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Melissa Payne: “Memories in the Drift “

Memories in the Drift is a story is about resilience and hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable circumstances. I initially wrote about Whittier because of how unique it seemed at the time, but after this last year and with the very real way we’ve had to cut ourselves off socially from one another, it […]

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Memories in the Drift is a story is about resilience and hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable circumstances. I initially wrote about Whittier because of how unique it seemed at the time, but after this last year and with the very real way we’ve had to cut ourselves off socially from one another, it feels like many of us have experienced our own sense of remoteness and alienation from people, routine, and everything familiar.

Claire’s situation will never change, but she does have the love and support of her family, friends and her larger community and I think there is such beauty in how people come together for each other. My hope is that this story reflects what we see happen across communities of all sizes; a willingness to support and take care of each other whenever there’s a need. We see that now with the wildfires in my state and so many others, and how people reach out to help complete strangers. And we’ve seen it in the last few months, where communities rally around those who have been physically and economically affected by a global pandemic. And I hope it’s something that we continue to foster whether we live in a town of less than two hundred or one of two hundred thousand.


As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Payne.

Melissa Payne is the bestselling author of The Secrets of Lost Stones and the forthcoming novel Memories in the Drift. Melissa loves to create stories set in wild and rugged landscapes with everyday characters facing extraordinary circumstances. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three children, a friendly mutt, a very loud cat, and the occasional bear.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?

Thank you for having me! About ten years ago, I broke my foot when I tripped over a boot left out in the middle of the floor by my toddler son. Two days later my daughter broke her collarbone when she fell off the couch. It was one of those years. But the good that came out of that time was that I went from being a very busy mom of three young kids, running around between school functions and after-school activities, volunteering and grocery store runs to being limited by a cast and crutches. I had to slow down and what happened with all that extra time was that I started to write. First, it was in a blog I created and wrote in an Erma Bombeck-style of motherhood and marriage slice of life. The blog was fulfilling and challenging and renewed my life-long love of story-telling. Long after my foot had healed, I kept blogging, making time whenever I could to write. And I loved it. But a soft voice kept pestering me with a question. Could I actually write a whole book? I didn’t feel qualified and I didn’t know exactly where to start, but eventually I jumped in and word by word I wrote my first book. Since then, I’ve written many words and published a couple of books with another one coming out in October of 2021, and I couldn’t be happier about that broken foot.

Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

For many authors, getting published is a long game. It takes writing, editing, rejection, patience, perseverance and often, a decent sense of humor. Because sometimes all you can do is laugh. When I started down this path, my kids were all in elementary school, but they understood that I had decided to write and that I was writing a book. And they thought it was great. They’d ask me how it was going and had I finished my book yet (no) and when would it be in the library (not for a while) and they told their teacher and now she wants to read it, can she read it Mom? (Not yet.) This went on for quite some time, all through my early drafts and revisions and into the querying process for my first manuscript and on throughout the polite passes and well into the next manuscript and querying process. And all the while they were excited, even if the excitement dimmed a bit with the waiting. Little kids aren’t built for patience. And through it all I kept going, convinced, most of the time, that I’d see this dream of mine through to the end, if only to show my children what it meant to go after your dreams and how hard work pays off and you know, all the after-school-special kind of examples I could think of. And then it happened. I signed with an amazing agent. We celebrated. Then I signed with a publisher. We celebrated some more. Then my first book, The Secrets of Lost Stones, was published and we held a launch party and celebrated again. My kids were older then and had been on this journey with me for quite some time but they hugged me and said how great it all was, except for my son who looked confused. Wait, your book just got published? He was older now and in middle school. Then what were we celebrating all those other times?

It’s good to laugh, because when the game is long, the milestones should be celebrated, even if you haven’t yet crossed the finish line.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?

Becoming an author wasn’t the path I thought I was traveling. My early career involved work with nonprofits that focused on sustainable development in rural areas, and later at raising money and awareness for children who’ve been abused and neglected. So, when I decided to write a book, it was a sudden left-hand turn from what I thought were my career goals. I jumped feet first into an endeavor that I knew very little about. But the one thing I did know, and believed, was that I had stories to tell, and characters running around inside my head that I wanted to share, and I was willing to work hard and learn everything I could to help me grow into a writer. It took time and it took failure and it took moments of self-doubt like I’d never experienced before. And when the rejections stacked up, I questioned everything. Was I good at it? Or was it simply a pipe-dream? Should I just give-up? I almost did, but there was something inside me that wouldn’t let me quit. So I kept going, writing and querying and revising, joining a critique group of my peers, going to conferences, learning, and querying some more until a door cracked open and I pushed it all the way in. Now I’m here, publishing books and sharing them with readers, but it’s still a life-long learning process, as it should be, because each story is unique, every character filled with her own internal struggles, every setting different depending on the season or the landscape or the point of view.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I love developing the setting of each book and so when I write, it often comes through as one of the characters. There’s something about the threat of a frigid winter storm or the sense of mountain peaks casting a shadow over a town, or forests vast and green and wild that beautifully reflects a character’s own struggles. A rich sense of atmosphere has always been a part of my writing and is often in the books I gravitate toward as a reader. However, when I started writing, I hadn’t yet figured out the balance of atmosphere to wordiness and would find myself singularly focused on the beauty of an aspen leaf, waxing poetic on its bright yellow color against wet pavement. For an entire page. So when my mother read my very early efforts, she gently, but with the editorial eye and honesty I’d come to expect since I was in high school, pointed out that very few readers want to hear about an aspen leaf for so very many paragraphs. When I read it from her perspective, I felt a bit like my teenage self, and with my face warmed and head ducked, I revised the aspen leaf manifesto to one sentence. To this day, my mother’s sweet voice is in my head whenever I get carried away with billowy clouds or dappled sunlight or the cold blast of an arctic winter blizzard, and I remember that so often, less is more.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

