July 2006

Michael Schaub

features

An Interview with Frank Portman

If you want to know what literate pop music sounds like, go buy Alcatraz by the Mr. T Experience, maybe the best pop-punk album ever. I first heard it while working at my college radio station, which mostly played sad, earnest songs by sad, earnest young men in pain. (I was responsible for a good chunk of that, I admit.) But hearing MTX was a revelation -- I’d never heard punk sound so funny and so literary, yet unaffected. The album’s first track, “I Wrote a Book about Rock and Roll,” was a hilarious takedown of pretentious rock music critics, with lines like “I know words like ‘sobriquet,’ ‘malaise’ and ‘plutocrat’ / And I compare the Shaggs to Wittgenstein / How cool is that? / Oh, you don't? I didn't think you would.” I remember thinking: Why hadn’t anyone written this song before? Why? It was also the first, and probably only, album to feature a song about feminist-turned-sellout Naomi Wolf (“You struggle with the reality myth, talking on the TV screen / About choke chains and Mary Janes in Seventeen magazine”). I only caught onto them in 1999, but MTX had actually been around since the early ‘80s, when Dr. Frank was still a teenager. They’re still around -- Portman is the only original member still in the band; they released their most recent album, Yesterday Rules, with songs like “Sorry for Freaking Out on the Phone Last Night” and “Institutionalized Misogyny,” in 2004 on Lookout! Records.

In between MTX shows and albums, Portman has recorded some solo releases, maintained a popular blog (Dr. Frank’s What’s-it), and -- here comes the predictable reference -- wrote a book about rock and roll, and, as it happens, much, much more. King Dork is nominally about a high school student making music, dodging bullies, watching horror movies while listening to Black Sabbath (more on that below), and searching for the truth behind the death of his father, but it’s also about youth, friendship, how music and literature can change us, and what it means -- both good and bad -- to be a kid in America. It’s the best young-adult novel I’ve ever read, and nothing else even comes close. Portman’s debut book has received critical praise from pretty much every publication that’s reviewed it. It’s also created a stir on the Internet -- the book has its own video trailer, available on YouTube and on Portman’s website, and was the subject of the most entertaining book blog tour in history, making stops at well-regarded sites such as Gawker, Largehearted Boy, and Brooklyn Vegan. (Blogging legend Andrew Krucoff, a huge MTX fan, organized the tour.) Bookslut talked to Frank Portman via telephone, three days after King Dork was released.

How’ve you been doing?

I’ve been doing pretty good. This is the first time I’ve had a book release, so I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen, but it’s been going good, I think.

Has Random House been pretty supportive so far?

Yes. I would say, definitely. And I’ve got to hand it to them, right off the bat, signing up for this. Because -- you’ve read it -- it’s a pretty quirky sort of thing. They took a leap of faith that it would end up being good. The first thing they saw was the voice (of the main character), really. The YA world, I think, is a lot more ready to take chances on things, it's a little more alive than the so-called adult publishing scene. I'm lucky I hooked up with them. And Delacorte in particular, they’re great to deal with -- I mean, you hear these terrible stories about some other publishers, editors who change their phone numbers, who won't call you back. I’ve really gotten great attention from Delacorte. I mean, it seems like -- knock on wood, or whatever you say -- (the book) might be kind of well-received. I’ve never had that happen to me before. Its actually kind of freaking me out. I’m used to having everything I’m involved in kind of lie on the floor, whimpering, you know, like, “Hey, please don’t run me over, let me make it across the street, so I can do this again next year.” So this is a whole new experience for me.

The book’s gotten this great reaction from bloggers, like Leila Roy from Bookshelves of Doom, who’s great...

She’s a sweetheart. I mean, I love her reviews, they’re great. She’d mentioned in her blog that she’d seen King Dork in the Random House catalog, and it was like... it was kind of like getting a wink from Joe DiMaggio or something. I was just so touched by what she wrote about the book.

She’s so sharp, especially with the YA stuff -- it seems like not a lot of people cover teen literature.

Right. I think there’s parts of the blogosphere, you know, that I haven’t stumbled upon. There’s a whole girl blogosphere that I don’t think we’re allowed into. Or maybe we’re allowed into it, but we’ve got to promise to behave ourselves.

How’s the online book tour going so far?

I think it’s really cool. I’ve never followed (an online book tour) before, because the ones I’ve seen haven’t been about things I’m interested in. But when Krucoff sent me the list, it was just these great, great music and culture blogs... I mean, there was Gawker, which everyone in New York City reads, and Largehearted Boy, which I love, which everyone loves. Krucoff did such a great job, covering as many different angles as possible.

And you sat through Rosemary’s Baby while listening to Sabbath Bloody Sabbath. I mean, that’s commitment.

