Many of our readers know Frank Portman better as his “Dr. Frank” persona, the frontman for one of pop punk’s best bands – The Mr. T Experience. Few frontman were better able to articulate the adolescent experience as well as Frank, so it was something of a natural shift from penning lyrics to writing prose. Portman has more recently made a name for himself as an author, penning King Dork in 2006 and Andromeda Klein in 2009. Portman’s latest novel is King Dork Approximately, a sequel to King Dork released late last year. We recently chatted with him about the explosion of YA fiction, music and book piracy, and more!
So your latest book is a sequel to King Dork called King Dork Approximately. Did you always intend to make a series out of King Dork or did the inspiration to return to those characters come later?
I never intended to do a “series” per se, but I did have a broad storyline for these characters in mind from the beginning and figured I’d probably write more about them eventually, which is, obviously, what ended up happening.
Were you a fan of YA fiction before delving into it? What are some of your favorite YA works and why do you think books classified as YA have become so popular over the last decade?
I’d read a lot and had quite a solid grounding in the teen fiction of earlier eras but hadn’t read much at all of the current stuff when I started writing myself. My tastes, in that as in almost everything, are still pretty “retro” (Robert Cormier, Daniel Pinkwater, Ellen Raskin). More recent ones I’ve liked: Fat Kid Rules the World by KL Going and David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green.
I don’t have an explanation for why the YA category has “exploded” so spectacularly over past few years — you could say it’s “successful marketing” but that just begs the question. But interest in the adolescent experience has been a major focus of art and popular culture for generations and there’s no mystery there. We experience so many things for the first time in high school. Emotions are at their most intense, mis-steps and pratfalls at their most hilarious. The traumas of high school continue in various forms throughout the rest of our lives too, and the scars from them last forever. It’s no wonder people are compelled to return to the scene of the crime through the magic of books.
I read a quote of yours somewhere where you insinuated that a large part of the reason The Mr. T Experience slowed down musically is because piracy made it impractical to devote so much time to it. It seems that E Reader piracy is becoming just as big of a problem. What is your opinion on this form of piracy, and has it impacted your drive to write at all? It seems especially frustrating with books, as people low on funds have access to their libraries to read the materials.
The real problem for music wasn’t piracy in itself (though that certainly was a factor in the process). The real problem was the devaluation of “content” that resulted from a market where everything was effectively free or at best “payment optional.” Songs have become literally worthless. And this is, more generally, a dynamic that puts pressure on intellectual property of every kind. Publishing has been smarter about this than the music biz was and doesn’t seem in any danger of imminent collapse.
But if we get to the point where the manner and process of buying a book vs. getting the same one for free is absolutely identical, books inevitably will devalue too. As with music, what money there is will go to service providers and device manufacturers rather than the writers. And it’s hard to see how anyone will be able to take three years to write a novel without getting paid anything. I’d certainly have to find something else to do in that case, but I think I can do at least a few more books before the death of the novel happens. Tra la.
Any news on a possible King Dork movie? Who would you pick to direct and what are some of your favorite book-to-film adaptations?
KD is currently being developed by Miguel Arteta, a guy I admire a lot. If it happens, I have no doubt it’ll be great. And actually, he’s the answer to the second question, too. I thought his Youth in Revolt film was great.
The storytelling qualities of your lyrics made you a natural to write fiction. We saw a similar thing happen this year with The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle and his foray into fiction. If you could pick any musicians out there and have them write you a story, who would it be?
Robyn Hitchcock. Ray Davies. Cometbus. And if Neko Case hasn’t written a novel yet, she should get on it.