Damascena by Holly Lynn Payne
Today I’m excited to bring you an interview with author Holly Lynn Payne to talk about the writing process and her latest novel Damascena. Here is what one critic had to say about Damascena:
“This is one of the most gorgeous novels I’ve ever read. Payne’s research was so thorough. It makes me want to learn more about the dervishes, their religious practices, and about Rumi and his achingly beautiful poetry. The themes of forgiveness, spirituality and all the different forms of love resonated with me on every page.”
—Laura Marquez, Emmy Winner and former ABC News Correspondent
First, congratulations, Holly, on the completion of this ambitious undertaking!
HP: Thank you, Deb!
DA: I’m intrigued by the monk character. The prologue (and can I just say I’m a fan of prologues), which takes place later in time, foreshadows great trouble for this seemingly loyal caretaker who took great risks to protect his charge. Yet chapter one paints a man tormented by feelings of jealousy and inadequacy. Was he a difficult character to write? Did he surprise you as he moved through the book?
HP: Ivan Balev was the very first character who spoke to me when I started DAMASCENA. I heard the line “She was born beneath the shadow of a dance on the sixth day of the sixth month in the year 1256” and then I saw the monk standing there at the threshold of the chapel, witnessing her birth. In all the many iterations of this book, Ivan was always the first character to walk on stage so to speak. I didn’t realize what I was doing; by writing the antagonist first, and knowing him deeply, I was allowing myself to know who Damascena was since they are mirrors of each other. He did surprise me, however, when I understood the depth of his jealousies and the rage that drove him to murder. His flaws and shadowed side intrigued me and I found early on that I had compassion for him knowing that he and Damascena share the same kind of betrayals from their mothers—a rejection of sorts, until you read further and understand the vastly different circumstances around each of their core wounding.
DA: Author Carole Maso advises writers to carry a notebook and fill it with sensory details to call upon later. As I read your description of the public square, rich with images of colors and textures, I imagined you in Turkey jotting down the sights and smells in your notebook. However, your story takes place in the 13th century, so how did you go about creating your setting?
HP: I love those notebooks and I filled about a dozen pocket-sized ones during an earlier trip to Turkey to do research for my first novel, The Virgin’s Knot. As a trained journalist, I can’t help but bring them everywhere so I had a true sense of the landscape, the light, the textures, small moments, etc. Despite the time traveling required in Damascena, I found myself very much inside the story and writing from a three-dimensional place. I literally focused only on the buildings that were still standing from the 13th century today (as mentioned in Fodor’s and other travel books) and then I recreated from either paintings, drawings or simply from my imagination what the rest would look like. I still remember the scene when Rumi is fleeing his home town during the Mongol invasion. I can smell the dust and feel it in my nose. My heart beats faster. It’s very raw and real. I want to transport my readers, and if I am not transported when I’m actually writing, then I know something is off in the setting description. It’s a tricky dance. I used to overwrite all of that but this time, I had to go back and add some brushstrokes after a filmmaker friend of mine read an earlier draft and requested more sensory details.
DA: A recurring motif in at least two of your novels appears to be the orphan quest. (I admit to this same fascination in my own work.) I read somewhere that the orphan is a symbol of rebirth. Does that theme relate to Damescena?
HP: Interesting observation, Deb! Someone just pointed that out to me recently and I appreciate having to think about it now. In both books, The Sound of Blue, and Damascena, I’m working with the perception of being orphaned, separation from source (which I think we all experience being born and forgetting we’re part of this vast unity beyond words). In both cases, the protagonists actually do have mothers, but have been separated by circumstances beyond their control. I think what compels me about the orphan quest is the tie that binds — the chord of love that keeps these people awake at night, knowing this other person is there sending them messages, trying to communicate that they indeed exist—to somehow justify the obstacles of their journey and give them some kind of resilience and courage to keep going.
DA: I’ve explored the role serendipity plays in the writing process in a previous post. I notice from your website that you experienced a moment of serendipity before beginning Damascena. Can you explain how that moment impacted the novel?
HP: I’m intrigued by the whole phenomena of serendipity and synchronicity. To me, that’s when magic is happening and I want to experience magic in my life. The greatest moment of serendipity happened during the trip to Turkey in 1999. I stayed with a local rug merchant and his family. His cousin led me to a mosque and then to Rumi’s tomb at the ‘tekke’ — the Dervish Monastery which is now a museum in Konya. I had no idea who Rumi was then, but as I stood in the room where his body was put to rest, I could almost feel the electricity in the space. There was a sense of something rising through me. A shaking. Whatever it was, it compelled me to know who Rumi was and when I returned to the States, a boyfriend gifted me a copy of The Essential Rumi. It was my first reading of Rumi’s work. The messages were so clear: love. Just love. Everything came to that simple act. I wanted to know more and that quest led me to ‘meet’ Shams of Tabriz. Two years later, in June of 2001, I returned to Turkey to finalize research for The Virgin’s Knot, and I happened to see a magazine featuring a rose distillery in Isparta. I was intrigued by the idea of smelling roses for a mile away, and somehow, all of this got mixed into the story of Damascena.
DA: That’s cool, and I love how it all started with the cousin of a rug merchant. Thank you, Holly, for taking the time to talk about your new book. I wish you great success with Damascena!
HP: Thank you, Deb! Great questions!!! Wishing you much success too — and maybe I can interview you some day.
Ha ha! That would be fun…
HP: I’ve updated my Twitter handle, which was printed incorrectly in the book. Should be hollylynnpayne.
Be sure to visit Holly at: http://www.hollylynnpayne.com or follow her on Twitter @hollylynnpayne