Melissa Payne is the bestselling, award-winning author of “The Secrets of Lost Stones,” “Memories in the Drift” and “The Night of Many Endings.” Her forthcoming novel is “A Light in the Forest.” Melissa lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three children, a friendly mutt and a very loud cat. For more information, visit www.melissapayneauthor.com or find her on Instagram @melissapayne_writes.
SunLit: Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?
Melissa Payne: On a snowy mountain day (much like in the book), I was listening to an episode of the podcast “This American Life” called “The Room of Requirement” when I first heard about the Brautigan Library. Inspired by the 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 the curator and librarian, John F. Barber, faculty member of the Creative Media and Digital Culture program at Washington State University Vancouver. In the interview, Mr. Barber described a few of the volumes housed at the library, including some from one of its most prolific contributors, Albert Helzner.
Mr. Helzner contributed 16 philosophical manuscripts to the library. He was a chemical engineer and a chess enthusiast by day, and a philosopher by night who wrote deeply thought-provoking pieces. He held a U.S. 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 to feel those creative butterflies dancing inside, the ones I’ve learned to listen to because they mean an idea wants to grow. I immediately connected to the writings of Mr. Helzner and could feel the passion in his thinking and in the observations he shared through his manuscripts. He questioned the simple interactions among strangers, and his writings shed light on an individual’s unique experiences that led that person to any particular moment in time.
Inspired by Mr. Helzner’s writings, I considered how our experiences affect our interactions and perceptions of people and strangers, and those butterflies kept dancing when I linked my thoughts with another idea about people experiencing homelessness and our public libraries. It didn’t take long before the idea grew into a small town, a snowstorm, and five strangers stranded at a library.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Payne: I selected this excerpt because it sets up the conditions under which these five strangers are forced to shelter in place together. A homeless man who has just overdosed. The librarian with a brother she’s lost to addiction and the security guard who nobody truly sees. The young girl with a secret to hide and an older woman who struggles to acknowledge the good in others.
Add in an epic winter storm that’s shut down an entire town and these characters must find a way to work together through a very long night without light or heat.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you actually sat down to write?
Payne: I wrote this during 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 that the only way we find common ground is when we take the time to learn each other’s stories first.
It gives us the chance to understand a person different from ourselves when we invest in listening. I hoped that readers would enjoy spending the night with these five very different people as they let their barriers down and see one another for the individuals they are inside.
SunLit: 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?
Payne: From the beginning, the characters were very clear to me, from their appearance, their expressions and reactions to certain situations. Sometimes, it was hard to play out how they might interact with one another because I didn’t always like how they spoke to others or the assumptions they made about one another.
And sometimes, I didn’t appreciate the internal thoughts a few of the character’s would have. This was a book about growth and it was important to understand each character deeply in order to discover how they might impact the others.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
Payne: The biggest challenge was figuring out how to end it. I typically know my endings from the very beginning but this one was difficult for me to visualize. Partly because it was a new beginning for everyone but one still full of questions and uncertainty, like life is for most of us, I suppose. So it was a challenge to write an ending that felt like it would satisfy my characters and my readers.
SunLit: How did you create your five characters, and how did you choose which of them would be point-of-view characters?
Payne: I started with the librarian, Nora. She was my main character whose story drives much of the interactions and connections with the others. Marlene grew from a desire to create a character who 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 when faced with a night spent with strangers.
Lewis is a person experiencing homelessness, but I wanted to get past that definition to the person he was before that became all anyone else saw. I choose those three perspectives to tell the story because in their own and very different ways, they keep everyone who loves them at a distance. In some respects, 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 bit alone and carrying a heavier load than most teenagers. And Vlado had the perfect combination of strength and steadiness that was needed to keep everyone feeling safe, despite the cold and dark.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Payne: I tend to write in the morning at my desk. Sometimes I write in short spurts all day long, especially if I’m really into a scene or at the end of a chapter. If I’m under a deadline, then I’ll write until I hit my daily goals. With each book, my process looks a little different.
“The Night of Many Endings”
Where to find it
- Prospector: Search the combined catalogs of 23 Colorado libraries
- Libby: E-books and audio books
- NewPages Guide: List of Colorado independent bookstores
- Bookshop.org: Searchable database of bookstores nationwide
SunLit present new excerpts from some of the best Colorado authors that not only spin engaging narratives but also illuminate who we are as a community. Read more.
My kids get older and have different needs, the dog wants a walk in the morning instead of the afternoon, the house might be noisier than normal so my desk in the loft isn’t ideal and I have to find a quiet spot 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 I am and whenever I can and I’m just so grateful that I get to create stories every day.
SunLit: The setting and weather play a large role in this book. Can you describe how you wrote about the snowstorm in this novel?
Payne: I have lived through a similar snowstorm myself as have many of my fellow Coloradoans. The storm of 2003 dumped seven feet of snow and trapped us in our house for a week without heat or electricity until we were able to snowshoe down the driver of a front-end loader and hire him to come and dig us out.
Much like Marlene, years later I’m still telling stories about that storm. So, I had my own memories of the cold and dark to work from when developing the storm in “The Night of Many Endings” and it was fun to make it come alive on the page. And perhaps a little more tolerable to experience it in writing instead of in real-life.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Payne: I’m excited to announce that my next book, “A Light in the Forest,” comes out December 13. It brings back a touch of the magical realism that so many readers loved in my first book, “The Secrets of Lost Stones,” along with a host of lively 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. Her destination is a small Ohio town her late vagabond mother left years ago. It’s one full of nobodies, her mother warned. That makes it the ideal refuge for Vega to lie low, feel safe, and maybe learn more about a past her mother never spoke of.
Vega warms to the town and to new acquaintances like Heff, the young deputy and artist who prefers his yard art to actual policing, and empathetic Eve, a local farmer whose near-death experience gave her more than just her life back. But even in this welcoming community, there’s an undercurrent of something unsettled, talk of a tragedy that unfolded in the woods years ago, and a mystery connected to Vega in ways she couldn’t have anticipated.
As a mother on the run and following a path of mounting risks and illuminating secrets, Vega discovers that even during the darkest of times, there’s light in unexpected places.