Frank Portman is the author of the novels King Dork and Andromeda Klein. He is also Dr. Frank, leader of the Bay Area punk band The Mr. T Experience (MTX) that is now playing into its third decade. Since we love, Love, LOVE the intersection of books and music, Frank Portman is officially “our kind of guy.” Accordingly, I was thrilled when he agreed to field some questions from the likes of us.
Baby Got Books interview with Frank Portman, author of Andromeda Klein and King Dork
Baby Got Books: I was a college DJ way back when the MTX album Night Shift at the Thrill Factory first came out. Looking back on it, a song like “The History of the Concept of the Soul” may have hinted at a bookish future. When did you first begin to write prose (as opposed to songs)? And at what pint did you first begin to think seriously about writing a novel?
Frank Portman: Before doing King Dork, the only kinds of writing I’d done other than songs were essays and papers for school (and a blog that I started up in 2001.) That song was actually a song version of a paper I did for a class on Greek and Roman religion when I was in college. At the time, it just seemed like it would be funny to put footnotes in a punk rock song, and I guess it kind of was.
I started writing the first book in 2004, at the suggestion of an agent who believed the sensibility and characters in some of my songs might make for a pretty good YA novel. Turns out he was right, but I don’t think I really took it all that seriously till it was well into the revision process. Then it hit me that it was really happening.
BGB: Neither of us is a young adult exactly, but here we are talking about books that are ostensibly “for” young adults? Did you set out to right for a particular age group? How do you feel about the “YA” label that has been assigned to your books?
FP: I love the YA tradition, and I have for practically all my reading life. I’m proud to be part of it. That said, I don’t believe in “reader profiling” and I think trying to tailor a novel to match the supposed expectations and tastes and attention span, etc. of a particular narrowly-defined demographic group is a recipe for dull, inauthentic books.
There is a debate, not likely to be resolved, about “what is YA?” (similar to the “what is punk?” debate in some ways.) I think the marketing answer (e.g. they are books marketed to or “aimed at” young readers as opposed to the general reading public) is the least interesting or fruitful one; it’s certainly not an approach I’d recommend as guide to how to write a worthwhile novel. For me, the thing that makes YA YA is something more essential and profound: it is the attempt to depict a teenaged character from the inside rather than as a figure observed from without. The high school years are crucial years for everyone in our culture, and the sting and occasional joys of that experience stays with you, forever. So it is a great “frame” within which to examine some universal things about human experience. (Of course, you can read it as nostalgia as well. I’m not saying that’s not there for older readers — I’m just saying it’s not all that’s there.) Anyway, there is a reason why the fascination with high school so evident in our popular culture never seems to die out, among all age groups, and I think that’s it.
As for the marketing label, it’s a blessing and a curse like most things. The downside is that a lot people in the literary establishing tend to take you less seriously as a writer. And people in general will often tend to assume that your books are simplistic or dumbed down and not worth their time. (This is summed up pretty well in the question that every YA author hears over and over again: “so do you plan to write a real novel one day?”) On the plus side though: it is a happening, hip place to be these days. We’re like the “cool kids” of publishing all of a sudden. And it is a growing market, which is not something you can say about many things in this day and age. Also, I believe that YA publishers are a lot more open to new things and are prepared to take more risks than “adult publishers.” So I think it is a good fit for me. It certainly has worked out well so far.
BGB: Your new novel “Andromeda Klein” features a high school girl who has a strong interest/obsession with the occult, a subject that always seems to be at the top of the list along with “Satanism” as a rationale for challenging books at libraries. Was the possibility of challenges/banning a concern for you or publisher? Has it happened yet?
FP: While I was writing, that honestly didn’t occur to me. I was just so absorbed in Andromeda’s world that I wasn’t really looking at it from the outside, perhaps. And that’s ironic in a way (and maybe says something unflattering about me) because that it is sub-theme in the book itself. It wasn’t till we were at the publishing point-of-no-return phase when people started saying “you know, this book is going to get banned” that the thought first entered my head. I was shocked by that. And then I was even shocked-er when a school visit was actually cancelled. So far, that’s the only incident I know of. We’ll see what happens.
BGB: It’s clear from the book that a great deal of research into the arcana of the occult was involved. Has the occult always been an interest of yours or did you dive into the subject as you began to write Andromeda Klein?
