Tim Federle garnered acclaim for his middle-grade novels about Nate Foster, a Broadway child actor, but the first book he ever wrote was a roman a clef for adult readers. It didn’t get published – until now, recast as The Great American Whatever (Simon & Schuster), Federle’s first YA. Bookshelf spoke with him about the zigzag path his writing career has taken since the 2013 debut of Better Nate Than Ever.
You started out as a dancer on Broadway. Did you secretly harbor a desire to be a novelist?
When I was working on Broadway as an associate choreographer for the kids in Billy Elliot I met someone who told me, ‘I really think you’re a writer.’ The moment I heard that it was as if I had been handed the sword and finally learned what my quest would be.
I decided to try to write an adult novel – in the old days I used to call them just novels – titled Quinn, Victorious, that starred a version of all the major characters who now appear in The Great American Whatever, only in the original manuscript Quinn was 25, lived in New York City, and was dreading the 10th anniversary of his sister Annabeth’s death. I submitted it to [agent] Brenda Bowen, who told me, ‘I think you should consider writing for kids.’ Which I did. Better Nate Than Ever was born out of that.
Two middle grades, a picture book, and a trilogy of punnily titled cocktail recipe books later, what made you decide to return to Quinn’s story?
What happened was Nate was a debut novel that did really well so Simon & Schuster signed me up for a bunch of books, including a series....
The Theater Kids Chronicles?
Right, which was pitched at a slightly younger audience than the Nate books. I started writing the first one and I found myself sort of imitating kids’ voices. There was something not as natural as I wanted about it, so I stepped away from it. I was working on a lot of very different things at the time, including writing a screenplay for the first Nate book. Somewhere along the way, I discovered I could see a way back to Quinn if I wrote it for teenagers. So I asked my editor [David Gale] if I could take a break from middle grade and he gave me his blessing.
Where did the idea come from to produce an annotated version of the galley?
Well, I write from a very autobiographical place – Annabeth’s death was inspired by a true event at my high school in Pittsburgh – a friend of mine named Ellie Batz died in a car accident when we were both teenagers. David [Gale] has a very smart assistant, Liz Kossnar, who had the idea that it would be fun to add marginalia to the galley about what was true or what the backstory was to all the things that happen to Quinn. She suggested I go through the manuscript and highlight little funny facts for the in-house staff and the sales reps, really just to help them get to know me a little better. But when it was distributed to the staff it was such a hit that they decided to send it out to some of the booksellers who have been so supportive of me – Inkwood Books, Little Shop of Horrors, Oblong Books. And it was really well received by them, too. Cristin Stickles [children’s and YA buyer at NYC’s McNally Jackson Books] tweeted, “Can everybody annotate their galleys, please?” It wound up being a big success.
Quinn is an aspiring filmmaker and part of the novel is written in screenplay form. Has there been any film interest yet?
There has been, actually, but we’re a little early in the process to talk about it. But I was working on TGAW while I was editing the screenplay I wrote for the first Nate book, although we haven’t sold the rights to that yet because I started to think that maybe it would make more sense to write a musical based on Nate. In fact, I was trying to figure out how to write musicals when I got this offer from Tuck Everlasting, which was so extraordinary, and means I’ve now circled back around to where I began: Broadway musicals.
Yes – you are credited as the co-writer for the musical theater adaptation of Tuck Everlasting, based on the book by Natalie Babbitt. How did that come about?
I have known the director, Casey Nicholaw, who also choreographed and directed The Book of Mormon, for 10 years. Essentially, we are both recovering chorus boys. I saw him over the summer and he said, ‘We’ve been working on Tuck for seven years and we’re finally coming to Broadway. [The show starts previews at the Broadhurst Theatre on March 31.] Would you consider giving us a fresh perspective on the script?’ When you work on something for that long, you can’t see it clearly anymore. So I was hired to help refresh it and ask questions and edit but it grew into a co-writing role [with playwright Claudia Shear] and it’s thrilling. This is so insiderish but when I wrote the sequel to Nate [Five, Six, Seven, Nate!], where Nate actually gets to be in a Broadway show, I set the rehearsals in the New 42nd Street Studios which are just gorgeous and where we are now holding rehearsals for Tuck. So, all these years later, I’m back in the studios where I set Five, Six Seven, Nate!
A bit of synchronicity!
And there’s a young man dancing in the ensemble for Tuck who was one of the boys in Billy Elliot when I worked on that.
Is this return to theater bad news for those readers who are holding out hope for a third Nate book?
I am very, very seriously thinking up ideas for a third and final Nate book. I think I owe the world and myself one more. What I really think it means is that you can have lots of careers. It relates to Quinn in that, here’s this classic film buff who doesn’t think he can go on making his films without Annabeth, who’d been his partner. When I was younger, I would get into this mindset that if I don’t have this one particular thing, I’d never make it. If I can’t sing this high note, or I wear the wrong outfit to an audition, I’m doomed. I would get in my own way. The joy of writing for teenagers is to show them the fallacy of that. Things did not quite go the way I wanted them to but it turned out fine. When I look back on the last five years I think, ‘How did that happen?’ But I am a really curious person and a really driven person and I think some of that had to do with Ellie Batz’s death.
Yes. Before Ellie died, I was this cocky class clown. I had a vague plan about dancing and starring on Broadway, but I was lazy. Then Ellie died and I realized, ‘Holy Moly. That could’ve been me. I’m not going to live forever.’ And that changed my life. I committed myself to becoming a dancer. Dancing’s a blast but of course you can’t dance forever, so there was going to have to be a second act, which is what I’m doing now. Not what I planned but, also, kind of great.
The Great American Whatever. Tim Federle. Simon and Schuster, $17.99 Mar. ISBN 978-1-4814-0409-9