We all remember the first time someone our own age—not a grandparent or teacher, but a peer—died: for Tim Federle, it was Ellie Batz, a girl a few years younger than he who died in a car crash just outside their high school. “I remember going to her funeral and being so struck by, and kind of frightened by, mortality coming into focus,” he says. Federle never forgot Ellie (he describes her as “a bright light”), and her tragic story ended up inspiring his new novel, The Great American Whatever.

Quinn, the narrator of The Great American Whatever,lost his sister in a similar accident six months before the beginning of the novel. He’s since stopped answering his cellphone, showering regularly, and going to school—or really anywhere at all. When his best friend forces him out of the house to a college party, Quinn meets a cute guy he just might be interested in, setting off a string of discoveries about who his beloved sister really was and what he might be capable of if he can convince himself to try, all of which are recounted in a mordantly witty voice not unlike Federle’s own way of speaking.

The inciting car accident isn’t the only part of the novel based on Federle’s life: many of Quinn’s experiences as a young gay person are inspired by Federle’s own. In fact, he acknowledges being a strongly autobiographical writer in general. “I think so many writers become writers because they want to rewrite history in the only legal way they can,” he says.

Like Quinn—and Nate, the protagonist of his middle-grade novels—Federle grew up in Pittsburgh. He was a self-described theater nerd and class clown, with little interest in studying. “I was the kid who knew every lyric to Sunday in the Park With George before I knew my state capitals,” he says.

After graduating from high school, Federle moved to New York City and became a dancer on Broadway (similar to the admittedly younger Nate). For 10 years, he worked on a wide range of productions, including Spamalot and Billy Elliot. Federle never considered writing until a friend pointed out that he was dating almost exclusively writers and screenwriters. “Be the writer you wish to date in the world,” she told him. He realized she was right and started working on his first novel—a much longer version of The Great American Whatever written for adults, in which the protagonist was a 25-year-old former violin prodigy living in New York. The book, called Quinn, Victorious, was never published but did get Federle his agent, who suggested that his first novel should be something more autobiographical. It was then that Federle came up with the idea for his first middle-grade novel, Better Nate Than Ever.Federle_cover

Although he didn’t set out to write books for kids, Federle has become fiercely protective of the genre’s value. He rejects the notion that adult books are more significant or meaningful—after all, young people are open to the ideas in literature in a way that most grown-ups aren’t. “I could name five books off the top of my head that changed my life as a kid, whereas it’s hard for me to think back to the last book I read as an adult that actually changed my life,” he says.

And yet, Federle’s punny cocktail books for adults (the ingeniously titled Tequila Mockingbird, Gone With the Gin,and Hickory Daiquiri Dock) did change his life: they’re his bestselling books. “I tell people to follow your dreams,” he says, “but you’ve got to follow your whims too.”

Alex Heimbach is a freelance writer in California.