A few years ago, I came across a documentary about the town of Whittier, Alaska. It’s a stunning place carved from the shores of Prince William Sound, where nearly all of the two hundred or so year-round residents live in a fourteen-story high-rise that overlooks a harbor abounding with wildlife. As a writer, I was immediately drawn to this town, not because of the unrelenting rain and snow and heavy clouds that cling to the mountains for much of the year. And not because of the two-and-a-half-mile single lane tunnel that closes every night and is the only way in and out of town, unless you come by boat. Or the image of all of this set against a backdrop of glaciers and waterfalls and craggy mountain peaks.

It was the people who live in Whittier that sparked a deep interest in me. The folks who call this slice of wild beauty home. I was particularly struck by a comment from one of the town’s residents: “We don’t always love each other, we don’t always get along, but when something awful happens, everyone is going to be there to help you.”

And that’s how I began to develop a character like Claire. Anterograde amnesia is a heartbreaking condition where a person is unable to create new memories. It affects daily life, work and social activities, not to mention relationships with family and friends. To cope, people suffering from this type of amnesia must rely on familiar routines, supportive networks, and strategies that help to structure their days. Whittier was the perfect home for Claire, whose character grew up there, and so it was a familiar and safe place for her to continue to live somewhat independently while managing her condition. Claire is resilient and brave and determined to make the most out of her every day. And just like the residents from the real Whittier, everyone in Claire’s world pulls together to help one of their own.

Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?

Whittier, Alaska was a former cold war army base. It was an ideal location in part because of the near constant cloud cover that often obscured the base from surveillance. But the weather is daunting: wind, rain, and snow that make living there a very real challenge. So the military built two stout structures, the Buckner and Hodge (now BTI) buildings, to house the personnel and their families. Today, BTI is where most of the nearly two hundred year-round Whittier residents call home. But the Buckner Building stands as a relic of the past. Once known as a city under one roof, its nearly 275,000 square feet included everything from barracks, a movie theater, radio station, bowling alley, hospital, jail cell, even a bakery. It was completed in 1953, cost millions of dollars to build, and seven years later it was abandoned when the Whittier port was deemed strategically unnecessary, and the military withdrew from town.

The Buckner was never used again, but to this day it perches up on a hill, a decaying reminder of what had been and with each year becomes more a part of the earth itself. It’s truly something to see, a little sad, a little spooky, and mostly a staggering illustration of the destructiveness of time and elements. When I was in Whittier, I walked up to the Buckner on a day when thick clouds had obscured the weak November sun, making everything a deep shade of gray. There was an opening in the fence and I slipped inside the building, standing in what looked to have been a loading dock. There was graffiti and beer cans and evidence of decades of people coming to look at a dying building. It was eerie and still and I won’t lie, it was a bit scary, too. But I thought of how busy it must have been once, polished surfaces, shining floors, everything new and efficient, busy with people and full of purpose. And that made me a little sad, too. I didn’t stay long but I was glad to have seen it and I couldn’t help wondering what it was like for people who actually lived in it.

Then, months later I received an email from a woman who had read Memories in the Drift. She had lived in the Buckner Building and then BTI as a child when her father was stationed there and she shared with me her memories of when the wind was so strong there were cables on the sidewalks to hold onto when walking, and the times when snow buried buildings, and how she and her brother went sledding on the parade field. The Buckner is still vacant and will always be, but it’s nice to think about it when it wasn’t, when it was full of life and people and memories in the making.

What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?

Memories in the Drift is a story is about resilience and hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable circumstances. I initially wrote about Whittier because of how unique it seemed at the time, but after this last year and with the very real way we’ve had to cut ourselves off socially from one another, it feels like many of us have experienced our own sense of remoteness and alienation from people, routine, and everything familiar.

