So... this blog post would be a helluva lot more timely had I not mistakenly convinced myself that Frank Portman's show at Plan B was tonight, rather than last night. Whoops. To those of you who remembered, I hope it was fun and I wish I'd been there.
I got a huge kick out of interviewing Portman (AKA Dr. Frank, Mr. T Experience frontman and YA author) for last week's paper—I wrote about his weird/awesome new kids' book Andromeda Klein, but I wasn't able to include much content from what was a pretty great interview. So, the whole thing is after the jump, covering topics such as Babylonian Liver Omens, self promotion, cats, and Frank's new 7". It's less relevant than it would have been if I'd had my dates right and posted it yesterday, but um... It's still a pretty good interview. Things to know: Frank's first book, King Dork, was a bestseller about a music-loving high school outcast. His new book is about an occult-loving high school outcast, and it's super dense and strange and the protagonist has a vast collection of books on the occult, many of which are referenced by name and quoted in some detail. I think the rest of the interview is fairly self-explanatory.
The subject matter in King Dork made sense given your music career. But the new book seems really left field—the occultism theme in particular. Why did you go in such a different direction?
Part of the reason for choosing to do it this way, for better or worse, was that King Dork was a pretty successful book. As debut novels go, it was the equivalent of a blockbuster, and I really wanted to set it up so that I wouldn’t repeat the same book again for the second book—I think that 's very common. I am writing a sequel to King Dork now, but I wanted the second thing out to be different, so I tried to imagine how I could make something that would be as different as possible, that I wouldn’t be able to escape from and fall back the Tom Henderson voice, which is the main thing that grabbed people, I think, about King Dork. There are some similarities that I didn’t really intend, but that’s the reason why.
As far as occultism, it’s something I’ve always been a little bit interested in. When I was a kid—I mean, I grew up in the ’70s. Accultism was on TV all the time, in movies all the time, and I was sort of obsessed with the devil and stuff like that—I was a cute little kid. So I’ve always been a little fascinated by it in a sort of distant idol way. And actually, when I started to write the book I thought I knew a lot more about it than it turned out that I did, so I had to do a lot of very weird reading for the two-plus years that I was working on it. My personal library has gotten stranger and stranger… It’s gotten very strange over the last couple years. But it’s fascinating to just jump into something and realize that what you thought you knew, that it’s a little more complicated than what you thought.
I did a spot check of the books referenced in Andromeda Klein, and I found all of them online. Are all of the books Andromeda references real?
They’re all real, yes.
Even Babylonian Liver Omens?
Babylonian Liver Omens is indeed real.
Do you own that one?
I don’t. It’s very expensive, and it’s hard to get. I did try to bid on it in an eBay auction, but it was in the end too rich for my blood. But I would like it. That’s probably the best title of all of her books, so I kind of wanted it just because it would make a pretty good photo opportunity. I could bring it to readings and have other people pose with it.
For all the talk of otherworldly forces in the book, the really malevolent forces are the Friends of the Library, who are removing books from the library system. And I feel like Andromeda Klein basically contains a checklist [sex, alcohol, drugs, profanity, witchcraft, honest discussion of a teenager's essentially nihilistic mental space, teenagers driving cars backward] of every element that’s ever gotten a kids’ book banned from a library. Did you plan that?
Before this book was edited, it was even more so. I don’t know if you’ve ever written a novel, but it a weird thing. Before I wrote one, I didn’t quite realize the extent to which it dominates your life and you lose touch with actual reality while you’re in the novel’s reality. That sounds really corny, and like maybe I would be lying about that, but I’m not. The honest truth is that I had no inkling at all about that issue until my editor said, "Well, you know this books gonna get banned." And I was like, “Really? But my character is so adorable!” It’s a big ball of “please ban me,” I guess.
I was surprised by how well you got into the head of a teenage girl. How did you approach that?
The book is new, and you’re the first person to say that. I feel like I should print that out and laminate that statement, about how I did a good job with that.
I guess I thought maybe it would be a challenge, but frankly that wasn’t the hard part about this. Once I understood the character, everything kind of followed from that. And I was kinda thinking, maybe I’m missing it here, maybe this won’t sound authentic, but I just went with what was authentic to the character. The whole development of this character comes from when I figured out the name. It was like this little tiny egg, and everything was in there—this sounds really… Writers say corny things. I sound like a hippie.
Tiny little egg. Go on.
“A little tiny egg that expanded into an overflowing universe.” But I just found that you establish the parameters of this person and her way of thinking, and then everything followed from that. A lot of people will say, did you do research, did you get questionnaires from female friends. And no, I didn’t. But you know, I know lots of female people, so… maybe over the years I’ve heard tell of what goes on in their heads.
Yeah, and maybe it’s just not that different.
I think that we as a culture, maybe as a political culture, a lot of segments of our society have a lot invested in this idea that there is a huge divide between male and female psychology and behavior. And there’s something in that, maybe, but then there are certain things that people do share. And if you’re writing a novel and you start out with the premise, “oh, I’m writing about someone I cannot possibly understand,” then that’s a recipe for not finishing your book. Boys and girls are different, certainly, but the basic experience of adolescence and the horror of high school, certainly cuts across almost every kind of demographic division you could imagine. And that’s one reason why people relate to it so well—Andromeda Klein is a very strange character, certainly, and so the challenge was to make that strangeness relatable. And that’s one thing I haven’t really gotten a handle on yet, is whether that worked. But it’s an interesting thing. I learned a bit. I would say I learned to question the assumptions about these essentialist differences between men and women while I was writing it.
