Holly Payne's spellbinding tale brings the unparalleled poet, Mevlana Rumi, to life, and transports readers to the enchanting world of 13th century Persia. Simply but elegantly told, the story unravels the mystery surrounding a legendary orphaned girl, who discovers her gift of turning roses into oil. Named after the flowering rosa damascena, the girl reluctantly assumes the role of a living saint for the miracles she performs-longing for the only one that matters: finding her mother. Deeply wounded by the separation since birth, Damascena undergoes a riveting transformation when she meets Rumi and finally discovers the secret of the rose. Imbued with rich historical research and inspired by the devastating disappearance of Rumi's most lauded spiritual companion, Shams of Tabriz, Holly Payne has courageously opened herself to receive Rumi's teachings and offer a timeless love story.
What inspired you to start writing, and when? I was a child poet.
Tell us your latest news?
I'm the CEO and founder of a tech start-up for book discovery launching this year. We believe books are medicine and we're helping readers find just the right book for them. I'm also working on my first young adult novel—set in modern times in the houseboat community of Sausalito, CA, near me.
Can you tell us a little bit about your latest work?
Damascena is a work of historical fiction set during the time of Rumi. I 'met' Rumi when I was in Konya, Turkey, doing research for my first novel, The Virgin's Knot. I had no idea who he was but was accidentally led to his tomb. After that, I wanted to know everything about him, why so many people respected and revered Mevlana, which means 'our master.' I had no idea that by writing this novel, I was writing my way through the trauma of an impending divorce. Sometimes life really is stranger than fiction. During the darkest days, I asked, "What would Rumi say?" He would tell me to 'find joy in the midst of my despair.' That is a true Sufi. Rumi became a teacher for me in a way he also taught Damascena. This book felt like I was like living two lives simultaneously.
How long did it take you to complete?
That's a great question. I had the idea while I was working on my first novel, but that was 15 years ago. I think in many ways, I had to live more in order to write Damascena. I had to go through my own fire. As Rumi said, "I was raw, I was cooked, I was burned." This book probably took more than a decade and I spent two years of that rewriting it. I cut more than half. The published draft is very tight, very minimal compared to my other work.
Are any of your characters based on real-life friends or acquaintances?
Maybe in a past life, if you believe in that sort of thing. I do.
Tell us about your cover. Did you design it yourself?
The cover was designed by a talented local designer in San Francisco, Ayo Seligman. He had about a dozen renderings to show me. They were all beautiful. He told me he was saving his favorite for last. When I saw what he choose, I was baffled. He totally understood the need to go subtle and the Getty image he found is a wall carved in stone with sacred geometry—the stars and the sun, each one looking like a flower blossoming. I was thrilled! If you stare at it long enough, the image becomes 3-dimensional. I didn't want any pictures on the cover. No people. I wanted it to look authentic to its time, the 13th century. I wanted it to be very subtle, non-genderized, and yet express a much deeper complexity to match the tone of the story. It's a very quiet but surprising cover.
Where did you get the inspiration for your cover?
I had wanted to use Beth Moon's Raven picture. When I saw it years ago, it was the one image that inspired the character Damascena. Her solitude and depth and all the things that haunt her. Beth is a local photographer but was unable to give me the rights to use it without raising alarm for her collectors. I love her photography and the poetry she captures. So, after that, I went through one more cover designer before I was introduced to Ayo. He's the one who came up with the sacred geometry carved in stone. It had a timeless quality to it.
Do you plot or write by the seat of your pants?
I'm a big believer in the power of intuition and write from those powerful instincts and insights, however, I'm also a huge fan of narrative design. That said, I always figure out the character arcs, which guide the plot. Many writers forget that the only real rule for writing good fiction, or telling a compelling story, is cause and effect. What a character does to get her/his needs met is the plot. Once you know what your story driver is—what the character needs or wants, you can fill in the blanks. You might not know how they get these needs met but you know some obligatory events. I knew there was going to be a fire in Damascena. I sensed where in the story it would happen, but I didn't know why. I had to write my way through the story to know that.
Do you have any advice for other writers starting out?
Finish. No matter what. Finish what you start. Energy's neither created nor destroyed, so even if it's a horrible first draft, it's something to revise. Keep going!
Ok, now some fun questions….
Coffee or Tea? Tea. By far. Philz coffee black tea. Pure mental jet fuel.
White Chocolate, Dark Chocolate or Milk Chocolate? I'm a jelly bean girl!
What is your favourite colour? Green
Winter or Summer? Summer
If you could have one superpower what would it be? I snap my fingers and a Food52 inspired dinner appears on my table after a long day working.
If you could be somebody else for a day who would you choose and why? Jon Stewert. Or Terri Gross. To meet all those fabulous folks they interview and be filled up with inspiration!
What are three things you never leave home without (apart from keys, money and phone)? Lip gloss. Water bottle. Hand wipes (I'm a mom of a 4 year old) and some safety snack (not for her, for me!)
Are you a technology buff (i.e have every electronic gadget known to man)? Ironically no. And yet I'm creating technology to help people find the right book for them. Are you laughing?
What is a movie or TV show that you watched just recently and enjoyed? The Theory of Everything. The perfect date film. So sweet. So endearing. And to know that Steven Hawking is still with us on the planet, that his genius still thrives among us is pretty freaking incredible. What a gift!