For over twenty years, Frank Portman, better known as Dr. Frank, fronted the punk band The Mr. T Experience, one of the cornerstone acts on Lookout! Records, the indie label made famous when Green Day blew up. Then at around age 40, he took the punchlines of his pop-punk songs and found a new medium to reach teenagers where the fountain of youth was not a prerequisite—young adult fiction. Strike up a conversation with any small bookstore owner or youth librarian and watch them light up telling you how you have to read Portman's first novel, "King Dork." Its spin on how poorly "Catcher in the Rye" would be received by a modern day Holden Caulfield-type with no tolerance for Holden's good looks is so original and funny that its rights were quickly scooped up by Will Ferrell's production company to be made into a film.
Dr. Frank seems to have found a great synthesis between his two careers as he currently goes around playing songs while doing readings from his new novel, "Andromeda Klein." Andromeda immediately breaks the mold of "King Dork" with a teenage girl obsessed with the occult in a way that makes it more accessible, intriguing and lighter than anything we've read on the subject. This weekend Portman will be around town for a bunch of local appearances, highlighted by Saturday afternoon's discussion at the charming bookstore Word in Greenpoint and tonight's benefit group concert hosted by MC Chris at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe.
Where are you calling into us from on your way to New York this weekend? I'm doing a high school appearance a little bit outside Portland—hold on, where is this? (someone shouts behind him) Beaverton. I think that's where Nike is. Ah yes, Nike. They're all saying Nike. Beaverton, it sounds like a pleasant place to be. I've only seen the school. They have a really nice Kohl's, too. Very nice men's pants. Oh really! Well it's a regular hub for all sorts of economic activity.
How did the students take to the show? They were great. Whenever I go to a high school, I have this moment where I'm worried about getting a flashback. I go to the bathroom and I think I'm gonna get beat up. And whenever you're in a room full of teenagers, there's the possibility that they're going to be mean. But these ones weren't.
What kind of schools bring you in for the appearances where you do readings and gigs—all, like, magnet schools? It seems like it would have to be a pretty cool school to have the kids reading King Dork or Andromeda Klein. I think the schools where, you know what really determines it, I think? It's the ones that they ask for you. The ones that have a teacher or a librarian or someone who is really on top of things and who is really into it. The last few schools had the kind of school librarian dynamo and I think that's what it is. But I think a lot of times it is the special schools. This one today is a school without a football team or any sports at all. I walked past the classroom and I saw they were doing yoga. That's the kind of school this was. They were really nice and they were great, and I had a good time even though the show started at 9 a.m. Maybe the earliest I've ever played anywhere, in any form.
Well this is your new life, right? That's right, that's right. You always say, people say the big question is, "What is your life after rock?" Though I still have the rock going through me, I landed pretty well. This is a pretty good thing to be doing. And it's similar in a lot of ways to rock and roll, really, cause rock and roll is teenage music, and teenage books are kind of flow out of it, so it's worked out pretty well for me.
Has King Dork made it onto the curriculum of any high schools? It would have been nice growing up to have a break from the classics that actually would have made me wanna read on my own. It's a little bit tricky in this day and age, or I'm sure always has been. But the blow jobs and drugs in King Dork are the main things that would be the challenge for putting it in a curriculum in this day and age when everything gets challenged. I just found out today that one of my school visits here (in Portland) was canceled because of parental worries about the occult elements in Andromeda Klein. It's the first time I've ever been banned, and they're worried about the occult. And strangely, when it all went down it was at the time when the Barack Obama speech was happening that was all controversial, too. So it's like I connected to something that was happening in the world. First I'm a martyr and then in the same general situation as the President of the United States.
Well congratulations on that. Your first banned book. Things are looking up. I expected King Dork to be a little banned. I don't want it to be that banned, but a little banned is kind of cool. The kind of banning where it's on the table that says "Banned Books." That's like, you stand there and look at the pile thinking, "These aren't all that bad, actually." They get their own table, so I'm onto the table. I imagine there's a downside which I haven't experienced. I don't want to get people mailing me dead animals and stuff like that. I imagine, I know that some people have to have bodyguards. I assume it's less fun to be Salman Rushdie, but hopefully I can stop short of a Salman Rushdie version.
Well I'll ask you when you get there. Yeah, we'll do a follow-up interview when I have a price put on my head by terrorists. Or the Portland school board. Yes, by the the Portland concerned parents.
Have you gotten any actual, interesting mail, not of the dead animal variety, since becoming a young adult author? I get a lot of, mostly the kind of mail I get is, "Thank you for writing this, this is like looking in a mirror, I didn't think I'd ever read my high school experience like that". So that's very gratifying, 'cause that's what I was hoping it would be read like that and strike a chord. But I get some negative mail, too. I get some people who say, "Your book is a piece of crap" and "Why do you think that you can be a writer? It's just like talking, and it doesn't have a point." I get those, too.
