The Interview: Peggy Payne

Peggy Payne in surfing gear alongside a very brave pooch.

Anyone who has visited the South has heard of Peggy Payne.  Whether the time is spent catching up with family in Greensboro or aunts in Okracoke, her novels are bound to show up in dinner conversation–if not on the coffee table.  Her novel Revelation remains  one of the most provocative to come out the South since To Kill a Mockingbird, and since then she’s written a series of novels dealing with faith, including Sister India, a sort of religious Decameron sit in the aftermath of an Indian riot.

Ms. Payne  sat down with correspondent John Winn and talked about books, writing, and her own unique take on Southern literature

JW: You’re a successful writer living and working in Raleigh. Do you worry about being pegged as a “Southern” writer?

PP:I don’t worry about it at all; I don’t mind either way. In fact, I’d like to see the term Southern writing cover a broader range of settings than it currently does. Stories by Southerners about the urban South don’t seem to be treated as Southern stories in the national press.

JW: What is the most embarrassing workshop experience you’ve ever had?

Well, I gave a talk at a writers conference in Grand Rapids that didn’t go over well at all. And in New Orleans I spilled a whole glass of orange juice on the suit of a fellow panelist just as were to begin. I’ve frequently read pages in my writers’ group that needed a lot of work. Usually that’s not embarrassing. Once, though, I was scheduled to read and there was going to be a guest sitting in. I didn’t finish the material I’d meant to read. Wanting to keep the commitment to read, I grabbed something else. The visitor didn’t appear. I read something that turned out to be pretty bad and the others freely said so. On that occasion, I felt they should appreciate my showing up with pages in hand.

JW: A lot of your writing wrestles with Christianity and religion in general. What is it about the subject that is attractive from a literary point of view?

PP:It’s simply what I’m drawn to write about. The writing is a way to explore the metaphysical.

JW: In addition to being a novelist you’re also an active outdoorswoman. Have you ever derived literary inspiration from surfing, hiking or other activities?

PP: I find that physical activity immediately following time spent writing is good for stirring up ideas. The unconscious seems to keep working, and in a looser, more relaxed and imaginative way. This activity need not be a vigorous sport: going for a walk or taking a shower also work.

JW: Final Q: Louisa May Alcott or Henry James–who is the better writer? I much prefer

PP: James. I got hooked on him in high school because of the entrancing language and subtle psychology.