Jeff Zentner Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Jeff Zentner

Jeff Zentner

An interview with Jeff Zentner

Jeff Zentner discusses his debut novel, The Serpent King.

Besides living in the South, what is it that draws you to writing in this setting?
The South makes a good setting for writing about kids who have to overcome the weight of their history and circumstances. As a place, the South is working to overcome its history. So to set such a story in that kind of environment gives you a setting whose struggles parallel those of the characters. Plus, the South has a ton of atmosphere that's fodder for descriptive writing.

The South, and Nashville and Forrestville specifically, is a character unto itself. It greatly influences the motivations behind the three main characters in the book. Can you explain what you aimed to capture about rural Southern living in your novel and why?
The rural South has this hazy, sad, rusty beauty that feels nostalgic even when you're experiencing it. I tried to capture that feeling in The Serpent King because it's not something you see in a great many YA books.

While Lydia, Travis, and Dill have all grown up in the same town, they come from very different circumstances and have disparate interests. What inspired each of the three characters, and what research did you do to help flesh them out and make them come to life?
Dill was inspired by the musicians from rural parts of Tennessee I encountered in the Murfreesboro music scene. I always tried to imagine what their high school experience was like. I did a lot of research on snake-handling churches to write his background.

Travis was inspired by several guys I've seen around Tennessee and North Carolina. Big, beefy, blue-collar-looking guys wearing weird dragon necklaces and cloaks and such. I wanted to tell one of their stories.

Lydia was directly inspired by Rookie magazine founder Tavi Gevinson. To research her, I spent time reading Tavi's blog and other fashion blogs, as well as following them on Twitter and listening to how they talked.

Was there a particular character whose voice you found it easiest to write in?
I found it very easy to write in Lydia's voice because her sense of humor is essentially mine. And I found it easy to write in Dill's voice because his sense of beauty and divinity is essentially mine.

In a book with prominent abuse and bullying motifs, each character approaches and deals with stress differently. Dill's music is therapeutic for him in a way that even his counselor is not. What drew you to write about abuse and the ways for teenagers to overcome it?
I think dealing with some form of abuse—at the hands or mouths of parents or peers—is a sadly common experience for young people. I certainly dealt with bullying growing up. I wanted to tell a story about teens dealing with some of the worst life has to offer. I hope teens who read The Serpent King will feel a little less alone as a result.

There are poignant one-liners throughout The Serpent King. Do you have a favorite line from the book, and can you explain what that line means to you?
"And if you're going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things." (p. 327)

The Serpent King only exists because I finally learned the truth of that line.

You've been a musician and an attorney, and now you make your debut as an author with The Serpent King. What brought you to writing fiction, specifically fiction for young adults?
It was my volunteer work with young adults at Tennessee Teens Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp that made me want to create art for young adults. But I was already too old to professionally make the sort of music they tend to enjoy, so I had to do what I could: write books.

Can you give readers a sneak peek at what's coming next from you?
I have a new book coming out in spring 2017. It is about a young man coping with grief and guilt in the aftermath of the deaths of his three best friends—deaths he might have caused. It's not a sequel to The Serpent King, but it does take place in the same fictional universe, as you'll see from a cameo appearance by one of the characters from The Serpent King.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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