miles west of Pittsboro off U.S. Hwy. 64 in a spacious house she shares with her husband Matt; their son Peyton, a junior in college and a talented photographer; and Magnolia Mae, a loving beagle who mostly answers to Maggie Mae.

Born in Columbia, S.C., Sickles was an “Army brat,” relocating with her parents to Germany when she was a toddler.

“I always say that my life was really heavily shadowed by the Vietnam War,” she said. “I was just a child, but my dad fought in the final years over in Vietnam.”

When the war ended, the family relocated to Garner, near her father’s new job as an Army recruiter in Raleigh. But her parents would soon split, leaving Sickles — an only child — and her mom on their own.

“My mother and I grew up very, very meagerly,” said Sickles.

There wasn’t a lot of money and Sickles — a “latchkey kid,” though she dislikes the term because “it sounds kind of mean” — spent a lot of time on her own after school while her mother worked. They weren’t easy times, but there was a saving grace, and it didn’t cost anything: the local library.

“My mom had a library card,” said Sickles, “and we went to the library every Saturday. She would get a bagful of books — at least eight or ten books — I would get a couple of books also. The library, the library card, it was like a ticket to freedom.”

Where Mom favored romance novels, young Dolly was drawn to stories of adventure.

“So I read a lot,” she said. “I loved anything with adventure. And it just fueled my love of literature and storytelling and wanderlust. National Geographic I loved because it showed me a glimpse into a world that didn’t look like my front or back yard in Garner. It showed me people who didn’t look like me, the interesting histories of places. It was totally fascinating.”

Dolly couldn’t have known it at the time, but her mother’s love of romance novels would later come to have a heavy influence.

“My mom always tried to get me to read romance books,” Sickles said. “And I would say ‘I’m not reading that, Mom.’” Who reads romance books? I always say ‘Crazy cat ladies, right?’”

A heavy snowfall — it was a number of years ago, when son Peyton was in 1st or 2nd grade — changed her stance. She’d purchased three or four romance novels for her mother’s upcoming birthday and wrapped them. Then came the winter storm.

“Snowed in,” she recalled. “I ran out of things to read. I opened that birthday present and I read every one of them.”

Then came the surprise — she didn’t hate them.

“I thought, ‘These are so great!’” Sickles said. “Yes, there’s romance. And yes, there’s sex. That’s what everybody always focuses on with romance books. But at the very end, there was a hopeful, happy chance for good things to happen.”

The timing of her reading those books was key, too. There was the snowstorm, of course, that had her isolated and hungry for something new to read. But there was something else.

At the time, she was working for the Alliance for AIDS Services in Raleigh. The job was stressful, and heavy.

“I had all of these statistics of disease and death in my head,” she said.

In her professional life, she could fight for funding for AIDS research, fight for more awareness. “But I couldn’t change the outcome of their lives,” she said. “But at the end of a romance book, you know there’s going to be a happy, hopeful ending.”

In those books, all sorts of mayhem may occur throughout their pages, but at the end “the girl gets the guy. Or the guy gets the guy. However it turns out, there’s a happy ending. I so needed that in my life at the time.”

It was a pivotal discovery.

“And I called my mom and apologized,” she said. “I understood what she’d been looking for.”

She would pen several romance novels herself, favoring the sub-genre of “contemporary romance” and “romantic suspense.”

A lot of genre fiction — romance, mysteries, horror, fantasy, westerns — is “often kind of maligned,” Sickles said, “as ‘not literature’ or ‘not intelligent,’ or something you can write in a day. But writing a book is writing a book, regardless of your topic.”

She found success in the field, penning and publishing romance novels (written under the pseudonym “Becky Moore”) and children’s books (written under the pseudonym “Dolly Dozier.”)

Then, nearly seven years ago, Sickles’ life collided with a “huge speed-bump” that had a great impact on her life.

“I fell,” she said.

She’d spent a week hiking in Arizona. During the rugged vacation, she’d become dehydrated and had developed a kidney stone. A urologist had her on several medications, which had the unexpected result of drastically lowering her blood pressure.

In the bathroom one night, while recuperating, she “stood up and passed out,” striking her head on the bathtub in the mishap and sustaining a traumatic brain injury.

She was unconscious for five minutes.

“At the time, I’d written five romance novels and two children’s books,” she said.

But with the serious injury, “everything came to an immediate stop.”

She suffered three months of memory loss, couldn’t drive. Her family worried. For a long time after, Peyton held her hand when she walked, clinging to his mother to protect here should she fall again.

The injury also took a toll on her ability to write.

“For about three years, I couldn’t write anything long-form,” she said. “My brain just couldn’t make the connection.”

That’s when she turned her attention to writing book reviews. She found she could write the shorter format, and she began writing reviews of romance novels for several major outlets including USA Today, to which she contributed a regular column on the topic called “Happy Ever After.”

While she still suffers some lingering effects from the fall, seven years later she’s doing much better. Her writing career, however, suffered a setback. Her books went out of print and she lost a good opportunity with a literary agency and with a major publisher.

“But it’s OK,” she said. “I did it before. I can do it again.”

Two and a half years ago, she resumed fiction writing and today, in addition to writing book reviews and teaching writing at Central Carolina Community College, she’s “shopping around a romantic suspense that two publishers are interested in.”

She’s also brought one of her children’s books back into print.

“It all starts somewhere,” she said.

Write the book. Just do it.

“I’m a huge proponent of trying,” Sickles said. “When things get tough, we can either shut down and never do anything or we can kick it in the ass and try. I say try. Try out for chorus. Try out for cheerleading. Try out for the football team. The worst, the very worst they can tell you is ‘no.’ ‘No’ for me makes me try harder. And inevitably, I come back stronger.”

Randall Rigsbee can be reached at