Bill Payne, writer. Died aged 53.

For many, a prison term would signal defeat and failure. For Bill Payne it provided the chance to turn his life around and succeed in a field he had never before considered - writing.

William Anthony Payne, author of the 1991 book Staunch, Inside the Gangs, died in Auckland on September 1 from liver failure.

In the mid-1980s Payne was serving a four-year prison sentence for importing drugs. An addict, he had already served two previous jail terms. This time the shock of a lengthy sentence caused him to take stock of his life.

"I sat there and looked around and there seemed to be a sense of self-defeat from everybody," he told Herald reviewer Donna McIntyre in 1991. "Like, we're in jail now so life's over. I was determined it wasn't going to happen to me."

He gave up drugs and started writing.

He wrote Staunch after leaving prison in 1988, helped by an Arts Council Literary Fund grant. The book grew from a radio series. He used his contacts, a sort of criminal old-boys network, to get in touch with gang leaders and members.

He and photographer Peter Quinn toured the country talking to and photographing gangs ranging from skinheads to Mongrel Mob, Black Power and bikers.

Payne followed Staunch with a radio play, The Visiting Room, later turned into a novel. In 1993 he fronted a television programme, Once a Crim, where for the first time prison inmates were allowed to appear without any of the usual disguising techniques.

Payne won the $18,000 Louis Johnson Writer's Bursary in 1992 and a $10,000 Sargeson Fellowship in 1993.

Born in England, he was 9 when his family moved to Wainuiomata near Wellington.

Payne had a liver transplant in October, but it did not take. He is survived by his sons Jackson and Tyler.