Frank Portman aka Dr Frank writes books and pop songs that are packed full of humor, angst, and awkwardness that everyone can relate to whether they care to admit it or not. Frank has the unique ability to speak to the inner teenager within you. His words reignite fires you thought long extinguished in parts of your soul and bring you to a state of glorious adolescence no matter what age you’re feeling. They say youth is wasted on the young. This phrase becomes null and void when you enter the universe of Frank Portman!
Interview by Jay Castro
You have written two full-length young adult novels King Dork in 2006 and in 2009 Andromeda Klien. What or whom inspired you to want to write and particularly young adult fiction?
With me it’s not a case of having a burning desire to be a novelist and making it happen. It was a suggestion that I give it a try, as a way of possibly making a little extra money. I was broke, so I gave it a try and the experiment was a success. That’s not to say I didn’t take it seriously, because I sure did, just like my songwriting. Some might be surprised to learn that I consider that “serious” but it’s true.
As for why YA, this was what was suggested to me by the aforementioned agent, but the reason that he suggested it, and I suppose the reason that it “worked” when I did it, is that there’s a real affinity between the sensibility of my songs and the tradition of teen fiction. Teen fiction influenced my songs, certainly. It just seemed logical. I would even go so far as to say there’s an affinity between teen fiction and Rock and Roll itself. Both are a window into a world of formative experiences, of youthful confusion and error, of trying to figure you out, kissing girls, and driving really fast.
You have a sequel to King Dork coming out later this year called King Dork Approximately; can you tell us a little bit about that?
It is a literal sequel, picking up exactly where the previous one left off. I don’t want to spoiler-ize things too much, but there are some big unexpected changes in Tom Henderson’s life in 10th Grade Part II, along with some spectacularly misguided Sam Hellerman schemes.
Both of your main characters in your novels have been teenagers. Obviously most authors that write in the Young Adult genre are not teenagers. You seem to have no problem tapping into that frame of mind both in your songs and in your books. Do you feel like that ability is something valuable most people loose in their adulthood? That passion, angst, curiosity, and bravado that seem to fizzle out of most people in their mid 30’s?
I think that’s true in a way, but it’s also true that the fizzle you’re talking about never really goes away, no matter how conventional and unfizzly your subsequent life leads you to become. That’s why tales of teen angst are so popular among the general public. It’s a part of life that everyone in our society has experienced, and it leaves deep marks on a person. As for writing about it though, it can be challenging to do it authentically or maybe I should to do it in such a way as to create the illusion of authenticity. Many people who try go astray. I like to think I do it all right.
You are also the singer/songwriter/guitar player extraordinaire to the one and only Bay Area sensations The Mr. T. Experience! It’s been a while since the last record, tell me, is the MTX starship ready for a re-launch anytime soon or is it grounded for a while?
I do plan to re-launch in the run-up to the new book’s publication in the Fall of 2014. I’ve got many ambitious plans. We’ll see how many of them actually happen!
I have noticed that you bring your books and your music together as much as possible. There were some editions of Andromeda Klien that had a CD of your music packaged with it. Do you feel like people that “get” your music will understand the characters in your novels a bit better and vice versa?
I do think the two are complementary, to the point of being more or less part of the same thing. But that’s just me. I believe, as Mark Twain reportedly said of Wagner, that my music is quite a bit better than it sounds, but it is an acquired taste, and I know there are readers who can’t “go there.” And I’ve talked to punk rock fans that don’t really “get the books.” I do think however that there are so many cross-referenced points between the two areas that people who are interested in my songs will find something to interest them in the books, and vice versa.
Speaking of your music, MTX was started in 1985 when you and Jon Von more or less shared the song writing duties. Since his departure in 1994 that’s left you as chief songwriter. Has it been difficult to not have someone else to bounce ideas off of during the writing or recording process?
No, we were never a bouncing ideas off each other kind of band. When it comes to songs, I work alone, always have. Recording is delimited by technical and budget realities, and when your grandiose plans hit either of those brick walls, you do need to do some bouncing to try to salvage what’s left of the project, and traditionally in my world that role was played by producer Kevin Army.
As a kid, what band or musician first inspired you to want to pick up an instrument and want to write music?
The first specific music I can remember liking was Patience by Gilbert and Sullivan, and I did learn to play some of those songs on the guitar later on, sort of. I liked a lot of the Tin Pan Alley songs of the ‘20’s and ‘30’s, too. But actually playing learning the guitar for me specifically involved laboriously parsing the chord symbols from a Rolling Stones sheet music book I got from the public library when I was eleven or so. I fancied myself a songwriter right from the beginning, all my “songs” being terrible of course.
As an author, what other contemporary authors or novels have inspired you lately?
I’m really not up on things enough to answer. One unexpected thing about being a writer, and I’ve heard this from other writers too so it’s not just me, is that reading for fun pretty much ceases when you’re working on a novel. Which is all the time. That’s another unexpected thing: the job never stops. You’re in your novel’s little world 24/7 and you can only justify activities that could conceivably help get you to the goal of actually finishing the damn thing. If you’re not doing that, you’re “blocked” and though people say its “writer’s block” for a lot of us it’s really more like “life block.” In that situation, you pick up a book and spend an hour reading the same two sentences over and over with zero comprehension. Your mind’s broken, which sucks.
There are lulls in the action, though, once you have finished and haven’t started panicking about the next one. I’m in one of those now and I really enjoyed Patrick Hamilton’s Slaves of Solitude and the Faulkner stories published as Knight’s Gambit, which I found in the street – probably the best street read of my life.
What do you have in store for us in the near or not so near future?
New book, and I hope an album to go along with it, a best of MTX release, some shows, maybe some new recording, then another book etc. after that. We’ll see.