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.