Confronting the Serpent King: A Conversation with Jeff Zentner about facing fear through storytelling, the importance of Young Adult fiction, and working with a “Top 5” publisher

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Jeff Zentner is the author of New York Times Notable Book The Serpent King as well as Goodbye Days. His third book, Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee is forthcoming in Spring 2019. He is the winner of the William C. Morris Award, the Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, the International Literacy Association Award, and the Westchester Fiction Award. His books have been nominated and longlisted for the Carnegie Medal, and he has been a finalist for the Indies Choice Award and the Southern Book Prize, and been named a Publishers Weekly Flying Start.

He lives in Nashville, Tennessee. He came to writing through music, starting his creative life as a guitarist and eventually becoming a songwriter. He’s released five albums and appeared on recordings with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, Thurston Moore, Debbie Harry, Mark Lanegan, and Lydia Lunch, among others.

On March 15th, 2018, Young Adult Novelist Jeff Zentner joined Interlochen Arts Academy faculty member and bestselling YA novelist Brittany Cavallaro, along with YA novelist Emily Henry, for a YA Novelist Master Class and Panel with Interlochen Creative Writing students. Interlochen Review editors Genevieve Harding and Margaret Blackburn sat down with Jeff for a conversation about his influences and inspirations.

Genevieve Harding: Both of your books, The Serpent King and Goodbye Days are character-driven, and each of your characters is so specific, yet in both books, the characters exist in relatively the same sort of world in Tennessee. How do you think the settings for your stories affect your characters’ development?

Jeff Zentner: So in The Serpent King, I set the book in a fictional book in small-town Tennessee called Forestville that was actually named after a Confederate general. That’s a common thing in the South, for things to be named after Confederate generals. I wanted the setting of the story, that place, to work on the same level as the characters’ struggles. So much about The Serpent King is these characters overcoming their pasts, becoming more than what they were born into, and I wanted the name of the town where they lived to reflect something that you have to overcome, this racist past. The setting produces a lot of tension because it’s such an unwelcome place for them. In The Serpent King, it’s so stifling to them, such a difficult place to be. Whereas in Goodbye Days, I wanted the place, the city itself, the setting, to be a very easy place to be, so I set it in a city I love, which is Nashville, which is the city where I live. Nashville’s a wonderful place; there are all these things to do, there are all these resources. It’s a cool city to live in. I wanted to remove setting as a struggle for those characters because in Goodbye Days I have so many other struggles for the characters.

Margaret Blackburn: Just an addendum to that: you were talking before about how The Serpent King was meant to be kind of mythologized and to read as a myth, and I think that would play really interestingly in a town named a Confederate general because that kind of thing is such a mythologizing of the Civil War and of the past.

JZ: Yes, exactly. So much of The Serpent King is about myth and legend and maybe those myths and legends related to awful things, and that’s what so much of the mythology in the South is about.

GH: Continuing with talking about The Serpent King, it is focused strongly on the darker, more bizarre side of religion, with the main character’s father, with snake handling and things like that. In your writing process of that book, how did you balance such a delicate subject of religion in addition to the racist past of the South with staying true to the story that you wanted to tell, and making sure you told it to the truest possible caliber?

JZ: I grew up in a strict religious home. It was nothing like Dill’s home in The Serpent King. It was not snake handling, not anything like that, but I definitely grew up understanding religious fervor and having to work through my issues with faith and religion. I wrote the story that I needed to write, what I had inside me. All of my books are basically referendums on all of the things I love, all of the things I’m thinking about a lot, all of the things I’m working through at that point in my life.

When I was writing The Serpent King, I was working through a lot of issues with faith, and examining that question as it relates to my own life—how do you move forward and take what is valuable to you about that background of faith that you grew up with and leave behind the parts that are not valuable, the parts that are bringing you down. How do you do that? And that’s a question that I was really working within The Serpent King. In terms of the way that relates to the racist past of the South, things like that—the whole book is about that trajectory, about moving past the things that you’ve grown up with, moving past your blood, the things you were born into, your family name, all of the things that you might think are immutable characteristics about yourself, and moving into a future where you are sort of the author of your own destiny, and your destiny hasn’t been written for you.

MB: You have experience with multiple art forms like songwriting, and I was wondering why you felt the stories of The Serpent King and Goodbye Days needed to be told as novels rather than some other form?