Yeah! It’s funny. Sometimes you put things in your book without really thinking about them, you know, this throwaway line. So I got that question [from Krucoff], and I thought, I could dash off some amusingly ironic non-sequiturs, or I could actually do it. So I did it, and it was freaky! I mean, I’d never done the thing with Dark Side of the Moon and Wizard of Oz -- have you ever done that?

No.

But you know about it, right?

Oh, yeah.

And, you know, it sounds really stupid, you know? I guess you’ve got to be so stoned that you actually start to notice the supposed synchronicity. But anyway, I was sitting there, and I wasn’t stoned in any way, with the Rosemary’s Baby DVD on my laptop and Sabbath in my headphones -- it was really starting to kind of... I mean, after it was over, it was over, but while it was going on, I was thinking, “Oh, my God, this changes everything.” And I mean, I’ve seen -- without any exaggeration, I’ve seen Rosemary’s Baby about a hundred times. I know it very well. But I’d never done that particular thing, even though I forced my 14-year-old protagonist to go through it. You’re supposed to test these things out on yourself, I think, but anyway... the main thing was Mia Farrow’s smile, when it’s not in the context of the movie, it’s really scary. It was really freaking me out. It was like the spirit of Satan, you know, somehow jumped out of my iPod and into the laptop. Maybe there was some kind of devil-related thing happening. I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

Do you expect King Dork to maybe get challenged in the future?

The ideal situation would be for it to be challenged, but not enough that it would keep it out of the stores or Amazon.com. I mean, if it ended up on the banned books table at Borders... that would be this sort of marketing coup, this perfect logical conundrum. I mean, you’re standing in front of the banned books table, and they’re for sale. It’s kind of like that Star Trek thing, “Everything I say is a lie...” But you want it to be so that people like us will feel like we can congratulate ourselves on how broadminded we are, but not banned enough that it would actually prevent the royalty checks from coming in.

How did it occur to you to write the book?

When I did the first draft -- well, it wasn't even a first draft, it was like this 40-page stream-of-consciousness of the [main] character’s voice, taking about high school. I mean, I write these songs about arrested adolescent angst, I was used to writing from the mind of... a teenager, I guess, or whatever. And I got the contract on the basis of that stream-of-consciousness passage. And then I got the advance, and thought, “Oh, God, I’ve actually got to write this now. And, I mean, I’ve heard other people say this, but the real secret of writing is just to type, just to sit there and type, and that’s kind of fun. The hard part is, you’ve got to step back from it far enough to imagine someone who doesn’t care, and who may even be a little bit skeptical, and making that person wanting to turn the pages. It’s hard -- you never know if you’re making the right choices.

Had you ever thought about writing a YA novel before? I’m thinking of [the Mr. T Experience album] Our Bodies, Ourselves, which has a few songs that seem to be based on YA books...

That album -- actually, my original concept for it was that it’d be an album of only songs about girl topics -- books, movies, that kind of thing. By the time it actually got recorded, it didn’t really end up that way. Some of the songs [intended for the album] ended up on other albums. I’ve always been a fan and a connoisseur of the YA genre. I love it, all of that sort of stuff, the Robert Cormier books -- I really strongly identified with those books. When I was younger I worked at a public library, and I actually read all the YA books in the library, every one... up to about 1982, which was about when I was working there. But I never thought that I’d actually be able to write a book, because, you know, it’s hard [laughs], and it seemed very far-fetched to think that anyone would actually give me any money to write a book. [Laughs]

In the book you talk about the relationship, the hierarchy, I guess, with the subcultures -- the dorks, the drama kids, the hippies. Do you think that’s changed at all since you’ve been in high school? it seemed so realistic to me, though I’ve been out of high school for ten years, so...

I’d make the case that it doesn’t matter whether the high school -- I mean, I don’t know if the high school the characters go to is an accurate description of an actual high school, but if it works, it works, you know? However -- and obviously I’ve been out of high school for a long time -- while I was writing the book, I did, because I was curious, ask some people I know who had teenage kids, or who were high school teachers, “Hey, they don’t still have deadheads, do they? ‘Cause Jerry Garcia’s been dead for years, and the president [Clinton] said he was a genius, so, they've kind of moved on, by now, right?” And the thing is: they still have them! They still have the rainbow bears, and the Dead salute, they still do that! I saw them do that!

That’s amazing. That’s... [laughs]

The other thing about the hierarchy -- I tried to make mine a little different from all the other ones. You know, it’s almost a tradition of the high school book or movie that you analyze the hierarchy, and I think there’s some level of truth in the idea that all these observations depend on the person who’s actually making the observation. When I was a kid, I used to come up with all sorts of conspiracy theories about the way the world was, to sort of explain to myself who I was. I think that...you know, the experience that you’ve been failed by forces beyond your control, and the way you have of conceiving that in your head -- what I was trying for with King Dork was to fully realize the complexity of the state of mind of someone who feels that way, who feels alienated.