Jeff Zentner is a finalist for the 2017 William C. Morris Award YA Debut Award, which will be presented at the ALA Midwinter Youth Media Awards on Monday, January 23, 2017.
The Serpent King is about three teenaged outcasts in the small town of Forrestville, Tennessee, who are seniors in high school trying to overcome their family’s histories and expectations to make their own choices for how they want to live their lives.
Congratulations on being a Morris Award finalist. What was your reaction when you got the news?
Great surprise! I actually found out on twitter from a librarian who’s totally unconnected with my publishing network (editor, agent, etc.) from whom I normally learn information like this. And my first reaction was “oh man, I hope this guy isn’t pulling my chain.
The difficult relationships between fathers and sons and the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons is a major part of the book. Did you have a difficult relationship with your father? How autobiographical is your book?
I had and have a great relationship with my dad, so those parts of the story aren’t autobiographical. I did grow up in a strict religious faith that often left me feeling alienated and isolated from my peers at school, like Dill. But, like Dill, I managed to make a few very great friends who were my lifeline.
I was heartbroken over the fate of one of the characters and actually burst into tears while reading your book on a train. You didn’t pull any punches here and it’s an honest and sometimes unflinching look at these three characters’ lives. Were you worried that readers would be angry about what happens to one of the characters?
I honestly didn’t think beforehand that I was capable of writing a character that people would feel deeply enough to be angry with me about. I discovered that I was from my first reader, my buddy Jarrod. I gave him my manuscript to read and sort of forgot that he was reading it until one day I got a text from him that simply said: “You [expletive] [expletive].” I was like “??????” and he texted back “[Character name].” It makes me very happy that readers are forging a connection with these characters, even if I have to endure occasional wrath.
Religion, especially Pentecostalism isn’t a religion that I’m very familiar with – especially the unusual practice of snake handling. It’s certainly not something that’s explored in YA fiction very often. What made you include this? Do you have personal experience with unusual worship practices?
I wanted to explore the effects of struggling inside with a strange faith that outsiders don’t understand—a faith that isolates you socially to begin with and even more when decide you have to find your own. I also wanted to include a religious tradition specific to the American South, which is the place I write about. Finally, I loved how the practices of snake handling and drinking poisonous things functioned on a metaphorical and symbolic level in my main character’s story arc. I do have personal experience with unusual worship practices, so I was on comfortable ground.