2017 debut author Dave Connis recently interviewed Jeff Zentner, debut author of the contemporary YA novel THE SERPENT KING (March 8th, 2016 from Crown Books for Young Readers)
About the Book
Dill has had to wrestle with vipers his whole life—at home, as the only son of a
Pentecostal minister who urges him to handle poisonous rattlesnakes, and at school, where he faces down bullies who target him for his father’s extreme faith and very public fall from grace.
He and his fellow outcast friends must try to make it through their senior year of high school without letting the small-town culture destroy their creative spirits and sense of self. Graduation will lead to new beginnings for Lydia, whose edgy fashion blog is her ticket out of their rural Tennessee town. And Travis is content where he is thanks to his obsession with an epic book series and the fangirl turning his reality into real-life fantasy.
Their diverging paths could mean the end of their friendship. But not before Dill confronts his dark legacy to attempt to find a way into the light of a future worth living.
About the Author
Jeff Zentner 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.
Now he writes novels for young adults. He became interested in writing for young adults after volunteering at the Tennessee Teen Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp. As a kid, his parents would take him to the library and drop him off, where he would read until closing time. He worked at various bookstores through high school and college.
Dave: Alright, I’m going to lay it on you. So, the setting for TSK, the rural south, isn’t something that’s been explored a lot. Did you have this itch to scratch knowing that that sort of context hadn’t been explored or was there a deeper connection to a specific story?
Jeff: When I started writing YA, I hadn’t read a ton of it. So I didn’t actually really know if the rural south had been explored that much. It wasn’t like I saw a gap there and said, “oh, I should fill that.” It’s just the place I like to write about. It’s the place I’ve been drawn to all my life and feel deeply about. I knew if TSK was going to be the first book I’d try to get published, then I needed to write it in a setting I had a deep connection too. I knew that if I had that sort of emotion going into it, I could do such a better job at writing a good story.
Dave: So the concepts, a pentecostal snake handler, a machismo obsessed father, the tumultuous relationship between Dill and finishing high school, did you just observe these things happening around you growing up or did you research some of it?
Jeff: Yeah, a lot of it is observation while growing up in a religious community. I was raised in a place where there’s this idea of machismo, these deeply embedded notions of what a man should be, act like, and be interested in. As far as the practices of Dill’s dad’s church, I did a lot of research on Appalachian snake handling churches. A lot of reading, talked with a friend who’d attended these churches. I just wanted to make sure I was getting the details of the practice right.
Dave: We see Dill go through this horrible warped version of what his parents, and his dad’s congregants, think God is. The town just rakes the basic principles of grace and forgiveness through the legalistic conservative extremist mud. Dill has to face all of that, even gets the brunt of it, and still chooses to believe in God and hold to his faith. Why did you choose that particular story arc when a lot of other people would’ve just ended with the agnostic/atheistic idea that maybe God is just an asshole, or doesn’t exist, or is not for me?
Jeff: Well, first let me say that I’m super thankful that you and many other people, many here being a relative term because not that MANY have read TSK, picked up on that. I really wanted to show a respect for faith, while also showing the struggle that people have with it. Dill’s struggle with faith is my struggle with faith. That’s one of the most autobiographical things about the book…I’ve had to come to my own understanding of God because other people’s understanding of him can’t be the foundation for my faith…I can have the agency to say, “No, I don’t have to take your word about who God is. I don’t think that’s how it has to be”…I think it’s a really pat and simplistic answer for for people struggling with faith to say, “Just leave it. Just leave the faith.” I think doing that fundamentally misunderstands how faith works, how it becomes a part of you, how it becomes something you rely upon when you don’t who you are, and I wanted to address all of that, and I think it would’ve been dishonest to offer an easy explaination. For Dill to just walk away from God after his life experiences.
Dave: How did you decide that you wanted to tell these three people’s specific stories (Dill, Travis, and Lydia) when each one depicts such a different story in relation to each other?
