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Interview with Frank Portman, Author of King Dork

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You know those large chocolate bars you can buy with super-rich chocolate? And you know how if you ignore the temptation to consume it all at once but instead eat just a little bit at a time you can make it last and give yourself much more pleasure that way?

That is sort of how I feel about King Dork by Frank Portman. And I'm a chocoholic so that is a major compliment, in case that was not clear. I carried this book around for two months, reading just a few pages at each sitting, because I wanted to make it last.

I knew I would love this book when I first heard that a member of the punk band The Mr. T Experience had written a novel, which he was promoting with a YouTube video.

The fact the book is becoming a cult classic at the same time it is questioning why The Catcher In The Rye is itself a cult classic clinched the deal for me. I emailed Portman and begged for a copy of the book and an interview and he agreed to both.

The King Dork of the book's title is Tom Henderson, who is smart, funny, weird and awkward – pretty much how I remember myself being in high school. Henderson calls high school "the penalty for transgressions yet to be specified."

Henderson and his best friend, Sam Hellerman, suffer through the horror that is high school while developing new names for their band, spending much more time contemplating song and album titles than on, say, the actual music.

Henderson perfectly describes – okay, with perhaps slight exaggeration – the way The Catcher In The Rye is treated by the teachers:

I should mention that The Catcher in the Rye is this book from the fifties. It is every teacher's favorite book. The main guy is a kind of misfit kid superhero named Holden Caulfield. For teachers, he is the ultimate guy, a real dreamboat. They love him to pieces. They all want to have sex with him, and with the book's author, too, and they'd probably even try to do it with the book itself if they could figure out a way to go about it. It changed their lives when they were young. As kids, they carried it around with them everywhere they went. They solemnly resolved that, when they grew up, they would dedicate their lives to spreading The Word.

It's kind of like a cult.

They live for making you read it. When you do read it you can feel them all standing behind you in a semicircle wearing black robes with hoods, holding candles. They're chanting "Holden, Holden, Holden…" And they're looking over your shoulder with these expectant smiles, wishing they were the ones discovering the earth-shattering jobs of The Catcher in the Rye for the very first time.

Too late, man. I mean, I've been around The Catcher in the Rye block. I've been forced to read it like three hundred times and don't tell anyone but I think it sucks.

One day, though, Henderson finds a copy of Catcher In the Rye which was apparently owned by his father. This leads to discovering other books owned and marked up by his father. This leads us into a mystery as he tries to figure out what coded message his father was writing and who or what was the person referred to as "tit"?

This book is marketed as a young adult book – despite references and incidents of oral sex – but it deals with subject matters that can be appreciated by readers of all ages: angst, peer pressure, etc. Particularly meaningful for me were passages about his dad's sudden death and leftover emotions. Complicating matters is conflicting stories about how exactly his dad died.

Henderson has excellent taste in music and books, and Portman has helpfully provided lists of both via Amazon.

This book is at times hilarious, moving and always engaging. Pick it up. And now, enjoy my interview with the author.

What do you really think of The Catcher in the Rye?

The narrator of King Dork sees it as the source of all the evil in the world. I'm ambivalent. It's certainly an important cultural icon, and as such it symbolizes something of which I approve generally: contrarianism and rebellion and so forth. It is a fine book as well. But I have never been able to understand why the book as such is venerated unconditionally by so many of the English-speaking world's booky people. Frankly, I think a lot of these people are faking it, just to fit in with all the people who aren't faking it. Which is, like, ironic and stuff, right?

Why do arrested psychos often have this book in their possession? Would you prefer they hold King Dork instead?

As Tom says, in the sixties, everyone used to carry it around with them wherever they went, and some of them just kept right on doing it even after they became unabombers or terrorists or whatever. The second question is tricky, because I wouldn't want my book to become generally associated with psychotic, smelly, poorly groomed hippies unless there were enough of an increase in sales to make it worthwhile. But I've got a great publicist, so I suppose the answer would be yes. Unless saying yes makes me look bad somehow, in which case the answer is no.

Were you like Tom, always coming up with new band names? I know I was though more in college than high school.

Yes, this is one of the few areas where Tom's imaginary life and my "real" one mirror each other pretty closely.

What was high school like for you?

Unmitigated, relentless horror.

How did this book come about?

This guy who was a fan of my band as a kid grew up and became a literary agent. He suggested I try writing a novel and I gave it a shot and he sold it to Random House. So I became a novelist.

Where did the idea for a YouTube book preview come from? Are you surprised at how much traffic it has received?

That was the brainchild of Andrew Krucoff, who organized a blog tour for the week of the book's release. (The links to the tour thing are in this post, if you'd like to see.) Krucoff is a proven traffic generator, so actually I'm not surprised at all.

What are you working on next?

My second novel is called Andromeda Klein. I'm also working on some songs for a future rock and roll album

I love all the music references, like this one: "Just think what a better world we would have if David Bowie had never met Brian Eno. That was the worst tragedy of the twentieth century." Are those opinions you share that you decided to add into the mix?

I'm glad you like Tom's musical references. They're not necessarily my opinions, though I do like a lot of the same stuff that he mentions. The one you quote in your question is actually an observation by Tom's friend Sam Hellerman, and in this case I'm with Tom: David Bowie's collaboration with Brian Eno falls well short of being the worst tragedy of the twentieth century.

At times this book reads like something for young adults that can be in a library. Then I get to details about blowjobs and think, hmm, maybe not. Was that a concern at all?

You'd be surprised at what you can find in libraries these days.

You write, after your criticism of The Catcher in the Rye: "Reading books can be a lot of fun when they're not the same ones that they make you read over and over and over till you want to shoot yourself. Is that your attitude toward reading?

It's been a long time since anyone has ever forced me to read anything, but I don't think I'd like it any more now than I did as a kid. On the other hand, I do re-read things I like over and over. I've probably read The Inimitable Jeeves over a dozen times, and I'm still alive, so I guess wanting to shoot yourself varies with circumstances.

Why did you decide to add a glossary? Are those your opinions or that of the author?

The glossary is in the narrator's "voice." Originally, the idea was to define some of the more obscure terms for readers with poor Google skills, but it soon took on a Biercean life of its own.

You criticize epilogues, using this definition Epilogue: "Just when you think the book is over, there are suddenly like twenty more pages to go, because some writers just don't know when to stop. Don't read epilogues: it will only encourage them." But then you have your own epilogue. So what's the deal with that seeming contradiction?

You have spotted the irony.

Whose opinion was this, also in the glossary? The Doors: "There is an extremely well-organized conspiracy among boomers to cultivate the fiction that this band doesn't totally suck. The worst thing in the history of the universe."

That is one of Tom's opinions about music that I do happen broadly to share.

What do you think of this review? I love the comparison between your book and Harry Potter. (Warning: Adult subject matter)

I think it's a great piece. It was one of the earliest reviews to come out and I remember the feeling of relief when I realized "wow, people seem to be 'getting' this book."

(More information about the book and author are available at his website and at the Amazon page for the book. At the Amazon page you can listen to some of the songs Henderson performs in the book.)

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
by Benjamin Alire Saenz
  • Scott Butki

    I’ve been telling everyone I know to read two books if they want to laugh and enjoy life and good writing. This one and the Spellman Files.

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