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High Point novelist teaches young adults in the classroom, works to inspire them with his fiction
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High Point novelist teaches young adults in the classroom, works to inspire them with his fiction

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Frank Morelli got the idea for his latest young adult novel when he came to High Point in 2005 to interview for a teaching job at Westchester Country Day.

During a walk around the city, he came across a statue of jazz musician John Coltrane.

“I was just fascinated by the fact that John Coltrane grew up in this town,” Morelli said.

In “On the Way to Birdland,” published by Fish Out of Water Books, Morelli writes about Cordell “Cordy” Wheaton, a 16-year-old boy whose hero is Coltrane.

When his father falls ill, Cordy, who lives in High Point, sets out on a modern-day odyssey to find his estranged brother to reunite the Wheaton family.

“On the Way to Birdland” is Morelli’s second young adult novel. His novel “No Sad Songs” (2018), was a 2019 YALSA Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers nominee and winner of an American Fiction Award for best coming of age story.

His fiction and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Saturday Evening Post, Cobalt Review, Philadelphia Stories, Boog City and Jersey Devil Press.

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Morelli, 42, is a middle school English teacher at Westchester Country Day School in High Point. He has taught at The Summit School in Winston-Salem and for the New York City public schools.

“On the Way to Birdland” will be released June 8.

Q: How would you describe your writing?

Answer: First and foremost, I write for children in middle and high school. These are readers I know better than myself, since I’ve been teaching them for quite some time. I feel like my observations and experiences as an educator give my writing a quality that is relatable and comfortable to readers in these age groups. Beyond that, the novels I tend to write often focus on protagonists who find themselves in a fish out of water situation. In other words, they are forced completely out of their comfort zones by some unavoidable obstacle, and the novel itself becomes a study in how that character learns to cope with the change, and how it leads to significant growth as a person. I love to write these characters from the first person point of view, often placing my protagonist into the role of narrator where I, as the author, can crawl directly inside their brains and see the entire world I’ve built through those characters’ eyes. Both of my young adult novels, ‘No Sad Songs’ (2018), and my new release, ‘On the Way to Birdland,’ approach difficult and potentially depressing subject matter, such as Alzheimer’s disease, addiction, PTSD and terminal illness with respect, resilience, hope, and light-hearted humor. I would say my writing style leans more toward the realm of literary fiction than anything else.

Q: How have you evolved as an writer?

Answer: From a nuts and bolts standpoint, my process has changed so much I doubt I’d be able to recognize what I used to do when I first started writing long form about 10 years ago. Planning out my novels now takes at least three months, and my revision time has increased from a few milliseconds to up to a year. It has proven to me that the building and refining of my work is probably the most important part of being a writer. However, the most significant evolution I’ve made in my writing has been my judgment of what is actually considered success. Sure, I would be lying if I said I’d hate to be a New York Times bestselling author, sign movie deals and open theme parks based on my work. I think writers should aspire to have their work seen and enjoyed by as many readers as possible. That said, I’ve come to realize that literary success is quite literally when you find the spine and the time to develop an original idea, plan it out, write it and feel happy about having brought it into the world. That’s all a writer can ask for.

Q: Who has influenced your writing?

Answer: The most common answer to a question like this one would probably be a complete listing of books and authors who inspired my work, and there are certainly many of those in my life. S.E. Hinton’s ‘The Outsiders’ comes to mind right away because it single handedly turned me into a reader, which is always the first step in becoming a writer. Hinton’s debut novel also happens to be one of the prototypes of what we now call the young adult genre, so I’ve studied this work time and time again in my efforts to continually improve as a writer. That said, I’d have to be completely honest and tell you I had the benefit of landing in classes with some incredibly transformational teachers in my extended time as a student. I may be biased, being a teacher myself, but teachers are some of the most important and most underappreciated people on the planet. Without my ninth grade English teacher, Mrs. D (Celeste D’Alonzo), I would have never had the confidence in my writing to pursue it as a career. Without Dr. (Arthur) Costigan, one of my professors at Queens College in New York, I never would have developed the research skills needed to be a serious author. There are so many more names I could list here, because teachers are the lifeblood of our society, but I’ll just leave it at this: Thank you for everything. To each and every one of you.

Q: What is your biggest challenge?

Answer: I’m a writer, but I’ve also been teaching middle school English for nearly 20 years. I’m pretty sure these are the two most likely professions in which you’ll hear the mantra, “I need more time.” There’s never enough time in my days to complete the swirling pile of items on my daily to-do list, so I’ve needed to become creative in how I structure my life. That includes what I call ‘creative sleeping’ which is just another way of saying ‘sleep deprivation.’ In all honesty, I’ve found that waking up before the sun on most mornings to engage in a writing sprint or to knock out a few revisions on a work in progress sets the tone for my entire day, both in the classroom and in my writing pursuits.

Fran Daniel writes about artists — visual, musical, literary and more — weekly in Relish. Send your story ideas to fdaniel@wsjournal.com or call 336-727-7366.

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