Sharon Cullen’s latest book, His Saving Grace, is a moving story featuring a loving couple who have to find a way to live together again after one partner – the husband – suffers a traumatic injury.
Lord Michael Ashworth left his home and his beloved wife, Grace, almost a year earlier, to join his regiment in the Crimea. Some months later, Grace receives the devastating news that Michael has been killed – only to have him reappear on her doorstep without warning several months later. While she is overjoyed to see him, it doesn’t take her long to realise that all is not well – and thus begins the couple’s journey towards remaking their life together.
It’s an emotional and sometimes difficult read, but I nonetheless enjoyed it very much, and wanted to learn more about the inspiration for the book. I’m very pleased to welcome Sharon Cullen to All About Romance.
Sharon: Thank you so much for having me and I’m thrilled that you enjoyed Michael and Grace’s story. I’m so glad you reached out to me and asked me to do an interview.
Caz: One thing that stood out as I was reading is that this is obviously a story that is very close to your heart. What or who was your inspiration for the book?
Sharon: The inspiration for Michael and Grace came from my own life and from my husband who suffers from a traumatic brain injury. Michael and my husband are a lot alike and Grace and I are a lot alike but they are also very different. It’s hard to explain other than Michael is based on my husband but he is not my husband.
Traumatic brain injuries (any traumatic injuries for that matter) affect not only the injured but everyone surrounding the injured—the spouse, the children, friends and close family. Every aspect of your life is shaken to the core and that was what I wanted to portray in His Saving Grace.
Caz: Such a very personal story must have been a difficult one to contemplate. Was there any one thing that set you going, or was it a combination of things?
Sharon: It took a few years for me to write this book. I started and stopped so many books with heroes who had traumatic brain injuries but none of them seemed right. It wasn’t until I started writing historical romance (rather than contemporary romance) that I realized the mistake I’d been making. Every time I started writing a contemporary romance with a hero with a brain injury the science kept getting in the way. Obviously we know so much more today than we did two hundred years ago when it comes to the workings of the brain. I kept getting caught up in all of that instead of what I wanted to concentrate on—the effect of the injury on those involved.
When I thought about writing this story as a historical I knew I’d found the right characters. I had to do a little research to discover what was known about the brain during different time periods. The Victorian time period seemed to fit the best and so that’s when I set the story. Doctors knew a little about the brain, but not nearly as much as we know now. Basically Grace and Michael were on their own dealing with the after-effects. Once that was all established the story just flowed.
Caz: Because of the personal nature of the story, did your writing process change, or did you find you could approach it in the same way as any of your other books?
Sharon: The writing process did change a bit. I had to do very little research with this book other than what I didn’t know about the Victorian time period. When it came to researching the effects of a brain injury I didn’t have to do any research at all and therefore I didn’t get caught up in the minutiae that I sometimes get caught up in. You could say that this book almost wrote itself.
Caz: I know from our interactions that you’re keen to raise awareness of the problems faced by those suffering from and caring for sufferers of TBIs (Traumatic Brain Injuries). Having based the novel loosely on your own experience, could you tell us a little more?
Sharon: On May 9, 2011 my husband took our Labrador retriever out for a bicycle ride. They had been doing this for years. My husband would hold the leash and the dog would run beside the bike. They both loved it. But this time something happened and to this day we still don’t know what that was. All we know is that a witness saw my dog run into the middle of the street and sit down to stop traffic. It was then she noticed my husband on the sidewalk lying beside the bike, semi-conscious. He was rushed to the closest hospital. By the time I arrived the helicopter had been called to air lift him to the closest trauma hospital. He had shattered his skull in two places and had to have part of it removed to allow for the swelling of the brain. He was in a coma for nine days, in neuro ICU for eleven days and in a rehabilitation hospital for fourteen days. He had to relearn how to walk, talk, feed himself and dress himself.
Like Michael he was not the same man who left for that bike ride. He was angry and withdrawn. At first he needed constant care and he was in outpatient therapy for five months which required my presence as well since he couldn’t drive and he couldn’t remember things five minutes after he was told.
Like Grace I was suddenly shoved into the role of caregiver and I had no idea what I was doing or what I could do help him. What I did know was that I would do whatever it took and together we would get through this.
No one recovers 100% from a brain injury and that was one of the things I wanted to stay true to in His Saving Grace. I didn’t want a miraculous healing because there is no such thing with traumatic brain injuries.
But you can learn to live with it and to move forward to live a full, happy life and THAT’S what I wanted the reader to come away with.
Caz: Well, I think you’ve succeeded admirably. I certainly came away from the book feeling as though Michael and Grace were going to make it as a couple, even though they were facing a long period of adjustment.
Sharon: Yes! I’m so glad that’s what you took away from this book. By their very nature romance books have a happily ever after. I wanted to show that you can still be happy and have a promising future despite the fact that you’re living with something like this. Like I said earlier, no one recovers 100% from a brain injury and I wanted to stay true to that while still giving the characters and the readers hope that Grace and Michael would live a happy life.
Caz: I enjoyed the book very much, but I think it’s fair to say that while it’s certainly very romantic, it’s not a romance in the traditional sense – you know, boy meets girl. boy and girl fall in love and then move towards their HEA. Did that fact present any particular problems?
Sharon: There are plenty of romances that start with a couple already married and who face hardship. I think what makes this book so different is that Grace and Michael’s hardships are ones that aren’t normally explored in a romance. Most of the disabled heroes I’ve read have lost a limb or an eye or maybe have a disfiguring scar. I don’t believe I’ve ever read of a hero who has a brain injury.
Caz: I don’t think I have, either – or not one incurred under the same circumstances.
Sharon: But did it present me any particular problems while writing this story? No. Because at its heart, this book is still a romance. This is still a story about two people trying to find their way to love. In a lot of ways I consider Michael’s injured brain the villain of the story. Every story has to have a villain, right? This one is a little different—silent and invisible and not to be slayed as easily as a human villain. But this villain still needs to be overcome and I hope that’s what the reader comes away with.
Caz: Were you ever worried that you were writing a story readers might find overly depressing or unpalatable?
Sharon: I know I deal with things that aren’t normally mentioned in a romance—depression and the fact that whatever is ailing Michael will never be fixed—and that’s exactly what I set out to do when I started writing His Saving Grace. There are definitely parts that are depressing and I do force the reader to face some things that are difficult, but I never thought they were emotions that would turn the reader away. My hope was that rather than depressing the reader I would make the reader cheer for Michael and Grace and want to continue reading to achieve that happily ever after.
Caz: Was there one particular point at which you thought – “okay – now I have to write this story”? Or was it something that crept up on you?
Sharon: It took me three years to finally sit down and write this story even though my friends had been telling me from the beginning that I needed to write a story like this. I waited that long because I had to help my husband heal and then I discovered that I needed to heal as well. It was very difficult to dig deep and dredge up all of those emotions but it was so worth it. There were times as I was writing and Grace’s heart was breaking that mine was breaking all over again as well. There were times when Grace was feeling helpless that I was experiencing that same helplessness but never once did I consider not writing this story.
Caz: Sharon, thanks so much for joining us today and for sharing such a personal story with our readers.