One of the weirder emails I got—this is on my mind after Andromeda. After three years writing a Ouija book, my brain is still on Ouija mode. I got an email from a woman who asked—there's a shadowy figure in King Dork known as Timothy J. Anderson, who has a mystery about how he ended up dying and the funeral card is found. So Timothy J. Anderson may or may not have died by hanging himself in the school gym. And so I got an email asking how I came up with the name TJ Anderson, because TJ Anderson was my brother and he committed suicide, and I was like "uh oh, when did that happen?" Because was this after I wrote it? Was this going to be like one of those Stephen King things where after I write it, it comes true? Where I'd have to be more careful? But it had happened several years before I wrote the book. So that made me go, "That was spooky." And she was just like "I have to know, did you know him?" And I think if I had known him, it would have been fucked up to put him in that. Then she probably would have been mad. But I guess, of all the names in the world, there was bound to be someone. It's just a little bit more of a coincidence that he committed suicide. Weird things happen when you write things.
Speaking of Ouija-mode, it's funny that Andromeda landed in my hands because I've been on this personal quest to find "the return of Saturn." I went into a religious bookstore, but I just felt stupid, sort of the same way you would in a sex shop. Like you're just waiting for someone to make a joke to make you feel okay about it. That's a great metaphor. That's something I'm very familiar with. Standing in a sex shop and thinking someone needs to make a joke here or I'm not gonna know how to be. That sort of situation comes up in my life all the time. So the book shop didn't do it for you?
Yeah, I don't really know what I'm looking for and nothing really grabbed me. But four days later, I start reading Andromeda which immediately makes Tarot cards feel accessible and not just the hokey thing Rayanne Graff's mom did on My So-Called Life. Andromeda would call that "a sync" for sure. That's a little bit spooky. When you start writing a book like that and start reading about all that stuff, these sorts of things start popping up all the time.
Speaking of spooky, have you had any "only in New York" moments that come to mind while visiting here? A lot of my New York time these days has been revolving around the Random House building, because I have a lot to do there. It is a nice building, and I like being in New York but I don't have a real good handle on what is real. It's the sort of thing like town mouse, country mouse. I'm the hick from out of town and I go there and I just start going to places and I have no idea what they are or what they're called. Somehow the way that it is in New York you realize "oh man, it's already 6 a.m.? Where did I go? What was I doing all night?" So my honest answer for what's "only in New York" to me is that you can stay out all night without actually realizing it. I don't know anywhere else where it can happen to that degree. I'm sure you get used to it when you live there but if you stay there just for a week and you're someone like me, I can honestly see how it can kill you.
How do you feel about being in YA (Young Adult)? Like the religious bookstore idea, there's so many people who would like King Dork or Andromeda and would never wander of to a YA section. I mean, I think YA is a great little marketing slot to be in, but it's a marketing category and the books are a wide variety of types of books and a lot of them don't have anything in common with each other. I think the good ones are the ones that are written just to be books, and they are marketed in a particular way, which is good. It's a hip thing to be doing. I like being one of the cool kids for once in my life. But I think the ones that really work are the ones where the writers don't even necessarily realize they're writing a YA, they're just writing a book. And they're putting as much of themselves in, as much of their energy as they an into it, whereas I think what a lot of people assume it is is that you write a dumbed down version of an adult book where you try to present a moral teaching or something. I think that's a recipe for a boring and terrible book. Teenagers are not just dumb adults. I think adults can be pretty stupid.
It's pretty funny that you went from being in a punk band at a time when punk got so big in the '90s that it sort of stopped being cool. And now you feel like one of the cool kids by writing young adult fiction. You never know what's going to happen. Life is strange. You hang in there for long enough, doing stuff, and the more stuff you do the more chances are that something's going to click. I read an interview with Nick Lowe where he was talking about how the song "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding" was on The Bodyguard soundtrack, so that he became wealthy from it and was able to refinance his career based on that. He could leave the major label and go to Upstart Records and chart his own course from there. And the way he described it was that he had spent years baiting hooks. His whole career, all the songs and all the production things he's done was baiting hooks. Eventually a big fish came and bit it and that was his ticket. It can happen in a really unexpected way. And my writing all these songs that not many people paid attention to at the time is what ended up—the agent who suggested that I try to write a book was a fan of the Mr. T Experience songs as a kid. So a song I wrote in 1989 heard by this guy who was a teenager in 1990 and he grew up and now we're in 2009 and it turned into this literary career. No way to predict that, but it's kind of cool the way it happens.