“I wandered everywhere, through cities and countries wide. And everywhere I went, the world was on my side.”
-Roman Payne (from the “29th Soliloquy”)
As a boy, Roman Payne was sent to a Catholic art conservatory in hopes that he would become an ecclesiastic painter. He excelled in the visual arts, music and literature, but at the age of 18, he abandoned all formal education. Struck with wanderlust, he opted for an itinerant life of travel.
His odyssey began in Vancouver, Canada, where he took a room in the West End neighborhood and attempted to earn a living selling paintings on the street. A short love affair with a girl from Los Angeles brought him back to America a few months later. He spent a couple months in Hollywood, ceased to paint and began focusing on the twelve-string guitar as a means of making money. When the relationship ended, he left LA. The rest of the year was spent hopping trains, hitch-hiking and bumming rides around Yosemite Park and the Mojave Desert.
In 1996, he traveled to San Francisco where he found work as a night guard in a seedy China Town opium den. It was at this time that he began writing the early works that would survive in his later years. Still quite young and uncomfortable at writing in the long form, his pieces that come from this time are mostly single stanza poems, and songs such as “The Wayfarer” and “On My Merry Way”. The 20 year old Roman Payne felt his future belonged to music.
In 1997, with the belief that the historical city of New Orleans would offer the young musician opportunities to make a career of songwriting, he left the West Coast and hitchhiked out to Louisiana. Payne recalled arriving in the subtropical city on “a hot rainy morning when steam poured off the leaves of the fig trees and the smells were thick and strange”. He quickly met the French poet, Philippe Lijour (from Concarneau, Brittany) who offered Payne a place to sleep in a room in the “slave quarters” on Ursulines Street. Payne worked for whiskey playing the twelve-string guitar in old French Quarter bars. He earned a few dollars here and there tending bar as well. In his off hours, he took up gambling. He recalls these early days in New Orleans as “a time of few sorrows, of stifling days and subtropical nights … a time of great poverty and prolific creativity.” After Ursulines Street, Payne moved to a shotgun apartment on Bourbon Street directly across from “Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop”. Here in the center of the French Quarter, he found himself in mixed company – the haunts of Bourbon Street were frequented by talented artists and dissolute drunks, criminals and gamblers alike. While continuing to play on the stage and compose poems and songs in the sunny courtyards where green lizards bask on tree limbs, he also found himself winning and losing large amounts of money at the card tables on the riverboats of the Mississippi each night, where he’d remain till closing hours. Deep in debt from gambling, he decided to leave New Orleans, and in 1998 he boarded a train and traveled to Mexico City.
In Mexico City, he quickly blended in with the 30 million inhabitants of the sprawling metropolis. There he met an American expatriate named Jeff Eaton who published an underground English-language newspaper in the Mexican capital. Payne shared a basement with Eaton in the Coyoacán district. There he worked writing articles for the newspaper until the Eaton got into a bar fight and was hospitalized (he later died as a result of the injuries). The publisher lost his business and Payne decided to move on.
Payne then left Mexico City and traveled down to Central America. In a land of “ruby leaves and crystalline waters”, a place in the rainforest the locals nicknamed “El Río del Muerto”, he settled for a few months. There he worked in the mineral mines and gathered semi-precious stones to be sold to local jewel traders. He wrote a great deal of poetry at this time, though two of his notebooks were lost. He also began focusing a great deal of attention on short-story writing (an activity that would come to dominate his interests for the next several years), although he considered his prose writing skills to be not yet matured. “Occurrence al Río Márron” is one surviving short-story written at this time. Poems that survive include “The Brazillian Streets”. His song “The Slave Quarters” which he began in New Orleans the year before, was finished here, and reflects a little of the spirit of his life at El Río del Muerto.
Yearning to progress his life, Payne soon left the jungle and made his way back north to Mexico city. He was only planning to pass through and check on his old friends when, by chance, he met a young beautiful Jewess from Boston. She was visiting her father, an American diplomat, in Mexico City. The two became immediately attached and although Payne was broke and had few prospects, the girl invited him to return with her to Boston.
A few days later, the couple flew first-class to Massachusetts. The wealthy Louisburg Square area would serve as his home for the next few months. His relationship with the diplomat’s daughter was stormy and passionate and ended quickly. Payne acquired a sum of money through uncertain means and decided to leave New England. After a bitter argument one snowy December night at the end of 1998, Payne took the midnight train to New York City.
