Depending on when you catch up with Johnny Payne, director of Mount Saint Mary’s MFA in creative writing, he may have just published a novel. Or been rehearsing a play he’s written and is directing. Or published poetry. For Payne, moving between genres inspires his best work.
“I usually have two or three projects going at one time, and I publish in four genres,” he says. His inspiration comes from the most unlikely sources. “One of my favorite inspirations came from a name I saw on an Irish tombstone: Kilcairn. I was immediately struck that something was about to happen to him,” he says. Payne went on to write “Confessions of a Gentleman Killer” in which the 1843 character, Kilcairn, became a serial killer.
When he founded the Mount’s MFA program in 2015, Payne designed the curriculum so students write in at least three genres. Not only does he believe it’s best practice, it’s also a unique selling point. “I didn’t want to be like every other program in the nation,” he says. “Writing poetry helps you learn how you use language; playwriting teaches you structure, and novels let you dive deep into a character.”
For Payne, the thread that connects all genres is storytelling. He’s found that the pandemic has shifted the conversations he has with students about narratives. “Students and I now talk about collaboration and visual storytelling, like virtual reality and graphic novels, writing that is using the different media available to us now,” he says. “The elements of writing don’t change over time, but the way we live within the storytelling does. “
More and more people are interested in having these conversations, too. “Our program is exploding!” he says. “What we are building is nationally relevant. Our strengths are our intellectual component, our multiplicity of experiences and our understanding of our students.” In response to student interest, this fall the MFA program will add two certificates: Latin American/Latino creative and analytic studies as well as publishing and editing. He ensures his growing alumni base stays connected by serving as panelists at the fall conference and attending the Parlor reading series, which brings in talented writers who share their work with students.
Next month, Payne’s collection of essays and poetry will be published under the pen name Étienne d’Abattoir. “I chose a playful penname, because D'Abattoir sounds elegantly French, but in fact means ‘slaughterhouse.’” He stages elegant takedowns of certain poetry in his essays, and it's a private joke or else a wink to a reader who understands French.
“The use of a penname was suggested by my editor, who is famous for staging literary pranks,” says Payne. “It's fun to use an assumed name because it frees you up to speak in a voice that you wouldn't normally employ. It's a way of extending my own thought."
And the ideas never stop coming. “I’ve always got something incubating, but it can be exhausting to have so many ideas,” he says with a laugh.