Tim Federle’s parents took him to see Cats when he was nine years old. From the moment he realized that one could “dress in a Halloween costume, sing, and get paid,” he wondered why anyone would want any other job. By age 12 he was cutting class to go to Borders and read about the far-off world of professional theater. Once, when a teacher caught him trying to sneak out of school and asked, “Where are you supposed to be?” he responded, “Broadway, miss.”

Federle grew up feeling different. As a theater-obsessed boy in smalltown Pennsylvania, Federle knew both the daytime unpleasantness of being teased and the nighttime thrill of working on productions with other theater lovers. He was also a huge Roald Dahl fan, admiring Dahl’s fearlessness in creating characters who were not nice people, and his ability to write novels that made him laugh and then think. (He loves that his favorite Dahl novel, Matilda, has become a musical.) The laughter often won out: born into a family of academics, Federle distinguished himself from his scholarly older brother by becoming a class clown who got sent to the principal’s office for telling jokes.

In his “greatest performance ever,” Federle persuaded his parents to give him a chance to pursue his dream of professional theater instead of going to college. After his first audition, he got cast in a touring production of Fiddler on the Roof. At 19 he moved to New York City to dance, soon made his Broadway debut in Gypsy with Bernadette Peters, and has since performed in five Broadway shows.

Federle was in his late 20s, working on the artistic staff of Billy Elliot as a choreography coach, before realizing that in addition to telling stories through dance, he wanted to tell stories through writing. Referring to his first attempt at fiction as a “big, bad, overwritten novel” for adults, Federle says that he feels “really, really lucky” that, via a friend, the manuscript found its way to literary agent Brenda Bowen. Bowen contacted him, encouraged him to consider writing for a younger audience, and advised: “Write the book that only you can write.”

That advice inspired him to write Better Nate than Ever (S&S, Feb.), about a boy he calls a more courageous version of his younger self. He wrote a first draft in a month, listening to the score of “the best movie ever,” E.T., which plays a central role in the book: Nate auditions for E.T. the Musical, a fictional Broadway show.

Two months after the publication of Nate, Running Press released Federle’s collection of literary cocktails, Tequila Mockingbird (Apr.), a love letter to booksellers and librarians (sample cocktail: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margarita). A Nate sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, comes out in 2014, and Disney will publish his first picture book, Tommy Can’t Stop, in 2015. In addition, Federle has signed with Simon & Schuster for a new series called Theater Kids Chronicles. He is working on a screenplay for Better Nate than Ever, and can imagine the story becoming a movie and then a musical.

Since the publication of Nate, Federle has been living his dream life, writing from “the smallest studio in America” and touring widely. He appreciates how seriously people have taken a funny book, and enjoys visiting schools and speaking with children and parents. Federle considers one of the joys of writing for middle school students the opportunity to expand their world and encourage them to not be ruled by fear. “My dream is to try to reach as many kids and readers who might need an unlikely hero to connect to.”