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Payne first understood he had a writer's intuition while toiling away on his master of fine arts thesis (a novel) at the University of Alabama. Though he felt stiff and uninspired as he pushed through his first draft, he made himself finish it. It totaled some 300 pages. "I'm very dogged, and I like to finish projects. I just kept writing it and writing it -- and it just kept getting worse and worse." He laughs and shakes his head. "I was trying to write this very earnest, moral novel -- sort of the Graham Greene thing, the innocent abroad." Payne makes a stern face and, in an angst-ridden Kenneth Clark voice, whines, "He learns that there are people who suffer in the world." Payne's face erupts in laughter: "Really, two words would have saved me: Lighten up. Lighten up, Johnny."
So Payne did something that would make most people shudder: "I just tore it into pieces and threw it in the garbage. It would have been much more authorial or artsy if I had burned it," he states in a matter-of-fact voice. "I wanted to make sure I couldn't get to it. And at the time I wasn't writing on a computer, I was writing on a typewriter."
At that point, with his 300 typed pages of prose shredded in the wastebasket, Payne knew he had a writer's intuition. "That was probably the first indication that I was really serious. I had produced a draft, which shows some determination that I already had something written [during his first year in Alabama's program]. And then I knew enough to destroy it. That was just an instinct. And I think probably that served me well, because it just felt so good when I did it. I didn't shed any tears over it."
Since then Payne has written books better suited for bookstore shelves than garbage cans. He has published four novels, including the critically acclaimed Kentuckiana. A fifth novel, North of Patagonia, is set to come out within the next few months. He also recently wrote an essay about Southern identity titled "South of South."
"He has an incredibly high level of creative energy and vital energy," says Reginald Gibbons, a novelist and English professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Gibbons, who met Payne when both taught at Northwestern, edited Kentuckiana. "I think he's one of the best writers of his generation," Gibbons gushes. He calls the novel "inventive, energetic, smart, and funny."
Kentuckiana, published in 1997, chronicles the Miles family's travails in a Lexington, Kentucky, subdivision. Quirky and clever, the postmodern tale about a family poisoned by alcoholism, suicide attempts, drug abuse, abortions, and social pressures somehow manages wholly to eschew sensationalism. San Diego Union-Tribune book reviewer Arthur Salm raved about Payne's novel. Headlined "Lowbrow hits raunchy in a crash you can't quit reading," Salm's review declares Payne's novel a rare example of riveting experimental fiction. "Kentuckiana is a grand lowlife epic, a touching, sometimes hilarious and oddly delicious wallow," Salm writes at the end of his review. "Metafictional slumming, if there is such a thing. (Well, there is now.)"
Though the book earned critical acclaim, not everyone in Payne's family liked the book. The problem? The Payne family served as the model for the Miles family. Some of Johnny Payne's sisters disliked his darkly funny, half-true presentation of their fictional counterparts. The sister who inspired Talia (a character who tries to kill herself several times) felt particularly hurt by the novel. "I think it was hard for her to understand it was a loving portrait based on a fiercely resilient person who also seemed to have kind of a death wish," he says. "You know, you try as a novelist to be true to the vision of human experience. But that doesn't imply criticism of the experience." Since the book came out, Payne and his sister have mended their relationship. "The hardest thing," he says, "was for her to actually see it as a work of art."
Kentuckiana also angered another sister, whom Payne represents as an emotionally flimsy character who gets tangled up in abusive relationships. "I think it's just kind of searing to have someone come so close to your experience. I do think, of whatever gifts I have as a writer, one of the things I do best is create memorable characters and get close to the bone. I can get a read on people as a novelist, and when I start writing, a part of me tries to go as far down into it as I can."
Speaking by phone from her Kentucky home, Payne's mother, Joy, admits the novel contains "some stuff I'd rather not have seen there -- I'll put it that way," but she does not resent her son. "I don't think there's an author whose writing doesn't make other people angry," she says in a thick Kentucky accent.
The novel may have resonated most with Payne's father. "I've actually caught Johnny's father reminiscing about things in the book that never happened," Miriam, the writer's wife, says. "I thought that was really interesting."
Johnny Payne says his father told him that reading the book was like going to a movie theater, sitting down in a seat, and then seeing himself talk on the screen. "My father once said to me, "You know there's stuff in there that I know I've never told anyone, and I don't know how you know it.' And I didn't even ask him what it was. But he said, "It's like you got inside me.'"