Frank Portman on going from punk rocker to novelist
Frank Portman is one punk who works well at low volume. After recording 12 albums as frontman for the Bay Area punk band the Mr. T Experience, Portman took the advice of a fan-turned-literary agent and focused his attention on the quieter world of literature. The result was King Dork, his debut novel, about high school misfit Tom Henderson, who’s trying to unravel the mystery behind his father’s death — if only he can stop obsessing over rock & roll and girls. We found the author at a crossroads — literally, on the streets of Berkeley, Calif.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How was writing prose different from writing songs?
FRANK PORTMAN: Well, writing a novel takes up your whole day for, like, two years. With music you roll out of bed and you play something, but [with a book] it’s like being back in school: You’ve got this homework project, and anytime you do anything else you think, ”Man, I really should be working on that novel, otherwise I’m going to have to give the advance back!”
What gave you the confidence to finish it?
I think a lot of people have this feeling of going through life like a fraud. I thought, ”This is the biggest confidence game I’ve ever done. What’s going to happen when I don’t actually turn in this novel?” In the end I did, and then I was like, ”What’s going to happen if it sucks?” Then it turned out it didn’t suck, or it’s doing a pretty good imitation of not sucking.
You’re 41. How hard was it to get back into the teenage mind-set?
It was pretty easy. But I have to say, for better or worse, I’m a pretty immature 40-year-old. It’s the tragedy and also the greatest gift of rock & roll music — it leads to people who lead adolescent lives long past their sell-by date. If you’ve got millions of dollars like Gene Simmons, you can do it in a big way. If you’re like me, you do it in a small way.
So the inevitable question: How much of the book is ripped from your diaries?
I think the experience of being in a world where there are all these layers of social structures and clubs that no one’s ever gonna let you be in, that’s definitely from my experience. But as far as specific incidents go, it’s fictional. My actual life? I was in my room reading about hobbits and reading Dune and playing fantasy games. It wouldn’t make a good novel.
Do you share Tom’s hatred of The Catcher in the Rye?
That is the book that the well-meaning but clueless teacher would present to you as ”I’ve got this wonderful treat for you.” Like they were initiating you into this fabulous world of pseudo-rebellion. I re-read it when I was writing the book, and I liked it a little better, but any kind of sacred cow is fun to knock down if you can.
You also lay waste to the Doors’ legacy. Discuss.
There’s a rock & roll kind of popular music where you like [Ohio Express’] ”Yummy Yummy Yummy.” Then there’s this other one where you think the Doors are better than the Ohio Express, and I don’t get those people at all… the boomers and their weird progeny. So come on — bring it on, Doors fans! Show me how ”Twentieth Century Fox” is better than ”Yummy Yummy Yummy”!
Do you get more respect now as an author than you did as a songwriter?
Well, you’ve got less explaining to do. I like being able to say I’m a writer. I’m looking forward to the next time I try to get into someplace like England, where they make you put down your occupation, and it’s ”musician.” Then they look at you like that is code for some disreputable thing — which maybe it is. So I’m looking forward to being able to say ”writer.”