November 6, 2014
by Nick Spacek

To a generation of pop-punk fans, Frank Portman is better known as Dr. Frank, frontman for the inimitable Lookout Records act The Mr. T Experience. However, in recent years, Portman has gained greater acclaim as the writer of rather excellent young adult novels. His first book, King Dork, about a high school sophomore named Tom Henderson, and solving a mystery while dealing with girls, musical obsessions, and the usual miserable adolescent interactions, received massive acclaim when it came out in 2006. His next, 2009’s Andromeda Klein, also saw great reviews.

Portman’s next book is a sequel to his first, entitled King Dork Approximately, and takes up with Tom Henderson immediately following the events of King Dork – kind of like Halloween II, except it doesn’t suck. It’s due out December 9 from Random House. We spoke with Portman by phone about the new book, his writing process, and character development, among many other things.

The Runout: Like Andromeda Klein, King Dork Approximately was pushed way back from the original release date. What’s behind that?

Frank Portman: It just takes me, sometimes, a long time to write a book. My schedule and the publisher’s projected schedule doesn’t always work out to be the same. I try to do it the best I can, and to keep to a schedule, but as Douglas Adams is quoted as saying about deadlines, “The only thing you can like about them is the ‘whooshing’ sound they make as they go by.”

As a matter of fact, no matter how earnestly and how diligently you want to keep on a schedule, novels aren’t written that way. Many are, but mine are not. It’s a little corny, but it is accurate: you just have to wait for the magic to happen. [laughs] There’s lots of things that affect it: your state of mind, what you’re going through in life, whether you have the ability to just open yourself up to typing. For me, King Dork Approximately was always in the back of my mind, being worked on, even when I was writing the first one, long ago – eight years ago was when it came out.

But, then, I just had to wait for the right time – and it happened with the other books, too – where I would just roll out of bed one morning, start typing, and not stop for a month. Hardly sleeping, liquid diet: it damages your health. It damages your mental and your physical health, but the weird thing is that you crash like crazy afterward, and when you look back, you can’t remember having written it. It’s a weird, weird thing.

It used to happen sometimes when I was intensely involved in recording, and it’s like you’re a different person. It’s really weird. There’s a really efficient way to do more work, but the only way I’ve ever found that works is that way, and the other thing about it is that you can’t schedule it properly, and I wish I could. If I could schedule these manic creative zones so that they’d happen every four months or so? I’d probably kill myself, but I’d have a lot more things done.

But, that said – I’m trying to be better. I’m working on another one now, and I’m just hoping some insanity will sweep me up sooner rather than later. That’s another one with Tom Henderson, King Dork Abroad, but I don’t wanna set a date for it, because I really don’t know.

Given that you were thinking about King Dork Approximately while writing King Dork, did you have the arc of Henderson’s sophomore year in your head – planting seeds for the next book in the first?

Definitely. And, I was planting in Andromeda Klein, because those two stories end up intersecting. If I think about it, per se, I get all confused. It is weird when you start writing about characters that “live” in that way, because it’s really like that world exists, and you have to dip into it, and you have to examine it.

I did intend for King Dork Approximately to be written sooner. It was always going to be what it is. It is a sequel, literally: it takes place following another book, and the events happen exactly when the first one ends, but it’s intended to be its own separate thing. It’s got the same character and the same story arc, but it’s got different parameters with the kind of book it is, and that was always something I wanted to do. I wanted it to justify its existence – despite continuing a story – by being something else.

That was the thing that was challenging, because it’s easy to do more of the same, I assume.

I see exactly what you mean, because it seems like, in King Dork Approximately, Tom’s voice and the way he tells the story is jittery, seeming like its affected by the medication he’s on.

That is part of it, yes.

It’s like hearing someone you know, but they’re talking in a way that’s altered. It changes as the book goes on, but especially in those first couple of chapters, but it just seems like it’s mile-a-minute, James Joyce stream-of-consciousness stuff.

Right. It’s medication, and it’s also his injury. He’s speaking, knowing that what is – in his life – a cataclysmic thing is going to happen, so he’s nervous about it. I did think very hard about the effect you’re talking about, and I had to be careful. I had to go back and recast certain things I thought were diverging too much. You have to have the same voice, and I think it was clearly the same voice, but with something else going on in the story, in the narration, in the sort of book it is.

Because King Dork is sort of a meta-mystery, right? Not an actual mystery, but the sort of thing that comments on the idea of a mystery. King Dork Approximately, the idea was, was going to be more of a pseudo love story, and I had in my mind the sort of tone or the feeling of Annie Hall, with teenagers, is how I was feeling. It’s a different kind of structure, and I would even say, stylistic parameters. It’s more of a three-act story, because it’s meant to evoke the feeling of that kind of story, even though it’s quite off-kilter and – as with the other book – it’s filtered through a narrator who has interesting things to say, but very limited self-understanding and limited understanding of the world around him. Basically, what I’m trying to say, is that I tried to do all this fancy stuff. [laughs]

Well, most young adult novels are the story of a teenager, but told by an adult at many years’ remove, but in King Dork Approximately, you realize that Tom starts telling the story right as it ends.