Claire’s situation will never change, but she does have the love and support of her family, friends and her larger community and I think there is such beauty in how people come together for each other. My hope is that this story reflects what we see happen across communities of all sizes; a willingness to support and take care of each other whenever there’s a need. We see that now with the wildfires in my state and so many others, and how people reach out to help complete strangers. And we’ve seen it in the last few months, where communities rally around those who have been physically and economically affected by a global pandemic. And I hope it’s something that we continue to foster whether we live in a town of less than two hundred or one of two hundred thousand.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need to Know to Become a Great Author”? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Write, write, write. It’s like learning how to exercise even when you’re too tired. It’s a habit and habits are made only when we do something repetitively and with purpose. And write ugly. Don’t worry about how perfect it is, don’t fuss with commas or hem and haw about perfecting dialogue or aspen leaf descriptions, just set your pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard and write. My first manuscript, and the one I haven’t published yet, was an exercise in writing. I’m not going to lie, it showed, but when I got to The End and had a complete manuscript staring back at me, the sense of accomplishment was amazingly satisfying and fulfilling and it was my gut check for the next phase of writing: critiques, edits and revisions.

2. Find trusted readers who will honestly critique your writing. You want this, I promise. You really, really want to find people who will give you the feedback you need to take your story and writing to the next level. Not the ones who will tell you it’s great. I’m sure it is, but there’s always room for improvement and you want to find that room. Connect with other writers, find a critique group or form your own, ask people who you know will read with purpose and who aren’t afraid to be honest. Because before you have an agent and an editor, you have the tribe you build yourself and I promise you that they might just be with you through your entire journey. I was nervous to give my first draft to people, especially other writers, unsure how I would take criticism, worried they would hate it. Well, what I learned was to get used to it because as an author, this is what we do as a profession. We write a story and then send it out into the world to be read, yes, but also judged. So the sooner we get used to this feeling, the stronger we become in both our writing and our ability to roll with the punches.

3. Connect with other writers. Go to conferences, join online groups, attend webinars, read other’s manuscripts, support other writers on social media. We are a supportive lot because we all know the struggles and personal sacrifices so many of us make to create the stories that just won’t simmer down until we write them. Writing is a solitary effort, but the pursuit of it doesn’t have to be. We learn from each other, we lean on one another and we help each other deepen our craft.

4. Practice continuing education. You might have a writing degree or you might not. Either way, there is so much information and resources out there to continue to learn how to tighten your craft. Learn, teach others, learn some more, share it with others. For me, each book I write is a new opportunity to apply everything I learned from the last story and then try to learn something new, which isn’t hard because I do feel like a life-long student to this craft, and I love that I get to continue to discover new things about myself and my writing with each new story.

5. Do your research. When you’ve finished that bestselling novel and it’s time to query agents, research editors, or check out the varied publishing paths, take the time to educate yourself. Many agents have blogs and vlogs dedicated to supporting writers at all stages of the craft. Read their advice, take notes, ask questions. Use sites like Association of Authors’ Representatives and Publishers Marketplace to vet agents and publishers. Do your due diligence because this is your business and your product and you want to find the right partner and the path that fits you. It took me several months to get my very first query letter ready to send out because query writing is an art and I needed to take the time to learn it. But it was worth the time because while that first book didn’t get picked up, the query letter did its job and I gathered some interest and feedback that helped with my next project. And with the work I put into that first letter, when I queried my next book I hit the ground running and connected with my agent soon after.

What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?

I believe perseverance is key, but more importantly, a willingness to fail and learn from that failure. We all want to be successful, but success is made so much richer when we have had to work hard, fall short, and then learn from our mistakes to get there. Sometimes, we’re so afraid to talk about our failures, or perhaps, more appropriately, our unsuccessful attempts. But it’s the meat of being a writer. Nobody writes a perfect first draft. The work is in the revisions, the edits and in the ability to look at something we’ve created, take it apart, and make it better. Crafting a story takes time and patience and the discipline to see it through to the end. It’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned, but one I love because I plan on writing for as long as I am able, and I hope to be learning something new every step of the way.

Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?

I love books of all genres, from dark and moody to epic fantasy to quiet, but deeply moving stories about human interactions. For me, inspiration comes when I emotionally connect with a story and its characters and I absolutely love any book that pulls me into a perspective completely different from my own and teaches me something about that world or character.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I wish we could all remember what it means to have true empathy and compassion for one another and to see beyond stereotypes and perceptions to the individual. We are a divided nation and it seems we’ve forgotten how to see our differences as part of who we are, and instead we’ve focused on how our differences divide us. We’ve forgotten how to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Wouldn’t it be amazing if people would really take the time to learn the stories of others? To not jump to conclusions but to listen with open ears and generous hearts. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we all agreed to work toward healing instead of anger and division?

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Follow me on Instagram https://www.instagram.com/melissapayne_writes/

or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mtnpayne

Visit my website https://www.melissapayneauthor.com

Or email me at [email protected]

I love to hear from readers and Book Clubs too!

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