Vermonters’ struggles reflected in fiction

Physician hopes stories will provoke thought

Elaine Ezerins

By Elaine Ezerins

Staff Writer

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I’ve always been moved by stories that try to get us to think more deeply about the way we live and the way we treat people.

- Dr. Stephen Payne

ST. ALBANS — Local physician and lifelong writer Stephen Payne, 61, has released a collection of Vermont short stories, Ties That Bind Us, highlighting hardship, human frailty and the beauty of modest lives in northern rural communities.

Payne will be at The Eloquent Page at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 20, to discuss and sign his book as well as read a selection. A portion of the proceeds from this event will be given to Martha’s Kitchen.

Writing and illustrating his first book in sixth grade, Payne grew up in the Northeast Kingdom, with a family comprised of some writers and storytellers. He went on to earn post-secondary degrees in both English and medicine. Payne has already written two novels, Cliff Walking and Riding My Guitar- The Rick Norcross Story, and practices general surgery in St. Albans. Ties That Bind Us is his first collection of short stories.

Payne said he hopes readers will appreciate his short stories for the quality of writing but also for the messages they instill.

“I really try to impart life lessons and ways to deal with struggle, whether its the really tough times that people go through trying to keep a small family farm going to issues in the title story, “Ties That Bind Us,” that has to do with race and prejudice,” Payne said.

“I’ve always been moved by stories that try to get us to think more deeply about the way we live and the way we treat people,” Payne continued.

The plot in many of his short stories challenge readers and get at the underbelly of human struggles with abuse, illness, and death.

“There’s an awful lot of literature out there that I don’t think really deals with some of the most difficult things that people have to deal,” Payne explained. “While there is a lot of tragedy and difficult things in the book, I try to, in the end of most stories, deliver either some message of hope or really try to help people have a different perspective or think about the tough things in life that they go through.”

Payne said from his experience as a physician, he sees people struggle to deal with tragedy. “It’s the difficult or tragic or challenging things that everybody goes through, but many people just don’t want to talk about,” he said.

Some of the short stories in the collection were published before. Payne said the feedback he got from readers and editors was appreciation for the chance “to immerse themselves in hard hitting stories that stimulate conversations about the tough things in life.”

Payne said none of these stories are from direct personal experiences or people he’s encountered but rather emotional issues he’s experienced or seen as a physician. “All of these stories I think have come from my total experience living in Vermont,” he said.

One of the short stories, “No Sharks in Vermont,” tells the tale of a young man who loses his last living relative to a tragic shark accident off the coast of Mexico. The man must return to his hometown in Vermont and share the news of his grandfather’s death to the community, who had been loved by many. This loss also forces the man to reconsider his decision to practice medicine locally.

“That story kind of combined all sorts of elements,” Payne added, including some dilemmas Vermont currently faces, such as young people leaving the state and the struggle to attract and keep physicians in Vermont.

“I’m hoping these stories can become a focal point around which people discuss some of these issues,” he said.

Payne said the idea for the story came to him “in a flash” when he and his family were visiting and snorkeling in Mexico. Not long after, while Payne was teaching at UVM Medical School in Burlington, a man with a huge influence in the community, died suddenly. “And as often happens, ideas kind of swim around in my head,” he said.

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