A Conversation with Jeff Zentner, author of THE SERPENT KING
Updated: May 7, 2020
Jeff Zentner’s THE SERPENT KING was the first arc I received as a member of The Sweet 16s debut author group. This turned out to be good and bad simultaneously. Good because the book is so damn good, bad because I was jealous of Zentner’s accomplishment. The novel–a story of three friends in a small town during the senior year, focusing mainly on Dill, a would-be musician torn between his dreams and his family responsibilities–has great characters you care about and some fantastic dialogue. I said it then and I’ll say it again now, I predict this book is nominate for a Printz Award. Below is a conversation I had with Jeff after I finished the novel.
Me: It seems from your bios that you’ve spent most of your life primarily as a musician. How did the transition to writing a novel occur? Was this a goal you had for a long time or was it more sudden? Walk me through it.
Jeff Zentner: My writing career was essentially born out of my commercial failure as a musician. Being a musician was a dream that came later in life—I picked up the guitar when I was 21—and so by my mid-thirties, I had taken it as far as I think I could. There’s a much more defined age limit on musicians making it commercially. Plus, to make it as a musician, you have to tour nonstop, which is hell to me. I had a tiny and devoted fanbase, to whom I will always owe my heart, but there was still a hole inside me.
I’d reached a crossroads where I realized that if I ever wanted to have a chance to reach more people with something I’ve created, I’d need to switch horses. I’ve always loved writing and reading. I thought “maybe the time’s come for me to hang up my Les Paul and put on my tweed jacket.” So that’s what I did.
Me: That’s a really inspirational story. I think too many people get caught up in “this is who I am” rather than thinking, “who can I become?” Are there any lessons you learned as a musician that have carried over to writing? Any glaring creative differences for you between the two?
Jeff: I’ve definitely learned from music not to take rejection personally. I’ve played to enough nearly-empty bars and juke joints that if someone says “eh, your book didn’t really do much for me,” I’m not going to be super disappointed. Above all, music taught me that the kind of art I love to make is the kind that aspires to make people feel something.
As for glaring differences, I’d say the biggest one is that I was never able to use my sense of humor in music at all. Not even a tiny bit. It’s like music came from a completely different part of me. But I find that writing engages a much fuller part of my personality, and I have no trouble injecting levity into books that have a lot of dark subject matter.
Me: You pull off humor extremely well in this novel. Yes, it has a lot of dark subject matter, as you say, but the conversations between Lydia and Dill, and heck, Lydia and anyone really, are hilarious at times. Did you model her on anyone specifically? How about any of the other characters?
Jeff: Thanks! I think the reason I’ve managed to get further with writing than with music is that I was never able to employ humor in music, even though I love joking around.
Lydia is modeled after several of my very sharp, funny female friends. My friend, Tracy Moore, who writes for Jezebel and who grew up in Cookeville, Tennessee was a definite influence. My friend Alli Marshall, who grew up in rural New York and now writes for the Asheville Mountain Xpress was another. The biggest influence on Lydia, though, was Tavi Gevinson.
Dill is also modeled on several of my friends as well as a young Ryan Adams.
Travis is modeled on those dudes you see at every RenFaire in the South. Huge, beefy, blue-collar redneck dudes who improbably wear cloaks and carry staffs. I’d run into these guys at the Borders where I worked as a bookseller; they’d be buying stacks of fantasy novels. He has no famous analogue because you don’t see many famous people like that. People like that seem to mostly live quiet lives, on their own terms. Like Travis.
Me: I have no good segue for this next question–I’ll struggle like hell with transitions in my own writing–so I’ll just flat-out ask it: You handled Dill’s parents’ religious beliefs a lot more fairly than I think most writers would. Dill clearly questions their beliefs, but he’s never condescending of their religious practices. Was that a deliberate choice or a conscious one? Did you have any apprehension in dealing with religion in the novel?
Jeff: I’m really glad that came through. I think it’s boring and facile to treat religion in a condescending manner. It was a conscious choice to me to represent religion fairly for all of its good and bad aspects. I wanted to show, for example, what an incredible source of comfort religion is to Dill’s mom in extraordinarily difficult circumstances. I wanted to how Dill comes to an understanding of God that’s more commensurate with his experience and dreams. I grew up in a religious tradition and continue to participate in organized religion so I know firsthand the complexities of growing up in a strict religious home. My parents were and are very loving and have little in common with Dill’s parents, but I definitely saw religion as something that both limited and added to my happiness. This experience made me less apprehensive to deal with religion in the novel, since I was writing what I knew.
Me: I think teen readers will definitely walk away from this seeing the even-handedness with how you’ve treated religion. I know most authors don’t write with an agenda, per se, but is there a message you’d like readers to take away from this book?
Jeff: I hope anyone who reads this book will come away feeling like their lives are their own and more than the sum of the choices and names of others.
Me: Dill, Lydia, and Travis really stuck with me. Even now, a month or so after reading the book, I find myself wondering about them and what they’re doing with their lives. Do you have plans to write more about them, or have you moved on to a different project?
Jeff: I don’t have plans to write more about them. My next book, Goodbye Days is a standalone. But there may just be a cameo from one of the The Serpent King crew in Goodbye Days. We’ll see if it survives my editor.
Me: I’d like to end this with the lightning round. I’ll give you five questions you only need to answer, not explain. I’m hoping this’ll give you readers just some additional (and fun) info on you. Here we go: What one skill or ability do you wish you had?
Jeff: I wish I were really good at woodworking.
Me: You can time travel to any place and any year. What concert are you attending?
Jeff: Since I’m a musician, this might be a surprise, but I’m going to say Tig Notaro’s standup show at the Largo where she revealed that she had cancer.
Me: You are suddenly a big megastar, and like all big megastars, you have your eccentricities. What the only food you choose to ever be seen eating in public?
Jeff: Pancakes, pulled carefully one-by-one from an expensive designer calfskin pancake holster on my belt.
Me: A mysterious stranger shows up at your door and sends you can send a note back in time to your younger self. How old is the recipient and what message are you sending?
Jeff: He’s sixteen, and the message is “You won’t always feel as alone as you do now.”
Me: And, as my final question — You can invite one writer, one rocker, one actor/actress, and one miscellaneous person to a dinner party. Yes, they must be alive, and yes, your friends and family are already invited. Who are you picking?
Jeff: Writer—Cormac McCarthy, Rocker—Nick Cave, Actor—Hannibal Burress, Miscellaneous person—Ira Glass
Me: You can have the last word. Anything you’d like to say?
Jeff: Well, Kurt, as Nietzsche once said *I go to lean against table, slip, fall on top of comically large cake*