By Elisa Houot, Assistant Agent
April 14, 2021 cannot come soon enough! While you wait to meet THE ACCIDENTAL DUKE, the first book in a new series, you can get to know the author behind the historical romance in this Q&A with Barbara Devlin.
Elisa: Your new series features disabled heroes from the battle of Waterloo. Was that topic especially close to your heart? Did you draw anything from your own experience to write these characters?
Barbara: Given I am disabled, I draw heavily from my own experiences learning to cope with life after a debilitating injury. And it’s safe to say this book isn’t just close to my heart. In some ways it is my heart. The story reflects my pain, self-doubt, and struggle to move forward after a life-altering injury.
Elisa: What is your favorite song to listen to when you’re alone?
Barbara: I would have to say I don’t listen to a favorite song. Rather, I listen to an album. Icehouse: Man of Colours. Iva Davies has a voice that just reaches out and grabs you by the throat. Every song on that album speaks to me.
Elisa: You are a full-time writer. What does a work day look like for you?
Barbara: On a typical work day, I get up, document my vitals—I’m currently battling a hereditary blood disorder with underlying leukemia—eat breakfast, shower, and go to work. If I have doctor appointments or treatment, which holds me captive at an infusion unit for approximately 5-6 hours once a week, I go home and put in my word count. I have a set daily goal that I will not rest until I achieve.
Elisa: If you could live in a movie, what movie would it be, and why?
Barbara: If I could live in a movie, I would choose The Avengers, because—superheroes. Seriously, what an exciting prospect to live in a world with otherworldly beings. And then there’s Loki.
Elisa: What is your favorite thing about being a writer?
Barbara: I love the ambiguity and verbal texture of fiction that allows me to share so much intimate knowledge of myself with my readers. They don’t know which parts reflect my identity or experiences, but they still see me. They just don’t realize it. In a way, my life is validated through their reading of my work. It’s an incredibly humbling and inspiring relationship between author and reader.
Elisa: Who is your favorite fictional character?
Barbara: My favorite fictional character is Faith Leslie, from Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie. Sedgwick is known in many literary circles as the first romance writer. She wrote strong female characters who bucked Puritan ideology.
Elisa: What are your next writing projects, can you tell us a little bit about it?
Barbara: Well, I have two more books due in the Mad Matchmakers of Waterloo series, but I’m currently developing a Regency version of Three Men and a Baby, working title Three Lords and a Baby. It features a descendent of royal lineage that connects Spanish royalty to the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II.
Elisa: What can we expect from The Accidental Duke?
Barbara: The Accidental Duke positions disability at the center of the conflict. The story also details PTSD, which was known as nostalgia or irritable heart, at the time. And this is a story about a hero with a disability written by an author with a disability. It’s authentic and deeply personal. But I also wanted to attack some of the stigma associated with disability. While anyone can research and write about disability, I think only someone who lives with disability can truly convey the impact of a life-altering injury. I’ve had so many people tell me to move on or get over what happened to me. Therein lies the greatest misunderstanding. I’ll never get over the line-of-duty accident that ended my law enforcement career, my marathon running, and put me in rehab for three years. I may be alive, and I may be finding success in other ventures, but what I have today will never be normal for me. Normal was what I had prior to the accident. And the accident didn’t happen that one time, the morning of December 23, 1998. I relive the trauma every day, over and over again, as manifested in all the things I can no longer do for myself. No matter how good things are now, there’s always the nagging temptation to look back to the past, to remember what I was once. The memory of my former self, hale and whole, will haunt me until I die. That’s what I hope the reader sees in my book.
Elisa: If you could be anywhere in the world right now, in a Covid-free world, where would you be and what would you be doing?
Barbara: This is an easy question. If I could be anywhere in the world right now, in a Covid-free world, I’d be right where I am now. We built our dream home atop a mountain in North Carolina. When my husband and I were working, he was a firefighter and I a police officer, we used to escape to the mountains of Colorado every summer, to rest, relax, and recharge. We promised ourselves we would move to the mountains when we were both retired. Mike retired in January, 2019, and we broke ground on the new house a week later. It’s our slice of heaven, and we worked very hard for what we have now.
