INTERVIEW: Punk rocker turned author Frank Portman talks “King Dork Approximately”

 

Frank Portman (a.k.a. Dr. Frank) signing Paige O’Donoghue’s copy of King Dork Approximately. Photo by Danny Murphy.

In 2006, Frank Portman took the young adult literary world by storm. It was a prime example of clever counterprogramming, or maybe literary audiences were just ready for a teen character that wasn’t a vampire or a wizard or a lightning thief. King Dork centered around a quiet high school kid, Tom Henderson, trying to navigate the hallways without getting a no-reason beat down by the cool kids at school. Accompanied by his trusty sidekick, an even anti-socialer Sam Hellerman, they dream of sex with real life girls, try to avoid family drama, and manage to form their own band of original music even less popular than themselves. It was the book every kid that ever hated high school wanted to love.

Cut to 8 years later, Tom Henderson is back. Sort of. In the world of King Dork, Henderson never really went anywhere. In fact, King Dork Approximately begins right where the first book left off. For the benefit of readers who have not yet experienced Portman’s literary genius, I’ll refrain from hashing out a synopsis of the first volume. I’ll just say Henderson is recuperating and readying himself for the second semester of sophomore year.   Plans are hatched, family gets weirder, girls get looser, rock and roll ensues, and truths are found. If King Dork was the perfect young adult (YA) novel for misfits and miscreants, King Dork Approximately is a worthy successor.

The perfect pop punk novel wasn’t just hatched from the focus groups of Simon and Schuster or designed by a committee of editors at Rand McNally. It was prescribed by a doctor: Dr. Frank, aka Frank Portman. Singer/guitarist/songwriter of the influential Bay Area punk band the Mr. T. Experience (MTX), Portman was at the helm of ten MTX studio albums and is nothing if not prolific. His literary efforts also include a foray into the female protagonist world with Andromeda Klein. Portman was kind enough to set aside our gushing fandom of the King Dork canon and answer a few of our questions on the eve of the release of King Dork Approximately, due to drop December 9th.

Tuff Gnarl: Sam Hellerman may go down as one of the great supporting characters in literature. Was it a conscious decision to cultivate Sam’s increasingly nefarious nature in this book? And to also introduce his love life?
Frank Portman: Thanks, I’m kind of fond of him myself. Sam Hellerman’s essential character was pretty well sketched out (in notes as well as in my head) before I started writing, though it also developed as the writing progressed, which is what happens when you write. So as to his “nefarious nature” it wasn’t so much a conscious decision to cultivate it as to allow Tom Henderson to notice it and be affected by it progressively, and that too was part of the plan all along. There’s a lot that Tom doesn’t know yet. There’s also a Sam Hellerman perspective on these matters that is quite different and that may be explored in a subsequent book if they keep letting me write them.

With King Dork, did you sit down with the intention of writing a YA novel? Did you have any idea the genre would take off as much as it did? Do you intend all your future books to be in the vein of teen angst?
The answer to the first question is yes, because that’s what I had a contract to do. The idea was that if I could transmute the sensibility and world-view of some of the songs into novel form that it might work. That was the assignment. The commercial viability of exploring the teenage years and the adolescent self should come as no surprise, as it has been a mainstay of American popular culture almost since popular culture in America began. The fact that in this moment the YA marketing category seems to dominate publishing is pretty striking though. There’s a congruity between the songs and the novels that ultimately stems from the fact that rock and roll is teenage music first and foremost, and writing in that “mode” has been something I’ve done for decades now. The experiences you have in high school set the tone for the rest of your life, for good and ill. Many of them are experiences that keep on happening throughout your life, in fact, but they happen to you for the first time in high school, which is a great “frame” for songs and for fiction, and I don’t believe I’ve exhausted the topic yet.

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Frank Portman

Were you a fan of hardboiled detective books? Hammett, Chandler?
Yes, and continuing, particularly of Chandler because the writing was writing, down to the level of individual sentences, is so cutting and beautiful. Jim Thompson also was someone I read obsessively as a kid, and would still do so today, if I ever had the time and space to revisit him. For crime fiction my ideal, though, has always been Patricia Highsmith. There’s something magical in the spectacle of a writer painstakingly destroying her own characters with such commitment and with such deadpan demeanor.

