Twisp of the Tale

When C.D. Payne stopped writing ad copy, he created a revolutionary teenage hero

"I was just exaggerating things for comic effect. I do what comic authors do, and I know that you have to have at least some basis in reality, but I thought that I was taking Nick into fairly unbelievable territory, but readers don't seem to feel that way about him. It's kind of an aging baby boomer's fantasy of contemporary teen life. I certainly didn't think that kids today would identify with him. Somebody pointed out to me they liked it because the parents are so stupid, and Nick is sort of at an age where he's pretty powerless, and yet he does escape the realm of his parents."

Appropriately, Youth in Revolt became the subject of much interest in Hollywood, which sought to turn the novel into a TV series or a film. In 1996, Fox-TV actually filmed a pilot--starring Christopher Masterson as Nick and Jane Kaczmarek as his mother, both of whom would end up starring in Fox's Malcolm in the Middle--but so altered the premise that it would have been unrecognizable to the book's fans. Nick no longer adored Sinatra; instead, he worshipped Captain and Tennille. Fox declined to pick up the show, despite Payne's insistence that he kind of liked it, and MTV picked up the option. But the writer who penned the MTV pilot drowned in a boating accident shortly after he turned in the script, and the project has since withered at the music network.

Then, when Payne gave Doubleday the sequel to Youth in Revolt, Revolting Youth, the publisher declined; his old editor had been replaced by a man who had just bought a book about the history of the metric system. Other publishers had no interest in selling a sequel to a book they hadn't originally been involved in, so he was forced, once more, to self-publish. Indeed, all of Payne's subsequent works--including Frisco Pigeon Mambo and the forthcoming play Queen of America, which offers an alternate reality based upon George Washington's decision to become king instead of president--have been issued through Payne's own Aivia Press, based out of Sebastopol, California. Payne (who also maintains his own Web site, shrugs off the series of disasters and disappointments: Just my luck.

Feel his Payne: The author of Youth in Revolt and Revolting Youth is a hero to thousands of readers.
Feel his Payne: The author of Youth in Revolt and Revolting Youth is a hero to thousands of readers.
Feel his Payne: The author of Youth in Revolt and Revolting Youth is a hero to thousands of readers.
Feel his Payne: The author of Youth in Revolt and Revolting Youth is a hero to thousands of readers.

But he knows why he is doomed to enjoy the accolades of the cult: He is a vestige, a comic novelist long after the form has withered on the shelf; as a result, he likes to say he was born 50 years too late, referring to himself as "a throwback." He spent the first 15 years of his writing career penning short pieces, which he would send off to The New Yorker--"and talk about being out of date," Payne says, chuckling softly. He racked up numerous rejections from the magazine, but did wind up selling it a cartoon that was illustrated by Charles Addams; it was a small reward for seven years' worth of effort. He also landed two stories with Esquire, which published only one before notifying him that the magazine was changing formats and would no longer run humor tales. That was in 1983, and 17 years later, Payne has in his possession a file cabinet of rejected short pieces without a market in which to sell them. From time to time, he will periodically visit that file cabinet, read some of the stories, and think to himself, "Those editors were right." He turned to writing novels only as a last resort; it was either that or go back to school "to study accounting or something."

Nick was hatched in one of those early short pieces: Payne penned a "letter" from Nick to his parents, in which he detailed his first 13 years. But by 1989, Payne decided to write about Nick in a novel--which over a three-year period became three novels, bound in a single volume and titled Youth in Revolt. Payne had no intention of writing a second novel about Nick, and he says that if there is a third, it would be "a miracle." Indeed, he wrote Revolting Youth for two reasons: He wanted to ride alongside Nick and see where the boy would take him, and he wanted to give something to the fans and fetishists who have made an obscure literary creation their revolutionary sweetheart.

"That is probably the thing that's kept me going," Payne says of his rabid, ravenous fans. "Literally every 20 minutes, I would decide to hang up the typewriter--in this case, the computer--and get on with my life and do something else. I still think that probably several times a week, just because I've gotten so many knocks along the way. That's the thing that sustains me. I've read a lot of books in my life, and I think I've only written one fan letter to one author, so when I started receiving them, I thought, "Gee, this is kinda strange to hear from all these people when I've sold only a handful of books.' It's Nick's readership that has kept me going. Definitely. But really, I just write Nick for myself, and so far I haven't been writing to please book editors--and God forbid I should ever do that--and I figure the readers are going to have to take it or leave it. I don't know quite where I got this attitude from. Maybe it's from being knocked around so much."

Kind of like Nick Twisp.

« Previous Page