Interview | Shane Portman Part 1
Shane Portman is the ultimate hyphen: actor-writer-comedian-founder-creative force to be reckoned with. His website is a pretty good reflection of who he is: lots of info all packaged into a colorful and energetic package. I heard of him through mutual friend and hyphenate Dave Droxler and he had this to say:
“My dear friend and collaborator, Shane Portman, has just self-published a new book through Amazon called Allister Cromleys Fairweather Belle: Bedtime Stories For Grownups To Tell. It’s a series of whimsical and magical stories and I illustrated the cover, as well as a handful of other pictures throughout. In fact, I think I mentioned it in my interview with you. It releases Nov 15th. Well, Shane is someone who went to Point Park with me and has done a great deal of work in Pgh, particularly with the now defunct sketch comedy group The Animal Club (which I was also a member of) that started in Pgh. He is currently living in LA…[and] is also the friendliest human being you’ll ever meet.”
Yeah, that pretty much sums Shane up in a nutshell. And yes, he is one of the friendliest human beings I’ve ever interviewed. In fact, we kinda got carried a way a bit with our chat, so I’ll be dividing it up into two parts. I don’t want to edit his wonderful answers at all, because y’know, he’s a writer and his answers are awesome, so instead, look for the rest of our interview tomorrow! Until then, enjoy today!
Tell me about the genesis of your story, Allister Cromleys Fairweather Belle. It’s a stylish, wonderful collection of short stories or, as the title suggest, bedtime stories for adults. (Not adult bedtime stories. It’s a subtle wording difference, but a pretty big comprehension difference!) The prose is both full of dry wit and lyrical phrasing. I adored it!! So, talk to me!
First of all, thank you for the kind words about the book!
The stories in the book began as a blog that I first started writing back in 2003. At the time, I was in a sketch comedy group in Chicago called The Animal Club. We traveled around the country performing at sketch festivals and venues. And to promote the group and grow an online presence, each member had a blog. I decided, instead of my blog being about me, I wanted to write about Allister.
Eventually, the blog transferred over to Myspace and Facebook, attracting some readers along the way. And, when The Animal Club dissolved, Allister Cromley’s Fairweather Belle continued on its own.
The blog was a way to exercise my brain. I wanted to practice not waiting for grandiose ideas or stories. So, the blog became a place where I could take even the tiniest ideas and situations and blow them up into full-sized stories.
Overall and overtime, what has driven me to keep writing and developing the stories is that, as children, we all had this enormous relief that came when our parents swept into the room, flipped the light switch on and revealed that the evil monster peering at you was just a coat on a chair. And, when that light switch wasn’t enough to scare away your fear, having your parents read you a bedtime story would do the trick to reassure you that, even if it was dark, they were there, too. You were not alone. And you felt safe and maybe even excited about the possibilities that were in the dark.
And I don’t think I’m alone in the idea that now, as grownups, we’re more than ever in need of some wonder to take the place of all the growing distrust and cynicism. So, these stories are my small attempt to help someone find that light switch.
How long did it take, from idea to publication, for you to write the stories featured in ACFB? As a writer who’s never really done much with the short story medium, can you talk about how it all came together?
The idea to make a book out of the stories started buzzing around not long after The Animal Club broke up in 2007.
The stories in the book come from all over the blog so some were written a long time after others.
But, I began pulling out the stories I liked and tweaking and refining them and putting them into an order that I felt worked. My fiancé, Ruth, and I moved to New York City in 2008. Once we were settled in there, we gathered a group of our friends together and, because the stories are meant to be read as bedtime stories, I read them aloud. I got some great feedback about what worked and what didn’t and, from there, kept refining and getting feedback until I thought I had a solid product.
A college friend of ours, Amanda Gillooly, is a great journalist and editor. So, I asked her to by me editor and she helped immensely in polishing the stories.
By the time I had assembled all the artists for the illustrations and the actual look of the book was done, it was the fall of 2012.
It’s funny. It doesn’t feel like it took that much time at all. But, looking back, I suppose you could say this whole project started in 2007. But, so much of it just grew organically that it certainly doesn’t feel like 5 years. Just writing that is strange to me. But, as a writer or an artist or I think just a person, when you hear that whisper in your ear to do something, you just do it.
