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

Jean, the father in the book, is a loving man who occasionally transforms into a violent alcoholic; Payne says his father, John, didn't mind the portrayal. "He wasn't really upset about it. He was fine," Payne says. "That particular portrait of him is rather affectionate."

In "tall tales," the section narrated by Jean, Payne showcases his intuitive understanding of Southern culture. In a Hamlet-in-Appalachia scene, Jean goes to the graveyard and runs into the ghost of Bart, his father.

I looked up the other way and here came Bart, wading down the holler, up to his waist in leaves. He had on the makeshift Confederate soldier costume he used to wear every year in the reenactment of the Battle of Richmond up at Indian Fort. I could see the flash of the black stripe in the leg of the steel-blue tuxedo pants as he shuffled along. The costume looked like it could stand to be dry-cleaned. Orange and yellow leaves clung to the brim of his hat. In his left hand, he was carrying his mandolin by the neck, letting it swing back and forth like it was maybe a bottle of corn whiskey he'd picked up on his way to a dance.

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

"Bart," I whispered, not daring to move, or even exhale my smoke too fast. "Is it you?"

"You know, Jean," he said, "I've been hankering after some of Francine's soup beans with that good chow-chow she makes. I think about those damn things all the time, and it like to drives me crazy. You can't get beans like that nowhere else, can you?"

While Payne embraces the idea that he's a Southern writer, he insists that the label not be applied narrowly. "I just feel like there are a lot of ways you can go as a Southern writer," he muses. "I like the idea of a redefined Southernness. I don't have to accept all the givens." Payne fiercely opposes the stereotypes and assumptions that seem to cling to the genre of Southern writing. He doesn't want to be exotic. He doesn't want to be a good ol' boy. He doesn't want to be a Confederate rebel. He doesn't want to be William Faulkner, and he especially doesn't want to be Pat Conroy. "I like the idea of being Southern, but I just don't want that to be a box I have to sit in. I don't want to be limited in subject matter. I want to feel like I can write about anything."

That said, Payne does care deeply about Kentucky, and his fiction-writing does reflect a Southern literary sensibility. He loves telling stories, setting his fiction in Kentucky, and allotting a high importance to sense of place. Living in South Florida doesn't make writing about the South difficult, Payne says. In some ways it even helps to have a certain distance from the place about which he's writing: "I'm secure in my identity as a Southerner. I'm able to live anywhere, and I don't feel dislocated," he says. The South "is in me and it will never go away."

The part of the South that Johnny Payne carries with him lies nestled in the Appalachian foothills. Though he has lived in Peru, Alabama, California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, and Oklahoma since he graduated from high school, he says he will always be a Kentucky boy. "That's where my imagination starts from," he says. "It's ground zero for me."

Early in Payne's childhood, his family constantly moved around the Lexington area. "We were always on the verge of eviction. It just was kind of chaotic at that time. Money was short, and my dad was always chasing the moon. There was just kind of an inherent instability. We just got used to it, packing up and moving. I think the first two years I was in school I went to four different elementary schools," Payne remembers. When he was eight years old, they moved into a house and stayed there for some seven or eight years. "To me that was like the Ming dynasty," he jokes.

Payne's father, John, worked selling "just about everything you can think of" as well as driving a truck and repairing adding machines. Though the two men share a name, the younger Payne makes it clear he's John Payne II, not John Payne Jr.: "They wanted to call me Junior, and my mother said, "No, my son has to be the second because Junior is too diminutive.'" Payne's mother, Joy, worked at the Walgreens cosmetics counter and as a secretary.

"I knew he would be successful when I walked stores with him and at age four he could read the signs," she says now. "I had this image he was supposed to be playing baseball, so I went out and got him a ball and a glove. We went outside, and when I threw the ball, I hit him in the Adam's apple." Laughing, Joy remembers taking her son to the doctor to find out why he wouldn't play baseball. The doctor, she says, promptly informed her that she, not her son, had a problem. Johnny "was just more interested in using his brain," she explains. "He's always been very brainy. He's brilliant, actually."

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