Tim Federle has something for readers of all ages. In his two young adult novels, Better Nate Than Ever and its sequel Five, Six, Seven, Nate (both from Simon & Schuster), Federle has created one of the more endearing fictional characters in recent memory. The titular character Nate will keep you in stitches as he navigates his way from his dull, dead-end hometown to a Broadway stage and toward his first kiss. For somewhat older readers, Federle serves up Tequila Mockingbird (Running Press), which features cocktails with literary themes, such as Gin Eyre and The Last of the Mojitos.
I spoke with him recently about his Y/A books.
Gregg Shapiro: Why do work in the Y/A genre?
Tim Federle: First, I am a former Broadway dancer, and I was on staff for Billy Elliott on Broadway, working with kids who were 9 to 14 years old. I was inspired by how funny they were, but also how un-jaded they were. I had lived in New York since I was 19, and I was 30 when I started writing the book. I thought there’d be something really cool about revisiting that point of view, of being in New York when everything is possible and it wasn’t just gritting your teeth and walking down the street. The second reason was that kids still read more than adults do, and I felt like I had a great shot at getting published, which I know can be really hard. So I thought it would be a practical way of getting published (laughs).
How much of Tim is in Nate — or any of the other characters?
Since I’m a former actor, I’m pretty good at trying on the mindset of somebody else. So all the characters are kind of an outgrowth of my own imagination. I based the characters on the really colorful people in my life and then changed their names so they wouldn’t sue me. Nate is very much me. I was picked on and bullied — all the stereotypical stuff that can happen to any (gay) boy who knows all the lyrics to Phantom. I have the great knowledge that a lot of kids don’t have, which is that there is a day and there is a place that you will get to where you don’t have to change anything about yourself and you are exactly what you should be. It might not be this minute. The problem with “it gets better” is that it’s hard to wait. It hurts to wait.
Both of your books encourage kids to be themselves. Is that the ultimate message of the books?
I did not go into writing them with a message. If there was any message, the message was that I wanted to write an aspirational tale about a kid who had a huge dream and just happened to possibly be gay. I wanted the LGBT undercurrent to be more of a light touch. I wanted his gayness to be the fifth most interesting thing about him. I wanted people to come to the book who aren’t just gay. I wanted to have a broader audience, because I think that’s the most effective way to reach a lot of people. If all of our stories about gay people are tragic and melodramatic or only about how gay they are, we potentially turn off an audience who wants to know more than that. I wanted his resilience to be the defining element, which I think it is for a lot of gay people.
Do you think there will come a time when a character like Nate has an easier time within the family unit?
I was lucky enough by the time I was 12 that I knew I was gay. I never totally understood people who came out very late in life. I didn’t get how people didn’t know that about themselves. In the process of becoming a writer, I realized that about myself so late that it made sense to me once I started writing. I didn’t start writing seriously until I was 29. I think we already live in an era when there are lots and lots of kids who are accepted by their families for being whoever they want to be. And yet, one doesn’t have to look much further than the news to see stories (about suicides). I ultimately feel that it is a necessary story. I still get messages from parents saying that their kids are so picked on and beat up and bullied (due to) their classmates’ perceptions of them being gay. In the book, here’s a character they can relate to.
Is Five, Six, Seven, Nate a cautionary tale for stage-struck kids?
No. I did intend to expose the truth behind the lack of glamor and a lot of elements about Broadway. I will say this, more and more as an adult I’ve learned that as a kid so often you need a big dream, a big vision.
Meet the author
Tim Federle appears at 5:30 p.m., Feb. 4, at Cocktails with Cream City, a strictly adult event held at Art Bar, 722 E. Burleigh in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood.