Author Interview: Frank Portman

Posted: December 11, 2006 in Author Interview

An Interview with Frank Portman, Author of King Dork

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From School Library Journal

Grade 10 Up-Original, heartfelt, and sparkling with wit and intelligence, this debut novel tells the story of a 14-year-old outsider, Tom Henderson. For him, life is a series of humiliations, from the associate principal who mocks him to the popular girls who put him on their Dud list. The teen takes refuge in music, writing songs, and inventing band names with his only friend, Sam. He looks for a copy of The Catcher in the Rye in a box of books left by his father, a detective who died under strange circumstances. Tom sets out to read each volume, decode the secret messages that he finds, and figure out who his father really was. The daily torments of life at Hillmont High School play out brilliantly in ways that are both hilarious and heartbreaking. Sexual references and encounters abound, and the language is frank-oral sex is a frequent topic, as is drug use by teens and adults-but none of it is gratuitous. The plot unfolds at a leisurely pace, with digressions on music, popular culture, high school customs, literary criticism, and general philosophical observations, but Tom is so engaging that most readers won’t mind. He’s intellectually far above most of his peers but still recognizably a teen in his obsessions. The plot’s mysteries come together for a conclusion that is satisfying but doesn’t tie up all the loose ends. This dazzling novel will linger long in readers’ memories.-Miranda Doyle, San Francisco Public Library
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

1. King Dork was obviously heavily influenced by Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. What was it about Salinger’s classic that particularly inspired you, and in what ways is that book still relevant today?

Many books about teenagers invoke The Catcher in the Rye, and many authors and publishers try to spin their books as The Catcher in the Rye of the Future. Writing a book from the point of view of a disaffected, smart-ass high school student automatically put me in that category, I knew, so I decided to have fun with the situation. Catcher in the Rye is the book on rebellion that everyone is required to love (an ironic situation to be sure) so I had my narrator base a great deal of his analysis and description of the world on a deep-seated loathing for the book. At the same time, the book and the character mimic and parody aspects of Holden Caulfield, often in ways that the mock-sophisticated narrator doesn’t even realize. Which I thought was kind of cool.

As for whether CitR is “relevant” today: it certainly is, as it is still in print and still celebrated unquestioningly by thousands of teachers and librarians, priests and rabbis, actors, actresses, and rock stars, along with perhaps millions of earnest non-celebrity readers. Putting it on your list of favorite books is guaranteed to make practically everyone you come in contact with say something like “what a wonderful, wonderful person! That’s *my* favorite book, too!” Since my book was published, though, I’ve heard from an astonishing number of people, young and old, who share Tom Henderson’s lack of enthusiasm for it, leading me to believe that there has to be a significant proportion of Catcher in the Rye fans who are, in fact, faking it.

2. What writing projects are you working on currently? Have you considered writing for the adult market, or do you plan to keep writing for young adults?

I’m working on my second novel now. Like a lot of writers, I cling to belief that my work is for everyone, regardless of marketing category. However, I have a long-standing relationship with YA as a reader and now as a writer and I love being a part of the tradition. Plus, it has worked out pretty well so far so I’m sticking with it.

3. What advice would you give to aspiring writers of fiction in general, or young adult fiction in particular?

You can have all sorts of grand schemes and hifalutin ideas about changing the face of fiction and so forth, but it’s never going to happen till you actually start typing, something to which few writers are in the end willing to stoop.

4. What have you been reading lately? Is there anything you’re reading now, or have read recently, that’s impressed you?

I loved David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green.

5. Aside from writing and reading, what else do you feel passionately about?

“Passionate” might be pushing it, but I do like to watch TV, or at least to have the TV on in the background. I am in love with background noise. I like rock and roll music, too. And cheeseburgers.

6. Do you have a favorite quotation, or perhaps just a few words, you feel sums up your philosophy on life?

“Love is like oxygen
You get too much, you get too high;
not enough and you’re gonna die.

Love gets you high.”

7. If you were marooned on an island, stuck in an elevator, or otherwise cut off from society, what one book would you want to have with you?

Code of the Woosters.

8. What memories do you have from your childhood, about your experiences in public libraries? Did they play a role at all in your love of books and reading?

I spent a great deal of my childhood in the local public library and I worked there as a page in middle school and high school. As a kid, I loved how it was almost always practically deserted, except for the desultory staff and a senior citizen here or there. When I myself later became a member of the desultory staff, I appreciated this deserted quality even more. I passed the time by reading every book in the children’s fiction section in alphabetical order; hence my deep knowledge of the YA tradition. And I imagine that when I am a senior citizen, I will return once again, to stand near the magazine rack with a confused and vaguely hostile air, totally unaware of my surroundings. So it goes.

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Author Frank Portman

Frank Portman’s website: http://www.frankportman.com

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