First Success

Author: Holly Payne, 30, studied journalism at the University of Richmond in Virginia and earned her master”s from the Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California. She currently teaches screenwriting at the Academy of Arts College in San Francisco.

Book: The Virgin”s Knot (Dutton, July) is the fictional tale of Nurdane, a virgin-weaver from a mountain village in southwestern Turkey, who has been taught that Allah will only continue to work through her hands as long as she keeps her virginity. Nurdane soon faces a struggle between her creative gift, her religious faith and her limited place in society when she falls in love with an American.

When Holly Payne returned from her first trip to Turkey in 1995, she knew she had an incredible story on her hands. The trick was discovering exactly what story to tell.

Payne, who started down the road of writing at 14, writes both screenplays and fiction. But her view of how stories are created (or not) may surprise some writers. “I don”t think you end up writing a story. I think you end up discovering a story,” says Payne. “I had no idea I was writing a story that would end [the way this book did].”

A chance encounter with a local rug dealer in Istanbul served as part of the inspiration for The Virgin”s Knot. “He told me the difference between the way a virgin”s knot is tied and the way a widow”s knot is tied,” says Payne. “And being a little gullible, I believed him.”

She walked away from that encounter knowing a story was there, but it took her several years to discover what that story was.

Research was essential, particularly since Payne wanted to capture the essence of Turkey during the 1950s. “I”m not an expert on Islamic culture or the situation for women in Muslim countries, but at the same time you want to get as close as possible to portraying the culture.”

In 1999, when she returned from her second trip to Turkey, Payne had what she calls a “false start” on her book. “I just didn”t enter the story at the right place and I didn”t know what I was doing.” Still, Payne managed to write nearly 350 pages in two and a half months before stopping.

Payne attributes her big break to James Dalessandro, author of Bohemian Heart. In July 1999, Payne gave what she refers to as “the worst 45-minute pitch you can imagine” to Dalessandro during lunch. He immediately picked up his cell phone, called agent Peter Miller and told him, “I”m sitting across from your next client.”

Then, after having left the manuscript alone for a semester, she decided to start fresh in January 2000, throwing out all 350 pages of the original manuscript.

As far as the publishing process is concerned, Payne”s advice is simple: “You have to be willing to listen to other people”s suggestions because they have the experience and you don”t.”

Payne, whose literary influences include Michael Ondaatje and Cormac McCarthy, says she still has mountains to learn about writing. “I know that if I keep writing until the day I die I”ll be pretty happy because I”ll have to keep learning things.”

Despite the recent flood of books about Islamic culture, Payne believes her book has a broad appeal. “I think [the story] is very universal. You can bring it to anywhere in the world where women aren”t allowed to do what they want to do.”

Payne is currently working on a spec screenplay and an independent film short. Her key to keeping busy is also her advice for writers.”If you set your boundaries in other areas of your life so you can focus and nurture that writer that”s in you, you will finish. It”s the rule and the cardinal sin of writing at the same time: Writers start things and never finish them. But you have to finish them if you want to succeed.”

This article appeared in the July 2002 issue of Writer”s Digest.

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