Dr. Frank going YA
Reading Frank Portman's debut started out as a school assignment, or rather a writing master class assignment (Finding and Revising your protagonist's voice in YA literature) and with prescribed books - remember high school! - one tends to be a tad cautious.
But within a page Frank Portman had us throw caution to the winds. He proved beyond any doubt that he didn't need that master class: his protagonist's voice was catchy as hell and King Dork turned out to be a genuine treat. It made us very curious about Frank Portman's own voice, though. So we at Booktunes listened to some of his Mr. T Experience tracks and, boldly but virtually, set out to California to pose him some questions.
Booktunes: You are the main man of The Mr. T Experience, with a long track record of song writing. 'King Dork' is one of those songs. When and how did you realize that he had more to tell us than just that song?
Frank Portman: The idea of writing a novel was suggested to me by an agent, and encouraged by an editor that he introduced me to. Up to that point, I'd never imagined writing anything other than songs, though I did take being a songwriter rather seriously and had ambitions to do more and more with that. The editor suggested I use a song as a starting point, which is what I did. So it was only after being nudged and directed that I started to think about the question: if the narrator of this song were to narrate a novel, what would it be like? And it developed from there.
BT: Tom Henderson, King Dork's protagonist, is a retro guy. He is heavily into seventies music. Why seventies music, why these melodic rock bands?
FP: Pop-culture references, particularly those relating to music, can be quite a tricky thing in a novel. Up-to date references are essentially impossible, as these things change so quickly, and on top of that, your book doesn't come out till a couple of years after you write it anyway. Moreover, as a reader I have usually found music references, particularly when they are intended as an important means to flesh out a character, to be awkward and unconvincing, and frankly, pretty irritating.
That's why I decided to keep the references "classic". I wanted people to be able to read the book two years after it was written, and then ten years later, and still get it, and not think something like "wait, what's a Vampire Weekend and a Deathcab for Cutie?"
As the writing progressed, I found it helped with the characterization a lot more than expected. The retro enthusiasm is one of Tom's ways of distancing himself from his peers, and, in effect, of imagining and mentally living in a better world, where he is not at such a disadvantage.
I've been challenged on that approach repeatedly, by people who claim that there's no way a teenager, in 1999 when the novel is set, or indeed at any time, would have such enthusiasm or knowledge for music that was fifteen to twenty years old. This attitude has always mystified me, because that is precisely what music geeks have done since music geekery was first invented. The last thing guys like Tom Henderson are interested in is the "latest thing." Anyway, I was recently at a family party for my teenaged nephew and if you were to judge solely by the T-shirts worn by all his friends, you'd have to assume the latest thing was AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, KISS, and Blue Oyster Cult. Not Vampire Weekend or whatever. Some things really never change.
BT: Tom rates Sweet the second-best rock & roll band of all times, even though they made the first-greatest album of all times (Desolation Boulevard) and the all-time greatest song ('Fox on the Run'). What has The Who to top that? And do you agree with your protagonist on this?
FP: I've never personally made that kind of list, but yeah, I love the Who and the Sweet. As for the Who, it is really hard to beat the paradigm of hyper-intelligent guy with little more than a guitar who finds it difficult to explain stuff, and it shouldn't be much of a surprise that it appeals to a person like Tom Henderson.
BT: When Tom cycles home after his first blow-job he voices his joy by singing typical bubblegum tunes (and, of course, 'Fox on the Run', which is kind of bubblegummy, too). Why bubblegum?
FP: Tom explains his reasons for liking Bubblegum straightforwardly, but the unacknowledged subtext is that in his mind he is challenging what he sees as the views of "normal" people, choosing to champion something he imagines they know nothing about, and would scoff at if they encountered it.
BT: To me the music, the lyrics, and some memorable band performances add an extra tone to Tom's voice. To what extent did the music influence you while writing King Dork?
FP: A lot of people assume that Tom's tastes are the same ones I had when I was 14, but that's really not the case. (Much of that stuff, retro for him, was indeed current when I was a kid, so of course I shied away from it, hated the people who liked it, cultivated my own obscure contrarian enthusiasms, etc.) I actually made a big playlist of Tom Henderson songs and listened to it constantly, especially while editing, to get in the right mood, and it really did help.
BT: 'King Dork' was a song you already recorded with MTX. In the book you let Tom write his first songs, songs you later recorded, too (we will add a playlist for those songs to booktunes as well). How was it to write songs as Tom Henderson? Was there a difference in writing compared to your usual songwriting?
FP: Well, it was a great deal of fun. "Thinking of Suicide" is the one I couldn't really have written "as myself", I suppose. I'm really quite fond of "Still not Done Loving You, Mama".
BT: Tom comes up with some of the most hilarious band names and album names. They often reflect Tom's moods. Is that something you did yourself when you were Tom's age?
FP: Yes, I spent a great deal of time and energy on imaginary "notebook bands." I think it is a pretty common, if not universal activity, and I was surprised to discover it hadn't been explored in a novel before - at least, as far as I know it hadn't. I even went so far as to make gig flyers for imaginary bands. I even posted them sometimes, which was good practice for when I had a less imaginary band later on.
BT: Your second novel, Andromeda Klein, features a partial deaf protagonist. A silent book?
FP: I think of Andromeda Klein's deafness as a way of dramatizing and heightening the confusion of facing the world and demonstrating that we all have a secret personal language that others can't fully understand.
BT: You are working on a sequel to King Dork. Will Tom Henderson be older in this sequel, and will his musical preferences evolve with him?
FP: King Dork, Approximately picks up pretty much exactly where King Dork left off. As for music, yeah, he discovers some new interests.
BT: Writing is a time-consuming profession. Do you still have time for MTX and MTX-gigs?
FP: The band has been inactive. Partly that is because it is kind of difficult to do both things at the same time. There's not a lot of money in rock and roll these days (and you'd be shocked at how low my standards for "a lot" are) and writing is definitely the better gig. I do have plans for more rock and roll activity in the future, though, to the degree that I can figure out a way to afford it.
BT: Could you raise the veil on what we should listen to while waiting for King Dork, Approximately?
FP: Mott the Hoople, Can, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, the Easybeats, Bruce Haack, the Suicide Commandos, Nazareth, Girlschool, Tank, Savage, Sparks.
BT: Thanks Frank, we will have a listen!
… and of course we won't let our Booktunes visitors go without the track that started this all: 'King Dork'. You'll find it on the album And The Women Who Love Them on iTunes by clicking the link.