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Author Interview: August 2006

August 16, 2006

Frank Portman, singer and guitarist for the punk band The Mr. T. Experience, has written his debut novel, KING DORK, which is told from the point of view of a character who writes several songs through the course of the book.

In this interview with contributing writer Brian Farrey, Portman gives us a glimpse of his own self-deprecating internal monologues and explains how lessons he learned penning tunes have influenced his novel writing. He also shares his thoughts on the current state of YA literature and describes what he feels is the best and worst part of being a teen. Tom Henderson says that KING DORK is "how I refer to myself in my head, a silent protest and acknowledgment of reality at the same time." What do you call yourself in your head that serves the same purpose as Tom's self-declaration? Why?

Frank Portman: I suppose there is a degree of self-deprecation in my own internal monologue, though it's nowhere near as formally organized as Tom's. There are times when I realize that I've done something particularly stupid or embarrassing, when one internal part of me will address another internal part and say something like "wow, you really are an idiot!" or "nicely done!" or some other sarcastic comment. Sometimes I call myself "doctor" in such situations: "well, doctor, you've really done it now." And now I've just realized that this answer has probably made me sound a good deal crazier than I actually am. Way to go, doc.

TRC: You're a professed fan of Robert Cormier. What about his work speaks to you and how has his work influenced your writing, if at all?

FP: I was a fan of his writing when I was a kid and I'm still a fan, particularly of I AM THE CHEESE, which remains one of my favorite books to this day. In fact, I have a deeper appreciation of how great those books are now that I have actually tried to do it myself and realized how hard it is to write a completed novel, because his books are so well written and well conceived that you really don't notice the "art" in them if you're not looking for it (which is in some ways the ultimate objective for a novelist.) I don't think his work has influenced my writing much, though. I mean, you'd never mistake KING DORK for a Cormier book. I am impressed with how easily each of his novels draws you into its own, self-contained yet persuasively authentic "world." So that has always been something to aspire to, I suppose.

TRC: Which elements of the book were formed in your mind before you started writing, and which parts changed/developed the further along you got? (In other words, how close is the final book to the one you originally set out to write?)

FP: At the outset, the only thing I knew was that I was going to try to write a novel from the point of view of this character who has "narrated" a handful of my songs in the past. (That includes the title song "King Dork," plus "I'm Like Yeah, but She's All No," "Thank You (for Not Being One of Them)," "She's Coming (Over Tonight)" and others.) I knew I wanted it to be a kind of "meta" mystery with a mixture of solvable and unresolved puzzles, that it would be pretty severely first person (in that the narrator's misunderstandings and blind spots would be revealed, but not necessarily noted by the narrator), and that he would have only one alphabetical order friend. Beyond that, everything just developed as I was writing.

TRC: Your characters are instantly recognizable but you skillfully manage to avoid regurgitating stereotypes. What do you feel are some of the universal characteristics that readers can relate to?

FP: Thanks for that compliment. It is a difficult line to walk, because satire and humor depend on the manipulation of conventional material. Yet you want it to feel or seem "real," as well. I think the trick in KING DORK turns on the fact that everything, including some of the conventional scenarios and familiar character types, are filtered through Tom's quirky point of view at all times. The important thing is that the reader be persuaded that Tom is, on some level, something like a real person. Everything then becomes a function of his character. That's one theory anyhow!

TRC: How have your experiences as a musician, songwriter and reader informed the choices you make as you write novels?

FP: Some lessons from my songwriting experience: songs should be short enough for the shortest attention span; the punch lines should be good; it should be relatively easy to figure out what they are "about;" yet, they should present this topic from an unusual or unexpected angle so that they justify their existence and aren't like every other song; and they should have a consistent narrator who remains in character.

I think that has influenced my novel-writing to a degree, which is why I tried to keep the chapters short and to include lots of jokes.

TRC: In another interview, you stated, "Tom Henderson's music collection is a big part of his world... He likes knowing about stuff that he imagines the other people in his world won't know about, so he uses the music as a distancing device in a way." Can you talk about the distancing devices you use in everyday life?

FP: I rarely leave the house. And that is quite an effective distancing device when it comes to people who do not know your address.

TRC: You've gone on record as saying you believe YA lit has a bright future. What about contemporary YA lit excites you? What gives you pause?

FP: I like the "shake things up," "rules are made to be broken" spirit of people in the YA world, e.g., writers, publishers, journalists, critics, librarians, readers. Nothing gives me pause, though I will be slightly relieved when the first-person present trend abates a bit. There's nothing wrong with it, but does it have to be every single book?

TRC: What, in your mind, is the greatest thing about being a teen? What, in your mind, is the absolute worst thing about it?

FP: Same answer for greatest and worst: hating, without reservation, the world and everything in it --- including yourself --- can be agony, but you can also derive from it a kind of energy and sense of purpose that can last your whole life.

TRC: You've mentioned that you have ideas for a KING DORK sequel. Assuming those events take place shortly after KING DORK, where do you picture Tom Henderson in 10 years?

FP: Honestly, I'm not sure. As with KING DORK, I'll have to find out when I write it, if I get that far.

TRC: Every writer gets asked to give advice to other aspiring writers. Since you fell into writing accidentally, can you offer advice to aspiring rock and rollers?

FP: Write good songs.

TRC: What are you working on now and when can readers expect to see it?

FP: I am working on a second novel now, called ANDROMEDA KLEIN after the main character's name. It takes place in the same town as KING DORK, but is a very different kind of story. I'm not sure when it'll be out, but I'm hoping some time in 2008.