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SunLit

SunLit Interview: An isolated Alaska town and a memory condition sparked a novel

Author Melissa Payne grew fascinated by the close-knit community and made it the setting for her protagonist dealing with anterograde amnesia

Melissa Payne is the bestselling author who first learned the real importance of storytelling when she worked for a residential and day treatment center for abused and neglected children, where she wrote speeches and letters to raise funds. The truth in those stories was written to evoke in the reader a call to action: to give, to help, to make a difference. Her love of writing and sharing stories in all forms has endured. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three children. For more information, visit www.melissapayneauthor.com.


Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate? 

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 200 or so year-round residents live in a 14-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.  

UNDERWRITTEN BY

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.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it? 

I think this excerpt shows Claire’s exceptional ability to use the clues and facts around her to piece together her moments. It also gives insight into her relationship with her father and her tightness to the community. I love how Claire faces her challenges head on and that she never lets it stop her from living or connecting with others.

In this particular scene, she finds a young girl in her kitchen. She doesn’t remember why this girl is in her apartment or who she is but instead of letting this moment make her unsure of herself or withdraw, Claire engages the girl to find out more. This interaction provides a critical insight into Claire’s desire for community and relationships, something I believe we all share. 

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write the book? 

As I mentioned before, I was drawn to Whittier from a documentary I’d watched and I wanted to create a story that highlighted what I found so beautiful about a place like Whittier. The idea for Claire grew from a study I discovered when I was researching this condition. It was about a very real-life woman who had managed for many years to live with severe short-term memory loss without many in her life knowing. 

Because of her extraordinary organizational skills, she held down a job as a project manager in addition to being a wife and mother. Her desire for a family and a career drove her to develop a system that, much like Claire’s, allowed her to sustain relationships and to create a life that suited her despite her significant memory challenges. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? If so, how would you describe dealing with a narrative that seems to have a mind of its own?

I have a pretty strong idea of where I want a story to go before I even sit down to write. However, as characters develop they can shift the narrative to a place I wasn’t expecting. I love when this happens because it means a character has developed to a point where they are defined and very real to me. 

This story did take me a few tries to get right because it was tricky writing from Claire’s perspective given her significant memory loss. I wanted her memory to be authentic to her condition, but remembering in each scene what I shouldn’t be remembering was a challenge and sometimes took me down a path I hadn’t planned on.

What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book? 

My biggest challenge was writing from the perspective of a character with short-term memory loss. I wrote Claire in first person and to do that, I had to stay within her limited purview. That did give the story a feeling of starting and stopping and repetition, but the idea was to feel fully immersed in Claire’s world so that we as readers could experience her entire story. 

I wrote “Memories in the Drift” right before the pandemic altered our world and our own realities. So, the idea of a secluded town that was cut off socially and geographically seemed unique at the time, but after quarantine and masks and socially distancing from one another, it feels like many of us have experienced our own sense of remoteness and alienation from people, routine, and everything familiar. And that we, like Claire, are in a constant process of adapting to our shifting realities in an effort to stay connected to each other. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

Some readers struggled with reading from Claire’s perspective. It was frustrating to have to remember with her over and over again. I can understand that as it was a challenge to do it as a writer. 

However, I don’t think it’s a bad emotion to have experienced along with Claire. So many of us have loved ones with some degree of memory loss or will at some point in our lives, and it’s a good reminder of how incredibly frustrating and emotionally heartbreaking it must be for them and for their caregiver to have to navigate their lives and their relationships around that loss. 

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

I write anywhere and at any time depending on the day and the deadline. When I first started writing, I used every available moment to write, even if it was only a paragraph or during a short 15 minutes between school pick-ups. 

Later, I earned myself an office and got into a routine, particularly during quarantine, of writing at my desk in the morning and keeping more office-like hours. Lately, as we’ve eased back into more normal times, I have discovered how much of my creativity is fed through interactions with others, through meeting and interviewing and experiencing the lives of people different from myself and listening to their stories. I’ve missed that. 

So I would say that my writing process is an ever-evolving one that will probably always look a little different depending on my time of life or the state of the world. 

Did you visit Whittier before writing your book? 

I was so lucky to have the chance to visit Whittier right before the pandemic shut down travel. At that point I had written my first draft, so I was familiar with Claire and the town but I needed to be there, to experience it as Claire would in order to bring it to life in the story. 

From the very first person I met at the tunnel to the warm welcome from the town mayor and his wife, who is also the school secretary, I felt myself immersed in Claire’s world. I was even able to get a glimpse inside the Buckner Building, a Cold War-era military building once known as the “city under one roof” but that has slowly become part of the landscape from decades of disuse. 

I stayed in the bed and breakfast in Begich Towers and walked the quiet winter streets as though I were Claire. I hiked trails around town, took in the stunning rugged beauty of the mountains and the staggering glaciers and numerous waterfalls. It is a truly beautiful slice of earth. The only thing I did not see was a bear. But I put that into my story anyway. 

Tell us about your next project.

My next book, “The Night of Many Endings” comes out October 19, 2021. During an epic winter storm in the mountains of Colorado a group of five strangers are stuck at the Silver Ridge Library waiting out the dark and cold snowy night. 

Before the storm ends, this collection of lonely hearts is forced to see the world through each other’s eyes: a homeless addict, a teenage girl, an elderly loner, a lovesick security guard, and the librarian who believes in purpose, even when all hope seems lost. 

A character-driven story about hope and second chances, “The Night of Many Endings” is an emotional journey of lives torn apart by addiction and loss, the courage it takes to put it all back together, and how a night spent with strangers could be the new beginning that none of them thought was possible. 


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