Imagine this scene. You're in a rock band that has a cult following. Some passionate young corporate rep comes to one of your New York City club gigs and offers you a… book contract? That's pretty much what happened to Frank Portman. Welcome to the true story of his rock and roll road to publishing his first YA novel, King Dork (Delacorte) about a teenage kid obsessed with forming his own band, scoring with girls, attacking the high-school cult of The Catcher in the Rye and unraveling the mystery behind his father's death.
"In a way I skipped a step or two in the usual publishing process," says Portman (aka Dr. Frank, front man of popular Bay Area band The Mr. T Experience). "My literary agent, Steven Malk, had been a fan of my band as a kid, and he proposed the idea. He figured, 'This guy writes songs about bitter and confused adolescence, maybe there's a book in that.' "
Back in 2004, MTX was playing in New York City. Malk saw an opportunity and invited several local YA editors to come to the show. "One editor showed up," Portman recalls. "She said, off-the-cuff, 'You write a lot of songs, why don't you use that as a starting point for a novel?' That was Krista Marino, who became my editor."
Portman notes that once he got his mind around the concept during some down time from the band (a tour fell through), King Dork flowed rather easily. "I chose the coolest song title I had," he says. "All of my songs have these characters, and this particular guy was in a lot of my songs. I free-associated after that and didn't really know where it was going. I wrote 30 pages as a sort of demo and when that sold, I was a little worried," he says with a laugh. "But it was all so spontaneous and random—maybe that's part of its charm."
As for the actual process of getting the book made, Portman says, "I've been pleasantly surprised at everyone's enthusiasm for each other. YA publishing is such a vibrant, alive section of the industry compared to adult publishing, which seems pretty conservative. It would have been a tough sell to get something as quirky as King Dork through that system."
Quirky or no, Portman believes (and many critics have agreed) that his book strikes universal emotional chords with readers. "Stories of high school really resonate to everyone forever," he says. "Rock and roll is a teenage art form, really. A rock and roll song or album is a stepping-off point for more general resonance." King Dork never strays from its musical roots, and for the curious, five of Portman's original tunes appear on the Listening Library audiobook edition of King Dork.
Portman has already begun work on a second novel (not yet under contract), but, as many fellow authors had warned him, "It's a little bit tougher the second time around. I'm more wary of making mistakes." The new book takes place about 10 years later than King Dork and is set in the same town, with different characters, mostly girls. Its title, Andromeda Klein, comes from another Portman song. Fans will also be glad to know that he's planning a third go-round, which will be a sequel to King Dork. "I wanted to wait and see if anyone liked it first. Because of course, a sequel to a flop would be a bad idea," he says.
Happily, King Dork has been far from a flop. It's been warmly praised in review journals and all over the blogosphere, and received a lead review in Entertainment Weekly. This newly minted author can hardly believe his lucky circumstances. "I'm one of those adults who was a fan of YA books before I ever dreamed of writing one," he says. "Now my book has made this crazy splash. It's kind of weird. When I think about it, it freaks me out." Sounds like another song, er, maybe book, waiting to happen.