Interview with Martha Mattingly Payne, Essay Contest Runner Up

Sunday, March 04, 2018
WOW! recently announced the winners of our very first Essay Contest and we are proud to announce Martha Mattingly Payne from Atlanta, Georgia as one of the runners up with Marmalade. 

About Martha:

One of six children and a mother of four, Martha Mattingly Payne learned early to write on the sly while juggling the demands of the everyday. Holding degrees in English from UNC-Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt, she’s taught English Lit, edited a city magazine, served as team mom times twelve and room mother times nine, washed 12,010 socks and prepared twice that many meals. A graduate of the Sewanee Writers Conference and the Paris Writers’ Workshop, Payne is currently at work on her second novel, Apple Doll, a multi-generational family story set in Atlanta and north Georgia. She continues to shop her first novel, A Girl of Summer (second runner-up in the 2012 Dana Awards), which tells the story of a young seamstress and the failing Gulf Coast baseball team that raised her. Payne’s poetry and short fiction have been published in Snake Nation Review, the Alabama Literary Review and the Scratch Anthology.

After she lost her mother in 2014, Payne began writing about family and clutter, and the dusty cornersMy Mother’s Attic. A lifetime baseball fan, she is also a former columnist for the Atlanta Braves’ magazine, Chop Talk, and the author of Put Him In Coach!, a humorous Little League memoir that earned a Mom’s Choice Silver Award in 2008.
where the two intersect, in her blog,

Having launched her last teenager to college last fall, Payne now lives with her husband in Atlanta, where she keeps the nest feathered for her children’s occasional return.

----------interview by Crystal J. Casavant-Otto

WOW:  Super glad you are here today Martha - thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to sit down and chat! I enjoyed your essay as well as the opportunity to learn more about Marmalade and your writing career.

The details used in this story drew me right in and helped me feel close to the narrator – even her conflicted feelings about the entire experience and conversation. Did it take a long time to decide on the subject matter and setting for this essay? What advice would you give to another author considering a similar submission?

MARTHA: Thanks--I'm so glad you connected with this story and its narrator. It's tough sometimes, when I write these highly personal essays, to know whether readers who don't know me or my family will relate.

I wrote this piece in its original form for my blog, My Mother's Attic (, under the title "Generation Sandwich." I had the experience it's based on at a local grocery store--which incidentally occupies the same physical space where my mother shopped when I was a child. This occurred to me the other day and I thought, why didn't I include an old A & P anecdote in "Marmalade"? It would have made a nice parallel experience. Ah well, opportunity missed. At any rate, it had been over a year since my mother died when my daughter and I stopped into this grocery and we encountered this familiar checkout woman. I'd begun (or so I thought) to move out of that heavy state of grief when you sort of exist within your memories and feel haunted by anxieties about the person you've lost. Then, boom, this woman began to press me, in what at the time felt like a rather intrusive and judgmental way. For days, I couldn't get it out of my head. I fixated on the event and on my own shortcomings where my mother's care was concerned. I recognized then that grief was still right there near the surface, ready to bubble up at any old time. The guilt and the second-guessing rattled around in my brain--had I acted selfishly? Should I have hovered over my mother's every move? Wasn't I only trying to abide by her wishes and give her what little independence she had left? How would I want my own daughter to treat me if/when that time comes?

As with most of my strongest writing, by the time I actually sat down to put this piece together, it sort of bubbled up itself, spilled out naturally, not unlike the feelings of grief I'd been suppressing. I'd been keeping it cooped up in my head for so long and resisting doing the actual work, that the bones of the essay took shape right away. That's nice, when you finally overcome fear or laziness or whatever holds you back and just let loose. I think as far as other writers of this type of memoir-type piece are concerned, I'd recommend exploring your most vulnerable places, places that hurt, and trying to create from there. It's challenging but also very satisfying in the long run.

WOW: Speaking of sitting down and putting things together - could you share with us what your space looks like? Where do you sit down and write? 

MARTHA: Honestly, this is something I struggle with. I've been writing earnestly for over twenty years yet I still don't have a proper space. Even now that my children are older and I have more time and empty rooms in the house, I have trouble settling in to write at home. I get easily distracted and antsy with all the silence, so almost every day I set aside a couple of hours to go to the library or a coffee shop. Something about the anonymous bustle frees me up. So my space is easy to conjure--it looks like the Starbucks or Caribou Coffee on the next corner. A writing friend of mine once said, "Oh, you must be searching for the next line." Not sure if that's it or not, but I like the sound of it. It's kind of romantic. It's what I tell myself now.

WOW:  Personal space? I think I remember what that is!

Being a busy mom myself, I admire your ability to multi-task and I’m wondering if having five siblings helped prepare you for being a mom to four? How so?

MARTHA: Yes, and no. Sorry, if that sounds like a cop out. I grew up the youngest of six and certainly coping with the chaos and energy and maybe most of all, the bumping together of egos and emotions helped prepare me for raising my four children. Come to think of it, maybe that's part of why I've always been able to write more effectively with a little bit of noise and activity around me. On the other hand, I'm the youngest by a lot. My closest brother is nearly eight years my elder. As a pre-teen and teenager at least, I became accustomed to having my own space and plenty of time to myself. So there was still a learning curve in those days when my children were little and crowding in on me all the time. Now I miss that! And I do think my somewhat unique upbringing--being part of a big family and an only child at once--made me both an eager participant and a detached observer, someone who is always stepping back to assess and analyze, which I think any artist must do to be any good.

