Sunday, November 29, 2020

Q&A with Melissa Payne

Photo by Eric Weber Studios


Melissa Payne is the author of the new novel Memories in the Drift. She lives in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.


Q: How did you come up with the idea for Memories in the Drift, and for your character Claire?


A: 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.  


Q: What was it like to write from the perspective of someone with short-term memory loss?


A: This was a huge challenge because I wanted to stay as true to her experience as I could. I had to constantly evaluate a scene to make sure that Claire stayed within her limited scope of memory. It was difficult to keep her genuine when I wanted so badly for her to remember, and at times heartbreaking and frustrating when I knew it simply wasn’t possible for her.


It made me think about anyone who deals with memory loss and how difficult and challenging it must be for both the person experiencing memory loss and their loved ones. 


Q: As you mentioned, the novel takes place in Whittier, Alaska. How important is setting to you in your writing?


A: For me, setting is crucial to my stories and I often think of it as one of my characters, whether that’s in a small mountain community in Colorado, or a remote Alaskan town accessible by a tunnel, or an old library in the middle of a snowstorm. I love figuring out how the characters interact with where they live or work and how it plays into their relationships and within a scene.


Weather plays a big role in my writing as well and that is probably due to how it affects me personally and how it can affect a scene or a character’s mood. Words flow when snow or a mountain thunderstorm batters my office window, but I have to force myself to sit and write when the sky is a flawless blue and the trails are calling my name. 


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the story?


A: 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.


We see that now with the wildfires in my state and how people reach out to help complete strangers. And we've seen it the last few months, when communities rallied around those who have been physically and economically affected by a global pandemic. 


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.


My hope is that this story shows how even in seemingly insurmountable circumstances there can be light and hope and that when things get hard, we can pull ourselves together and be there for each other, even if “we don’t always love each other or get along.” 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I just submitted the manuscript for my next book, which comes out October 2021. It’s about five people stranded in an old library in the middle of an epic snowstorm. I wrote it during a very hot and dry summer and it was a welcome relief to write about so much cold.


This story is about people, stereotypes and perspectives, and about how our world views shape our actions, our thoughts, our relationships. It’s also about the deep change that occurs when we take the time to learn the stories of other people and to experience the world through a lens different from our own. I’m very excited about this book and can’t wait to share it with my readers.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I started down this writing path unsure about my destination. Could I write a book? Would I ever be published? Would anyone like my stories? So many questions and moments of doubt plagued me from the very first word I typed. (And still do at times.)


But I have found so much support and inspiration among other writers who write for the love of creating stories and worlds where readers can get lost in for a while. And I encourage all my fellow aspiring writers to do the same. Tell your story and don’t be afraid to reach out for help, guidance, or support when the going gets tough. 


Find me at or follow me on Instagram @melissapayne_writes


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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