JZ: My decision to write novels was really audience-driven. I had worked with teenagers at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp, and out of that experience, I just thought it would be really cool to make art for teenagers. And at that point, I was too old to make it big in the music industry. You can’t make it big in the music industry after you’re thirty— it just doesn’t happen, and especially not in the kind of music that gets marketed to young adults. So I had to figure out something else to do, and so I started writing novels. That’s what influenced that choice. And I thought, what are the things that I can talk about in a novel-length, what are the things that have weighed on my mind? So: religion, class, moving past your family name and the tracks that you think have been laid for you. In Goodbye Days it was grief—not because I’ve experienced a lot of grief in my life, because I haven’t. That’s why I needed to confront grief, because the idea of losing a lot of people close to me all in one fell swoop is so frightening to me, and so I needed to confront that fear through storytelling and sort of ride out in the field to meet it.

GH: Can you talk a little bit about how your experience working campers at a music camp bled into your characters, and the problems that your characters face in the books?

JZ: One of the things that I got from working at the camps was an understanding of how being exceptional can lead to you not fitting in. So many of the campers at these camps are just brilliant young people, and they’re working on amazing things, and they’re accomplishing amazing things, but at the same time, it makes them not fit in with their colleagues, people who are their own age.

For example, in The Serpent King, I’ve got the character Lydia, who’s this internet-famous fashion blogger, and she doesn’t fit in by virtue of her success, by virtue of the things that are interesting to her, by virtue of the things that she’s working on. So I really saw that first-hand at these camps, that kids who were really devoted to something, who were really interested in doing extraordinary things often have to make a certain social sacrifice to do that. That really influenced that character choice. In Goodbye Days, the main character had a group of friends—he went to an arts high school, in my mind, not terribly unlike this one, only it wasn’t a boarding school, and he had this group of extraordinary friends, each one of them talented in their own way. There was a musician, there was a comedian, there was a comic book artist, and there was him, a writer, and they were all best friends. It came from seeing the extraordinary kids at these music camps and seeing what kind of magical friend groups would form, where you’d have these tremendously talented people all coming together, and they would create these beautiful friendships where their talents could shine through, and they’d support each other.

MB: Actually, coming directly from that, what you’re saying reminds me a lot of The Love that Split the World, Emily Henry’s book—just the idea of someone who’s extraordinary and therefore doesn’t really fit in. So my question is two parts: 1) are there writers their writers that really inspire you? and 2) are there compatriots of yours that you would recommend?

JZ: Obviously, Brittany Cavallaro, of your own school, is one of my favorite writers. I absolutely love her books. Emily Henry is one of my favorite writers. I love the way she uses language in these gorgeous, lush descriptions. Kerry Kletter is an amazing writer. She wrote a book called The First Time She Drowned. Kelly Loy Gilbert is amazing. Nic Stone is amazing. So these are all kind of my compatriots in the Young Adult world. As far as writers outside of the young adult realm, I’m a huge fan of Jesmyn Ward, who wrote Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing. I’m a huge fan of Mohsin Hamid and Donna Tartt. Michael Ondaatje. Gosh, I could go on recommending writers all day. It’s one of my favorite things to do. I read a lot.

GH: How do you see what is more called “literary fiction” being in conversation with Young Adult fiction, and why do you think having both is important, especially for young writers and for young readers?

JZ: Literary fiction puts the craft of writing on display really well. In literary fiction, you find really beautiful sentences. You find really close, smart observations. You find really beautiful stories about human relationships. You can definitely find all those things in Young Adult as well. Where I think Young Adult really shines is on voice, viewpoint. You get some really wonderful voices in the world of Young Adult. You get really wonderful stories. So Young Adult books generally still have clear stories and clear arcs, and the characters move and grow and change. That’s not so much a requirement in literary fiction. That’s not a knock on it at all, to say “oh, literary fiction is plotless.” I’m not saying that at all. I’ll follow beautiful sentences and great characters and great voices anywhere, but in Young Adult, they really do plot particularly well and character arc particularly well. And I like that Young Adult books leave you hopeful because I do think that’s important when writing for young adults, that you clearly represent the truth of this world, which is that there’s always hope. There’s always hope in our world, and bad things can change on a dime. Where literary fiction isn’t as concerned with that, that might be a little too “message-y” for literary fiction—which is fine, but it’s good to have hope in writing. I like to read things sometimes that make me feel good at the end.

