Pop Goes the Library

Using Pop Culture to Make Libraries Better.

by Sophie Brookover, Liz Burns, Melissa Rabey, Susan Quinn, John Klima, Carlie Webber, Karen Corday, and Eli Neiburger. We're librarians. We're pop culture mavens. We're Pop Culture Librarians.


Interview with Frank Portman

Frank Portman, author of the forthcoming King Dork, is also a blogger as well as the man behind San Francisco Bay Area punk scene veterans Mr. T Experience. He very graciously sat down for a recent interview with Pop.

Q: How did you decide to write a YA novel in the first place?

A: I'm one of those accidental writers. I've written songs for my entire life, but the writing a whole book was something I never imagined I could manage. Most people who know my songwriting aren't too surprised to learn that my novel deals with a disaffected teen. The characters in my songs are mostly like that. And over the years many of my songs have referenced the iconography of children's and teen lit. (Believe it or not, one of my band's albums - Our Bodies, Our Selves - was originally planned as a concept album of songs related to "girl" books. Only "Are You There God? It's Me Margaret"
and "Bridge to Terabithia" made it past the dreaming stage there, unfortunately. And, also unfortunately, I wouldn't say they're the greatest songs, either. Well, I tried.) But as a songwriter, I was always very influenced by pop culture nostalgia, and the touchstones of teen lit often would pop up, as general themes if not always specifically.

Sooo... the way I decided to write a YA novel was, this literary agent who knew my songs contacted me and suggested that I might be able to write a YA novel. I didn't think I could do it, but he kept prodding me about it, and I finally gave it a shot. King Dork was the result. If I didn't have the background as the kind of songwriter I am, and as the kind of reader I have been, it never would have worked. Or it would have been totally different, anyway.

Finally, YA not only has a great history, but a great present and future. It is a very alive part of the publishing industry, and authors and publishers are continuing to stretch it. They're willing to take chances on quirky, oddball books like mine - ironically, adult publishing seems to be a lot more conservative in that sense. And there's always a nice energy from the feeling that you're riding some kind of revolutionary wave, which is how being involved in YA feels these days. Um, that sounds a little corny, I guess, but it's true. The enthusiasm for the genre from Delacorte and Random House kids is really affecting.

Q: If King Dork had a soundtrack, what would it be?

A: That's an easy one. The narrator of King Dork, Tom Henderson, is on a 70s kick and listens to a lot of music through the book. Ideally, the soundtrack would include some of the songs he writes (some of which I've recorded as acoustic songs and which will appear on the audio book of KD as well as, I believe, on iTunes eventually.) But leaving his songs aside, this list wouldn't make a bad soundtrack. There's also a reading list, here.

Q: You mentioned in your recent post about YA lit & rock & roll that you've been a fan of YA literature almost your entire life. What are some of your favorite YA books, and why?

A: I worked as a page at my local public library through high school, and I found myself with a lot of time on my hands at that job. So in addition to the YA novels I read when I was younger than that (you always read the sexy ones a few years before you're "supposed" to, which of course I did) I also spent a lot of time reading "on the job." I assigned myself a little project of reading every single book in the kids' fiction section one by one in alphabetical order. The result is that I have a comprehensive knowledge of pretty much every YA and middle grade book published till around '82 or so. Then it becomes more sketchy.

As for my favorites from those days, just off the top of my head (and I know it's kind of a "retro" list):

I Am the Cheese; The Teddy Bear Habit; Here Lies the Body; (George); The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) (actually all the Ellen Raskin books - all equally great as far as I'm concerned); The Siver Crown; The Pushcart War; Lizard Music; The Egypt Game; Harriet the Spy/the Long Secret; all the Great Brain books; A Wrinkle in Time.

Wow, I just realized my own book is pretty much nothing at all like any of those.

Recently, well, like everyone else, I loved Looking for Alaska.

Q: I love the listening & reading lists you've created to go along with King Dork -- I think they extend the book well beyond the page and help to make it a living thing. Have you considered creating an iMix for readers to download in iTunes, and listen to while they read?

