BY CHRISTINA CONSOLINON
Romance author Christina Berry started her publishing career at a small press before switching to independently publishing her own novels. The books in her Lost in Austin series have garnered multiple awards, and she was months away from releasing her third book in the series, After the Storm, when the unexpected occurred: she suffered a stroke. Berry didn’t let that stop her, though. In this interview, she talks a little about the romance genre, what sex-positive romance is, and how she’s had to adjust her approach since the stroke.
Can you give us a few details on who you are and how you came to be a writer? When did you first start writing and why?
Christina Berry: I’m an award-winning author of smart, smutty romance novels, and I’ve been writing in one form or another since I was a kid. I first got into writing because I’m a visual person who can’t draw. The only way for me to illustrate the images in my head was to describe them with my words, so I was writing fiction as early as grade school.
Throughout high school and college, I focused on studying history, so most of my writing was nonfiction essays. But a trip to Hungary in my twenties reawakened my creative-writing gene. The beauty of Budapest inspired me deeply, not only with what I could see with my eyes and capture with a camera but also with how that city made me feel. When I returned home, I started writing it all down using fictional characters. Nothing ever came of that Hungary piece, but the genie was out of the bottle, and I’ve been writing moody romance ever since.
What about the contemporary romance genre compels you to write it? Would you ever consider writing any other genre?
CB: To be considered “Romance” (with a capital “R”), a story must meet two simple criteria: 1) it features a love story, and 2) ends happily. I just happen to enjoy reading and writing love stories with happy endings, so I naturally gravitate toward the genre.
Within the romance universe, there’s a great deal of variety when it comes to subgenres and tropes. I’ve written a few paranormal romance short stories, and I’ve finished the first draft of a sci-fi romance.
Someday, I’ll branch into more areas of Romancelandia, I’m sure, but I’m not particularly interested in exploring outside of romance. For me, love and happy endings are always in the equation.
Your novels are “sex-positive” books. What does that mean, and why is writing sex-positive stories important to you?
CB: There are a lot of long-held taboos in our culture pertaining to sex, particularly when it comes to women. Even today, women are often “slut shamed” for feeling and expressing their sexual desires. I take a negative view of all that.
To me, writing sex-positivity means writing about healthy sexual relationships where characters are not shamed for exploring or expressing their sexual wants and needs. Characters communicate clearly, both in and out of bed. Sex scenes only progress when consent is enthusiastically given. It’s important to me to write sex scenes that titillate without crossing the line into dubious consent or risky behavior. And birth-control/STI safety is always explicitly addressed in the scenes.
Hearts on Fire features a firefighter who falls in love with a woman living with PTSD, and your novella, Wishing Upon a Star, involves a billionaire space-technology mogul who falls in love with a Hollywood star. Where do you find inspiration for these wildly different characters? How much research do you do to portray characters authentically?
CB: Firefighters and billionaires are extremely popular character tropes in romance. For me, I like the idea of taking those tropes and playing with them a bit. So my firefighter in Hearts on Fire is also a cat dad who babies his three-legged cat a lot. I got the idea from that charity calendar in Australia where firefighters pose with kittens. So cute…and sexy.
In Wishing Upon a Star, the billionaire tech mogul is the female character, while the male character is the Hollywood heartthrob. I loved the idea of turning that trope on its head, and a lot of readers have commented that they enjoyed the role reversal. I live for that sort of feedback.
It also means a lot to hear that readers appreciate the authenticity of my stories and characters. For that, I do a lot of research and ask tons of questions. When I wrote After the Storm, which is set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I read many articles and watched hours of historic Weather Channel footage to get the minute-by-minute details right. Additionally, I reached out to several Katrina survivors who were so wonderfully helpful in providing feedback on my portrayal of that experience. For Hearts on Fire, I enlisted the help of several friends and acquaintances at Austin Fire Department to help me perfect the wildland fire, house fire, and swift-water rescue scenes.
The sequel to Hearts on Fire, called Hearts to Mend, is a work in progress about a man who suffers a stroke. For that, I’m using my own lived experience. But I’ll also enlist the help of my favorite nurse in the world. She’s a big fan of my books, and she’s assisted me with every medical scene I’ve ever written. She happens to be a Stroke Coordinator at one of the hospital systems here in Austin, so this book will be as accurate as can be with her help.
Let’s talk about the stroke, which is something we don’t always equate with someone so young (you’re in your forties). Tell us a little bit about what happened.
cb: Yeah, it came as a complete shock to me. I have no family history or any of the usual health conditions that lead to stroke (such as high cholesterol or blood pressure). Yet, I had a stroke. It was the scariest experience of my life, mostly because it was so confusing.
I went from being absolutely fine to absolutely not fine in mere seconds. I couldn’t focus my eyes, I couldn’t think clearly, my legs and hands weren’t working correctly, and all of that preceded the absolute worst headache in the entire history of headaches. That night, I tried to remember the ways that you detect a stroke, which I’d learned from a scene I saw on House many years ago. But my speech was fine, and my arms and face didn’t droop asymmetrically, so in my mind I passed the stroke test. I went with migraine as my self-diagnosis and tried to go back to sleep.