Arriving in Manhattan with a single suitcase, a classical guitar and a writing notebook, Payne stayed a week at the Gershwin Hotel before he rented a small room at 284 Mott Street in the fashionable Nolita section of SoHo in Downtown Manhattan. There he spent his time writing in his room or down at Café Gitane on the corner of Mott Street, or up the rooftop of his building. It was at this time, in 1999, that Payne lost interest in becoming a professional musician. The art of short-story writing was becoming more and more seductive. It was also at this time that his prose writing began to mature. One well-constructed story written during this period, “The City Alchemist”, reflects this. The mood of his life at the time is well described in his footnote to the story: ‘“The City Alchemist” was written in my apartment in May of 1999 on Houston and Mott Streets […] Its windows faced west revealing the roofs of the bodegas and the bars below as well as the constant stream of traffic on Houston street, which we watched – the famous Maggie Mayfield, Mich Poe, and myself, till many a sad, damp, blue-grey of dawn came arising.’ This, at the end of the twentieth century, signaled a great change in the life of Roman Payne. The twenty-two year old had decided that songwriting was to remain something of a fond personal activity for him, and that his greater talent and joy lay in writing literature.
It was also at this time that he decided to go farther abroad. Europe for him, which he’d never hitherto visited, was a continent he described as being “a place that could not exist, except in the imagination, in glorious dreams, and through the careful lies of the silver screen.”
In 1999, having sold enough work to travel, he left America to begin a life in France. He first visited his old poet friend Philippe Lijour in Brittany. He traveled then through East Germany, visited Paris, and then returned to Brittany. There he set up residence in the region’s capital of Rennes. He lived at 6 Rue Saint Louis off Rue Saint Michel in the old city-centre of Rennes for the next year. These were fruitful and formative times. He painted many canvases, wrote stories (best known from this time is “The Ideasmith” which is set in Rennes) and composed a handful of songs.
After travels through Bohemia and a visit to Prague, he went to Paris to write his longest short-story to date, a 50 page adventure tale called “Bohemia”. With its completion, he decided to publish a selection of his stories and poems written in the 20th Century. In this edition, is the long poem in two parts: “Songs from the Dawn and the Coming Down”. This collection would later be republished under the name “The Old Century (The Early Stories and Poems of Roman Payne)” (ModeRoom Press).
The year 2000 had arrived. Now on the bridge between the 20th and 21st centuries, Roman Payne was putting away his old work and starting anew. He returned to Rennes to begin his first novel (the manuscript was later lost). The strange atmosphere of European provincial life continued to have its charm and offer inspiration – though this same provincial setting soon became tiresome. Longing again for capital city life, Payne set off on another voyage. He left the oil-paintings he’d finished behind in the care of his girlfriend in Brittany. Unfortunately, she subsequently disappeared and the paintings disappeared along with her.
Payne then traveled through Spain, Eastern Europe and Russia with the intention to have some privacy, see new places, and work on his novel. He visited such cities as Barcelona, Warsaw, Moscow, Yekaterinburg, and St. Petersburg and spent time writing in a Russian country dacha. He never returned to Rennes.
When he came back to France, he went to Paris and rented an apartment at 9 rue Martel in the 10th arrondissement.Here he recalls “the frozen air and the smoke pouring out of chimneys pipes on the bleak zinc rooftops. The days spent looking out the window, drinking tea. The heavy meals and red wine cooked by a mother and her daughter at the little brasserie on Rue Martel, and the lonely walks through the Arab Quarter where pickpockets scurried past laborers sitting with their lunch pails.” These first few cold winter months in Paris, Payne made no friends and spoke to no one. He simply wrote and wandered the streets.When his manuscript was lost this winter, Payne suffered a breakdown which landed him in the hospital “Hôtel Dieu” for a period of time. After he was released, Payne moved across the river to a chambre de bonne at 32 Rue des Fossés St. Bernard.