GH: The narrative voice in both of your books have a pretty direct and to-the-point tone that’s very reminiscent of the tone of Tennessee, the voice and dialect. How do you see this voice working with a delicate subject matter such as religion, teen death, family ties, privilege, and other things that you’ve mentioned that your books wrestle with?

JZ: The straightforwardness is really a reflection of how squarely I personally need to confront these things. These topics that I deal with are really so much about me needing to work through them that I have to deal with them in a very forthright way, in a very head-on sort of way. And I think that hopefully comes out in the writing. Also, that’s just the only way I know how to write. I’m a pretty forthright person, a pretty direct person, and so that’s just going to come out.

MB: This is kind of a sidestep away from the actual writing and focusing on what publishing looks like, especially for publishing Young Adult novels. What was the process of bringing The Serpent King to bookshelves and how was that different for Goodbye Days as a second novel? And if you have any advice for people who want to publish YA, I would really appreciate it.

JZ: Before you have a book deal, you’re footloose and fancy-free. You can write anything you want. So I came up with this story about the son of a Pentecostal snake-handling minister, The Serpent King, which is not the hot thing in YA, now or ever. That freedom really freed me up to write about anything I wanted, and that’s what I wanted to write about. So I wrote that book in the times I had available. I wrote most of it on my phone on the bus to and from my day job. Once I had a draft, I polished it up, and I gave it to a friend of mine to read. This friend happened to be a journalist, and she had a literary agent that she had gotten from one of her articles. She read it, and she said, “I think my agent might like this. Do you mind if I pass it onto him?” And I’m like, “Sure.” So she passed it along to her agent, who loved it and said, “I want to represent you.”

So he took the book out, and he sold it to Random House, and Random House wanted to lock me down for two books, which was cool—but, I didn’t have an idea for a second book. My editor’s like, “You’ve got an idea for a second book, right?” and I’m like, “I do, question mark?” So I had to think of stuff really quickly. I ran five or six ideas past her, and she was just not into them, because once you get a book deal, that does not mean all your ideas are good. You still are a veritable wellspring of crappy ideas.

I realized that The Serpent King involved a lot of characters and ideas that I had been working on in my head for a long time, people I had been fascinated with for a long time. With Goodbye Days, I had to hurry up and get fascinated in other things and get fascinated in other people, so that I had something to write about, because I used up all my stuff on The Serpent King, and I needed to fill my bucket again for Goodbye Days. So it was a different process. I was under a little more of a rush. What I realized was that I could become interested in other people and in other things very quickly. It’s just a matter of really looking at the world and figuring out what fascinates me.

My third book is based on me just flipping through channels one night. It’s a book about two girls who have their own TV show on their local public access station, where they show cheesy horror movies. That came from one instance in which I came home on a Saturday night and just flipped through channels and landed on this public access show—it’s poorly produced, low budget, not a high-quality production, but wonderful in its own way. I came to that show, and it just inspired me. All of a sudden I was like, “I want to write a book about people like that.” So my third book is about two people like that. So it’s just about having your antennae up for things that you love.

MB: When does the third book come out?

JZ: Spring 2019.

MB: That’s so far from now!

JZ: Yeah, so—advice! Publishing takes forever. It moves at a snail’s pace. So advice for people wanting to publish a YA book: give yourself time to produce your best work, because you want to enter the world with your best work. Don’t plan on publishing a book immediately. It takes a long time, and you just have to be patient. But, if you are persistent, and you are willing to take criticism and not let it break you, then you’ll get it. You’ll make it. You’ll be published.

MB: That’s so reassuring.

GH: When you were writing The Serpent King, you mentioned you had the freedom to write what you wanted to write since you weren’t tied down with an editor or anything like that. How have you maintained that sense of freedom within your writing and within your writing process after having a book deal and having the pressure on you?

JZ: It’s funny because you really don’t have total freedom. At that point, you have a relationship with an editor. You have a relationship with a publishing house that has marketed you in a certain way, that has built a brand in a certain way, and you don’t want to give your readers whiplash. So you can’t necessarily write whatever book you want. You can, but your editor can also be like, “Well, we’re not going to publish this. We need you to come back with something that fits into the way we’re marketing you to the world.” So the way to do that, and to feel free while doing that, is to really come up with stories that you love, and characters that you love. You don’t feel burdened or tied down when you’re writing about people you love and whose lives you enjoy inhabiting. If you can find people like that to write about, then you can write within those rails that are laid for you, and be fine.

