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

Payne's parents never discouraged their son's academic bent, the novelist explains. "I didn't grow up in a very bookish house," he remembers. "They saw it as a peculiar and somewhat harmless activity. I didn't think that much about what they thought about it. It was just kind of benign neglect or something. I mean, you're living in a house with five kids -- there are so many more immediate problems.

"The other thing is, in school, I got so many accolades. From junior high school on, I was always winning prizes for top Latin student. I got cast in the lead in the high-school play. I was editing the literary magazine. I always felt good about being in school. It's always been a safe harbor for me, and I've gotten great affirmation through my teachers. I had wonderful teachers in public school who nurtured me along in appropriate ways. So it wasn't like I wasn't getting it from anywhere. And then, you know, you bring home the prizes and Mom feels great, and she sticks them in the bureau and everybody's happy. There wasn't any angst around it, really."

Until he got to college, Payne dreamed of becoming a translator for the United Nations. "I have great ability with foreign languages, and the ones I've learned I learned rather easily," he says. "To me that would've been the glamorous life, living in New York, translating for the United Nations."

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

After Payne graduated from high school, he enrolled at Indiana University in Bloomington. Payne, who graduated in three years, spent one year in Peru studying at Catholic University. During his time abroad, Payne realized he wanted to be a writer instead of a UN translator. "The turning point was going to South America at 19 and being around poets, published poets, and being in [Lima, Peru], where my crowd was the literary crowd. And we were always going to readings and book-signings, and everybody was writing poetry, and I started writing poetry in Spanish. I was keeping a journal, notebooks, and I think that's where it really took hold," Payne says. "We went around, somewhat arrogantly, referring to ourselves as poets because we were keeping notebooks."

At Indiana Payne met his wife, Miriam. Soon after they graduated, the two moved to Peru for a year and a half. Payne, who had an anthropology fellowship, learned Quechua, the native language, on the job, then proceeded to collect folktales. Laughing, Payne admits he hadn't had any anthropology training and had never studied Quechua before he got there. "As George Bernard Shaw says, genius is equal parts ignorance and arrogance. I just kind of went off sheer moxie," he admits. "I like to take a calculated risk. I almost need to do that."

When the couple returned to the United States, they moved into Miriam's parents' home in Terre Haute, Indiana. Payne spent his nights writing a book of the folktales he'd collected. By day both waited tables and participated in the Wabash Valley Coalition for Peace and Justice, a group that promoted disarmament through demonstrations and presentations at schools and churches.

In 1982 the couple moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Johnny got his M.F.A. in fiction-writing at the University of Alabama, and Miriam earned a nursing degree. They joined People for Peace, a more radical version of the Coalition in Terre Haute. "I know for a fact there's an FBI file on me," Johnny says, a slight glimmer of pride in his eyes. During a protest against then-President Ronald Reagan, Payne saw a government agent surreptitiously taking pictures of him with a miniature camera.

Though Payne says he liked the University of Alabama, he felt the M.F.A. program discouraged academic thought and promoted the mythology of the anti-intellectual Southern writer. "I felt like they were saying to me, "Be a regular guy. Go eat some ribs, then come back and write your fiction,'" Payne says in an exaggerated drawl. He laughs, rolls his eyes, and declares, "I don't think so." He says that the M.F.A. program at Alabama also upset some students to the point that upon graduation they vowed never to write again. "My M.F.A. teachers were always on the verge of emotional crisis. It was like the blind leading the blind," he says wryly. It was just after graduating from this "coal mine" that Payne felt loose and free enough to write Kentuckiana.

Mainly Payne's M.F.A. experience taught him lessons about teaching. He learned what worked and what didn't and devised his own methods based on his frustration.

After Payne and his wife graduated, they spent several years moving around. Payne got his Ph.D. in comparative literature at Stanford, and then taught creative writing at Northwestern from 1990 to 1997. "This job gave me a chance to put into effect the ideas [about teaching] that I had simmering," Payne says.

After serving for a year as the artist in residence at the University of Central Oklahoma, he came to FAU in 1998, where he has built an M.F.A. program from scratch. Bill Covino, FAU's English department chair, says he is amazed by Payne's success: "His accomplishments have been stratospheric. Johnny is really a go-getter. He's really always in action." The graduate program has blossomed so quickly, Covino says, that, after less than two years, the department is already preparing to hire another professor.

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