Melissa Payne is the bestselling author of four novels, including “A Light in the Forest” and “The Night of Many Endings.” After an early career raising money for nonprofit organizations, Melissa began dreaming about becoming a published author and wrote her first novel. Her books have been three-time Colorado Book Award finalists and Colorado Authors League 2019 and 2023 winners for mainstream fiction. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains with her husband and three children. 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: I didn’t grow up in a small town but my husband and I have raised our children in a smallish mountain one. The kind of place where you can’t leave the grocery store without running into a friend, or one of the kids’ teachers, or someone from the orthodontist office.
Many of my books are set in small towns and “A Light in the Forest” is no exception. With this story, however, I wanted to explore the good and the challenging that comes with living in a place where everybody knows your name. I was inspired by stories of small communities coming together to protect and help one another, despite political, economic and social differences.
And as I do with most stories, I wanted to explore stereotypes from all perspectives and find ways to shatter what we think we know about others. This is a story about finding hope, even in the darkest of times and learning to trust others when everything seems lost.
SunLit: Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?
Payne: Vega is on the run from an abusive relationship with nothing but the van she grew up in and her 2-month-old baby. She hides in the town of Crystal, Ohio, a place her late mother once told her was full of nobodies and bullies.
But the town holds secrets of its own and as much as she tries to keep to herself, Vega discovers a mystery connected to her in ways she never anticipated. This excerpt follows Vega when she finds the bus in the woods. The same one pictured in a photo with her mother taken when she was just a girl. It’s the moment when Vega feels the most alone.
SunLit: Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project before you sat down to write?
Payne: The creative seed for this story started with a character, Vega, who had grown up on the road with her mother, Renee, a “handywoman for women.” But what her mother really did was to help women in abusive situations get the help they needed to escape.
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.
I loved this idea of a secret network of women doing whatever it took to keep each other safe and I thought that was the story. But then Vega’s character took over and I had so many questions. What had her life been like on the road with her mother? How had it influenced her? And what was her mother’s story? Why had she chosen to raise her only child on the road? What prevented her from settling down, especially when it was what Vega had wanted most as a child? And what if Vega one day found herself in the same situation as the women her mother had helped, but without her mother there to protect her?
Then, as it does with writing, the characters pulled me along into a slightly different direction. I love when this happens because it means that the world I’m creating has come alive for me.
I have pretty clear ideas about a story from the beginning but I’m open to change when it’s clear that it’s a better direction and this was. So Vega took me to Crystal and from there developed Eve, Heff, Betty and Carl, and all the others who made this town so special and the perfect place for Vega and her baby.
SunLit: Are there lessons you take away from each experience of writing a book? And if so, what did the process of writing this book add to your knowledge and understanding of your craft and/or the subject matter?
Payne: I learn something new with each book I write. With “A Light in the Forest” I learned that sometimes the only answer is to stop. During the writing of this book, my dad got sick and passed away. For months, I couldn’t write, even when I spent hours and hours in a hospital room.
I tried, but when I took my computer out, the words didn’t come. So I stopped trying and spent those days beside my dad watching movies, getting him ice cold water when he was so thirsty nothing would slake his thirst, ordering terrible hospital meals and sometimes just holding his hand. I had to ask for an extension on my deadline.
A part of me wasn’t sure if I would ever finish the book because I didn’t know if my heart was in it anymore. A few weeks after he died, I started writing again. Partly because my deadline was looming, partly because it gave me a place to go when I was overwhelmed by grief.
It helped me to spend that time with Vega. She’d lost her mother too and missed her guidance and her friendship. I could relate to her pain. And writing was the truest form of escape for me, letting me grieve over time and sometimes alone, even as I was surrounded by the love of my family and friends. Much like Vega.
“A Light in the Forest”
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.
I finished this book grateful I’d stopped so that the words could come later and I had time with my dad when both of us needed it the most. I also learned to be kind to my creativity and allow it to go dormant when it was for the best. I had to trust that when it was time, the story would come. And it did.
SunLit: What were the biggest challenges you faced in writing this book?
Payne: “A Light in the Forest” has a host of characters with very different personalities but all equally important to get right. My biggest challenge was making sure everyone had a distinct voice and characteristic that kept the reader engaged and easily able to identify them without slowing the pace.
It made for fun writing days and a very crowded imagination but I enjoyed the challenge. It’s also told in two timelines so I needed to make sure that the timelines served one another and the book as a whole and didn’t lose the reader when it switched between the two.
SunLit: If you could pick just one thing — a theme, lesson, emotion or realization — that readers would take from this book, what would that be?
Payne: More love and acceptance. It sounds so chintzy, like a Miss America pageant kind of answer. But sometimes the hardest thing to do is love. We rely too much on how someone looks, or we get caught up in our differences, finding it easier to accept and spend time with people who are the most like us. I wish for all of us that we broaden our concepts of love and see how beautiful and expansive it can be in all its forms.