Jeff: *Laughs* That’s a good question with an easy answer. I took all of the sorts of people I was really obsessed with at that time, pushed them all together, and prayed that it worked out. That they’d work as friends. I wanted to write a book about a kid who struggles with faith and who’s a musician, that’s Dill. I wanted to write about someone from rural Tennessee who becomes internet famous, but it doesn’t affect her standing in her town in any way, in fact it might affect her negatively, so there’s Lydia. And then I wanted to write about someone who escapes through books, so there’s Travis. And I didn’t want to take the time to write about each one of those because my goodness I wanted to get something published before I was dead. So I just wrote them all into the same story and was like, “Okay, hope everyone gets along.” And you know, as I think about it, that’s kind of how it happens in a small town. You’ll have three people who really aren’t all that similar, and maybe in a bigger place they might not be friends, but they all are sort of outcasts that come together and it’s beautiful in it’s own bizarre way.
Dave: Alright, ready for lightning round?
Jeff: Yes. Lets do it.
Dave: If TSK becomes a movie, who plays Lydia, Dill, and Travis?
Jeff: Oh dude, this is the hardest question because I don’t know child actors. So, I’m always like, “I don’t know, Johnny Depp.” So, let’s just go…Ezra Miller from Perks of Being A Wallflower for Dill. Mae Whitman would make a good Lydia. Travis? I don’t even know. He’d have to be a newcomer. It’d have to be the first time you’ve ever saw him in anything.
Dave: Would you dedicate your book to Donald Trump if someone paid you 1 million dollars?
Jeff: No. Not worth it.
Dave: What’s the song that best catches the feel of TSK?
Jeff: Now, I didn’t say I wouldn’t dedicate TSK for 10 mil. Just kidding. Sorry, what was the question? Oh…I’d say the song Tether by Chvrches
Dave: Are there any songs out there that you’ve written based on TSK/have you put music to any of the songs Dill wrote?
Jeff: No, but I wrote TSK based on two of my songs. I wrote a song called Rusty Town back in the day, which is Dill’s story. Then I wrote a song called The Serpent King, which is Dill’s Grandpa’s story. I took those two songs and said, “Maybe there’s a story here,” expanded them out, and they became the book.
Dave: Why are you stuck in Durham?
Jeff: *Laughs* I got snowed in. I couldn’t leave.
Dave: Did you cry while writing any of TSK?
Jeff: Oh yeah. Absolutely. All the time. Any part of TSK made you cry or want to cry, I’ve cried already. There were parts of TSK where I had to get off the bus, compose myself, and then get on another bus.
Dave: Did you make your wife cry when she read TSK?
Dave: Were you happy about it?
Jeff: Yes. So happy.
Dave: Favorite place to write?
Jeff: The bus to and from work. Well, it might not be my favorite place to write, but it feels the most like home.
Dave: In the far future, someone pulls a time capsule out of the ground and your book is inside. Who finds it, and what do they say?
Jeff: An anthropologist, and they say “wow, these people had written language. That’s amazing.”
Dave: So, you’re obviously a really good writer, what happens in 20 years when you’re a YA mainstay and you run out of room to tattoo your book titles on your arms?
Jeff: *Laughs* Man, that’s a good question. Wow. I haven’t thought that far ahead, to be honest. I’ll tell you what. I’m going to get a pet pig, name him Little Jeff, and he’s going to have the tattoos.
FOR THE EXTENDED VERSION OF THIS INTERVIEW, CLICK HERE
About the Interviewer
Dave Connis writes words you can sing and words you can read. He lives in Chattanooga, TN with my wife, Clara and a dog that barks at non-existent threats. He’s one of twenty male librarians under thirty (probably).
When he’s not writing YA or MG, he’s probably working really strange part-time jobs, and doing other things that actually give my family the ability to eat food. He’s probably struggling with social media comparison, right now. He’s a member of the SCBWI, the Jedi Counsel, and has the propensity to daydream when ever he attempts to be an adult. His debut YA novel, THE TEMPTATION OF ADAM, comes out from Sky Pony in 2017.