MB: Has it been frustrating for you, dealing with the rails that you now have, that you didn’t have with The Serpent King?

JZ: Yes and no. It’s never fun to hear your editor say, about an idea you were excited about,“I just don’t think this will work. I don’t think there’s a readership for this. I don’t think we could sell this book to people.” It’s frustrating to hear that, but also, it’s good to hear that, because they know the business. They know what will get read, and you want to write work that is going to get read. I had a whole musical career in which I could be precious, and do whatever I wanted to do because I was putting out albums myself, no record label, just myself. So if I felt like a song was going to go on an album, I just did it. I don’t have a great, successful music career to show for it. I had my hundred and fifty fans who would buy my albums, and that’s it. So I prefer this. I prefer having a gatekeeper, somebody who will tell me no. I like having that. I actually find that freeing in a way.

MB: I could see that.

GH: You were originally a singer-songwriter. Can you talk a little bit about how your music and your writing influence each other?

JZ: There’s a pretty direct line from my songwriting to my first book, The Serpent King, in that I got the idea for the story of The Serpent King simply by taking two of my songs that I thought had more of a story to them, mushing them together, and saying, “I can’t decide which of these songs I want to write a book about. I’m going to mush them together, and they’re going to exist in the same story.” So that’s a very concrete example. In terms of other things, songwriting gives you a real ear and eye for imagery. You have to closely observe the world to come up with imagery to write songs about. That influenced my writing. You learn a certain economy of language because when you’re writing songs, you don’t have room for monologues. You’ve got four minutes. So you need to make every word count. You gain an ear for the musicality of language and rhythm of language, and that helps in novel-writing. As for how novel-writing affects songwriting, I don’t know. I haven’t done any songwriting since I turned to writing novels, but I imagine there are some overlaps, and ways that one helps the other.

GH: Your books have incredibly fleshed out characters, but they also have equally specific plots. In your writing process, how does the character development affect the plot development and vice versa?

JZ: So I one hundred percent start with character. I have this intensive process that I do before I start writing where for three or four months I just walk around with those characters in my head, and listen to them speak to me, let them incubate and become fully developed people. So they’re up there telling me who they love, what they love, who loves them, what they need to overcome in life, where they need to get to, where they need to grow. By the time I go to start writing, they’re fully fleshed out people, and they will take me where I need to go in the story. So the plot one hundred percent comes from them telling me, “Here’s who I am. Here’s how I need to grow. This is the life I want to lead.” A lot of writers start with plot, and I don’t. I always have to start with characters, and the plot flows from that.

GH: A lot of teens—especially at Interlochen and other art schools and high schools in general—are very interested in writing and art and filmmaking. As someone who was a singer and made their way into writing, what would your advice be to young teens who are interested in a lot of different art forms and how they can use that to their advantage?

JZ: I would say look for the connections between the two. Look for the common process, a common creative process. Learn the way you work, whatever you create. When I was writing songs, I learned about a way I created, which was that I learned to be observant to the world because inspiration would just come like a bolt out of the blue. I would see something and immediately get an idea for a song. So I knew that’s how I worked. When I turned to writing novels, I knew that I needed to keep my antennae up and be observing the world. This process works across different art forms: it works across songwriting, it works across novel writing. If I had even a lick of painting talent in me, I’m sure it would be the same thing. So really get to know yourself, know your process, know the way you create, know the sources of inspiration. Know when to give your process room to breathe. If I got stuck on a part in a song, I would just let it go for a few days and come back to it. So I know, when I write novels, if I get stuck in a place, I give it a couple days and come back to it. I don’t sit there and, like, “Come on,” force it, because I know my process and I know how I create.

GH: Definitely. I do have one last question: what are you most excited for about your next book if you’re allowed to talk about it?

JZ: I am really excited for the humor aspect of it. My first two books were weighted about thirty  percent humor to about seventy percent tragedy. This new book is weighted about seventy percent humor to about thirty percent—not even tragedy, just sadness, and melancholy because I think the two are intertwined, comedy and sadness. I really wanted to write a funny book. And I think it’s a funny book. People whose opinions I trust tell me it’s a funny book. So I’m going with that. I’m excited for people to read a funny book from me.