Published Sep 26, 2009In 2006, Delacorte Press published a young adult novel by a dude previously best known as the guy who sang "Even Hitler Had A Girlfriend" with his pop-punk band, the Mr. T Experience. That novel, the charming and immensely readable King Dork, ended up a genuine literary smash, topping best-of lists and getting optioned for a film adaptation by the comedic duo of Will Ferrell and Adam McKay. In late August, Frank Portman's second novel, Andromeda Klein, was published, officially cementing him as a big name in the realm of young adult fiction. Not exactly the life anyone could have predicted when Portman started playing punk rock in the Bay Area in the mid-'80s. Not exactly a bad deal, either.
After I gave King Dork to my younger cousin, he told me he thought it was "the best piece of American literature ever written."
[Laughs] I wish it was always such an easy sell. I should write that down and use that.
Do you take pride in introducing a lot of younger kids like that to cool bands through your writing?
I get a lot of feedback from kids who had never heard the Kinks before they read King Dork. The Kinks are surprising to me, but I guess I'm not surprised that contemporary kids don't know about the Sweet and Slade and other rock of that era. When you dig back into it, as I found when I was revisiting it when I was writing the book, that's some great stuff. And any occasion to present it in a new package... That's not the reason I wrote the book, and it's not the only thing going on in the book, but it's a cool aspect of it, and it's one way that people can appreciate what's going on in the book.
With the unexpectedly massive success of King Dork, was the writing of Andromeda Klein stressful in ways writing hadn't been for you before?
It sure was. It was in the way that you're talking about, which is the classic sophomore slump, especially when you have to follow-up a hit. There's a lot of pressure there. And I've experience this on a very small scale with my band. We had our first - relatively speaking - successful record about ten years into having the band. There's pressure that you have to replicate the success of the previous one, but there's also a very negative pressure to not only recapitulate the success of it, but to carbon-copy it and come up with something that is more or less the same. And I've always felt that when I see other people do that, that it's a real let down. I've tried to never let that happen. One of the reasons I chose to setup my next novel to be such a different kettle of fish was to deliberately force myself not to repeat. So hopefully it exists on its own. But there was a lot of grief involved with having that concept in the beginning to having a completed, published novel. A lot of grief and tears.
And for you, on a personal level, a satisfactory result in the end?
It's a strange time, when your book has just come out. A consensus forms about it eventually, but until then, you are completely unsure of how to look at it. That was the case with King Dork. You unleash that on the world, and for a while you go back and forth on whether or not the whole thing was worth doing. And eventually the preponderance came down on the side of "this thing is worthwhile." But until you get that, you don't really know where it's going or what it's going to be like. But I'm glad it's over, I'll tell you that. Now I'm at the stage where it's just fun. There's some anxiety, but it's mostly fun to hear people's reactions. It's a long book, so it's taking people some time, but every day, I'll get a few more responses to it. I find that to be the most fun part of the whole thing. That was the case with music, as well. I never understood people who genuinely or as an affectation had a negative view of talking to fans. A lot of musicians have that affectation and I've never understood that. The whole reason you do it is to present it to people and you have to be curious what the reaction is going to be.
I came to King Dork as a long-time fan of the Mr. T Experience, and it was amazing watching the whole thing blow up, from articles to Entertainment Weekly to film deals with Will Ferrell. From an outsider perspective, it seems like the success you had with your band has been totally surpassed by your successes as a writer later in life. Is that true? Is it kind of crazy?
It's a weird thing to think about. The last 20 years, if I was anything, I was the guy in that band. Now, I would say the number of people who know me as the author of King Dork is many, many, many times the number of people who ever heard my music. Some of them do eventually hit on the music, as well. The strange thing is that it was a very well timed thing to happen to me. It bailed me out in a lot of ways. I was running out of ideas. You don't make a lot of money when you're in a band like the Mr. T Experience. In fact, when you're in a band like the Mr. T Experience, it's almost guaranteed that you lose money in the long term. Having something on the plus side really did... I don't know how much further into debt I could have gone for this sake of this small punk rock band. I was fortunate. But it sure is weird. It's weird that after years of imagining what it would be like, and in a roundabout way, trying to penetrate mainstream culture with recording and playing rock'n'roll, that for it to all of the sudden happen with a book was like, "Oh, that's what that feels like." It's like being a rhinestone cowboy and getting cards and letters from people you don't even know. It threw me for a loop, but I'm grateful for it for sure.
Is that where the idea to have Andromeda Klein come with a seven-inch came from?
I wanted to release music with King Dork, and I think that would have been a pretty natural thing. And I did eventually do some very rudimentary songs recorded acoustically at an audio book studio, which was interesting. At the time, no one really knew that King Dork was going to be the success that it was. I presented the idea to the publisher, but you don't get them to take risks with your first novel. But this time around we had a lot more leeway. We could make a better argument. The publisher wasn't really involved in doing it, but I felt it was worth doing. I put the recordings on my credit card. I hadn't recorded anything new, in a real studio, with a full band, in five years. I haven't put out a seven-inch in 15 or 20 years. It was going back to a thing that I used to do ages ago, and I really enjoyed it a lot. It was just a fun little thing to do. I love the label that's putting it out, Jealous Butcher Records of Portland, Oregon. They put such effort into making these things into beautiful objects.
I don't know if you're a fan of the Hold Steady, but I was reading an interview with Craig Finn where he was asked a question about why he was still writing songs about being a teenager as a guy in his 30s. He explained that he felt like the older he got, the better understanding he had of what it had meant to be a teenager. I was wondering if you feel the same, as someone writing about high school characters.
I agree with that. But I wouldn't say it's about gaining a deeper understand, per se, but you get better at evoking it. A lot of people note that as a contrast or a paradox that someone like me needs to account for. Like, "What are you doing writing about teenagers?" To me there is a seamless piece of fabric made up of many threads that goes back to rock'n'roll. Rock'n'roll is teenage music if it's anything at all. The fact that middle-aged people play rock'n'roll and like rock'n'roll is more like slumming than what it was originally intended to be as an art form and a commodity. But the reason it works is that the stuff that you go through when you're a teenager never really dies. It's a great thing to write songs about, and it's a great thing to write books about from that perspective. These are things that everyone has had an experience of and continues to have an experience of, but you're doing it for the first time and there's an extra drama there. But to me, the question of "Why don't you write adult books?" is like saying, "Why do you still listen to the Who? Why do you still listen to 'Can't Explain'? You should be able to explain everything now. I mean, you're over 21." But it's not like that. You're never going to be able to explain it. And that's the key to why teenage stories work on the entire population.