Twisp of the Tale

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

Dec 20, 2000 at 4:00 am
Contained within a care package sent by C.D. Payne is a self-penned press release introducing the author as "the Rodney Dangerfield of comic novelists," complete with a picture of the bug-eyed comedian and his shopworn catchphrase "I can't get no respect." As it turns out, this is the letter Payne sends out with all copies of his novels and plays, which he must mail himself, as he can find no publisher interested in peddling his fiction--this, despite the fact that Payne is father of one of the most beloved and iconic figures of modern literature, at least among some 25,000 readers who have adopted a precocious, if not outright dangerous, 14-year-old boy named Nick Twisp as their sex-addicted, Sinatra-obsessed god. If one needs proof of just how iconic Nick has become, consider that Youth in Revolt, the epic first-person novel "by" and about a boy from Oakland, California, has become a best-seller in the Czech Republic and just this month became a 10-part radio production in Germany. Then, a hero is rarely appreciated in his homeland--be his name Nick Twisp or C.D. Payne.

Payne's press release, which has landed with a thud on the cluttered desks of book reviewers around the country, offers six reasons why he should be paid attention: His first novel, a "500-page whopper" titled Youth in Revolt, sold more than 25,000 copies in two Doubleday editions published in the United States. The same novel, presented in the form of Nick Twisp's diaries, has been published in five other countries; it has been turned into TV pilots for Fox and MTV, staged as a play, and broadcast on German radio; it has spawned countless Web sites and racked up more than a hundred passionately positive reviews on Payne also points out that one of two new novels--Frisco Pigeon Mambo, about booze-swilling, chain-smoking pigeons wreaking havoc in San Francisco--is being turned into an animated feature film by the Farrelly Brothers for 20th Century Fox.

"Yeah, I write about teenagers and pigeons," Payne writes in the release for Frisco Pigeon Mambo and Revolting Youth, the sequel to Youth in Revolt. "No wonder I can't get respect. Anyway, here are the two latest C.D. Payne novels for you to snub."

One can far more easily detect bitterness on the printed page than over the phone: Payne's is a soft voice that barely hints at despair or disappointment, the latter of which piles around him in the form of letters from magazines and agents and publishers that have rejected his work for nearly two decades. The 51-year-old Payne--a man who has held more than two dozen jobs, from advertising copywriter to graphic artist to house remodeler to trailer-park handyman--always thought of himself as a writer even while peddling cordless phones in a catalog for gadgets and gewgaws. The publishing world has always done its best to dissuade Payne of that notion.

Seven years ago, Payne self-published 3,000 hardback editions of Youth in Revolt, which now sell for upward of $100 on the collector's market. It presented the journal entries of a boy who, on the verge of his 14th birthday, had become "morbidly aware of [his] penis." He despised his divorced parents (his mother dated doltish truck drivers and fascistic cops; his dad lived with a 19-year-old bimbette) and had fallen deeply in love-lust with a striking, pseudo-intellectual girl named Sheeni Saunders during a trip to a trailer park. As the novel progressed, Nick wreaked more and more havoc--burning down restaurants in Berkeley, for starters--and adopted myriad personae, including that of a would-be gangster named Francois Dillinger and a black-wigged woman named Carlotta Ulansky, but suffered few consequences. Indeed, the worse his actions became, the closer he got to Sheeni and satisfaction. Nick's were cathartic, comic adventures, the scribblings of a boy determined to land the girl and leave his mark--even if it were nothing but a bombed-out crater.

By the time Payne managed to sell 50 books in small bookshops around his home in California's Bay Area, he had received some five letters from readers who felt compelled to tell the author how much they identified with Nick; if nothing else, the kid did and said that which they could only imagine. It was then that Payne realized his novel, which had been spurned by legit publishers, and his teenage alter-ego, a sort of cross between Bart Simpson and François Truffaut's Antoine Doinel and Philip Roth's Alexander Portnoy, were taking hold. In 1995, Doubleday published a hardback copy of the novel and sent the author on a small promotional book tour; the paperback version is in its sixth edition.

"I think the fun thing about Nick is, he doesn't get discouraged by the knocks that life hands him," Payne says. "He's almost like a cartoon character in that respect, and there's very little filtering between his impulses and his actions. He's just always out there, ready to do just about anything, and that's kind of fun to hang around with a character like that. That may be why book editors don't understand Nick. He doesn't fit in the standard mold. Fact is, he could be a real guy, and the thing that sort of amazed me about the reaction of readers is that they do take Nick so seriously and they identify with Nick. The fact that it's skirting the edge of reality doesn't really seem to bother them. They accept Nick as a real person. That came as a real surprise to me.

"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.

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.