A: Tom Henderson's music collection is a big part of his world (as it is for lots of people.) He likes knowing about stuff that he imagines the other people in his world won't know about, so he uses the music as a distancing device in a way. One of his "tics" is to allude to albums without mentioning the name of the band. In effect he's saying "if you're in my club, you'll know what I'm talking about, and if you don't know you're probably too normal to get along with me." (By the way, there's only one other person in his club, as he imagines it, and even that might be pushing it.) So readers of this book who are not in Tom's loop will have to do a little digging if they want to hear the actual music he's referencing. (It's not *necessary* to do the digging, but it could be kind of fun.) Hmm, he does the same thing with books, I just realized.

So yeah, the iMix is a great idea. I actually had a playlist of KD songs on my iPod and I used to blast it while I was writing and editing.

Q: I find it fascinating that your main character is obsessed with 70s rock, especially since so many of the teens I serve are obsessed with it, too. I see so many Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, the Who, and Ramones t-shirts on 13 year-old boys these days. It's funny to me, because they were some of my favorite bands in high school, too (and still are, though I'm more of a Kinks girl these days than back then).

A: It's true - '70s rock is almost as prominent in the youth culture of today as it was in the actual '70s. But it's funny: some people who have read the book have been confused by it. Is it "believable," they ask, that a contemporary teenager would be listening to the Who, AC/DC, and the Ramones? (I love/hate that "believability" test - if it works, it works, regardless of believability.) Anyone who says that hasn't spent much time in the presence of contemporary teenagers. (You have because you work in a library; I have because of my band. There's a weird library/punk rock nexus for you!)

As an aside, as you'll remember, in the actual seventies it was pretty rare for someone to be a fan of both AC/DC and the Ramones at the same time - though they would have had the Who in common, of course. And as another aside, I'm more or less Kinks guy myself.

Q: Many of the YA books you listed as lifelong favorites aren't really YA -- they're more middle grade fiction (meaning, they're for the middle grades from 5-8, not that they are middling in quality at all). Think about it this way: did you really read Harriet The Spy when you were a teenager? You probably read it when you were much younger. King Dork sounds like a book aimed squarely at the teen audience to me, though. Besides Looking For Alaska, are there any other truly YA books you've fallen in love with in the last 5 years?

A: Yeah, I was trying to get across the weirdness of my reading situation. Like I said, I read them because I worked in a library, and they were there. I did re-read Harriet the Spy when I was a teenager and I appreciated in its own right as well as an important, iconic, pop-culture touchstone. What can I say? I was a weird kid, maybe.

One problem with discussing this stuff, as I mentioned in that essay that introduced us way back, is that our society and culture (as well as our book marketers) have not quite arrived at a definitive answer of what adulthood is and what constitutes a "young adult." The specific "older teens" category (sometimes, in my experience, confusingly shelved under sign that says "young readers") is a newer marketing category, but of course we've always had "older teens." The term "YA" has been around for at least as long as I can remember, and I used to think it pretty hilarious to be called a "young adult" when I was twelve, like when the principal of the elementary school told you to behave like "ladies and gentlemen." That used to crack me up, too. Most YA novelists like me (at least, the ones I know) secretly think of their books as "aimed" at age 12 through 40, though they wouldn't want to exclude anybody. But perhaps that's mere wishful thinking....

Anyhow recent YA titles I have loved: the last few Robert Cormier novels were great, as great as any of the classic ones. (Tenderness and Fade are the ones I have in mind: they were in the last five years, right?); I liked Doing It nearly as much as Junk; Fat Kid Rules the World was great; and I loved How I Live Now. Heavy Metal And You was fun. How's that? I'm not nearly as well-read as I should be, I know...

Many thanks, Doctor Frank! Here's hoping King Dork sells out its entire print run!

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  • At 7:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Great interview! I can't wait for King Dork to come out. I've been an MTX fan for the past 8 years or so and I love Dr. Frank's lyrics, so I'm sure the book will be just as witty and smart.

    It's nice to see a "celebrity" author who actually has knowledge and respect for young adult books!


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