SunLit: In a highly politicized atmosphere where books, and people’s access to them, has become increasingly contentious, what would you add to the conversation about books, libraries and generally the availability of literature in the public sphere?
Payne: I’ve often thought about this issue in terms of how I parent. I have never kept information from my kids. When they were curious, I encouraged them to ask questions, to learn, even if those questions were so big the answers had to be delivered in age-appropriate ways, maybe even in bits and pieces as they grew.
But never have I discouraged them from asking, shut down their curiosity or worried that their access to information was destructive. I think fear drives many decisions and I don’t believe that blanket policies or book banning is the answer. Libraries are public spaces, books and stories are how we learn, grow, relate to one another, discover new ideas, develop our own. And access to all of this should be an inherent right of all people.
SunLit: Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write?
Payne: Morning is my favorite time to write. It’s full of so much possibility, and the quietest time of the day, after the kids are off to school. But I’ve learned that sometimes I have to write whenever and wherever I can, that my muse isn’t the perfect time of day or the picture-perfect office. It’s the story that threads itself into my dreams, the characters that wake me up with their whispered demands, the blinking cursor that taunts my fingers to write.
SunLit: Tell us about your next project.
Payne: My next book, “The Wild Road Home,” will be released March of 2024. It’s the story about a man who fakes his own death to help his wife get the care she needs, a girl who kidnaps her younger brother to save him from their meth-addicted mother, and a chance encounter in the wild lands of Wyoming that sets these unlikely companions on an adventure to find home.
Quick hits: A quirky collection of questions
SunLit: Do you look forward to the actual work of writing or is it a chore that you dread but must do to achieve good things?
Payne: Revisions can feel like a chore, but still the fun kind, if there is such a thing. Revising can be laborious. It’s the puzzle round when you take pieces of the story apart, trim them, expand on them, or change them completely, and when you put it all back together the pieces must fit seamlessly together.
SunLit: What’s the first piece of writing – at any age – that you remember being proud of?
Payne: The diary I wrote in the third grade from the perspective of a girl who vanished with the Lost Colony. My mom helped me burn the edges to make it look old, lost and mysterious. I mostly remember the burning part, but the story was riveting, I’m sure.
SunLit: When you look back at your early professional writing, how do you feel about it? Impressed? Embarrassed? Satisfied? Wish you could have a do-over?
Payne: For me, my writing is always evolving. It’s a reflection of experience, craft and my stage of life. I’m a work in progress and I believe my storytelling will always reflect those unfinished pieces of me.
I don’t write to attain perfection. Each story is a chance for me to learn about myself, my characters, something new about the world, and I’m okay for my books to reflect that.
SunLit: What three writers, from any era, can you imagine having over for a great discussion about literature and writing? And why?
Payne: Jane Austen because I love the simplicity and nuance of “Pride and Prejudice” and how relatable it continues to be two hundred years later.
I admire Audre Lorde for her exquisite and honest prose and her skillful way of stringing together beautiful words to shine light on harsh realities.
I would love to sit with Nien Cheng, author of “Life and Death in Shanghai.” Not only was her story of surviving imprisonment during China’s Cultural Revolution and after captivating, it was also so well written I didn’t want her story to end.
SunLit: Do you have a favorite quote about writing?
Payne: I have two but they both play in my head on repeat when I write.
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.” Anne Lamott
“I believe that the road to hell is paved with adverbs, and I will shout it from the rooftops. To put it another way, they’re like dandelions.” Stephen King
SunLit: What does the current collection of books on your home shelves tell visitors about you?
Payne: My bookshelf is much like my music – a collection of different genres. What I love most in any book be it fantasy, thriller, literary or nonfiction are the characters. Do they pull me into their world? Make me turn the pages to find out what happens next? Teach me something new? If so, then count me in.
SunLit: Soundtrack or silence? What’s the audio background that helps you write?
Payne: A little bit of both depending on what I’m writing and my mood. If it’s music, then typically something I’m not familiar with so I don’t start singing along and break my concentration. Sometimes classical, sometimes electronic, and on the rare occasion I’ve even been known to listen to metal, but only when a character or scene called for it.
SunLit: What event, and at what age, convinced you that you wanted to be a writer?
Payne: I’ve always loved writing. Words are my go-to expression, apart from my hands which unless I’m typing, fly around me when I speak. At the invention of email, I was unleashed, writing funny asides to bolster a point, using it as an early form of a blog before blogs were even a thing.
I’m sorry to everyone who used to receive those emails from me. It took years and the midpoint of my life before I began to believe I could be the kind of writer who wrote entire books. And I couldn’t be more grateful that I took that leap.
SunLit: As an author, what do you most fear?
Payne: The day I can’t write.
SunLit: Also as an author, what brings you the greatest satisfaction?
Payne: Every single book I publish and the readers who immerse themselves into my imagined worlds.