You also did a great job capturing the obsessiveness that lonely kids bring to their hobbies.
We are kind of defined by our obsessions, right? Whether it’s baseball cards or rock and roll or in her case, occultism. I’ve found that magic is a big thing in literature and in particular in our current version of teen fiction and YA lit, everything has magic in some way, but I’ve generally found that the depiction in movies and books seems to be divorced from what you really do when that is an interest of yours. It really is just reading a lot of books. And I’ve never seen that really depicted. It suits an isolated person very well, where most of your interaction with the outside world comes from reading. I think that’s a pretty common way that you experience that stuff. It certainly was for me, when I was a kid.
Do you have a cat?
I thought the cat was one of the nicest characters in the book.
Dave, yeah. He’s a cool guy.
Is he based on your real cat?
My cat is a beautiful, cruel creature. She really doesn’t like me very much. I think we have sort of an understanding but sometimes I look in her eyes and it seems like she’s plotting my destruction. Some of Dave’s behavior does come from my experience with my cat Matilda, but… she’s glaring at me right now, even as we speak.
How did you get involved with Jealous Butcher to release this new 7-inch?
With King Dork I recorded some songs for it, and it was pretty slap dash and sort of demo-y and we didn’t put that much into it, ‘cause it was all thrown together at the last second. This time we wanted to do some real songs and I was stoked with the way they came out so I was thinking, well, what could we do this? And the idea of putting out a 7-inch came up, which was cool, because the last time I did that was probably 15 years ago. So basically Jealous Butcher, I had seen their records and they all look really great. They make a big point of making sure the vinyl is really high quality and the packaging is amazing. And that’s what I wanted, I wanted something to be kind of a souvenir to commemorate this book, and then we were put in touch with them by Carson Ellis, who was also one of my agents clients, ’cause they do all the Decemberists’ vinyl. We didn’t know if they would go for it—they’ve never put out a pop-punk related thing before—but they were into it, so that’s how it happened.
What can we expect at the bar show you’re playing in Portland, reading or music?
The idea is I’m mostly gonna play a set, but these two things have been bleeding into each other for quite a while. Sometimes I will do a little reading—it just depends on what kind of situation there is. Sometimes in a bar it works great, sometimes not. The way I usually do it at readings and at shows sometimes if they are booky shows is I’ll just have my guitar on, and then I’ll pick up the book and read a little bit and then play a song relating to what I read. It sounds weird, but it works pretty good.
It doesn’t sound weird. Most readings are pretty boring.
Yes. Exactly. That’s why I try to shake it up as much as I can. Playing songs makes a big difference. If it’s just a guy standing there reading, it’s just intensely boring. Another thing I like to do is to get guest readers who are non-traditional types of readers. Lately I’ve been trying to line them up in advance to make things go smoother, but there have been times when I’ve just gone out into the street and found someone who looked interesting and said, “Hey, do you want to read from my book?” Anything to break up the usual thing.
Has your attitude toward self-promotion and especially the internet been informed by your punk rock roots? You seem very involved in your own promotion, which is unusual.
One thing that a lot of writers don’t realize until they've gone through it at least once, is how much of promoting yourself you are really responsible for. I think people just think once you’ve got a book, your publisher takes care of it. But you have to be constantly promoting yourself. And sometimes that’s kind of a challenge—I think a lot of writers don’t have the temperament for that. And it’s kind of not clear that I really have the temperament for it, but the internet levels all.
I’ve just gotten in the habit of trying to do whatever I can. A lot of it doesn’t work, but some of it does. You try ten things and if four of them work, I think you’re doing great. But I did learn a lot from punk rock—about how you meet challenges. The biggest challenge when you’re in a little punk rock band—or when you have a little book—is that nobody really cares. You can only do your best to create a situation where if someone stumbles on it, they might care. If you can’t get in the New York Times, you go around the back way. And that is something that was just assumed that you have to do [in the music scene]—if you can’t get your listing in the paper, then you go around taping your fliers to telephone poles. Which I’ve been doing a lot of lately, because I’ve been having these shows that I really don’t want to flop. I was thinking, “Wow, this is just like I’m 19. This is exactly the same thing I was doing, with a staple gun and a roll of tape with a Xerox flyer. 'Please come to my reading.’” I’m not sure why more book people don’t take that kind of guerrilla marketing approach to themselves, because it does work. But maybe— I get a little bit of this from people who notice my activities, they’ll act like it’s kind of beneath the dignity of an author. But you start obsessing about dignity and you get nowhere. I do the best I can. I’m sure there are people who would be better at it than me, but I’m all I got, so I do as much activity as I can fit into a day, and hope something sticks to the wall, basically.
So next, it’s the King Dork sequel?
It’s called King Dork Approximately. It picks up pretty much where the last one left off. King Dork ends with a band practice, by a band called We Have Eaten all the Cake, and Tom Henderson, the protagonist, gets a phone call from one of his semi-girlfriends, and it picks up with that. A lot could change, but yeah, that’s what it is. I’m planning to try to record some more songs—if this 7-inch thing goes well, I might try to do another one or two. And if I can figure out a way to fund it and make it work economically, I’d love to record another rock album. So I’ve got some ambitions and plans. But yes, King Dork Approximately is the next book.