That’s the secret to the energy of what they call YA now. Not YA as a marketing category, which is different, but YA as a literary tradition. The spark of that is that you are seeing that thing directly through an adolescent’s eyes and mine. You’re not editorializing on it. As the writer, all of this stuff you do around the edges is to aid in the immediacy of getting that voice across, and there isn’t really a better environment that’s more suited to that, because that’s part of what adolescence is.

It’s part of why we’re interested in it. It’s all these things that happen to you for the first time, and these are the things that keep happening over and over agin, throughout your life, so you can recognize them. You can relate to them, but there’s a drama in encountering them for the first time. That’s why I like this kind of book and, obviously, you’re going to try to write the kind of book you like yourself.

What I find interesting about your three books thus far is that your characters are low people on the totem pole. They’re sort of put-upon, and you show that they’re very aware of their position in society, but you also give the reader some hint of why they’re where they are, but without making it seem as if it’s justified. How do you walk that fine line?

I think that’s a nice compliment, because that’s a subtle thing to do, right? You ruin it by being heavy-handed. The way that it works is that, if you have genuine characters and their voice is true to the character, and you scrupulously stick to it – well, you have to stick to it. Otherwise, if you editorialize or if you stack the deck to diverge from that thing, then you’re writing a different kind of book, and you’re doing different kind of characters. I’m not saying I didn’t stack the deck, but it was always in their voices.

Whenever Tom steps back, and says, “And so, dear reader, this is the message I want you to get,” it is what he is thinking of in the moment. It is not a message to the reader from any more authority than the guy right there, and I just always try to pay attention to that, to maintain the immediacy, because if you lose that then, it’s almost like a spell is broken, I think, and I’ve experienced that in reading other books. It’s an unpleasant experience as a reader.

You have – and I hope this doesn’t come across as insulting – but you have a genuine ability to write songs that seem like they’d come from a high-schooler.

Indeed! I’ve said this before: it surprises me that that should surprise anyone, because what is rock ‘n’ roll, right? It’s teenage music. It began as teenage music. It’s still teenage music, even though a lot of old people have written it. There’s a complete congruence between writing what ends up in a rock ‘n’ roll song, and what I was talking about before – the immediacy of the narrative of an adolescent. It also had to do with experiences being felt for the first time and the particular way that you’re finding your way forward, and that’s why you’re talking about it.

I think that works really well in songs, too, though not all songs are like that. Certainly, there are people who write songs about the grizzled old guy by the bar reflecting on life, or he’s riding on a train, or whatever, and there’s great songs like that, but they’re not the kind, particularly, that I do.

Mine are more of an artful way of kind of expressing a general distress and angst about the world, from the point of view of someone who has a slightly limited perspective on it. I think that there’s drama there, and it works well in a song. I think that I learned that after doing it for so many years, and it’s the kind of thing that I wanted in a book when I started doing a book. There’s a continuum that makes sense between the songs and the books.

Being true to the voice of a teenager is definitely something I picked up. Like, the idea of Tom and Sam referring to albums by their catalog numbers was, at first, supremely irritating, but after a bit, I thought, “You know, I may have known someone” – who may or may not be myself – “who would’ve done exactly that.” That inside code thing between friends is spot on.

That is exactly right. It is irritating. You have to take the irritating with the non-irritating, especially when you’re writing about high school. I never did that, particularly, but – as you say – I am the kind of guy who would’ve done it, had I thought of it. It’s the idea of wanting to set yourself apart from the crowd in a sort of bitter, petulant spirit, although that bitterness can, ironically, be quite good-natured. It’s a way of establishing your identity when all the other ways – the world being divided, as they say, into joiners and non-joiners – so the joiners have their way of being with each other and reinforcing their own status quo.

And those who – either by design or through no fault of their own, or even those who try to get in with the joiners, but can’t – those people create their own culture that may only exist in their own head. It’s a way of carving out a little part of the world for yourself, and is often quite pathetic and – you’re right – it can be quite annoying, but I think it’s true to life.

King Dork was kind of like a primer for teenage rebellion, in terms of authors and bands and whatnot, but with King Dork Approximately, and the whole catalog code bit, it seems like you’re making the reader work a little bit more for the knowledge, rather than handing it to them – which is kind of a metaphor for how the book works as a whole.

Again, that’s a big compliment, and I think that’s fair to say. I’ve always believed that you shouldn’t underestimate the reader. You want to make things interesting for them, but you don’t necessarily want to make it easy for them, especially when it comes to teenagers.

I think that people are so terrified – writers and publishers, et cetera – they are so terrified you’re going to lose [teenager’s] attention if you don’t –

Spoon feed them?

I believe that you shouldn’t pander to readers at all, but particularly teens. I don’t write the books, obviously, for only teenagers to read, but the worst thing you can do is pat them on the head and go, “Here’s the teenage version of this real thing you’ll be old enough to do one day. But, here’s the teenage version now. Is that okay, honey?” That just is never going to work and is a bad thing that used to infuriate me when I was a kid. I just felt it was humiliating and embarrassing when it would happen.

You need to talk to teenagers and you need to talk to readers like they were anyone else, because they actually are regular people. I believe that in an almost ideological sort of way.

More information on Frank Portman can be found at his website. You can read his blog, Dr. Frank’s What’s-It and follow him on Twitter.