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


Though Payne's one-story peach home looks like all the other houses in his Boca Raton neighborhood, it doesn't bother him. "When I was in grad school, one of my fellow writers said, "We were born in the wrong generation. Our experience is homogenous,'" Payne remembers. "And I said, "No, I don't agree. You can throw up any set of buildings, and when you fill them with human beings, they invent their experience and it's variegated. You don't have to live in some particular situation to be authentic. You make your own authenticity." Painted portraits of his family, woven South American tapestries, and pictures drawn by his two children (11-year-old Sonja and 6-year-old Clayton) cover the walls inside the house. A pair of bright yellow conga drums sits in the living room. A silver telescope occupies a corner of the foyer. Blueberry the guinea pig lives in the kitchen. Pal the poodle bounds from room to room.

"I like [South Florida] a lot," Payne says. "I like the Keys, the ability to be outdoors in the natural world. The water. The creature comforts are very good." Working at FAU has also been fulfilling: "They've been very rational and supportive. I want to be part of something that's growing. I'm just the right guy at the right time. I think there's serendipity."

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

But some aspects of South Florida drive him crazy. "There's something about the collective psyche. It's a very stressed place," he observes. "There's the road rage, and there's the incivility in public interactions. In Kentucky people are so nice and polite." The differences between South Florida and Kentucky felt particularly profound to Payne a few weeks ago while he was in Kentucky for his grandmother's funeral; he was struck by how courteous the florist and the funeral director were. Payne tells another story of driving through the Appalachian countryside. He stopped at a gas station to buy a can of ginger ale from a soda machine. When the machine shortchanged him a dime, he shrugged it off and began to walk away. A service station employee at the other end of the parking lot who had somehow seen what happened ran to Payne. Despite the professor's assurances that he didn't care about the dime, the worker spent several minutes opening the machine and retrieving the coin for him.

Payne says he works hard not to succumb to South Florida's bad manners. "I have to filter [them] out," he says. Though he says he often hears people blame particular ethnic groups for the hostile culture, he dismisses those theories for his own: "There is a certain strain of cultural narcissism. The fetishization of the body -- the plastic surgery, the grotesque obsession with body culture. It's a kind of turning inward, it's hyperindividualistic." Payne says South Beach is the prime example of a sad, aesthetic cult of tan skin, silicone breasts, and collagen lips.

South Florida's obsession with image has two main side effects: the anxious, hostile environment and a stunted art scene. A culture that promotes one ideal of beauty ultimately discourages the creative deviations that lead to art. Payne says that his female students in particular struggle with a desire to conform and a contradictory compulsion to write authentic, literary fiction. "I try to give [my students] a feeling of acceptance. It's OK to find a truer self, a higher self," he declares, adding that he simply refuses to tolerate the pulpish, trite fiction born of image-consciousness: "I tell them, "If you want to write formulated fiction, there's no place for you at this table.'"

In his graduate seminar, Payne has found students who embrace creativity. When the professor talks about his class of 15 M.F.A. students, his eyes light up, and he smiles. Their talent, their fiery individualism, and their willingness to work hard have earned his utmost respect. "With them, if they give me everything they've got, I'll give them everything I've got," he says, adding that many of them are en route to getting published. "They're already drafting query letters. I will not consider the program successful if a good number of them aren't publishing."

The three-hour seminars fly by in torrents of spirited critiques of one another's work, with both laughter and heartfelt commentary. "The atmosphere is positive, but it is not all sweetness and light. The ones that come through this program are seasoned," Payne says. "They are very frank. I cherish that outspokenness."

Each student's willingness to work hard, their teacher knows, comes in part from her decision to come back to school after marrying, having children, or starting a career -- or sometimes all three. "I think some of the older women have gone through certain life passages, and that has sent them back to desires they have had for a long time. It seems like there are just a lot of women getting back to the creative process," he notes. "A lot of them have gone through divorces."

Payne says he once got into a tense conversation about master's program students with a colleague at Central Oklahoma. The other creative-writing teacher, a washed-up man in his fifties who "had some problems with his conceptions about women," asked Payne which students he had in his seminar. When Payne named them, the man said disparagingly, "Oh yeah, those housewife M.A.s." Angry, Payne responded, "If that's what they are, than send me all of them you can, because they're my best students. They're the most devoted, hard-working ones."

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