Interrogation: Frank Portman

PORTMAN 1Who: Frank Portman (a.k.a. Dr. Frank)

What: The singer/songwriter/guitarist of the Bay Area punk band Mr. T Experience and the author of three young adult novels including most recently KING DORK APPROXIMATELY, a sequel to the coming of age cult classic KING DORK.

Where: San Francisco

Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.

You published your debut novel, KING DORK, in 2006. What made you want to write a Young Adult novel at that time? Do you think you will ever write a non-YA novel?

In 2004 my band released it’s final/most recent album and attempted to tour on it and promote it in the usual way, not realizing that in the time since the last time we’d done that the world’s music consumers had all gotten together and decided not to buy records anymore.  The tour disintegrated at the end as they always do, leaving me at a loose end and running out of ideas now that recording another essentially valueless album and touring to promote its valuelessness was out of the question despite it being pretty much the only thing I knew how to do.  Writing a YA novel was suggested to me by an agent who was a fan of my songs and who thought the sensibility in them could work in fiction.  I had nothing but time so I gave it a shot.

King_Dork_coverThere’s a lot of arguing over “what is YA” these days (similar to the “what is punk?” trope that used to bedevil me way back when.)  Teen fiction is certainly where I feel most comfortable, and is a logical place to go from rock and roll, which is teenage music if it’s anything.  As a frame for fiction, exploring the teenage self coming of age has a quite a bit going for it, as I am certainly not the first person to note.  And this tradition is a long and great one that I’m pleased to be a part of.  That said, what makes a book YA is that it is marketed that way.  I’m fortunate that this marketing has worked so well for my books, but even in a different marketing category I’d write them the same way.  Which is a roundabout way of saying, I guess, that I don’t see the great gulf between YA and “non-YA” that the question assumes.

Both KING DORK novels are set in the late 90s/early 2000s—but the teenage protagonist, Tom Henderson, has distinctly older taste in music running to the 60s and 70s. How much of you is in your characters Tom Henderson, Sam Hellerman or Little Big Tom?

Part of the reason for that conceit was simply to make sure that the cultural references would be understandable and communicate the same sorts of things over time.  The alternative, trying to be up-to-date or “with-it” with references is doomed to failure from the beginning, since it takes years to publish a book.  So Tom’s interest in 70s rock and roll grew out of this strategy of trying to keep things “classic,” but KADit became part of the characterization, as such things do.  There’s a gag in there (about a kid focusing on the past, thinking he’s the only one who knows about these things) that is also a comment on how people tend to use cultural artifacts to define themselves against the greater world.  Beyond the general feeling of alienation I don’t think I have all that much in common with any of the characters.

Everybody knows that coming up with ridiculous band names is one of the best things about being a musician. What are some of your favorite band names from the KING DORK books? What are some of the ones that didn’t make it into the books?

The Visine Eye (which was actually the name of one of my own fake bands in high school);  The Underpants Machine;  Encyclopedia Satanica; Sentient Beard; the Airports; Stupid Eyeball.

I can’t really think of any that didn’t make it in particularly… the narrative drove the band name generation process the appropriate names simply suggested themselves.  I’ve had decades of practice doing this so it’s almost second nature.

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If you could put together a punk band made up entirely of authors (living or dead), who would make the line up? What would the band be called?

Anyway you slice it, that would be a terrible band.  But you know my motto. Oh you don’t?  It’s:  “The terribler, the better.”

So, Flippy Floppy Ramrod Executioner featuring:

  • Rod McKuen, words and music
  • Leonard Nimoy, vox
  • Philip K. Dick, bass and cupcakes
  • Daniel Pinkwater, keytar
  • Ayn Rand, pedal steel
  • Dr. Suess, zither
  • Emily Dickinson, drums

First album:  Thrift Store Fondue Set with Missing Instruction Manual.

Andromeda KleinYour other novel, ANDROMEDA KLEIN, is also set in Northern California, but follows a troubled female protagonist. How does that novel differ than the other two? What challenges did you face writing a female protagonist?

It is different in pretty much every way, other than the fact that it concerns an alienated teenager who uses an obsession with an arcane subject as a distancing and coping tool.  I didn’t find the female protagonist to present any problems at all to be honest, though I have no doubt it helped that she was such an oddball.  I’d have much more difficulty writing about a “normal” person of either sex.   If you know the character well enough, she or he takes the ball and runs with it.  Coming up with authentic characters that seem alive and “real” certainly is a challenge but once they have emerged they have their own momentum.

There is a thread of mystery that runs throughout all of your novels. Why is that an important plot device for your writing? Would you consider any of your books to fall within the mystery genre? 

I think of King Dork as a kind of pseudo- or meta- mystery, whereas KING DORK APPROXIMATELY is more a love story.  I don’t think any of them fall into the mystery genre per se other than as a by way of irony. One reason mysteries work so well in fiction beyond their usefulness as a way to pull the reader through the plot is that so much of life is mysterious and unsolvable. My characters experience their lives as a series of puzzles they must try to solve, while the reader knows (or learns) that basically it’s never going to happen, at least not all the way.  It’s a great “frame” for character driven fiction, particularly with teenaged characters since many big events in their lives are things they are experiencing for the first time.

PORTMAN 2You originally sold the film rights to KING DORK in 2006. What is the current status of the film? What have you learned about the movie industry through this experience?

It is currently in development by Miguel Arteta.  Beyond that I can’t say.  What I’ve learned about the movie industry through this experience can basically be summed up like this:  it’s amazing any movies ever get made at all.

What advice do you have for other musicians who want to get into writing fiction? How will their musical experience help them?

You need a much longer attention span to be a novelist than to be a songwriter.  Or, more to the point, you must deal with the fact that you’re expecting your audience to sit through a lot more that two and a half minutes.  This is a big hurdle.  But the stuff you learn about editing and economy, and narrative voice, from songwriting (or at least, certain kinds of songwriting) are applicable to fiction.  You know how you have to make each line count and do two or three things at once?  That’s hard to learn, and it’s even more important in fiction as it is in lyrics, because there’s less of a mandatory structure.

What are your publishing plans for the rest of 2015 and 2016?

I’m writing a fourth novel now, and also plan to release KING DORK APPROXIMATELY: THE ALBUM to coincide with the paperback release of KDA, along with some possible re-issues of old albums and maybe some new rock and roll.

What are you listening to these days? What are you reading?

The last thing I listened to was Ars Magis Subtiliter (Secular Music of the Chantilly Codex) by Project Ars Nova.  Currently reading David Mitchell’s THE BONE CLOCKS.

Find Frank Portman: Website, BlogTwitter and Facebook

Previous Interrogations: Eric CampbellWill ViharoChristopher Black + Matt Phillips

S.W. Lauden is a writer and drummer living in Los Angeles. His short fiction has been accepted for publication by Out of the Gutter, Criminal Element, Akashic Books, Spelk Fiction, Shotgun Honey and Crimespree Magazine. His debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, will be published in 2015. His novella, CROSSWISE, will be published by Down & Out Books in 2016.

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