Was it a conscious decision to have KD cell phone/internet free?   The introduction of both in KDA immediately dates the plotline. Was this in an effort to not have to address the past 15 years of crap music that would have been part of the character’s world?
Keeping cell phones and computers (mostly) out of King Dork was certainly deliberate, though when I chose to do it that way I had no idea that so many people out there would react with confusion and anger over it. There’s a certain sort of person, it turns out, who will read a book like KD and will take nothing away from it other than: “no cell phones?! Where are all the cell phones?! My God, no teenager will possibly be able to understand this book! And no one knows what a record is either. This author is the worst!” There’s also sometimes an implication that this apparent flaw in the novel results from my being old and out of touch, unfamiliar with modern technology. When in fact it may surprise you to know that I do own a cell phone, and use it pretty frequently, especially when I need to order a new supply of buggy whips and vacuum tubes because it has the internet, which is a place where everything for sale is for free. I know all about phones. I just didn’t want to clutter up my book with them.So I deliberately set it in 1999, which I figured was the most recent year that it would be plausible for the middle class suburban kids depicted not to have phones (or at least so that it’d be plausible for a guy like Tom not to notice the ones who do.) I also deliberately left the date ambiguous, with a clue right at the end allowing the reader to do the math to figure it out. I thought that was fun, but it turns out, once again, that some readers are simply infuriated by ambiguity like that, and given all the kvetching about it I’m not sure I don’t regret that decision.With KDA, the cat was out of the bag on the date, so I felt I should make some nod to it in a way I hadn’t done in KD, which is why there are references to Y2K, etc. Sam Hellerman’s cell phone is a novelty to Tom and is mainly in there because it’s funny. And now it turns out that there are also readers who are infuriated by temporal specificity to complement those who are infuriated by temporal ambiguity. One reviewer referred to the book derisively as “historical fiction” because it featured esoterica like “land lines” and CDs. Point is, you can’t win and you have to be fine with that. Also that readers can be a cantankerous bunch sometimes.

In your opinion does Tom have a lot, or not enough sex in his life? As a 15 year old who seems to prefer to stay in people’s periphery, I would have been stoked to get as much play as he does…
My opinion doesn’t matter as much as Tom’s does, and I’m sure he’d say something like “too much is never enough” while simultaneously inviting you to admire his possibly exaggerated achievements in that arena. Despite the perennial lament of the socially unsuccessful nerd in popular culture – to which I’ve contributed my share I admit — in fact, love/sex/romance happens whenever people are in proximity to each other, and that even includes the introverts on occasion, a truth that I feel has been under-emphasized in pop culture. There’s some truth, obviously, and a lot of metaphorical power, in the schema that depicts the popular kids as the only ones with love lives and the complications that arise therefrom, while the unpopular ones are sad and lonely, and nothing more. Despite this mindset, however, humans are humans and get up to all kinds of things. (And quite frequently the popular kids are sad and lonely, too.) In creating the character Tom Henderson, I really wanted to avoid the trope of the sensitive unpopular kid with “hidden depths” who has his mind on higher things and really isn’t interested in what they used to call “base urges” but just wants to go to the art museum and stare at the Cezanne and write poetry and, like, pet rabbits. To be teenager, maybe not for absolutely everyone but for a great many people, is to be obsessed with (and confused by) sex even when you’re a sensitive nerd. Maybe even especially when that’s what you are. The results of this are often a bit unsavory and frequently hilarious, but that’s because it’s authentic. Or so I believe.

Earmarked as a 2007 Best Books for Young Adults from the American Library Association, were you shocked by the critical acclaim of a book about a non-conformist kid who liked unpopular music?
I was indeed. But I got used to it.