Elisa: What is your favorite thing about romance novels in general?
Barbara: What I love about romance novels is the escape. I call romance novels Calgon in a book, because romance takes me away. As I rehabbed from my injury, I devoured romance books. For a few hours a day, I could travel to Regency England, run raids with Navy SEALS, or ride with a handsome cowboy and forget that my world had been completely upended. Romance novels brought me hope that I could heal. That I could find my way to something new. That I could survive. But more importantly, romance helped me believe that Mike could love me, despite the fact I was mentally and physically shattered. We weren’t married at the time that I was struck by a drunk driver, while I was on foot and working an accident on the shoulder of a major freeway, during a record-breaking ice storm that crippled N. Texas. To be honest, I never saw myself as the marrying type. We were living together, and I was happy with that. But he made it clear he wasn’t going to abandon me. He took family leave to help me—and I needed a lot of help. And he didn’t really ask me to marry him. He told me we were getting married. How could I refuse my own HEA?
I am a person with a disability. It has taken years for me to admit that to those who don’t know me. I hid my disability because I couldn’t bear the pity, condescension, and sometimes open disdain with which others treated me. I didn’t want to be the injured woman. The inferior woman. Less than. Other. Since the life-altering accident and permanent injury that ended my law enforcement career and devastated my world as I knew it, I endured years of painful therapy and rehabilitation with a single goal in mind: to conceal my condition. To avoid the inevitable questions. To escape the memories, if only for a little while. Yet, more than twenty years later, I still struggle with paralyzing panic during bad weather. I lock myself in my home on the anniversary of the day a drunk driver plowed into the accident scene I was investigating, leaving me pinned between a car and a guardrail.
There is no training to prepare us for disability and the accompanying mental trauma. It’s something that must be experienced, firsthand, to truly understand. The associated stigma only inflicts more suffering. That’s why I wrote this series. To help others struggling with disability, that they might realize there’s nothing wrong with them. We’re only human. Unfortunately, the assumptions surrounding disability are nothing new.
Research for this book led me to Dominique Jean Larrey, Napoleon’s personal physician. Larrey wrote extensively on what he referred to as nostalgia or irritable heart. Today, we call it Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What I discovered was countless troops from the Peninsular Wars experienced lingering effects of battlefield trauma, and many were committed to asylums, where treatment incorporated an array of methods, including starvation, sleep deprivation, and torture.
The descriptions of the fictional Little Bethlem, including treatment and torture devices, are based on accounts from the final report of the 1815 Parliamentary Committee on Madhouses and narratives by Edward Wakefield, an advocate for asylum reform. The committee sought to change management of the insane from one of confinement and physical restraint to one of re-education and socialization. For the wealthy, involuntary commitment was a lucrative business exploited by medical professionals promising a variety of cures for the right price.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of my personal experience creating this series was realizing how little has changed in the way of attitudes toward those with physical and mental disabilities. As my agent shopped the first book, I met with an editor from a traditional publisher at a conference. With a smile on her face, she explained to me that, while she enjoyed the story and my prose, no one wanted to read my sick lit. That’s right. Sick lit. With that one sentence, she threw me back to the past. Back to that cold December day when everything changed. When I became a shadow of my former self. I started over in that moment. I just didn’t know it at the time. So, after the unfortunate exchange, I returned to my room, sat on the bed, and cried. Then I got up and emailed my agent, and we started over again. In the end, I found a publisher who believed in me and my work. An advocate.
Dragonblade is the latest in a long line of supporters who’ve helped me make it where I am today. Who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Not the least of which is my network of family and friends. Perhaps the most significant champion in my corner is my husband, Mike. We weren’t married when I was injured, but he didn’t let that stop him from loving me or making me his wife, a privilege I’ve enjoyed for more than twenty years. So, if you learn anything from me, please, know that disability is not the end. In some ways, it’s a new beginning, filled with just as much promise as the past. If this series helps just one person, the fight will have been worth it.