FP: It was an interest of mine as a kid, sure, but I really did have to do my homework to get up to speed with Andromeda. The model for Andromeda’s obsession with and approach to the occult, to the degree that there was one, was not my own obsession with the occult as a kid but rather my obsession with rock and roll. I think the two areas of interest have a lot in common, especially inasmuch as the “record nerd” and and the “occult nerd” can be equivalent types. Moreover, in both cases it is a side of things that fairly common, but not often recognized or depicted. So there’s a similarity between the two books, and the two characters, if you like, despite the fact that they are very very different in almost every other way.
BGB: One of the things (among many) that I learned from Andromeda Klein is that Ozzy Osbourne mispronounced Alistair Crowley’s name in the song Mr. Crowley. The book presents several examples of musicians who botch the meaning of occult symbols/beliefs (e.g., they are Satanic). Do you think this is due to a general misunderstanding based on the esoteric nature of occult texts? Or is it just lazy appropriation? Both?
FP: The big mistake people tend to make in general regarding esoterica is to assume that because it is of an earlier age and off the radar of conventional contemporary rational discourse that it is simplistic, or naive, or that it can be discussed meaningfully without much knowledge about or engagement with the material. In fact, it might well be nonsense, like anything, but it is a rich, extremely complex chunk of nonsense with its own rules, conventions, traditions, etc.,; and moreover, it relates to various unquestioned aspects of our own conventional rational discourse in often surprising ways.
Rock stars are no less immune to these habits than anyone. And of course there’s nothing wrong with appropriating iconography and symbolism for effect, “coolness,” what have you. It is done all the time, to great effect. I don’t know that the song “Mr. Crowley” would have been a better song if it had truly attempted to depict “Crowley the man and his thought,” but I kind of doubt it, really. I think the mispronunciation, though, is a kind of symbol of the general situation, and thus is rather precious as a reminder never to assume you already know everything about everything.
BGB: Andromeda Klein differs markedly from your first novel King Dork. A notable example for me is that Andromeda is largely clueless regarding modern music where King Dork‘s Sam Hellerman and Tom Henderson discuss music constantly. Did you make a conscious effort to limit the musical references in the book or did the pop culture obliviousness of Andromeda Klein limit the opportunities?
FP: There were lots of reasons to make Andromeda oblivious to contemporary music and pop culture. It underscores the degree to which her occultism obscures everything but itself in her world, and it makes her eventual discovery of Led Zeppelin “mean more” in the end. Mostly though, it had its own logic. Not to belabor the point, I hope, but occultism plays much the same role in Andromeda’s life as rock and roll plays in Tom’s and Sam’s life.
BGB: A character in Andromeda Klein is an HP Lovecraft-inspired Cthulhu-rock band? Is there really such a thing? What does/would Cthulhu-rock sound like?
FP: There isn’t such a thing as Cthulhu Rock, per se, as far as I know. I imagine it as a kind of techno-metal geekery, maybe the least hip music conceivable. So of course, I bet I’d be pretty into it were it to exist.
BGB: The covers for both King Dork and Andromeda Klein are made to appear as though they have been defaced. Should we read anything into that? Is it becoming the Frank Portman signature look?
FP: I think that is more a function of how “booky” both books are. Books as artifacts play a big role in both. That said, I do like defacing things, on principle, and I suppose you could say that that’s part of what I enjoy about writing novels, as with just about anything else.
BGB: A character from King Dork makes a surprise cameo in Andromeda Klein. Can we expect to hear more from Sam Hellerman and/or Tom Henderson in your future novels?
FP: My next book will be a sequel to King Dork called King Dork Approximately, so there’s wall-to-wall Tom and Sam in that.
BGB: I am a HUGE fan of your novel King Dork. I hear that the book is being made into a movie by the Adam McKay/Will Ferrell production team (true?). What’s the latest word on the movie and to what extent have you been involved in the process?
FP: Thanks a lot. Glad to hear you like it. The film is in “development” currently. That term can mean anything from “we forgot we bought the rights to it” to “we’re definitely for sure gonna make it.” You never know. But yes, the producers are Will Ferrell and Adam McKay and the studio is Sony Pictures. A lot has been happening recently, and the project seems very much alive at the moment. We’ll see what happens.
BGB: NPR recently aired an interview with Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America, that claimed that Jay-Z may be “a master of occult wisdom.” Are The Mr. T Experience secret masters of the occult?
FP: I guess all I can say to that is: them as knows don’t tell, and them as tells don’t know.
Don’t forget to enter our Andromeda Klein giveaway over here.
Ozzy Osbourne – Mr. Crowley (Andromeda says the first syllable should be pronounced ”crow” like the bird)