Articulate Q&A: Frank Portman

Young adult novelist and singer-songwriter Frank Portman.

Young adult novelist and singer-songwriter Frank Portman.

Frank Portman may be the only person alive who can say he shared a stage with Green Day in one decade, and had his debut young adult novel optioned by Will Ferrell’s production company the next.

Since 1985, Portman (under the stage name Dr. Frank) has served as the front man, primary songwriter, and sole continuous member of the highly influential pop punk band, The Mr. T Experience (MTX, for short). The group is known for its catchy songs about love and heartbreak, which Frank likes to introduce at concerts by saying, “This is a song about a girl.”

As a lyricist, Portman is often wickedly funny, but he also doesn’t shy away from showing his vulnerabilities and insecurities—qualities that have served him well in his second career as a writer of young adult fiction. His novels are populated by complex, often frustratingly relatable characters, just trying to navigate their way through some really difficult situations.

His most recent novel, King Dork Approximately (2014), is the sequel to his 2006 debut, King Dork. 2016 saw the release of its companion Mr. T Experience album, King Dork Approximately: The Album—initially released as a free download with the book’s paperback version.

If that sounds confusing, don’t worry. We asked Frank to explain the connection between his most recent works. Plus, he weighs in on his lifelong love of “bubblegum” pop music, and our cultural struggle to divorce good art from “bad” creators.

All that and more, below.

Q: Was King Dork Approximately: The Album a concerted effort to cross-pollinate your musical and literary fan bases? Or, was it more of a natural outgrowth of spending so much time on the books—in the same way journeymen stand-up comics tend to write jokes about hotel rooms and experiences at the airport?

It was certainly a deliberate effort, but it’s an ambition I’d had from the very first when I began writing King Dork. Or perhaps I should say “dream,” rather than ambition: more like, “wouldn’t it be great if I could manage to produce a soundtrack album to each book I write?” 

That’s easier said than done, even when you have a functioning band, which I didn’t at that time. So I’d been fantasizing about it for around ten years before it came to pass. I’m still amazed we managed to pull it off.

To be honest, though, I’ve always thought of them (the books and the songs, and the recordings of the songs) as elements of the same general project. When I’m at a show and I hold up the book and say “This is our new album,” it’s meant to be funny, but it’s also the case.

Q: Last we heard, you were working on the third King Dork book, in which the protagonist, Tom Henderson, studies abroad. This seems like a surprising move for Tom, who’s usually cynical and slow to change. What’s been the most challenging thing for you, writing him in this new location?

You’re right about Tom being slow to change, but he also has lots of reasons to want to escape to somewhere other than Hillmont [the fictional setting of the first two King Dork books]. There’s not a big challenge in a change of scene like that; rather, it’s more opportunities for him to experience alienation in a variety of new and different ways.

Q: For years, fans of the original King Dork have been waiting for the movie adaptation. Do you feel optimistic that it’ll actually come out at some point?

When it comes to Hollywood, there’s never any solid ground for optimism of any kind. In fact, from my distant, yet interested and slightly knowledgeable vantage on it, it seems astonishing that any movies ever get made at all. But I do have a lot of admiration for and confidence in the guy who has been developing it in this latest phase (Miguel Arteta), and I am certain that, if it does materialize in his hands, it’ll be great.

Q: Your latest musical project, the song “Lickitung” (from the Punkemon EP), is maybe the most blatantly “pop” song you’ve ever written, in a career full of very catchy pop punk songs. Just what is it about bubblegum music that gets you so revved up?

I take that as a compliment. That’s how I mean most of my songs to come off (blatant pop songs), and if they don’t, it’s because of some failure in conception or execution. 

Bubblegum (in its “classic” form: Kasenetz-Katz, Joey Levine, Ron Dante, the Archies, Banana Splits, that stuff, and through to Chapman-Chinn) is the most joyous, the most cynical/smart, and the least pretentious music there has ever been. It was, and is, always slagged for being trite and superficial or whatever, but that topic (love is sugar, and sugarlessness is torture) is about as powerful an emotion as humans ever experience. And they made thousands and thousands of these songs.  You can never reach the end of this amazing treasure trove, and most people don’t seem to know it’s there.