WOW: You're not the first person to touch on missing those little voices crowding in on you; that's a great reminder to enjoy this time! What advice would you give to other mothers trying to make time for writing and family?

MARTHA: Wedge it in somehow! When my children were young, I never felt like I was getting any writing done. Looking back now, I realize that I was. It was just slow and steady, line by line. I've always loved Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. (Every writer should read it!) She talks about attacking a big project a little at a time, about writing each day only as much as you "can see through a one-inch picture frame." At some point, I convinced myself that even writing for thirty or forty-five minutes while my youngest napped and the others were at school counted as something. I also have to give my husband some credit. We used to complain to each other that we were so overwhelmed with just surviving the day-to-day when our children were small that we felt we were drowning and had no time to do what we loved. Then one day he shared something he'd heard from a colleague that was both deceptively simple and sort of brilliant--change your priorities! Do what you love first and let the other stuff wait! Id like to pass that on ... In my case, it meant all but the essential chores often went undone and some of the volunteering went un-volunteered for. I stopped wasting time trying to be the perfect cook or the ace interior designer or gardener, things I knew in my heart I wasn't cut out for anyway. I started writing first and deep-cleaning and volunteering later (maybe). I imagine some of my fellow parents whispered about me behind my back for not pitching in and having a cluttered house with dated furniture and worn carpet. But I ended up with a laptop full of words. Not as many published words as I would like, but words, and thanks to them, hope.

WOW:  That's very sound advice - thank you!

You are a lifetime baseball fan and former columnist for the Atlanta Braves – what do you credit with this passion for baseball, and how has this passion, somewhat unusual for a female writer, informed your work?

MARTHA: That's easy. As a child, I loved to move and compete--basketball, tennis, dance, and I was a gymnast in high school. I had a father and four brothers who were all either athletes or dedicated spectators. The Braves organization moved to Atlanta, my home town, when I was six. I listened to games on the radio with my father and fell in love with both the game and the lilt of the announcers' voices. My father and I went to games together sometimes, too. Something about baseball's slow easy rhythms appealed to me. I think it's a natural sport for writers to enjoy and write about. Because it's slow-moving, there's time to notice what goes on OTHER than the game--the players goofing off between plays, dugout intrigue between innings, pre-game wedding ceremonies and post-game fireworks ... It can be a rich community spectacle.

There's this too: When I was first married, my husband was a medical resident. He worked late and on weekends a lot, but thanks to televised baseball, I always had company--a game to watch, a team to follow, nearly every night from March through October. My children fell in love with the game, too, sort of naturally. My sons became strong players and that was when I got an eensy bit too passionate, not only about the game but about their Little League adventures ... er, success. When my oldest was twelve, I decided to write my way out of my obsession and ended up with a memoir, Put Him In, Coach! (, which is as much a humorous parenting memoir as anything else. My first novel, A Girl of Summer (now titled Seamstress for the Team), grew out my passion for the game and out of my love for Florida's Gulf Coast, where it's set. The novel tells the story of a young motherless woman who was half-raised by her local minor league baseball team. She becomes the team's laundress and seamstress and finds plenty of adventure, even some she hasn't bargained for. But the novel also explores the changes, both commercial and ecological, that booming tourism brings to the once quaint coastal town where the team plays.

I guess this is proof of the old controversial adage that we should write what we know. That confused me when I was younger because I felt like my life was so normal, too vanilla to interest anyone. But I knew baseball and whether I liked it or not, it kept popping up in my work, and still does.

WOW: Well Martha, it sure was hard to limit this interview to just a few questions. I could sit and chat with you all day. Thank you for your insight and inspiration and congratulations again as one of the runners up for the very first WOW! Women on Writing Essay Contest!

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Unknown said...

Hi Crystal! Thank you so much for this interview. So glad my essay, "Marmalade," struck a chord with you. I enjoyed chatting about the hard work of writing and raising a family and wish you the best with your literary career! --Martha

Angela Mackintosh said...

Fantastic interview, ladies!

Martha, I love your essay, and hearing the story behind it makes me love it that much more. I can feel the narrator's struggle. Exploring the most vulnerable places, places that hurt, and using that for writing fuel is so powerful. Your essay has this powerful impact, yet it's also light and funny at times. I mean, how weird is it that the checkout woman started pressing you like that?! It's definitely a ride for the reader. You created so much depth in such a short piece. I don't know how you did all that, but it works well!

You nailed it about baseball and why I enjoy it so's a slow-moving. The way you explain it sounds romantic. I may have to pick up a copy of your memoir.

Thanks for the great interview! I look forward to reading more of your work. :)

Unknown said...

Thanks Angela! I'm happy to hear your positive response to "Marmalade." It's funny, that same kind (but slightly manipulative) checkout woman still works at the grocery in question. If I'm not in a strong mood, I'll drive far out of the way rather than shop there!
So fun to hear you are a baseball fan ... if you've ever had a child involved in youth sports, you might like Put Him In, Coach! If nothing else, it will make you feel better about your own parenting skills when compared with mine :)
Opening Day is only weeks away! Enjoy the season and take care.

Renee Roberson said...


Congratulations on placing with such a well-written essay. It's hard to realize as parents we end up having so much guilt from both ends of the spectrum--when we're parents and then again when our own parents start aging. Bravo and I look forward to checking out more of your work.

Unknown said...

Many thanks, Renee. Having been raised Roman Catholic, I grew up with guilt! A productive emotion, in small doses anyway.
I loved your January post about clearing the clutter. Take care!

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