by Susan Braden, CT Insider/Shoreline Times, February 4, 2022
Reconnecting with a long-lost love online is not a new story — but it’s one that still captures the imagination of many people.
What if? — that’s the big question that Branford writer Jen Payne aims to answer in her new novel, Water Under The Bridge: A Sort-of Love Story.
Set in the early 2000s, the story is told through a series of emails between two former loves who find each other online after years of leading separate lives. And it’s a story readers can relate to, the author said.
“I think it’s one of these things where people reconnect after however many years,” and think, “‘Well, what’s going to happen?’” Payne said.
The epistolary novel is reminiscent of the hit ’90s rom-com You’ve Got Mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, produced nearly a decade before social media popped up on anyone’s radar or screen. Long before smart phones and tablets, people communicated online via their home computer. In the movie, Hanks and Ryan fall in love through email.
An epistolary novel is one written as a series of letters, in this case emails, Payne said.
Payne’s novel is a personal story which she calls “creative nonfiction.” She describes the book as part “conversation, a memoir, a love story.”
While Payne was going through this email exchange in real time, she knew it would make a good book — whichever way it turned out. So she saved all the emails all these years.
When she started to write the novel, “it had a life of its own,” Payne said.
In the book, Payne captures the first ripples of excitement, her fear of embarrassment and the emotional rush of what it might be like to reconnect with someone special from the past.
Payne wanted readers to see themselves and recognize “those moments when you fall in love — either you fall in love with a person, you fall in love with a situation, you may fall in love with a new baby.
“Those moments that create great change for us and how it opens our heart,” she said.
While a true story, Payne said she was “creatively interpretative” in her use of the actual emails — they have a poetic cadence to them. She never names either character.
Catching up with a lost love is a universal theme, she said. When Payne gave a copy of her book to a fellow writer, Payne recalled her friend’s eager response, “She said, ‘Oh, that happened to me, too!’”
Payne recalled a relative of hers who “met up with his high school sweetheart at his 30th reunion and ended up getting married — so you never know,” she said with a smile.
In an excerpt from “Water Under the Bridge,” Payne writes about her nervous anticipation of meeting with her lost love:
“Was he checking his email as often as she was? Did he feel like a teenager, too? She was kicking herself for the silly reaction to him – the sudden leap of her heart, the grin on her face.”
The book also marks a time in Payne’s life when she wasn’t writing, but working as a graphic artist in marketing.
“People know me as the writer, the poet, this creative person,” she said. “Before this moment I wasn’t any of that. I wasn’t writing, I wasn’t creating.
“This is the moment that changed me,” she said.
Payne, a graphic designer who owns her own public relations firm, is well known on the shoreline — she has done publicity with her company, Words By Jen, for local organizations for years such as The Branford Land Trust, Branford Compassion Club, Branford Community Gardens and Guilford Art Center. She is an active member of the Arts Council of Greater New Haven and the Branford Arts and Cultural Alliance, as well.
The former member of the Guilford Poets Guild also is known as a writer and continues to write poetry. She has written and published four other books LOOK UP! Musings on the Nature of Mindfulness, Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind, FLOSSING, and Waiting Out the Storm— under her own imprint of Three Chairs Publishing.
Payne handles nearly all aspects of publishing, and outsources where she needs to for editing and printing: “I have really good resources,” she said.
Payne purposely left a few pages of the book blank, with just the date printed on top — these are to show when the writer is awaiting a response to her email that did not come that day — lending a sense of time passing.
“This is designed to take you almost physically into the experience of reading the emails. Every email is on one page,” she noted.
Payne painstakingly chose the artwork for the cover, and found the artist, Sarah Zar, online at Etsy. Payne so loved her work that Zar will be exhibiting art in her show, “Bigger on the Inside” in the lobby at Guilford Art Center where a book-signing will take place.
“We’re excited to host this event and exhibition,” Maureen Belden, executive director of the Guilford Art Center, said in an email. “Jen is a wonderful writer, and happens to be GAC’s longtime graphic designer, an art form at which she also excels.”
Belden added, “We’re also looking forward to featuring the work of cover artist Sarah Zar, whose richly detailed images and objects complement Jen’s words.”
Another one of Payne’s favorite creative endeavors are her printed “zines,” called “Manifest (zine)” that she creates from the page up — from writing, layout and design.
Payne calls these zines “a hold-in-your-hands art installation,” which are “part mag, part artist book, part chapbook.” The booklets feature an arresting potpourri of writing, mixed-media collage work, photos, quotes and “pieces of creative whatnot” all produced on 80-pound matte paper that feels silky to the touch.
“It’s so much fun to work on these,” she enthused. Payne works on the physical mixed-media collages in a studio in her home; she does all the photography in addition to the graphic design.
“I have for a long time thought about doing art installations — like physical art gallery installations,” she said. But, she added, “I just didn’t have the time to do that.”
“I came up with the idea of doing these zines as a way to present the written word and the visual image in a tangible way,” she said.
Payne unabashedly loves printed books and materials. She seems to touch her zines like they are small treasures as she describes what she loves about print.
“It slows us down. It keeps up in the moment of holding a book and turning the pages and seeing the words in from of us. It’s a different experience than looking at your tablet or you looking at your computer screen with your email pinging and your social network binging over here — and you have all these distractions.”
And she has found fellow paper lovers: “Oh my goodness — yes! Book people. Zine people. We all love paper.”
“Some folks will tell you that print is dead, but I know many who would definitely beg to differ,” she added.
Payne will sign copies of her new book at Guilford Art Center from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Saturday, February 12. Guests can also enjoy an art exhibit by Sarah Zar, the artist who painted Hurricane Woman on the book’s cover. The event is free and open to the public. Masks are required, regardless of vaccination status. See www.guilfordartcenter.org for current COVID protocols. Snow date is February 19.