2017 Morris Award Finalists: An Interview with Jeff Zentner

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.

The expectations of parents and how children are burdened by trying to live up to those expectations or obey their parents is a huge part of this book. His mother, especially, is putting Dill, in an impossible position. How were you able to write such an uncompromising and unflinching portrayal of her?

I’m very familiar with the thinking of religious fundamentalists who may have little to hope for or little to rejoice in in this earthly life, so they orient their life and thinking toward the next life and the hope that lies there. And when that’s your only hope, you develop a certain rigidity of thought and behavior designed to keep you on the path to that hope. I believe, sadly, that there are many parents who love God more than they love their own children, so I wrote Dill’s mother as someone who put her son second in her life after God. From there, it was simple to intuit her choices.

Dill, Lydia and Travis feel like they’re outcasts. Did you feel like you were too as a teen?

Absolutely. I felt very isolated and alone. I was a weird, angsty kid.

There’s a beautiful sense of place in this book. Like most teens, Lydia just wants to escape her small town for the big city but her father says some really thoughtful things about why their small southern town isn’t so bad. Did you grow up on a similar type of community?

I did. The town I grew up in was substantially larger than Forrestville, but definitely not a big city. I grew thinking that driving an hour to the nearest city with a mall was the height of cosmopolitanism. That’s a hard place for a kid, but as I get older, I find myself viewing that place with a certain nostalgia and wistfulness, so I understand both Lydia and her father.

Music is also a huge part of the plot. I know you’re a musician too. How did that influence your decision to write a YA book? Did you listen to music to inspire you to write? If so what? If you had to associate a song with each of the main characters, what would they be?

It was my music career that led me to volunteer at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp, which is where I really fell in love with young people and wanted to create art for them. The problem being, of course, that I was about 15 years too old to make the kind of music marketed to young adults. Plus, I had no idea how to make it. So I knew that I needed to switch horses. Publishing is much more forgiving age wise, as in you don’t have to have made it big before you’re 30, like in music. I’d always loved reading; I’d worked at bookstores; so I thought maybe I’d try my hand at writing books for young adults. And here we are.

I knew I would love this book right from the beginning when you mention that there’s a copy of The Secret History by Donna Tartt in Lydia’s car, What authors and/or books have influenced you? (Besides the obvious references to George R. R. Martin, that is!).

I love southern lit: Jesmyn Ward, Cormac McCarthy, and Charles Frazier are my favorites. I love deeply lyrical writing like Leslie Marmon Silko, Michael Ondaatje, Donna Tartt, Joan Didion, Anthony Doerr, Emily St. John Mandel, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Patti Smith. I loved funny writers like David Sedaris and David Rakoff.  I have always deeply loved Stephen King, and The Body and It were big influences on how I wrote the friendship in The Serpent King. I had not read tons of YA before I wrote it, but I had read and loved John Green, David Levithan, Sherman Alexie, John Corey Whaley, Benjamin Alire Saenz, Rainbow Rowell, and Jenny Downham.

What’s one surprising thing that you want readers to know about you?

I’m related to Wilford Brimley by marriage.

Jeff, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions and for writing such a beautiful book.

-Interviewed by Sharon Rawlins, currently reading the galley of Empress of a Thousands Skies by Rhoda Belleza