Here in his writing room, he isolated himself and began a new novel. He declared songwriting as ‘an inferior art to literature and the art of fiction’, This decision to stop writing songs was crowned by an incident that followed a month later when Payne lost the tip of one of his fingers in an iron gate at the Notre Dame Cathedral. It was successful sewed back on by a surgeon at the Hôtel Dieu, but Payne lost the ability to play the guitar for about a year. Payne recalls this time on Rue des Fossés St. Bernard as “a mental descent … a time of dark nights and deep depression of the kind that only youth allows”. The discovery at this time that his oil-paintings in Rennes were nowhere to be found only added to his sorrows. Seeing another breakdown on the horizon, Payne decided to leave Paris. He packed up his clothes, his novel manuscript and notes, his stories in progress and a few sketches he was working on at this time and boarded a train for Amsterdam.
While on the train, Payne suffered a fever and light delirium. While ill, thieves broke into the train and stole many of the passengers' luggage. Payne lost two bags that contained – in addition to his money and clothes – his novel manuscript, several unpublished stories, and all of the notes for his works in progress. Struck with despair, he continued on to Amsterdam and stayed there, bed-ridden with fever, in a cheap hotel for several weeks. As soon as his physical health returned, Payne left Amsterdam. Having no more money or resources, he decided his career in Europe was over for the time being. In August of 2001, he flew back to America and set up residence in New York City.
This period in New York contrasts sharply with the colorful and affluent days on Mott Street years before. A few weeks after he arrived, the World Trade Center was destroyed by airplanes, the city suffered a its depression, no jobs were available, prices remained high, and Payne was in miserable condition. He rented a room in the half Polish, half Puerto Rican neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. It was a dirty overpriced rooming house let by a Polish slumlord. Through dingy paper-thin walls came the sounds of gunshots at night, as well as the moaning of heroin junky neighbors suffering withdrawals. Payne eventually found work as a bartender in a seedy Brooklyn bar where drunks slept over their beers and addicts nodded off in the toilets. Often, fights erupted in the bar and Payne had to break them up. He was involved in several knife fights but seemed to always manage to avoid getting stabbed.
The New York winter came on quick and brutal and the times were hard. Payne’s luck, however, was soon to change.It began in January of 2002, when a publisher bought reprint rights for his story, “Sister & Brother”, (a fable that remains one of his readers’ favorites). Following this, he received an offer to travel to Sri Lanka to write an article on the culture of the country.
That winter he traveled to Sri Lanka, leaving New York behind with no desire to ever return. After the story, he traveled up Turkey and lived for a while in the desert, followed by some time spent in the small fishing village of Kas where he painted frescoes on the walls of a restaurant and worked on a novel. The money he had earned from recent jobs allowed him to travel freely, and he spent the remainder of 2002 exploring Turkey and Greece.
Although Payne wrote many stories and minor literary sketches during this time, his real desire was to write novels. The novel, he believed, was the ultimate literary form. He wrote to a friend at this time: “I have never seen a poem bring anyone to tears. Neither a short story. I have, seen many people destroyed by a novel […] saved or wrecked. [A novel’s] capabilities, if written well, are as formidable as anything that can be created – man, or woman herself, included. Only a well-composed letter from one’s beloved can compare … yet here the author must be known and loved. The great novelist can seduce or strangle a stranger from miles and centuries away.” At only 25 years of age, however, Payne didn’t feel capable yet at this time of composing well in the long form. The manuscripts from this period that were not lost or stolen, came to be abandoned when he declared that they "weren’t good enough." This series of false starts would last until his 27th birthday.
“The day I turned 27,” he describes, “I returned to Paris and immediately began the notes for Crepuscule […] this novel immediately seized me by force and dominated my every breath until its completion the following autumn […] when it was finished, I felt as though I’d aged 50 years in 9 months.” Part of this creative explosion that occurred at age 27 may have had to do with the turbulence of formative experiences that occurred during these two years between his time in Turkey and Greece and his return to live in Paris.
In 2003, Payne was imprisoned in Galicia for a few months. All charges were erased and he was released. He then returned to America and lived in California and Seattle. In Seattle, his money ran out and he was worried that he was going to be trapped again in poverty. Through some old Seattle contacts, he began work in the highly illegal, but quickly lucrative, trade of counterfeiting checks and paper money. “It was a short and fast lived time,” he admits. “Black money piled up quickly and criminal contacts multiplied overnight and it seemed like an activity that was going to explode, implode, or otherwise disintegrate.”
