By Jason Diamond
Dr. Frank wrote the love songs of my youth. As I spent countless hours making mixtapes for girls I liked, it was always a point to put a song by his band, Mr. T Experience on there somewhere. I guess in a twist on the Minutemen song “History Lesson, Pt. 2”, punk rock changed my life, but it was guys like Dr. Frank and many of his contemporaries who did it by writing smart, sensitive, and often times funny songs that I could relate to.
Now, a decade after those pop-punk glory days, Dr. Frank works under his given name of Frank Portman, and has gained a heap of critical acclaim as a writer of young adult novels. His latest, Andromeda Klein (Random House), focuses on (as Largehearted Boy puts it) “an outcast protagonist and Portman’s dark humor”, but is very different than his first novel, King Dork. Where that novel used Catcher in the Rye as a ongoing theme throughout the book, Portman now employees the use of occult imagery, and H.P. Lovecraft to weave a metaphysical tale of high school weirdos that is a great read if you are of the “young adult” age, or otherwise.
I don’t want to pigeonhole your work as a musician or a writer, but do you ever look at bands that came out of the Bay Area in that ten year period starting around the creation of Lookout! Records until the mid 90’s and think about the fact that whole label spawned so many writers?
(Aaron Cometbus, Blake Schwarzenbach, and as an extension, guys like Ben Weasel?)
Aaron was a writer writer first, and the songwriting came after (as far as I know — he was doing his magazine when he was a kid, and I’m pretty sure the rock and roll came into the picture later.) I guess when you think about it, there’s not really a huge difference between that and the rest of us for whom it went the other way (i.e. songwriting to plain old writing.) It’s all writing, really, and a lot of the qualities and strengths that make someone a good or interesting songwriter can also lead to good or interesting writing of the other sort. If there’s anything about San Francisco or Lookout Records that fostered literary ambitions amongst the people on that list, I can’t imagine what it could possibly be. Speaking for myself, it was largely a kind of desperation: the songwriting wasn’t paying any bills, and the book-writing was a pretty good gig. But I did learn things from all those songs I wrote that helped me when I started trying find my way as a novelist.
I don’t know how much of a connection you had to many of those bands or people (other than a shared label), but would you have thought back in the late 80’s that so many of your contemporaries had literary ambitions of some sort?
Leaving aside Aaron, who was writing since long before I met him, the answer is: hell no, sort of. I mean, there was always a street poetry type vibe to Blake’s stuff, but a lot of people just do that for its own sake without it being a signal of future literary ambitions. Ben was the most writerly of the bunch, going way back, since he wrote a regular column and had a pretty distinctive style even back then. But casting my mind back to that time, I don’t think I ever looked at the people in all the punk bands we always played with and thought: these are some heavy-hitting intellectuals we’ve got here, and one day they’ll be writing books. In fact, again leaving out Aaron who is and has always been a genius writer, it still seems pretty unlikely. In my case especially!
You still record music today, but did you ever foresee a time when you would become more well-known as a writer than a musician?
Nope. It’s a bizarre turn of events.
There is some talk about H.P. Lovecraft in Andromeda Klein, you a fan?
I spent much of my childhood under the shadow of Lovecraft, yeah. There was also a Lovecraft revival of a sort in the latter part of my high school years, sparked by and/or reflected by the role-playing game Call of Cthullhu. So the time was right.
A.K. seems to tackle some weighty subject matter, far more than what I suspect a good portion of the “teen market” that your publisher seems to be aiming for. Are you writing books that you would have wanted to read when you were a teenager?
Yes, I think that’s fair to say. And I’m pretty sure I would have loved both of these books when I was a kid. I’ve always been a bit weird, though, it must be admitted. But I don’t think there’s any *necessary* reason why challenging subject matter should be wrong for teenaged readers. I’m a big believer in not underestimating your audience. At minimum, you wind up with a more interesting audience that way.
Have you always been interested in the occult?
As a kid, yeah. I haven’t revisited the interest, much, though till I began to work on Andromeda Klein.
When King Dork came out, were you surprised that it got such a strong reaction?
I was certainly surprised that it became such a hit, mostly because I had never done anything even remotely hit-like, and I had pretty much just gotten used to the idea that all my stuff would be that way.
What’s the word on the film?
The film is being developed. No real news on how likely it is that it’ll get made. Seth Gordon of King of Kong fame is attached as the director, though, and I’m pretty stoked about that.
There was this time around the mid 90’s, after Green Day really blew up, and Dookie came out. I felt like every other article I read mentioned the influence MTX had on the band. I’m guessing that must have been an interesting feeling, but now you are an acclaimed author, and people are extremely responsive to your work, I’m wondering what’s a better feeling? Your music getting the praise or your writing?
I am pleased when anyone pays attention to my stuff — songs or books. In a way I think of both as part of the same thing, I guess. I’m still not all the way used to having people all of a sudden acting like they respect what I do — but it’s a nice novelty.