There's a warmth to Tim Federle's The Great American Whatever — which is ironic, since it starts with protagonist Quinn Roberts begging for air conditioning.
"I don't consider myself to be precious, necessarily, but give me air-conditioning or give me death." Federle's voice comes through like an irresistible melody. The Broadway dancer-turned-author gives his relatable protagonist wit for days. The story follows Quinn through one summer as he comes to grips with his sister's death and falls for a boy for the first time. The end result is a story about self-acceptance, but it's more than just a saccharine tweet. Its compelling hero makes the story surprisingly stirring.
"It's a fun fast read that unexpectedly gets you at the end," Federle described it in a phone conversation. "It's like summer soda pop, but it's spiked."
Federle has written half a dozen books, three of which were themed drink recipe books (Tequila Mockingbird, Hickory Daiquiri Dock, Gone With the Gin) and two of which were children's books (Better Nate Than Ever and Five, Six, Seven, Nate). The Great American Whatever, his sixth, is his first foray into young adult writing. Using high school as a setting for a gay coming-of-age story helps make the story appeal not just to its target audience, but to readers of all ages.
"I think for a lot of people, particularly queer-identifying people, high school is a time of questions," he said. "That's true for everyone, but to add onto that a layer of, 'Oh, by the way, I'm discovering that I identify in such a way' — the queer experience in high school is one that, for a lot of people, they carry around with them."
Mic talked to Federle about his own experience in high school, what The Great American Whatever has to offer readers and why adults aren't so different from young adult readers.
Mic: What's your one-line pitch for The Great American Whatever?
TF: It's kind of like if Perks of Being a Wallflower had been 20% gayer.
A lot of the book is focused on Quinn not so much coming out, but accepting himself as a gay teenager. How was your own experience growing up gay in high school?
TF: For me, I grew up as a theatre kid, and so my experience identifying as gay was genuinely never tragic. I never feared for my safety. I had a place to go to completely be myself.
With regard to The Great American Whatever, it's got this gay teenager who expresses himself through his artistic well-being. He likes to control his own world that way, which is why he becomes a writer and a screenwriter.
So you had a decent high school experience? Were you popular?
TF: A lot of my high school experience was actually purposefully othering myself from other people. I was saying, 'My older brother is a star student? Then I'm going to be the class clown. My dad is a doctor? I'm going to be a dancer. The only college I got into is in my dad's hometown? I'm not gonna go there, I'm gonna just move to New York.' Rebellion, for me, was about purposefully making myself the black sheep. I was already the gray sheep; might as well black it out.
We've talked previously, and you told me on more than one occasion that you don't write with a particular age of reader in mind. Given that, what do you think older readers can take out of The Great American Whatever, which is a young adult book?
TF: A lot of the experience of coming into your sexuality and sharply defining yourself by your interests and your hobbies. This is why I think young adult fiction resonates with adult readers. So many adults are still figuring out their lives — who their next partner is going to be, what they want to do when they 'grow up,' where they want to live. All of the problems are on a smaller scale by virtue of the powerlessness young adults feel.
That's why people like reading stories about teenagers who are working their way through it. It's a proxy for how people are going about their own lives.
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