Vermont physician becomes first-time novelist
Writing and healing have waged a lifelong struggle for the soul of Stephen Payne, M.D., surgeon and author of the new novel “Cliff Walking,” and fortunately, both have been on the winning side.
Dr. Payne, a general surgeon at Northwest Medical Center in St. Albans who has written a number of short stories over the years on the way to his first novel, ascribes his interest in writing to multiple sources.
"My grandmother was a poet of sorts and used to cut poems out of the Burlington Free Press,” said Dr. Payne. “I started writing when I was a really little kid. Then, in sixth grade, I wrote a book and illustrated it. It was called Sky Bound, and I was in Mr. Hubbard's class. I was not his favorite student, but he took me aside, and said, 'This is really fabulous; you should keep writing.”
Dr. Payne also credits the late Dr. John Davis, the legendary chief of surgery at UVM, with giving him strong encouragement to pursue writing while he was in medical school.
"Dr. Davis and I became friends, and I shared some of my short stories with him,” said Dr. Payne. “One Monday afternoon after some of the med students had raised some hell, nothing awful, but nothing he'd be proud of, I got called to his corner office, and I thought, oh boy, he found out. He said, 'Come in and shut the door.' He had this serious look on his face, and he said, 'Steve, I want to talk to you about that incident on Saturday night, but before we get to that, there's something more important. I want to tell you, I read your stories and I don't care what else you do, in surgery or whatever, you must keep writing.' What a classy guy. I really owe a debt to him.”
Fast forward to 2011, and the publication of "Cliff Walking," after a labor of 16 years and 42 rewrites. Set in Maine, "Cliff Walking" tells the story of a romance between a well-known artist who has lost his wife to cancer and a woman from California who has escaped with her son from an abusive relationship by stowing away on the Canadian railroad.
"Cliff Walking" is a love story, but one that includes a sizable helping of spousal and child abuse, and Dr. Payne has announced that a portion of the proceeds from its sale will go to groups that combat such abuse including Prevent Child Abuse Vermont. The origin of these literary and charitable decisions dates from Dr. Payne's time at Tufts in the early 1970s, when he worked as a deputy sheriff in the Northeast Kingdom's Caledonia County during the summer. At that time, he remembers people were rarely if ever prosecuted, there was a tendency to consider domestic violence as private business.
A particularly moving outcome of the publication of his novel, Dr. Payne says, has been hearing from women all around the U.S. who have experienced abuse and found the story of his female protagonist meaningful. At one medical social engagement, an awards ceremony, the woman in charge of the proceedings spoke up spontaneously about his book about how she had been abused and had never had the courage to talk about it until then.
"To have this prominent woman say that my book had helped her start to heal …I was just blown away," said Dr. Payne.
For more information about Dr. Stephen Payne, his novel "Cliff Walking" and links to several of his published stories, visit stephenrussellpayne.com.