Personally, I think you hit a high with “Easter Monday”, but “Balls Deep” and “The Chi-Mos” are also among my favorite band names of all time. Did you feel pressure to raise the bar with the band names in Approximately?
Thanks, those still amuse me too. It wasn’t a matter of feeling pressure, but more like, I’d used a lot of the good ones already. But in writing I just let this joke take its own course in the context of the new book. There’s less emphasis on the band names per se in KDA because that conceit has been established already, and KDA is a different book with different parameters – for good or ill, resuming such a conceit inevitably takes on an aspect of “meta-commentary” on the original conceit, which is why, for instance, I had the boys use the same illegible logo for several band names. That said, I like “I Hate this Jar” and “Encyclopedia Satanica” a lot.

As a grown man, significantly older than 15 yr old Tom, did you find it difficult to write for a teenager decades after your own teen days? A lot has changed in the interim; it’s an entirely different world…
I’ve been writing from a teenage point of view for decades, pretty much, and I don’t find it difficult at all, though it’s also not something that happens without effort. As for your second comment, it may be a different world, but some things never change, which is why literature is possible. I’ve talked to a great many contemporary teenagers whose experiences in this entirely different world nevertheless mirror my own almost exactly. The alienated or heartbroken kid still experiences the same feelings of alienation and heartbreak, and who is president or how he writes down his self-pitying love notes or what his phone looks like doesn’t really enter into it as an essential matter.

You’ve been nominated for the Flume Award and the Quill Award alongside the Suzanne Collinses and the Stephanie Myerses of the literary world. Do you harbor a seething hatred of their teensploitation of literature? Or, on the other hand, do you think it’s pretty cool to be nominated in the same group as such enormo-franchise zeitgeist money makers as The Hunger Games and The Twilight books?
The latter. Teen fiction/YA is a vibrant, exciting, over-heating engine of publishing these days and it’s great to be a part of it.

The Bay Area seems to be a hotbed of literary talent. Do you shoot pool with Michael Chabon or get mani-pedis with Dave Eggers?
I’ve never met Chabon, but I like his books. I’ve done a couple of things with Dave Eggers, but none of them involved personal grooming of any kind.

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What kind of schedule do you have when you’re in writing mode? Write late at night, early in the morning? Hours on end or short bursts? Laptop, desktop, typewriter, Dictaphone?
The good writing always happens in sudden marathon stretches that come without warning and usually last around five weeks, during which I do pretty nothing but typing, after which I crash heavily till I finally regain my faculties and think “woah, what the hell just happened?” This is how it has been with songs as well. This is 100% true.

Do you have any idea of the demographic of your readership? Ever get told by a teenager that you’ve written his or her favorite book? Or is it all middle age dudes shopping at the Barns and Noble Young Adult section that tell you that Chi-Mo is their favorite?
(a) I don’t have hard data on it, but seems to run the gamut from teenagers to oldsters, including, in at least a couple of cases, the extremely aged. (b) Yes. (c) I don’t recall anyone ever saying that.

Before reading Approximately, I re-read King Dork and felt as though the reader will benefit from reading them back to back. You’ve spoken about a third book, possibly King Dork Abroad, do you ever see the 1000 page King Dork Anthology being offered in the future?
That’s about how long the three books together will be, but I don’t foresee them ever being bound together, unless the individual books go out print, which I sincerely hope never happens (ever).

Your two books seem almost prescient in regards to bullying and school programs (if not entire schools) being closed due to hazing events. Did you ever expect to see things like this to occur in real life?
I think this is another case of “some things never change” — there’s nothing whatsoever new about bullying. It’s exactly what you’d expect to occur in real life, because it is real life.

Other than Tom Henderson’s musical references, how do you think music has informed Frank Portman’s writing? And has your fiction writing informed your music?
As I think I’ve touched on above, there’s a natural affinity between rock and roll music and the inner world of the characters presented in teen fiction. It probably goes too far to say it’s rock and roll in literary form, but both come (or can come) from a similar “place” and are compelling (when they are compelling) for similar reasons. For me specifically, all that time spent learning how to write songs by trial and error did teach me things about words are best used that probably came in handy when I was learning how to write novels by trial and error. I wouldn’t say the fiction has informed the music per se, beyond giving me more topics to write songs about, self-referentially, if you know what I mean.

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Christian Clarke

When Christian isn't writing or playing in his band, The Riot Act, he is riding his '69 Triumph Bonneville.

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