“Dr.” Frank Portman: From ’80s punk rock to young adult lit.
Back in the mid-’80s when I was filling the Merv Griffin gap at KALX (what, you don’t remember that?), one of the tiny but influential college radio station’s big guns was a DJ with the on-air handle Dr. Frank. He made a name for himself with a rap takeoff on the Dr. Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham. Dr. Frank eventually formed his own band, The Mr. T. Experience (MTX), and made the rounds of the revitalized East Bay punk scene that spawned Green Day. While MTX never achieved Green Day’s heights, they had a cult following that included a young guy who went on to become a literary agent. After a couple of years of pleading, he got Dr. Frank to write a novel for the burgeoning young adult market. The result, King Dork (Delacorte Press, 2006), has become a bonafide smash hit—something Portman didn’t attain in his pursuit of rock ’n’ roll immortality. In part a take off on the classic coming-of-age novel The Catcher in the Rye, the book is narrated by Tom Henderson, a high school sophomore with an astute and often hilarious take on the adolescent life, circa 1999. I caught up with the good doctor recently at Jupiter in downtown Berkeley where, over a couple of $4 coldies, he let on that the writing life—while not full of groupies—suited his personality to a T.
Paul Kilduff: A lot of people spend their whole lives trying to get a book deal. You had to be talked into it. What happened?
Frank Portman: In one way I skipped some steps. But in another way, the way I got to skip those steps was 20 years of not really getting anywhere doing something else. So I guess maybe it evens out. A lot of the things that people have to work really hard on just automatically materialized—like getting an agent. A guy who was a fan of my band when he was a kid became a literary agent and had this idea that he could turn me into a writer, which I was skeptical about, but I decided to give it a shot.
PK: Why were you so reluctant? Had you done any writing before?
FP: I’d never written any fiction before. I wrote songs and I had a Web blog for the last five years. Blogging isn’t really writing, but you get into the habit of writing and the more you do it, the better you get. She [my editor] bought [the book] on the basis of about 40 pages and I told her later that when I found out that Random House had bought it my first thought was, “Oh, my God. Oh, no. Now I have to finish it.” She looked very disturbed. It’s like with music. There’s an energy you get from discovering how to do something that is special.
PK: So, a little bit of the ole DIY–punk ethic going on?
FP: A little bit, but not in any ideological sense. I see similarities to rock ’n’ roll in general which is where with the most minimal resources you scrape together something and sometimes it strikes a big chord almost inadvertently and it happens to a lot of people who don’t know what they’re doing. And I took it very seriously. I worked really hard on it, but I didn’t know what I was doing, that’s for sure.
PK: How autobiographical is it?
FP: Certainly not in a literal way. It reflects a general experience of alienation . . . . Most people have some sort of feeling of not quite measuring up, of not being let into everybody’s club. And when I look back on my experience of teenage-hood and life in general, that is the central experience that arises in my mind.
PK: If memory serves, you were a pretty popular dude at KALX in the ’80s, though.
FP: Rock ’n’ roll makes a difference. That’s one of the goofy conclusions that the narrator of my book makes. I wasn’t really like that guy [King Dork] when I was his age. I’m maybe more like that guy now, but that’s a matter of self-awareness rather than experience. For many years I did stuff that only a very tiny sliver of the intended audience could really seem to get. So all of a sudden here’s something that seems more generally get-able. I don’t know how you do that but I just lucked into it for once.
PK: You were a contemporary of Green Day. Do you ever think, “Wow, maybe I should put on some mascara?”
FP: That would have predated mascara days. I tell you, I’d put on some mascara if I thought it would work. I’ll try anything. I’m often asked whether I feel like, “Oh, that could have been me.” And, no, I don’t. I certainly think it would have been possible for my records to bubble up a little more than they did. There are lots of ways to look at why they didn’t, but I was never cut out to be a pop star, really. I’m not really sure why but some interesting stuff falls out when you spend 20 years with a fake pop career . . . and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else because it’s a lot of misery for not that much return . . . . But they [Green Day] were of a different order of commercial interest than anything we were doing. But certainly if all of it was was mascara, I’m sure you’d be wearing some mascara now. Everyone around here would be wearing mascara.
PK: Probably right. So you wrote the book at Cato’s Ale House on College Avenue on your laptop?
FP: Yeah, I wrote about half of it there. I live around there. I wrote a lot of it in various places in the Mission as well. I would change location when I started to get stumped: bar, café, bar, café. Calm me down, wake me up, calm me down, wake me up. After you do this with your laptop for a few months you end up with a novel.
PK: You eat up a lot of battery time doing that. Did you get to plug in at Cato’s?
FP: Yeah. I had this corner with the electrical outlet. They didn’t know it when I was doing it, but I held a book release party launch there. Now they know me. “Oh yeah, it’s that King Dork guy.” Before I was the King Dork guy, I was the Trumer guy. “Hey, Trumer guy.” Because Trumer Pilsner was the drink that I usually got.
PK: That is really good stuff. How did The Catcher in the Rye takeoff happen?
FP: I had this idea that he [narrator Tom Henderson] was going to read books that his parents had read [and written in]. I did some field research and The Catcher in Rye, out of all the books, is the one that is most likely to have weird stuff written in it. People used to carry it around everywhere with them. They wrote all sorts of crazy stuff in it and so then I thought, “What if some of these scribbles turned out to be significant?” And then it just sort of took off from there. I wanted to subvert The Catcher in the Rye, not for any grand purpose, but just because I thought it would be funny. And I was hoping maybe it would irritate some people. But I haven’t really gotten much bang for the buck there. I was kind of hoping for a little more anger. Some people have told me they’re offended by the cover, which I enjoy. You tip over a sacred cow, you kind of expect to get some reaction. It’s kind of embarrassing to spend all that effort and nobody cares.
PK: J.D. Salinger is, of course, quite the recluse. It doesn’t seem like that’s where you’re headed, but do you feel any affinity toward him now?
FP: No, although being a billionaire recluse would probably not be a bad way to go. I was surprised he was still alive. And not only that, but he and his people are very litigious. “Aren’t we worried,” I’d say to my publisher, “that we’re going to get sued by the Salinger corporation?” The answers to that were twofold. It was like number one: if you get sued by J.D. Salinger, you will instantly be the most famous writer in the universe and yes, we would make millions. But then, it’s the same company and that’s the thing that cracks me up. So, they can’t sue themselves. I suppose they could come with a defamation of literature—that would be a fun case to be a part of. I don’t think it’ll happen. Someone should send him [a copy of my book]. I don’t know what his life is like but you’d imagine that someone—if he knows anyone—might have told him that there’s this book lampooning his book. It would be cool just to hear something from the guy.
PK: A terse little e-mail: “Not bad for a beginner, Frank. Regards, J.D.” Something like that?
FP: Yeah, right. That’s what I’m imagining. Who knows? He’s an enigma. I think there probably will be no contact with the great one but I guess I can live with it.