Newly seventeen year old Quinn hasn't left his bedroom in the six months since his sister was killed in a car accident - at least, not until his best friend, Geoff, urges him outside the four walls. During a week of his summer, Quinn meets a cute boy, determines how to make it without his filmmaking partner, and discovers secrets about those closest to him.
I spoke with author Tim Federle about how his life has influenced his writing, dying young, and writing musicals.
What is the Great American Whatever about?
I think I haven't come up with a way to talk about it because it's drawn from something so personal, which was this girl from my school who was killed in a car accident when she was sixteen. Better Nate was so easy because it was like 'A boy auditions for a Broadway show.' I think it's a book about coming to terms with loss and choosing to carry on, even when people leave you and things go very differently than a picture perfect ending.
The plot is about a newly seventeen year old gay boy who is obsessed with movies and in the course of a week, during the summer between his junior and senior year, he is coming to terms with what it means to come out of his shell and the closet, but also how his life is going to be like as a filmmaker now that his collaborator is gone. Is that good?
It's better than what I have: 'It's about a gay guy and his movies.'
No, I like that too.
So Better Nate Than Ever was semi-autobiographical, and so was this one. How did you pick different aspects of your life to include in the book?
Nate was so much about that middle school security that I had, whereas I think the character of Quinn borrows from the way that I swung so high and low when I was seventeen. I wanted to be an artist, to be really known for something, and I didn't know for what. I wanted to be a star, but I didn't want anyone to look at me.
I think the parts of Quinn I drew from were the full realization that I was gay as opposed to the suspicion, the fact that I had a single minded obsession - when I was a kid it was theater, but for Quinn it's classic films and wanting to be a filmmaker. Location wise, I definitely draw from growing up in Western Pennsylvania and how East Coast adjacent that felt, like so close to New York but so far. And then, the biggest autobiographical element of this book is the fact that I lost an acquaintance.
Ellie was not a friend but she was an acquaintance at my school who was killed in a car accident blocks away from the entrance of our high school in Pittsburgh, and I never forgot anything about it. I never forgot her open casket funeral. I never forgot the Spanish teacher at school talking to her parents at the funeral. There are so many things that were so impactful, in part because, like many teenagers, my concept of adulthood and life felt forever away. Like, the shortest way to say it would be I could start acting like a grownup and acting focused when I became an adult.
I think Ellie's death gave me my adulthood, in a way, because it took away all the innocence I had left, which wasn't much at that point, and made me realize that I wasn't going to live forever. That's when I started auditioning more, fully, and committing to my first passion, which was theater.
Quinn knows so many movies. Did you have to do a lot of research for that?
Yes, I did. I would say that every twelve pages I tried to reference something, even if it was really sly, because that's sort of the lense he uses. But at the same time that I was writing this book, I was also writing Gone with the Gin, which is my movie cocktail book. So I was literally watching movies to research them for that book and sometimes I thought 'This would be a good one for Quinn.'
One thing I tried to do, is that I try to be subtly referential in all of my fiction, as if it's all part of the same world. So Quinn lives in the same district that Nate is from. ET is Quinn's sister's favorite movie. I want to believe, a la Hitchcock casting himself in small parts of his movies, that there will be some reader who sees a larger world in the smaller world.
That's just a really long way to say Netflix marathons that I said were part of research.
Do you think that the car accident impacted you or your community more?
I don't know, because I actually moved to New York shortly after to dance. But I did keep in touch with Ellie's older sister, Annie, who is a high school English teacher now, and she called me a couple of weeks ago after reading the ARC [Advanced Reader's Copy.] She was amazing. We talked about what it means to lose somebody really young and the taboo nature of no longer talking about it because it's so sad for families. I hope it means that a few more people are going to know Ellie's name. I dedicated it to her in part because I hope somebody learns a little about her.
I don't know why you're drawn to write, but for me, there's some deep thing that has to do with being heard, particularly as somebody who as a kid felt marginalized and not heard and different. It kind of breaks my heart to think that someone like Ellie, who was such a bright light and artist. Who knows what she would've become?
You said that this originally started off as an adult novel.
Quinn Victorious was this 100,000 word contemporary fiction grownup novel that got me my agent, who said I can't sell this, but if you ever write a kid's book let me know, so I wrote Nate. All these years later I had a contract with Simon and Schuster and I really wanted to write another book for them and to take a break from Nate and someone said why not young adult?
Rather than be a retrospective novel - the original was set ten years after his sister's accident - it was about going to the present and trying to make it more vital. Trait wise, it was fun to get back into who I was as a teenager. I kept diaries and journals and I was able to look at it and realize I'm the exact same.
You're writing Tuck Everlasting on Broadway! How did you make the journey to writing musicals, and how has the process been?
Books are this largely solitary pursuit where you have an editor very late in the process. Musicals are a collaborative process, your co-writers look at it, you bounce off the lyricists, the director has an opinion, the producers have an opinion. Musical theater is largely dialogue driven because, unlike films which are so visual, usually musicals are fairly stationary in setting.
I think it helps that my books are really dialogue driven, which I probably got growing up in the theater. Almost always in theater, people want them to start singing and dancing again. A lot of what writing the script is about, in my opinion, is serving the audience's desire to be transported. In the case of Tuck Everlasting, it's about reaching an audience of families, knowing that children don't buy tickets. As Walt Disney said, if he had to rely on children or reviews, he'd never make any money.
Who would direct the film of Quinn's life?
I would think that he would want something really exciting like the Coen Brothers, but it's more John Hughes than he cares to admit. I think he'd fancy himself a Tarantino. Stephen Chbosky would actually be really cool, since he also grew up in Pittsburgh.
Can you tell me about any future projects?
I am writing a movie musical for Nickelodeon, which is their first ever movie-musical. I'm working on a third Nate book to round out the trilogy, which are my two biggish things.