South of South

He's traveled from Appalachia to the Andes and back, but FAU professor Johnny Payne's moral compass always points due South

Novelist Johnny Payne cannot help but jump and sway to the jaunty lilts of the Allman Brothers Band (his favorite group). Clutching his cue in one hand, he dances next to a pool table at the Boca Bar, a windowless, cinder block box that from the outside seems a likely host for strip teases and lap dances. Inside, however, Payne and members of his Florida Atlantic University creative-writing seminar indulge in the relatively tame pastimes of playing pool and eating fried fish.

Payne, an FAU professor, and his graduate students, mostly thirtyish married women, have made a habit of going to the Boca Bar after their three-hour, Wednesday-evening workshops. The bar's appeal, Payne explains, is that it's nothing like rich, plastic Boca Raton. In fact, with its ratty carpet, dim lighting, and grinding classic rock, the joint feels like a faint, sugarcoated memory of Paterson, New Jersey.

A server with crimped blond hair, tight leather pants, and a pink tube top brings out pitchers of beer and asks one student, Pam Masadi, where she got the huge tattoo exposed by her black tank top. Masadi, a 25-year-old with curly black hair, is writing a novel about a spirited woman who unapologetically defies gender roles. As the two women discuss needles and ink, another student with shoulder-length red hair and a heart-shape face playfully pole-dances with a cue. After Masadi and the server finish their tattoo talk, Masadi joins two other female students in advising a classmate -- a shy young woman with short black hair -- to never, ever, ever get married. "They always tell me this," the unmarried advisee moans. "It's so discouraging."

Throughout his writing career, Payne has flatly refused to have writer's block
Joshua Prezant
Throughout his writing career, Payne has flatly refused to have writer's block

A proficient pool player who likes to win (and often does), the 42-year-old Payne infuses his night out with levity -- albeit an intense levity. Instead of lounging around downing beers or leaning against the pool table, Payne fills his pool-game downtime with a monkeylike dance featuring frequent turns and small, jackhammer jumps. In the middle of Payne's second pool game, a group of students sitting in the corner erupts in laughter. "Oh my God! I can't believe she said that! I can't believe that came out of her mouth!" shrieks a black woman with a Caribbean accent, doubling over with giggles. When the women refuse to divulge their secret to Payne, he draws more laughter from them when he gallops across the room with his hand cupped around his ear and pretends to listen to their whispering. When he's through teasing his students, Payne comes back to the pool table, shakes his head, and smiles affectionately.

The Kentucky-born Payne, who has set up camp in flagrantly un-Southern Boca Raton, has a typically Southern sense of timing when he performs funny antics and tells stories. He speaks with traces of an Appalachian accent, and much of his fiction takes place in the South. But he hardly fits the image of the banjo-toting, overalls-wearing, Skoal-dipping redneck ingrained in the collective imagination of city-dwelling Yankees. Defiant of Southern stereotypes of laziness, Payne is the kind of guy who couldn't will himself to go on, let alone enjoy, a laze-around-the-beach-and-sip-daiquiris-and-read-pulp-fiction vacation. For Payne -- a slender, chiseled man with short brown hair, glasses, and dark, burning eyes -- fun means pushing himself harder, further, faster. When he was a vegetarian, he was macrobiotic. He abandoned doing marathons -- runners, he explains, are often not in tiptop shape -- for grueling daily weight-training and swimming sessions. He has never had writer's block, not because his fingers are free-flowing faucets of golden language, but because he simply refuses to have it. When Payne came to FAU three years ago, the school had no creative-writing program; now the program's growth rivals the pace of South Florida development.

"The joy is in working really hard. When you've got that, it takes you a long way," he says. "I'm a very peppy guy. I have a lot of energy."

Payne's presence can only be a blessing to South Florida's nascent literary scene. Though Miami enjoys a rich crime-writing tradition and Key West hosts scores of vacationing scribes, South Florida overall is hardly a bastion of authors and poets. The art scene "is still in development. I lived in Chicago before, which has a developed art scene," he says. "I got spoiled."

South Florida will have a good literary scene, Payne says, when local artists -- not visiting ones -- provide cultural events. "I don't think it's enough for Gertrude Stein to come into town, give a speech, and then leave," he explains. Though many people tell him South Florida completely lacks an art scene, he disagrees. "It's subtle. It's still in the works," he claims. Then, with a sly grin, he adds that the art scene is most decidedly not "Ricky Martin singing, "Shake your bon-bon.'"


"I wasn't any quick start out of the gates or anything," Payne says of his writing career. "I did write some pretty good stuff as an undergraduate, which, when I look back on it now, it seems like a fluke, because after that came a lot of bad writing. So it wasn't like I worked out all the bad writing at once. One advantage I probably have over other writers is I feel that I didn't publish any of the bad writing. I just let it slide, and I wasn't in a hurry."

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