Chuck Prophet Interviews Frank Portman
Q. Having eluded the major labels with your punk rock group the Mr. T Experience, do you feel in some small way like you've crashed the party publishing your first novel with Random House?
I never been at a party I haven't felt like I've crashed. It was true in punk rock (where me and my bands were often in the role of contrarians among the contrarians.) And it's certainly true of the literary world. The YA genre itself, in it's current form, is like an oddball in the publishing party, and I'm kind of a weirdo within the genre. For better or worse, you can get a lot of energy simply from swimming against streams withing streams within streams, or by walking into a strange room and acting like an idiot in what you hope is an interesting way. I've had a lot of practice, and I think I'm quite good at it.
Q. How much of the book was inspired by your own childhood?
There is very little resemblance between stuff that actually happened to me and stuff that happens in the book, but the sense of being odd man out in a half-retarded/half-psychotic social structure was clearly something I shared with the book's narrator.
Q. Do you have a desk? A laptop? A spiral notebook? Tell us a little about where you wrote King Dork.
The book was written on my 12" Apple Powerbook at various wifi-equipped drinking establishments in Oakland and San Francisco. You know, you go from bar, to café, to pub, to café, the purpose of the café interludes being to wake you up a bit before the next stop. It's a great system.
Q. Have you read any of the Harry Potter series?
I have to admit I stopped reading them when they started to get long, i.e., around 300 pages into The Goblet of Fire. I still intend to finish them, but 300 pages is about the length of my attention span these days, and actually that's a pretty good length.
Q. If someone connects with your book, where do you suggest they go to branch out from there. Any writers who's work you'd like to recommend?
There have been some great recent YA novels: Looking for Alaska by John Green and A Brief Chapter in My Impossible Life by Dana Reinhardt. I've always been a big fan of Robert Cormier. For people who specifically like King Dork I supposed I'd recommend Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About by Mil Millington (because it's hell of funny.) But another way of addressing the question is that P.G. Wodehouse will probably remain the funniest, best writer in English. I've never heard of anyone not liking his books, and it in fact it is quite difficult to imagine how such a thing would be possible. So even those who hate KD can get the bad taste out of their minds with The Code of the Woosters or something.
Q. As a songwriter, I believe that all roads lead to Bob Dylan. It's no surprise that just as the general public stops buying records, Bob puts out a best-selling book. How long do you think it will be before everybody and their grandma's dog publishes a novel?
Pretty much everybody in the world goes around claiming that they are writing or have written a novel. I was doing that long before I ever tried to write one for real. Actually finishing is the tough part, and many people never get there. But in the meantime, "sorry, I've been working on my novel" is a good excuse in almost any situation as it is almost always greeted by an embarrassed silence, during which the subject can easily be changed to something non-threatening. Give it a try sometime.
Q. I believe you are living proof that there is Life After Rock. Do you believe in Life After Rock?
We'll find out, won't we?
Q. Like the music business, the writing business can be long hard road. I understand that was hardly the case with King Dork. Care to tell us how this book came about?
I did get to skip a couple three steps. I was approached by a literary agent who knew my songs and had read the yammering on my weblog and thought I might be able to write a book. I was skeptical, but it turned out he was right in the end. Who knew? My book really benefitted from the fact that I was such a writing ingenue, since if I had known how hard it was going to be I'd probably have never even started. But by the time I realized that, I had already spent the advance so I pretty much had to finish it.
Q. There's some potentially controversial stuff in the King Dork—blow job references etc. Do you think the book has any chance of pissing off any religious right wing groups? Wouldn't it be cool if they made a fuss and burned it? Think of the publicity.
I think what you shoot for is for you book to be "challenged," but only slightly. Just enough for literary types to feel self-righteous and self-congratulatory on your behalf and for the sake of their own broad-mindedness, but not enough for it actually to be prevented from being sold and bought. If you can make on to the "banned books" table at Borders, you have achieved a marketing coup as well as an impossible logical puzzle. Here's hoping.
Q. Any dirt for us? I mean was Random House difficult in any way. Any censuring going on over there?
I was actually surprised that there was no censoring or censuring. None at all. My editor made recommendations, but left the decisions up to me. Which is kind of scary, actually, because what do I know?
Q. Cool. It seems like in 1985, for a rock band, a good guarantee out on the road was like $500.00. Here were are twenty years later and a good guarantee is still like $500.00. What I mean to say is—what we all want to know is, what's a Random House payday like? Don't worry, no one is ever going to read this interview. Certainly not anyone from the IRS.
Advances vary widely. Some books sell for huge amounts. The advance is rarely discussed publicly in terms of dollars, but when it comes to the big ones, there's a kind of code, based on the kind of house the author was allegedly able to buy with it. A Brooklyn brownstone is a common one - that means, I'd guess, like $4 million, maybe? As for me, let's just say I'm not moving to Brooklyn anytime soon.
Q. I notice that your pen name for the novel is Frank Portman. Is there a particular reason why you're not using Dr. Frank? Because of your long career as the Mr T Experience mastermind you actually have some name recognition as Dr. Frank and over the years you rubbed shoulders with the very successful and very rich Green Day. Do you really think that's wise to distance yourself from your past now?
We considered publishing the book under "Dr. Frank," but in the end we decided that the general reading public might be confused by it. This has presented a slight publicity problem, as you point out, because we to make sure that people in the Dr. Frank universe make the connection. But I think it's probably true that it's easier to try to do it that way than the other way around.
Q. You've written a boatload of songs, and released some 20(?) albums. My current personal favorite song of yours is "Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend" but I have lots. Do you have a favorite Dr. Frank song?
That's a tough one, but off the top of my head I guess I'd say my favorite of my songs is "Population: US."
Q. Do you think it's possible in 2006 to make vital rock and roll that matters?
I would imagine so. If it's fun, it matters, right?
Q. Do you feel that Catcher In the Rye holds any relevance with today's middle schoolers? And do you think by updating it by say, throwing in the occasional blow job, it could be improved? Or is it sacred? You know, like the Holy Bible or the AA big book?
Catcher in the Rye does retain an immense and kind of inexplicable power. When I was a kid, I had a suspicion that a lot of Catcher fans were faking it, trying to impress their parents or teachers. But I never went so far as the King Dork narrator, who can only account for it by looking at it as a kind of sinister cult. After writing the book and talking to people about it, I realized that there is significant minority of kids who hate that book and Holden Caulfield, so it's kind of surprising that that point of view has never made in into the mainstream. I mean, till now. Assuming "King Dork" doesn't get suppressed and pulped by the Vatican or the Masons or the Salingerians or someone.
Q. You seem to have a gift for bringing bullies, jocks and cheerleaders to life. You've walked the Punk Rock walk for a couple decades now with people staring at you. Judging from your eye for details, turns out it was you observing them. What was your own high school experience really like?
It was tedious, horrifying, depressing, vacant, and more or less total torture. But I got some good anecdotes out of it, so in the end it might even have been almost kind of worth it.
Q. I understand you managed the young adult section at the Millbrae, California library as a teen. Any faves of the genre you want to pimp? Care to drop any big names as influences?
I didn't manage it, but I worked there and spent a lot of time in it. I mentioned Robert Cormier before. Daniel Pinkwater is another favorite.
Q. When King Dork goes through the rough, can we expect a follow up novel. A sequel or what?
I'm working on my second novel now, which is nothing at all like King Dork. It's about some girls with a fortune-telling problem. I have a King Dork sequel planned for after that, but I suppose I'll only end up writing it if King Dork does all right, you know?