Did you find yourself cutting a lot of stuff out of the finished product? Do you have a ton of extras or “deleted scenes”? And if so, any plans to publish them?
I do have a lot of other Allister stories in the blog. I think it’s close to 200 now. Some are just stronger than others. But, after a certain point, it was hard to choose. So, it was really a relief to give them to other people to look at or listen to because I definitely felt connected to some stories that I didn’t wind up using in the book. And it made it easier to cut them when someone said, “Yeah, that story is okay. But, I like this other story better.”
There’s not an overall theme, per se, to the book. But, I did want it to have something of an arc to follow. And a lot of what it came down to was what stories flowed together nicely.
I do have a second grouping of stories ready to go for a second book and I have every intention of publishing that once the dust settles a little from this first book. This first book is something of an experiment. But, if all goes well, I’d definitely like to keep the series going as long as I can or am inspired.
As you mentioned, you have a great blog dedicated to Allister and his writings. On the very top of the site, you have a clever Prologue that explains the writing found in the blog are from Allister himself. He’s a pretty witty guy. 🙂 Tell me about him. Did you spring, fully-formed, into your imagination, or was it a more thought out, piece-meal process?
Although the blog began in 2007, the character of Allister Cromley goes back farther than that.
I actually created Allister when I was in middle school. I have two younger sisters and, when they were peacefully playing in their rooms, I would run in and launch into a full-blown monologue about Allister Cromley and some sort of random adventure. The monologue was delivered in the third person as if I was Allister’s biographer and it always started in the middle as if someone had just tuned their television to the Allister Cromley channel. It was also was always done in a pre-pubescent British accent that had every intention of being something I’d heard on Masterpiece Theatre. And the monologue would continue until my sisters yelled at me loud enough to get out or told on me. “Mom! Shane’s doing another Allister story again.” I never really fought with my siblings. But, I did do that (whatever that was).
When I went to college, I would write them letters and send them emails about Allister.
So, when it came time for us to write blogs for The Animal Club, I just pulled him out again.
And he became a very malleable character that, from story to story, could be big or small, young or old, cowardly or courageous. He does tend to have a mustache. But, even that can change.
I wanted readers to get to know Allister through their own eyes. They paint the picture of what Allister looks like and they experience for themselves Allister’s ever-evolving view of the world.
And, as the blog and the stories grew, Allister developed from something just silly and non-sensical to something more philosophical. In summarizing the stories in the book, a friend described Allister as “someone who is amazed and terrified by new technology.” And I think that’s a pretty accurate description of him, in general. Allister is someone who is “amazed and terrified” by whatever particular theme he is experiencing.
Of course, I have to ask: what’s your favorite bedtime story?
From childhood, I have vivid memories of warmth from my Mom reading Hisako Kimishima and Kei Wakana’s Ma Lien And The Magic Brush.
Nowadays, I’d have to say any story from James Thurber and particularly his book, My Life And Hard Times. In this age of instagrams and text messages and tweets where huge and non-stop belly-laughs are king, I think people who write like him or his contemporaries have a tendency to be filed away as “quaint.” But, there’s something so amazingly warm and genuine in their work. It’s humorous but also comes from the heart and makes your soul giggle and your imagination glide into dreaming.
The illustrations in the book are gorgeous. What made you decide to include them?
I wanted the book to emulate children’s bedtime storybooks. And illustrations are such an integral part of those books. So, it only seemed right to have illustrations.
I wanted the illustrations to reflect the idea that Allister is malleable, that he and his world change and that his identity is up to you. So, I gave each story to a different independent artist with free reign to make an illustration of what they saw in the story. And I was so happy with the outcome.
I feel so grateful to have come in contact with and know such talented artists and their eclectic mix of illustrations was more than I could have dreamed.
Thank you so much Shane! And please check back tomorrow for Part 2 of our interview, where we talk about the writing process and the highs and lows of dun-dun-dah!! Collaboration!
Allistir Cromley’s Fairweather Belle is available now through Amazon. To purchase and get more information, go here.