The Serpent King: An Interview with Jeff Zentner
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The following post is from Food, Fitness & Fiction contributing editor Josh Flores.
Jeff Zentner’s debut novel, The Serpent King (Crown/Random House, March 8, 2016), tells the story of three friends as they uncover family secrets, fall in love, and desperately try to escape the hypocrisy of the small southern town they live in. Here’s a description of the book from Zentner’s website:
Dillard Early Jr., Travis Bohannon, and Lydia Blankenship are three friends who have one thing in common: none of them fit the mold in tiny Forrestville, Tennessee. Dill, a talented musician, grew up in a Pentecostal snakehandling church, playing in the praise band. During his freshman year, his father went to prison for a heinous crime, leaving Dill and his mother impoverished.
Travis is a gentle giant who works at his family’s lumberyard and is obsessed with a Game of Thrones–like fantasy series, much to his abusive, alcoholic father’s displeasure.
Lydia comes from a loving upper-middle-class family and runs a popular fashion blog that’s part Tavi Gevinson, part Angela Chase, and part Dolly Parton. She’s actively plotting her escape from rural Tennessee for bigger and better things, to capitalize on her Internet fame. This will mean leaving behind Dill—whose feelings for her run deep.
But that’s not Dill’s only problem. He has a cursed name. His grandfather, Dillard Early, became consumed with slaughtering snakes in grief and vengeance after one killed his daughter. He wore their skins pinned to his clothes during his descent into darkness. The whispering and staring locals called him “the Serpent King” before he committed suicide by poison. Dill’s father, also named Dillard Early, was the pastor of Dill’s church, whose parishioners handled serpents and drank poison as signs of faith.
Caught between his mother’s pulling him to drop out of school to help pay off the family debts and Lydia’s pushing him to go to college to escape Forrestville’s whispers and stares, Dill is quickly approaching a reckoning. One that will force him to confront the legacy of darkness—serpents and poison and self-destruction—that is his inheritance.
Zentner brings a fresh and interesting new voice to young adult fiction, exploring topics such as abuse, finding love where you least expect it, and the corruption that lies within the church. If you are looking for a deeply-impactful and sentimental coming of age tale, The Serpent King is a must-read novel.
I had the pleasure of doing the following Q & A with Zentner (pictured below) via email.
JF: How has being a musician inspired your writing?
JZ: Being a musician made me realize how hungry I was to be a creator and tell stories. It made me realize how much I loved creating with words. My being a musician led me to volunteer at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp, which in turn gave me such respect for young people and made me want to write for them.
JF: Can you talk more about the volunteer work you did with kids and how that inspired you to write for them?
JZ: I started volunteering at rock camps in 2011 and have up until now. I would look around at the amazing young people at these camps and just be in awe of their intelligence and creativity. It blew my mind. I have pairs of jeans older than some of these young people who are making amazing art. And I said to myself “I need to make something for these extraordinary people.” Music wasn’t working. So I switched to writing.
JF: What inspired you to write The Serpent King?
JZ: I write all of my novels the same way: I take everything I love at any given point and mush it into a novel and then figure out how it all ties together. At the time I wrote The Serpent King, I was intrigued by faith, fundamentalism, the religious belief unique to the American South, the kids who would escape rural Tennessee for bigger cities like Murfreesboro or Nashville or even New York City, teen fashion bloggers, and blue collar fantasy nerds. So I figured out a way to make a novel out of all of them.
JF: What activities help you relieve stress during your writing process?
JZ: I am a huge fan of walking and being outside. I spend at least an hour and a half walking every day. When I do, I listen to books on tape or just listen to the world while I write in my head.
JF: How do you balance the heavy subject matter in The Serpent King without making it depressing?
JZ: I’ve always been somewhat distrustful of people who created very heavy, dark art without themselves being funny people. I think it’s because I think comedy and darkness and sadness are so closely related. I know they are for me. For me, comedy is an escape from internal darkness. So I always try to balance darkness with comedy in my writing. I think this is probably why I’ve already had more success as a writer than a musician. I wrote very dark music but I could never figure out how to incorporate humor.
JF: What authors or books have inspired you and/or your work?
JZ: On the adult side, I am a megafan of Jesmyn Ward. Every book she’s written has just destroyed me. I also worship Cormac McCarthy, Marilynne Robinson, Donna Tartt, Anthony Doerr, Patti Smith and Michael Ondaatje. On the YA side, I love John Green, Rainbow Rowell, John Corey Whaley, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Nicola Yoon, David Arnold, Becky Albertalli, and Adam Silvera. I have three amazing critique partners: Kerry Kletter, the queen of lyrical prose and sentences that take your breath away; Adriana Mather, the queen of tight, seamless plot and pacing; and Mercy Brown, the queen of voice. I love Natalie Lloyd’s magical Southern middle grade novels, filled with so much beauty and goodness. And my friend Nic Stone has a book coming out in 2017 called Dear Martin, that will shatter hearts and inspire a lot of discussion. I could go on forever about the writers and books who inspire me.
JF: Do you see yourself in any of your main characters? If so, why?
JZ: There’s a healthy dose of me in all three main characters, and yet none of them are me exactly. Dill’s love for the quiet things of the world is me; Lydia’s sense of humor is me; and Travis’s love of imagination is me.
JF: What elements of The Serpent King are true to your life?
JZ: I grew up in a fairly small town with one high school and a river running through it. I didn’t have many friends. I grew up in a strict faith that made me struggle and find my own relationship with God and faith. I had great parents, though. The great parents in The Serpent King are true to my life.
JF: How long did it take for you to write your debut?
JZ: After spending a couple of months really thinking about it intensively and working things out in my head, the drafting went really quickly. It took about 25 days. I wrote most of it on my iPhone on the bus to and from work and over lunch breaks. But I still put in a good amount of work at night when I’d get home. That was the draft that got me my agent. We did some revisions and then it sold.
JF: Do you see yourself writing outside of young adult fiction?
JZ: Five years ago I never saw myself writing any sort of fiction, much less young adult fiction. So sure, why not? I will say, though, that for the foreseeable future, I find writing for and about young adults to be intensely interesting and fulfilling and I could happily do this for the rest of my life.
JF: Are you currently working on another book? If so, what details can you reveal about it?
JZ: My second book, due out in Spring 2017, is currently in copyedits. It’s about a young man struggling with grief and guilt in the wake of the deaths of his three best friends—deaths he may have caused. During his grieving process, he spends a final “goodbye day” with the families of each of his friends. It’s not a sequel to The Serpent King, but you’ll see that it takes place in the same fictional universe as The Serpent King.
JF: What advice do you have for teens or anyone who wants to write fiction?
JZ: Read as much of the very best fiction as you can get your hands on and really think about what makes it different and special. Then, start writing yourself. Make a promise to yourself that you won’t give up even though you’ll have inevitable rejections and heartbreak. Promise yourself that nothing will break you.
To learn more about Jeff Zentner and The Serpent King, visit his website. Image of Jeff Zentner via Jamie Hernandez.
Joshua Flores (pictured above), a junior from Tustin, California is currently an editor for the Beckman Chronicle and enjoys both reading and writing. He spends most of his free time writing, and coming up with weird characters for the novel he is working on. You can follow him on Instagram at @booklover41899.
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