Last February, Tim Federle’s debut novel, Better Nate Than Ever, hit bookstores. The Dance Spirit editors were charmed by Federle’s witty, authentic tale of an awkward small-town boy who dreams of making it on Broadway. And it’s no wonder Federle’s protagonist, Nate, was so relatable: Just like Nate, Federle moved to NYC to pursue a professional dance career on the Great White Way. He danced in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, Gypsy and The Little Mermaid on Broadway, and worked on the choreographic team of Billy Elliot: The Musical before switching his focus to writing. To celebrate Better Nate Than Ever’s sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, DS asked Federle to tell us about his transition from dancer to novelist. We’ll let Tim take it from here. —Rachel Zar
If you had told 9-year-old Tim Federle that someday he was going to be a writer, he’d have stuck his amateur jazz hand in your face. To be fair, if you had told 9-year-old Tim Federle that he was going to be a dancer, that would’ve surprised him, too. It was only when my parents took me to see the national tour of Cats in third grade that I realized you could be paid to be hyperactive and talkative. Meow!
Right after the Cats revelation, my mom signed me up at the Center for Theater Arts in Pittsburgh, PA, where I got three square meals a day: tap, jazz and ballet. When the boys at school found out I was wearing tights at night, they ripped into me. I dropped out of dance classes for a year. A couple decades later, I still regret that decision.
By the time I was a teenager, I had blossomed into a full-on theater geek, and the football players taunted me endlessly—maybe because I was so busy making their girlfriends LOL. My class clowning was born out of trying to deflect the negative attention I was getting for being the only boy at school who dreamed of being a professional cat (you know, in Cats). The upside? I was starting to learn that being funny could feel as fantastic as dancing. I wasn’t writing out my jokes yet, but the seeds of my writing career were planted—though I still had my ambitions pinned squarely on performing.
Cats closed the week I moved to NYC. Literally. Still, I was 19 and in Manhattan, baby! I tried out for everything, and crashed every audition as a non-union performer. My first big break was as a backup dancer to Christina Aguilera at the Super Bowl (I still don’t know which teams played). Later, I made my Broadway debut in Gypsy—but not without my fair share of disappointments and rejections along the way.
I didn’t realize it in my teens, but all the heartbreak and trauma that comes with being an artist would someday serve as really good material for my books. The next time you feel like your head’s going to pop off with jealousy or frustration, pretend you’re in the audience watching your own life story. That’s what I started doing. What performance do you want to see yourself give? Bitter ballerina or classy chorine? Don’t be a bitter ballerina. (T-shirt idea: Don’t Be a Bitter Ballerina.)
I was 29 when I took a gig on the choreographic staff of the musical Billy Elliot. The kids in the show were the same age I was when I saw Cats, and they were getting standing ovations on Broadway. I was so inspired, and I realized nobody was going to give me permission to follow my newest, biggest, quietest dream: I wanted to try being a writer, and to make people laugh on the page, not just backstage. I decided to be as brave as the 9-year-olds I was teaching every day, because YOLO.
An acquaintance in the publishing industry suggested that, rather than trying to write a vampire novel or historical epic, I stick with a topic I know well: the performing arts, and all the craziness behind the scenes. When I finally opened my laptop to write, I was surprised by how quickly it all came together. Once I had the characters in mind (everyone in Better Nate Than Ever is loosely based on a person in my life) and a premise that made me smile (“a small-town boy runs away from home to crash an audition for E.T.: The Musical”), it was just a matter of showing up at the computer every day and seeing what happened. You know, after I got past my crippling fears.
It’s the same thing a choreographer goes through: “Will the idea I have for this number actually work, or do I just think it’s smart when I’m in the shower or jumping around the living room?” That’s writing. That’s directing. That’s all of it—the ability to move past your worries of “What if I suck?” and get to work anyway. There’s only one way to find out if you’re terrible. (Spoiler alert: You’re not terrible.)
I wrote the first draft of Better Nate Than Ever in a month, working on it every morning until noon, then stuffing my face with Fruit Roll-Ups and pretzels and dashing to Billy Elliot rehearsals. One thing I learned in long-ago improv acting classes is to trust your first instinct, so my first draft was full of typos, plot holes and characters whose names changed midway through—but also a lot of energy and heart. One big difference between writing and dancing is that, with writing, you can edit out the bad stuff later. Not so much when you’re falling out of a double pirouette in front of 1,200 people. (Don’t ask.)
After spending just under a billion hours Googling “how to get a literary agent,” I was lucky enough to find one who primarily works with young-adult books. She gave me notes on my manuscript (including: “Nate’s grandparents should under no circumstances be eaten by lions”), and after I gave Nate a final polish, my agent sent it out into the world to find its fate. The “sale process” was a little like waiting for the phone to ring after a final callback for a show you reeeeally want to get. It felt like forever.
In reality, Better Nate Than Ever went out to several major publishing houses on a Friday, and within two weeks we had offers from three editors. (Cue: me jumping up and down and a strange, one-time-only attempt at yodeling in my kitchen.) It was approximately 18 months from “acquisition” to Better Nate Than Ever going on sale. Then the reviews poured in, and I started touring the country leading master class workshops, giving speeches about my transition from dancer to writer and happily signing many books. I think back to that kid who wanted to be a cat, and I can’t believe he’s lucky enough to be dreaming even bigger dreams now. Best of all, writers never outgrow their costumes. (Mostly because we wear elastic-banded sweatpants all day.)
Better Nate Than Ever was recently named a Best Book of the Year by Amazon and Publishers Weekly, and the sequel, Five, Six, Seven, Nate!, just hit shelves. I’m also working on three new books for Simon & Schuster, a screenplay adaptation of Nate and a few writing projects for the stage. Sometimes I even take a ballet class to remember my roots—and stay humble. (See “falling out of pirouettes,” above.)
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