In the summer of 2003, Payne’s basement house was raided by the secret service and tens of thousands of dollars in false American bills were confiscated. Several of his partners were arrested and charged. Some believed that it was too convenient that Payne was not at the house at the time of the raid. He was tracked down and found on the 16th of June returning to the room where he was staying at the Camlin Hotel in Downtown Seattle. An unidentified car fired two shots at Payne and missed. Payne recognized the driver to be his primary contact in the counterfeiting business that he was now trying to get out of. The next day, in an attempt to preserve his life and keep out of prison, Payne flew to Hawaii.
For the next six months, Payne lived in Hawaii on the remote Big Island in "pleasant obscurity." His days were spent swimming in the blue-green waters at white sand beaches, walking in the rainforests among tropical birds and waterfalls, learning the ukulele from the natives and betting on cockfights. He describes it as “a colorful and sun-drenched time […] trying to forget the madness of Seattle, trying to make my skin dark and my head clear.”
January of 2004 brought an end to the idyllic tropical sojourn during a visit to Honolulu. Payne was in the Waikiki district when contacts from his criminal past caught up with him. The windows of the hotel where he was staying were shot out and Payne suffered minor injuries. He was held for investigation but released shortly after and permitted to return to the Big Island for safety reasons. Less than a week later, he decided on a self-imposed exile and left the USA, never to return again.
Payne arrived in Paris on January 31st 2004 (his 27th birthday), intent on settling down to write the novel that had been weighing on his mind. After a few weeks spent in the Bastille area, he moved to 6 rue Montfaucon (the apartment in St Germain des Pres where he would start and finish his first novel, Crepuscule). A natural Russophile, and with fond memories of his time spent in Russia, Payne intended from the beginning to have the heroine of the novel be a girl from Moscow who travels to Paris to live.
As fate would have it, that early spring, Payne met a young Russian model (Anastasia Mironova), with whom he fell immediately in love. The two shared a passionate and turbulent romance which fueled the writing of Crepuscule. He admits that a “work of such an immense scale – 128,000 words – could not have been written so quickly, had I not been violently involved in the threads of a tragic romance.” The relationship between the American novelist and the Russian model was not a perfect fairy-tale, however. Due to a scandal created be one of Anastasia’s jealous past suitors (an influential Russian businessman), Payne was locked up for sometime in a Parisian jail cell. Anastasia faired not much better. After being deceived by Russian authorities into returning to Moscow, she was incarcerated against her will in a mental asylum. She remained there for a full year.
Payne finished revisions of Crepuscule on the first of September, 2004. By the end of October the first edition was published by ModeRoom Press. Following the publication of his first novel, Payne traveled to Barcelona to begin his second.
In January of 2005, he began work on the notes for the novel that would become “Cities & Countries”. After the whirlwind affair that begat the tragedy “Crepuscule”, Payne desired to make his second novel, as he put it, “lighter […] more gentle, pleasurable and sublime to read. Something pleasant to reflect these improved times”. The novel was to be a tale of travel and adventure.
After Spain, Payne traveled to the Balkans and spent time in Bosnia and Croatia. When he returned to Paris in the spring, he moved into an apartment at 60 Rue de Varenne, in the 7th arrondissement. There he began turning his notes for Cities & Countries into the outline that would serve to write the novel. In January of 2006, while Payne was finishing the last chapters of "Cities & Countries," he set to work on completing a long poem that he had been working on off and on over the previous year. This poem, “The Basement Trains”, was completed on the day before his twenty-ninth birthday.
Payne traveled to Mexico in June of 2006 to finish the revisions of “Cities & Countries”. He returned to Paris with the final manuscript in July and moved to an apartment near the Seine, in the 6th arrondissement. Also at this time, the French translation of his long poem “The Basement Trains” was completed. A bilingual French/English 1st edition of the poem was published by ModeRoom Press in August of 2006.
Roman Payne currently lives in the Paris neighborhood of St-Germain des Prés. He has just completed his third novel – an epic which he calls, “a grand success, surpassing both Crepuscule and Cities & Countries in emotion and scope.” He is currently immersed in work on a theatrical play in French and English, as well as a novelette and four other novels . . . books which he believes, “will take literature to places long looked for but never found – perhaps found but never held for long.”
- Yves Delacroix, ModeRoom Press 2009