It was several days before I went to the doctor, complaining about persistent migraine pain. She gave me something for the pain and referred me for an MRI, and that’s when I learned the truth: I’d had a stroke.
Discovering I’d had a stroke was a seismic shift in my understanding of my body and my health, and it has started a long journey to understand what happened, why it happened, and to fix the problem so it never happens again. After countless tests, scans, and consultations, my cardiologist determined I had a common birth defect called an atrial septal defect (ASD), which just means I’ve had a 12mm hole in my heart my entire life and only learned about it when a clot passed through the hole and went to my brain.
It’s been eight months since my stroke. The hole in my heart is now mended; the residual numbness on my left side is minimal; and my brain is finding new neural pathways to connect with the parts of my mind that were lost for a while there. All in all, I was very lucky. It could have been so much worse.
Of course, recovery from a stroke can be long. What does recovery look like for you? What’s been the most frustrating aspect of the recovery process?
cb: Mostly, the stroke affected my mind more than my body, so my neurologist referred me to a speech pathologist. I didn’t think I needed a “speech” pathologist because I could speak fine. But I learned that her role involved the full cognitive process, of which speech was just a small part. And it turned out that I did have some speech problems, mostly with word recall. Seeing Liz, my speech pathologist, helped a lot with that, as did my newfound affection for Wordle.
Liz also helped me recognize when I was becoming overwhelmed and confused by too many stimuli. I called it “getting tangled up,” and it turns out that was one of my biggest hurdles to overcome. Multitasking was a huge challenge for me, and even ordinary tasks like scheduling appointments was nearly impossible. Once, I showed up an hour and a half early for an appointment because I couldn’t get times, dates, and schedules right in my head.
To graduate from my speech pathology sessions, I had to learn to pause, detangle my thoughts, and then achieve the goal. And I did. I remember my “graduation test” was to multitask between a word task and a math task while a podcast played on Liz’s phone in the background. When I could manage that without any wrong answers, I graduated.
Now, I’m almost back to my old self. The one lingering issue is a frustrating case of writer’s block (at least where my fiction writing is concerned). Since the stroke, it seems the one thing I can write about without any trouble is the stroke. So I’ve decided to incorporate a stroke into my romance in order to bust through the block. And it appears to be working, I have six chapters written on Hearts to Mend, and I haven’t even gotten to the stroke scene yet.
Does your writing process differ now, and if so, how?
cb: Since the stroke, I’m more easily exhausted, so I don’t usually have the energy at the end of the day to write. But if I tackle writing first thing in the morning, it gets done, and it’s an encouraging start to my days.
Additionally, with past books, I would write by the seat of my pants, creating the characters and putting them into my imaginary world to see what they’d do. More than once, my characters surprised me, and stories that started one place ended up somewhere completely unexpected.
Now, though, I’m plotting out every scene of my current work in progress. I know where it’s going to go this time, so my job is to outline the journey, then flesh it out with details and pretty prose. It’s sort of amazing, to feel some semblance of control over my story and characters. I’m curious to see if this will continue past this current “stroke romance” project or not.
You’ve been especially open about the stroke and your recovery on social media. What are the three most important items you want people to know?
cb: First and foremost, listen to your body. If you’re receiving signals that something is wrong, listen. Don’t talk yourself out of going to the hospital or the doctor because it’s “probably nothing.”
Secondly, be kind to yourself. Recovery is frustrating, depressing, slow, and difficult. Allow yourself the time, space, and patience to heal. Plus, get plenty of sleep. That’s been huge for me.
And lastly, work with what you have. For me, I’m a writer who was having trouble with word recall. So I started playing Wordle and crossword games on my phone. It helped me reconnect those neural pathways with the word bank in my head. Additionally, I struggled to type for a while, so I used speech-to-text software on my phone when I wanted to write. I would speak the dialogue and story to my phone, then download those files to my computer, and suddenly I had thousands of words on the page that I didn’t have to type. That helped me a great deal as I first got back to writing.
With patience and concerted effort, my hope is I’ll have my “stroke romance,” Hearts to Mend, ready to publish by the one-year anniversary of my stroke. I like the symbolism of that: overcoming the effects of my stroke with the stroke of a pen.
Now, I just have to make it happen.
Hearts on Fire
The plan was to fix up the farmhouse, sell it, and leave. Then I met Drew.
I’m a stranger in this place. When a car accident nearly killed me, Mom took me away from my father and this small Texas town. Now, I’m back, and while everyone seems to remember the little girl I used to be, no one knows the woman I’ve become. That’s okay. I’m not here to reconnect or fix what’s broken between my father and me. I’m just here to fix the house I inherited, sell it, and go.
Then I meet Bodhi, the three-legged cat who keeps peeing on my porch. And along comes Bodhi’s dad, Drew, the protective firefighter with rough hands, a smooth smile, and such a dirty mouth.
Drew has a reputation for rescuing strays. Is that what I am, another stray for him to rescue? Or this time, maybe I’ll be the rescuer.
Article originally Published in the June / July / August 2023 Issue: Summer Reads.