Despite moves from Argentina to Alaska, writer rooted in Kentucky

March 17, 2015

Nearly 40 years after he left Lexington in search of language, literature and academic adventure from one end of the Americas to the other, Johnny Payne said he still gets emotional each time he flies into Blue Grass Airport.

“I’ve lived many beautiful places,” said Payne, a novelist, poet and playwright. “But when the plane is coming in over those fields, I just get teary-eyed every time. This is the most beautiful place in the world. It’s kind of my mythic space.”

Payne has lived in nine states, Peru and Argentina. He now teaches English at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he and his wife, Juana, and their three dogs live atop an isolated mountain in a yurt — a round wooden hut.

Their nearest neighbors are foxes and moose, and temperatures can reach 20 below zero. But, he said, Lexington got a lot more snow this winter than they did.

PaynePayne’s plane touched down Saturday for a visit with family and to give two talks about his newest book, “Vassal” (Mouthfeel Press, $16), a re-imagining of The Odyssey, Homer’s epic poem from the 8th century BC.

He will speak at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Transylvania University’s Cowgill Center, Room 102, and at 7 p.m. Thursday at Joseph-Beth Booksellers. Both events are free and open to the public.

Payne’s 10th book grew out of re-reading The Odyssey and writing a poem about it that an editor urged him to expand it into a book.

“I was coming to terms with myself at this time in my life,” Payne said, and he identified with the ancient Greek hero Odysseus and his decade-long journey home. “A book can be very personal without talking directly about my own experience.”

Payne, 56, and I were friends at Lafayette High School, where he says Spanish teacher Marcia Miller was the best teacher he ever had. She gave him the confidence to go to college. He earned a bachelor’s degree at Indiana University, a master’s at the University of Alabama and a doctorate at Stanford University.

As a 22-year-old graduate student, Payne learned the Quechua language and traveled to mountain villages in Peru recording the stories of peasant farmers. He translated them into Spanish, and after finishing his academic project edited them into a book for Peruvian children.

“That’s the most unusual thing I did in my life, and it made me really happy,” he said. “I wasn’t trained in that area; I just did it. I could never do it now. I would have too much self-doubt.”

Payne taught at Northwestern University and started two master of fine arts programs in creative writing. The MFA program at the University of Texas-El Paso that he founded and directed for eight years is the nation’s only bilingual English-Spanish program.

“It was very quickly successful and probably the most significant thing I’ve done in my career,” he said.

Payne thought he wanted to be a dean, so he moved to the University of Alaska at Fairbanks to head the College of Liberal Arts. Within a year, he realized he hated high-level administration and stepped down to teach and write.

He comes home occasionally to visit his parents, John and Joy Payne, but returns to Kentucky most often in his imagination. Six of his books are set completely or partly in Kentucky. A musical play, “The Devil in Disputanta,” is named for the Rockcastle County community where generations of Payne’s ancestors farmed.

His other books have been set in Europe and Latin America, including his first novel written in Spanish, “La Muerte de Papi” (2014). Payne recently finished a novel about an Irish serial killer in 1840s London, and he is working on a book of poetry about people’s complex relationships with technology.

Payne said he keeps returning to Kentucky in fiction not because of nostalgia but for the state’s rich storytelling possibilities.

“It really ripens in your imagination,” Payne said. “You kind of have an objective distance where you see it in your mind’s eye, and half of it you invent. It’s this quest of always finding a new Lexington and new Kentucky.”


New novel explores race, class in 1940s Central Kentucky

November 18, 2014

In his novel Pickering’s Mountain, Joseph Anthony wrote about the complexities of strip mining and economic survival in Eastern Kentucky, where he lived in the 1980s as an English professor at Hazard Community College.

The New Jersey native has lived in Lexington ever since, and he has looked for a way to use fiction to explore two of Central Kentucky’s overarching issues: race and class.

While reading microfilm copies of the Lexington Leader in the public library, Anthony found his hook. It was a small ad placed near, but not with, a “Colored Notes” column from 1948, when even the news was segregated.

bookThe ad began: “Wanted: Good family with plenty of help … ” It was placed by a farmer needing share-croppers to live in a vacant house beside him and help with his tobacco crop.

It made Anthony wonder: what might have happened if the “good family” that answered that ad was black? And that is how he begins his new novel, Wanted: Good Family (Bottom Dog Press, $18.00).

The book is masterfully written and well-grounded in Kentucky history and mannerisms. It explores issues of race, class, relationship and the potential for change that are as relevant today as they were when this story takes place more than six decades ago.

“I wanted to write about our big drama story in Lexington, race, and how things have and haven’t changed,” he said. “And I had an idea of how to write about somebody who could do terrible things and not actually be a bad person.”

The newspaper ad said interested parties should not call or write, just show up. So that is what Rudy and Nannie Johnson do. He is a World War II veteran looking for work. She cleans houses, but was a nurse’s aide at Good Samaritan Hospital until she applied to train for a better job and was branded as a “troublemaker.”

The Johnsons and their four children — Herbert, Franklin, Eleanor and Harry, all named for people occupying the White House when they were born — live with her mother and sister in cramped quarters off Georgetown Street.

Lexington had a housing shortage in the late 1940s because of veterans returning from war. Things were worse for blacks, who were only allowed to live in certain parts of town and could rarely get credit to buy a house anywhere.

joeDesperate enough to take a chance, the Johnsons pile their children into a borrowed pickup truck and drive to the next county to answer the ad. The farmer and his wife, an older couple who lost their only son in the war, are surprised to see them. But they, too, are desperate. Like all good Kentuckians, everyone tries to be polite.

“We didn’t think to say ‘whites only’,” Wilma Lawson, the farmer’s wife, explains to readers. “We figured anyone who knew our place would know that.”

Indeed, they would. James Lawson has a dark past that everyone in their county seems to know. The Johnsons, being from Lexington, are unaware. But they have their own family secrets and shame.

Everyone’s secrets come out as the book’s major characters alternate chapters of first-person narrative. Readers wonder if any of these people, black or white, can escape the ghosts and prejudices of their past.

The characters are still working through events that occurred two decades earlier, when Kentucky race relations included lynchings and black residents being run out of small towns en masse.

What makes Anthony’s book so interesting is that it doesn’t try to preach or over-simplify. It shows that racism comes in black as well as white, and that injustice can afflict the oppressors as well as the oppressed.

“I’m a much nicer person as a writer than I am as a human being, and the reason is I have to see everybody’s point of view,” Anthony said. “I have to really try to understand their dilemma.”

While racism and prejudice are no longer legal, that doesn’t mean they have disappeared. Human relations are complex and always evolving.

“The book is about change, about the possibility of change,” Anthony said. “As Rudy says, if we can’t change we’re lost, we’re done. And that’s really what I wanted to write about.”

If you go

Joseph Anthony will sign copies of his novel,Wanted: Good Family.

■ 5:30 p.m. Thursday, The Morris Book Shop, 882 E. High St.

■ 3 p.m. Dec. 13, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Lexington Green.