South of 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."
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."
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.'"
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.
"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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
Payne's students reciprocate their professor's affection. "I think he's brilliant," Masadi says. "I've been in his class two years now. It feels like I haven't learned anything, but if I look back at my work, it's a complete 180. It looks like someone else's writing." At a recent seminar when Payne handed out evaluation forms and left the room, everyone in the class gushed about Payne's accessibility, his wisdom, and his attitude. "He pushes me hard, but he's not an asshole," Masadi adds. "He's very smart. He's very down to earth. He's our friend."
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