Saturday, June 15, 2013

Author Interview: Shane Portman

While technically this is the second author interview I’ve conducted, it’s the first to appear on my adult review blog. Meet Shane Portman, the author of Allister Cromley’s Fairweather Belle and the creator of two delightfully eccentric websites, and

Q: Is Allister Cromley’s Fairweather Belle your first book? (And what exactly is a “Fairweather Belle”?)

A: It is my first book. The name “Fairweather Belle” was actually given to me for the stories by a friend and collaborator of mine. At the time, the two of us were writing and performing in a sketch comedy group called The Animal Club in Chicago. Each person in the group had their own blog and I used mine to write these stories. My friend came up to me one day and said something to the effect of, “Hey, you know what you should call your Allister stories? The Fairweather Belle.” When I asked him where he got the name from, he said he didn’t know. He just thought it sounded right. I agreed. It feels like it could be the name of a voyaging sail frigate or something. But, in truth, it was just a random name pulled from the ether by a friend and given to me.

Q: Tell us a little about how you came up with the idea for the Allister stories.

A: 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.

But, the character of Allister Cromley was actually something that I created when I was 11 or 12 years old to antagonize my two younger sisters. While they were peacefully playing in their room, I would run in and launch into a full-blown monologue about Allister Cromley and one of his adventures. 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 always done in a pre-pubescent British accent that had every intention of sounding like it was from Masterpiece Theatre. And, as was the story with “The Fairweather Belle,” Allister’s name was just pulled out of nowhere during the first tirade. And it stuck. The monologue would continue ad nauseam until one of my sisters would yell, “Mom! Shane's doing another Allister story again!” For the most part, I never really fought with my siblings. But, I did do that (whatever that was). When I went to college, I would write my sisters letters and send them emails about Allister. So, when it came time for me to write a blog for The Animal Club, I just pulled him out again and continued the chain of stories.

He began to become a very malleable character that, from story to story, could be big or small, young or old, cowardly or courageous. I wanted readers to get to know Allister through their own eyes. They painted the picture of what Allister looked like and they experienced 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.

To me, that’s what a grownup bedtime story is. It’s an attempt to find the balance between the wonder and the fear. And to make peace with it so we can sleep.

Q: The two websites, and, are both unique multimedia experiences that act as interesting complements to your book. How did you get them started?

A: The blog started being featured on The Animal Club Sketch Comedy Collective’s site back in 2003. When The Animal Club disbanded in 2007, I kept the Allister blog going. I also branched out to Myspace and Facebook, attracting new readers along the way.

The blog was a way to exercise my brain. I wanted to practice not waiting for grandiose ideas or stories. So, it became a place where I could take even the tiniest ideas and situations and blow them up into full-sized stories.

The was made to help promote the upcoming release of the book and to widen the world of Allister. It houses a collection of audio stories and a series of slideshows called Historical Assumptions.

My background is in theatre and performance and I always really loved and believed in the idea of the stories being read aloud to other adults as actual bedtime stories. After moving from Chicago to New York City in 2008, I began working with directors and actors to craft a portion of the stories into a live storytelling experience. Using a mixture of live music, physical theatre, simple lighting effects and shadow puppetry we crafted the stories into an inviting and unique night of storytelling. Each time we performed them, we charged admission and gave the proceeds to someone in need in our community. The feeling that came from those experiences affected me greatly. And the help from other artists really added wonderful layers to the stories that I could not have done on my own.

So, that experience left me wanting to continue to cross-pollinate with other artists. This is also why each story in the book is illustrated by a different artist. I feel like the eclectic mix only added to the idea that Allister is ever-evolving and that he’s a character whose appearance is up to you. I wanted to continue that thought with the audio stories. So, each story was scored by a different musician. There’s everything from the bluegrass-y banjo of Mark August Spitznagel to the operatic hip hop of KFJacques and much in between.

And the Historical Assumptions were simple slideshow absurdities that I started doing to add some variety to Allister’s Facebook page. They soon became one of the most popular features. They’re really just little sketch comedies pieces that play on history by using public domain photos and paintings of people as characters. The Facebook page contains just the pictures and captions. But, for, I had friends of mine from the comedy community record voices and we made a series of little vignettes that are something between slideshow and film.

Q: I noticed that there are more Allister stories on the two sites. Can we expect a Volume 2 of stories anytime soon?

A: Definitely. There will be at least one more. I’ll have to wait a bit for the dust of this first one to settle so I don’t know when. But, sometime relatively soon. There will also be a second season of audio stories and Historical Assumptions. These will be released sometime in the fall of this year.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Just a lot of thank yous to you for this interview and your wonderful review of the book and more thank yous to everyone who’s read the book and helped spread the word. I am beyond grateful.

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