How a radio show inspired Melissa Payne’s latest novel
Melissa Payne is the best-selling and award-winning author of “The Secrets of Lost Stones”, “Memories in the Drift” and “The Night of Many Endings”. His next novel is “A Light in the Forest”. Melissa lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three children, a friendly dog and a very noisy cat. For more information, visit www.melissapayneauthor.com or find her on Instagram @melissapayne_writes.
SunLit: Tell us about the backstory of this book. What inspired you to write it? Where does the story/theme come from?
Melissa Payne: One snowy mountain day (much like in the book), I was listening to an episode of the “This American Life” podcast titled “The Room of Requirement” when I first heard about the Brautigan Library. Inspired by American author Richard Brautigan and his fictional library, the real-life Brautigan Library accepts and catalogs submissions from aspiring writers.
As a writer, I was immediately drawn to the idea of a library for all manuscripts. The podcast interviewed curator and librarian, John F. Barber, faculty member of Washington State University Vancouver’s Creative Media and Digital Culture program. In the interview, Mr. Barber described some of the volumes held at the library, including some by one of its most prolific contributors, Albert Helzner.
Mr. Helzner contributed 16 philosophical manuscripts to the library. He was a chemical engineer and chess enthusiast by day, and a philosopher by night who wrote deeply thought-provoking plays. He held a US patent published in the professional journal Chemical Engineering and he also won a Massachusetts Class A Chess Championship.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
As I listened to the episode, I started feeling these creative butterflies dancing inside, the ones I learned to listen to because they signify that an idea wants to grow. I immediately connected to Mr. Helzner’s writings and could feel the passion in his thinking and in the observations he shared through his manuscripts. He questioned the simple interactions between strangers, and his writings shed light on an individual’s unique experiences that led that person to a particular moment in time.
Inspired by the writings of Mr. Helzner, I reflected on how our experiences affect our interactions and our perceptions of people and strangers, and those butterflies kept dancing when I linked my thoughts to another idea on homeless people and our public libraries. It didn’t take long before the idea turned into a small town, a snowstorm, and five strangers stuck in a library.
SunLit: Put this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the whole book? Why did you select it?
Paid : I selected this excerpt because it sets up the conditions under which these five strangers are forced to shelter together. A homeless man who just overdosed. The librarian with a brother she lost to addiction and the security guard no one really sees. The young girl with a secret to hide and an older woman who struggles to recognize the good in others.
Add to that an epic winter storm that shut down an entire city, and these characters must find a way to work together through a very long night without light or heat.
SunLit: Tell us about the creation of this book. What influences and/or experiences influenced the project before you actually sat down to write?
Paid : I wrote this at the height of the pandemic, when family, friends and neighbors often stood on opposite sides of issues, leaving a no man’s land where our stories lived. I believe the only way to find common ground is to take the time to learn the stories of others.
It gives us the chance to understand someone different from ourselves when we invest in listening. I hoped readers would enjoy spending the night with these five very different people as they let down their barriers and see themselves for the individuals they are inside.
SunLit: Once you started writing, did the story take you in unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe the treatment of a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?
Paid : From the start, the characters were very clear to me, through their appearance, their expressions and their reactions to certain situations. Sometimes it was hard to understand how they could interact with each other because I didn’t always like the way they talked to each other or the assumptions they made about each other.
And sometimes I didn’t appreciate the inner thoughts of some of the characters. It was a book about growing up and it was important to understand each character in depth in order to find out how they might impact others.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you had to face or surprises you encountered while finishing this book?
Paid : The biggest challenge was figuring out how to end it. I usually know my endings from the very beginning, but this one was hard for me to visualize. Partly because it was a fresh start for everyone but still full of questions and uncertainties, as life is for most of us I guess. So it was a challenge to write an ending that would satisfy my characters and my readers.
SunLit: How did you come up with your five characters and how did you choose which of them would be point-of-view characters?
Paid : I started with the librarian, Nora. She was my main character whose story dictates a lot of the interactions and connections with others. Marlene was born out of a desire to create a character that pushes people away with her words. Don’t we all know someone like Marlene? I wanted to explore what was behind the words, what drove someone like Marlene and how she would react to a night spent with strangers.
Lewis is a homeless person, but I wanted to go beyond that definition to the person he was before everyone saw him. I chose these three perspectives to tell the story because in their very different ways they keep everyone who loves them at bay. In some ways, they had the most to lose and the most to gain from the night.
Jasmine reminded me of a young Nora, a little lost, a little lonely and carrying a heavier load than most teenagers. And Vlado had the perfect combination of strength and stability needed to make everyone feel safe, despite the cold and the dark.
SunLit: Tell us about your writing process: where and how do you write?
Paid : I tend to write in the morning at my desk. Sometimes I write in small strokes throughout the day, especially if I’m really in a scene or at the end of a chapter. If I am under a deadline, I will write until I reach my daily goals. With each book, my process is a little different.
“The Night of Many Ends”
>> Read an excerpt
where to find it
Sunny feature new excerpts from some of Colorado’s best authors that not only tell engaging stories, but also illuminate who we are as a community. Read more.
My children are growing up and have different needs, the dog wants to go for walks in the morning instead of the afternoon, the house can be louder than normal so my office in the attic is not ideal and I have to find a quiet place away from it all. Or a loved one is sick and I need to be with them.
What I’ve learned so far is that if I want to keep writing books, I don’t try to create a perfect schedule. When things are unpredictable, I write wherever and whenever I can and I’m so grateful to be able to create stories every day.
Sunny: The setting and the weather play a big role in this book. Can you describe how you wrote about the snowstorm in this novel?
Paid : I experienced a similar snowstorm myself, as did many of my Colorado compatriots. The 2003 storm dumped seven feet of snow and trapped us in our house for a week without heat or power until we could snowshoe a front-end loader operator and hire him to come and dig us up .
Like Marlene, years later, I still tell stories about that storm. So I had my own memories of the cold and the dark to work on while developing the storm in “The Night of Many Endings” and it was fun to bring it to life on the page. And maybe a little more tolerable to experience it in writing rather than in real life.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Paid : I am delighted to announce that my next book, “A Light in the Forest”, will be released on December 13th. It brings back a touch of magical realism that so many readers loved in my first book, “Secrets of the Lost Stones,” with a host of animated characters and a couple of escaped pigs.
Vega Jones escapes an abusive relationship with nothing but her two-month-old baby and the van she grew up in. His destination is a small town in Ohio that his late wandering mother left years ago. It’s full of people, her mother warned. This makes it the perfect haven for Vega to lay down, feel safe, and maybe learn about a past his mother never talked about.
Vega warms up to the city and new acquaintances like Heff, the young deputy and artist who prefers his court art to actual police, and empathetic Eve, a local farmer whose near-death experience has given her more than his life. But even in this welcoming community there is an undercurrent of something unstable, there is talk of a tragedy that unfolded in the woods years ago and a mystery connected to Vega d in a way she couldn’t have foreseen.
As a mother on the run and following a path of increasing risk and enlightening secrets, Vega discovers that even during the darkest times, there is light in unexpected places.