Frank Portman, former frontman for the San Francisco band The Mr. T Experience, switched platforms with the 2006 publication of his first YA novel, the much-heralded King Dork (Delacorte). Now his guitar anti-hero, the girl-obsessed Tom Hellerman, returns for the second half of his sophomore year in King Dork Approximately.
Did readers demand a sequel?
People certainly have been asking all along, ‘When’s the next one coming out?’ I had the contract to do the follow-up but first I wrote Andromeda Klein (Delacorte, 2009). I just don’t know how to account for the fact that it takes so long to write a book. I’m supposed to be writing a book right now but instead I’m talking to you. People say to me, ‘It’s only 300 pages. If you write a page a day, you’ll be done in a year.’ But they say the same thing about recording songs. ‘It’s only two-and-a-half minutes. Shouldn’t you be able to get it done in, say, 10 minutes?’ It becomes a verdict on your worth as a person whether you can finish your own book. It’s like the feeling when you have to write a college term paper and you don’t start until the night before but 100 times worse than that. I mean, I’m sure there are some writers who can dash out a book before breakfast but I’ve never met one of those.
Does your music still take up most of your time?
Not anymore. Writing is the main gig for now. I mean, when people ask me what I do I tell them ‘writer,’ and I wait for them to roll their eyes.
So what’s your process? Do you write every day?
My process is really stupid. I’m just a basket case, or like a chicken with its head cut off. Most of my time is spent saying to my cat, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do this.’ Not just with the book, but with songs, too. It’s inexplicable but then, one day, I’ll just roll out of bed and start typing and do that for six weeks. Then I crash for like a month or so. It’s like being on a liquid diet. Yeah, you get it done, but it’s physically and emotionally exhausting. If I could schedule these things to happen, I would definitely sign up for that. Actually, I have heard there is a way I can do that and it is called Adderall but I haven’t tried that yet. I have tried things like getting up at 6 a.m. and working for 90 minutes every morning, or writing a thousand words a day but when it’s not clicking, you’re doing damage to your book. You wind up spending more time undoing the damage. Instead, I allow myself to be at the mercy of the muse, flying into my body and possessing me like the Greek poets. I totally know what those Greeks were talking about because if that voice is not animating you, nothing happens. I have heard people say stuff like this and I roll my eyes at it, but: being an artist is hard work. What’s the Madeline L’Engle quote? Something like, ‘You have to write the book that wants to be written.’ It has its own schedule. The payoff is that there’s a particular kind of excitement when the writing is clicking because it’s such an unlikely thing. A lot of people can’t pull it off. You’re teetering on the edge. It’s a traumatic experience. I don’t mean to sound so negative. It’s only negative when you’re going through it.
What if your editor gave you a deadline?
Oh, she [Krista Marino] gives me deadlines all the time. Actually, I’m getting better. Right now I’m not in trouble with her. And I’m fully aware how ridiculous it is that this is the way I work. I've got to hand it to anyone who can finish anything. If you manage to get from blank page to published novel, you feel like you’ve done a moon landing. You should be able to retire after that. But Krista is very good at being encouraging and being a cheerleader. I think that when you write like I do, you become very sensitive and vulnerable to the least little hint of disapprobation. It’s a skill to be able to crack the whip but be encouraging at the same time. I really admire it.
Was there every any childhood plan to become a writer?
Nope. Before I wrote King Dork I had only written songs.
No college writing classes?
A lot of college writing. I majored in history at Berkeley, so a lot of essays and stuff, but the plan was always rock and roll. Though I imagined that being a successful writer was a pretty kick-back job, sitting around all day. I thought it was just like being unemployed except you were famous. So when the idea was floated to me by an agent, it just seemed so far-fetched. I thought to write a novel you had to have this crazy, rarefied talent, or this intense training or this drive, none of which I had.
Why did your agent – do you still have the same agent? – think you could write YA novels?
I do. It’s Stephen Malk. This was around 2000, when the music industry began its collapse, and even the modest living I had been making as a musician evaporated. Stephen was a fan of my band when he was a kid and he got this idea that he would approach some of the people who had written the songs he liked and see if they ever thought about writing teen fiction. I was very skeptical but he was persistent and I’m grateful for that. Whatever it was that made him a fan of my band, that’s the reason I have this career I have now. I think he approached a bunch of different people but I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who actually came through and wrote a book. His suggestion was that I write a novel with the same sensibility as my songs. He was pretty sure he could sell it and I was at a loose end. Our tour had collapsed, the band had collapsed, indie music had collapsed. In the midst of this, I opened a file on my computer and titled it “novel.” I wrote about 30 pages of free association in a café and I sent it to him and the next thing I heard from him was, ‘I sold your novel.’ I tell this to writers and it makes them want to tear their hair out. It was the easiest road to publication ever. But then I had to teach myself how to be a novelist and that wasn’t easy at all.
It’s not like there’s a shortage of aspiring novelists out there. Did Malk ever explain why he was recruiting songwriters?
Well, I think writing songs actually prepares you for the role of novelist. I basically spent 25 years writing rock and roll songs from a teenage perspective. Fashioning that voice which, almost by definition, is always going to be from a first-person point of view – ‘I love this girl, who doesn’t love me back,’ is really good practice for writing a YA novel. It’s not like you’re zooming out in any way. So when I started writing the books, I already had the voice and what I know now is that voice is one of the hardest things to come by. This sounds corny but it was almost like my songwriting was my apprenticeship for my novel writing career because there’s a real affinity between the two.
So it wasn’t as hard as you thought it would be?
Well, I think I wrote seven drafts before [King Dork] was novel-ly enough to be published.
Now that you have three novels under your belt, is it getting easier?
Now I understand the challenges but that’s also what makes it harder. I really want to make everything I do justify its existence, not just present something that’s more of the same. You have to take it up to another level every time. When I started out I didn’t know what I was doing and you get some energy from that but when you have a better understanding of what makes something work then you have to figure out how to recapture the spark. The thing that never gets better is the terror of the blank page. You could be Philip Roth. You could have written 150 books, but the terror of the blank page is always there.
So what’s next for Tom Hellerman? At the end of this volume he’s still got two more years of high school left.
Well, this close to publication is not the time to delve into Tom’s next adventure. It’s all self-promotion right now, which is a bummer because I didn’t get into to this to do that. But I’ve got more down now [for book three] than I did at this point right before King Dork came out. The next one is going to be King Dork Abroad, where Tom goes on an exchange program to London. I’m actually going to London to do a little more research. What I’m trying to do is write each book as a different genre. The first book was a mystery, and the second one I consider a romance – Annie Hall with teenagers. So the next one is going to be a psychological spy novel. If I can pick up the pace, I might be able to get him out of high school before I die.
King Dork Approximately. Frank Portman. Delacorte, $17.99 Dec. ISBN 978-0-385-73618-3