Punk rock, it is often said, was necessitated by the bloated, overblown, pretentious state of Rock in the 70s: something had to bring rock and roll back to the basics it had strayed from. That’s true enough. But Bubblegum did it first. And of course, the Ramones just picked up where the Ohio Express left off, and thank God they did.

Q: What’s the first record you bought with your own money?

I didn’t have enough money as a kid to be a record collector. Most of my listening, once I became interested in music in a serious way at age 12 or so, was via the radio, mostly college stations. I’m guessing the literal answer to this question, though, is The Rutles' All You Need Is Cash.

Q: Once upon a time, Mr. T Experience and Green Day ran in the same musical circles—they opened for you in the early days, then MTX played the role of support act after they became huge stars. What’s your relationship with them now?

I would say our relationship is cordial, but necessarily a bit distant. When I bump into one of them out and about in Oakland, we always have a nice, warm conversation. But you know, they have important things to do and such, and I … don’t. I’m fond of them, though, and glad they’ve got those important things to do and the wherewithal with which to do them. That’s not so easy in this day and age, even for stars.

Q: As we learn more about the people who create what we consume, it’s sometimes difficult to separate the art from the artist—especially when the artist has done something we find personally repugnant. Is there anything you can’t read/listen to/watch, based on your knowledge of someone who made it?

To be honest, that’s an attitude I really struggle to understand, that idea that attention to art is a reward we give the artist to express gratitude for scrupulously proper moral conduct. I wouldn’t say it’s irrelevant, as such, when an artist does or says something bad (that’s just more grist for the mill of understanding, so to speak). But, to my mind, it just makes the whole thing (art plus artist plus historical and social context) more interesting, and more, rather than less, worth a look. It’s a fallen world, and we’re sinners, and Solzhenitsyn’s line dividing good and evil runs through all of our hearts. Human frailty is, in a sense, the topic of all art, and artists are often those who have gained their understanding through experiences at the extremes. Caravaggio was a murderer, and maybe even a bad person, but I only want to look at some paintings, not marry the guy. So I guess that’s a longwinded way of saying “no.”

Now, that said, in the context of the near-legitimate semi-professional pseudo-show business world that people like me inhabit, personal conduct really can shape one’s appreciation of the work of one’s peers. You like, support, and endorse all your friends’ stuff, because hey, you’re all in it together. But the minute they stop being your friends for one reason or another, the mediocrity and tediousness of their work is suddenly and mysteriously revealed. The moral here is, as a pretend artist, if you want allies, try not to piss anybody off, because appreciation of what you do usually depends on an enormous benefit of the doubt that can easily be withdrawn.

Q: Tell us about a time you failed, and what happened next.

What is this, a job interview? I think my greatest failing is that I care too much and try too hard. Now let me ask you, do you offer 401K matching? In all honesty, all this stuff I’ve been typing about here can be reckoned as a string of failures. It’s all relative, isn’t it?

Q: How much of the “you” answering this today would your 20-year-old self recognize?

That’s an interesting question. The twenty-year-old me could never have typed this. I imagine he’d agree with it, though he wouldn’t have bothered to read past the first answer.

Q: You have a captive audience reading this, some of whom are possibly looking for something new to read or listen to. Which book makes you laugh out loud? What song makes you cry?

P.G. Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters. To quote myself, I don’t care how many times he wrote this book, it’s funny every time.  

I recently saw Kris Kristofferson play solo and wept through the entire set. About half of John Prine’s catalog will do that to me, too, even some of the funny ones. I cry pretty easily at songs. But if I had to pick one, well, two, it’s the first two songs of the Weakerthans’ “Virtute the cat” trilogy. I have to uncheck them from playlists so they don’t clobber me suddenly when I don’t have time to prepare.

Q: You seem like a pretty laid back guy most of the time. Tell us about something, big or small, that makes you really angry.

Mass incarceration.

Q: Finally, why should “proper grownups” read “young adult” books?

Because you never stop being the person you were as an adolescent, and those are very important years. Because a good book is a good book.  Because I get, like, $1.32 every time someone buys one of mine, and every little bit helps.