I love discovering debut novelists and today’s guest, Jeff Zentner, is joining me today to talk about his first book, The Serpent King. I wanted to post this interview right away because it is on sale this month for just $1.99. Make the purchase. I promise you, it will be one of your favorite reads this year! It’s a gripping YA read that had me laughing and crying (sometimes simultaneously) and I was so sad when this book ended. It’s as epic as, The Fault in Our Stars.
It’s that good.
The Serpent King is about three unlikely friends growing up in the rural South that are all fighting demons of their own. Dill’s father is a Pentecostal preacher, known for his snake charming church, that becomes part of a town scandal that has left his family open to scrutiny and struggling financially. Travis is obsessed with a book series called Bloodfall that helps him escape into another reality away from his abusive father. And Lydia is a blogger ready to start a new life in New York while struggling to leave behind what is familiar and those she loves. These three unlikely people bond together and end up facing a struggle none of them could have ever predicted. This friendship is beautifully woven with humor and heart.
I could not put this book down and read it in a single day. I had to know what would happy with these three and I couldn’t wait to chat with Jeff about his incredible writing.
Grab your coffee and let’s chat today with Jeff Zentner about the story behind his story!
I know that many of us feel like we have a book in us, but we also feel like we don’t have the time. I understand that you managed to write your book on your commute on your phone. Can you tell us a little about that process and how big that screen was on that phone because I’m trying to picture this? I’m so impressed!
It was a process born of simple necessity! I had almost two hours of bus commute each day, round trip, a day job, and a family. I had to squeeze the writing in whenever I could. So I’d try to write 500 words on my iPhone 5S on the way into the office, 500 words at lunch, and 500 words on the way home. Yes, my right thumb would get very tired. After I’d put my son to bed at night, I would try to write another thousand words or two (on my laptop) if I could.
Before writing, my primary creative outlet was music, and what makes writing wonderful is that I can whip out my phone at all sorts of random times and get a little work done on something. I couldn’t do that with music, because even in Nashville, bringing your guitar on the bus and trying to work out a new song is frowned upon.
I grew up in a very conservative religious home, not exactly like Dill’s, but I could relate to that need to not disappoint God or your parents. Even though Dill has so much thrown at him, he seems pretty steadfast in his faith through it all. Did you want your readers to take away that message and why do you think it was important for Dill not to turn away from God?
I also grew up in a conservative religious home, although my parents were much more supportive and loving than Dill’s. Still, I was able to glean insights about what growing up with less supportive and loving religious parents would look like. Through my life, I’ve had my struggles with faith and I’ve had to come to my own view of God because I don’t always believe everything I’m told about him. Faith is a thing not easily abandoned, and I think it would have been dishonest of me to depict it as something one can simply walk away from. It felt more honest to me to have Dill wrestle with it until he could come to know a God who was more concerned with his joy than putting him to constant tests that could harm him.
Lydia was my favorite character because I could relate to her humor and to her job as a blogger. I understand she was loosely on Tavi Gevinson and her fashion blog Style Rookie. I know, as a blogger, I am concerned a lot about my brand and I related to Lydia’s struggle with not sharing photos of her friends to stay consistent to her brand’s message. Do you think it was wrong of her to do that and how did you come up with this all-too-true blogger struggle?
I actually don’t believe that it was wrong of her to do that. It’s her blog and her persona and her brand and I think she’s entitled to craft those things as she sees fit. But even though I think she wasn’t wrong to exclude Travis and Dill, I think she was right to include them once she felt brave enough to do so. I think at that point she was correct that no one would think less of her for associating closely with the fashion-challenged.
But ultimately what I think about the rightness or wrongness of Lydia’s actions is in no way authoritative. I lost all power to dictate how people felt about her behavior once I published the book with her in all of her flaws. So if anyone else thinks she was wrong to exclude Dill and Travis, who am I to say otherwise?
I came up with this struggle sort of by intuition. I’d read Tavi’s blog and it looked like she associated exclusively with people with equally amazing style. I thought it unlikely that she only knew and loved people with exceptional fashion sense. So I figured there was some image control going on there. Also, I’ve maintained Internet presences for years for various musical projects, so I knew that part of crafting an image and persona was selectivity in what you reveal about yourself.
Dill grows up in a Pentecostal church that believes in snakehandling. What type of research did you do to create your church scenes?
I’ve long been fascinated with the practice of snakehandling, so I’ve done a fair amount of reading on it. The definitive work is a beautiful book called Salvation on Sand Mountain, which I highly recommend. I also interviewed friends who have attended worship services at snakehandling churches.
The nice thing, though, is that there’s no central authority for snakehandling sects. There’s no pope of snakehandling. So I invented the church in the book and therefore no one can say I got it wrong!
One line in your book is, “And if you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.” I really loved it because it is so true. I would imagine that it took a lot of bravery to put your book out into the world. Do you feel like this is one of the bravest things you’ve done? Have you always dreamed of writing or was this something you discovered you enjoyed later in life?
I do think it’s one of the bravest things I’ve personally done, but that doesn’t mean it’s one of the bravest things that can be done. I think it takes more courage to do what Dill does in the book, which is to survive bleak circumstances, including bullying. unloving parents and poverty, and not allow them to define him.
I haven’t always dreamed of writing because for most of my life, it wasn’t something that I allowed myself to dream. It just seemed too impossible; too daunting. I thought books were things that floated down from ivory towers, clutched in baskets held by doves. It’s only been in the last few years, and becoming personally acquainted with several published authors, that it’s come to feel like something I was capable of doing. It helped too that I had a day job that required rigorous, intensive writing on a daily basis. That was the final element that gave me the courage to try my hand.
You signed a two book deal with Crown/Random House & Tundra/Random House Canada which is awesome and (for me as a writer) a little terrifying too. Did you have to immediately get to work on the second book after this book was published? Has your writing process changed with this book or are you still writing on a bus?
It was terrifying for me too! I had no idea what my second book would be, and yet I needed to deliver my editors something she loved as much as The Serpent King, a story I’d thought about for years. I ran several ideas past them until finally, on idea ten or eleven, something clicked. So I got to work on book two and now it’s finished and on track for a spring 2017 release. It’s not a companion or a sequel to The Serpent King, but it does feature a cameo from one of The Serpent King’s gang.
My process for this book was a little different. While I was writing The Serpent King, I did nothing but write it. No outside reading, no TV, no movies, nothing. And I decided I wasn’t going to try to write again so devoid of my creative inputs of information. So with book two, I made sure to leave plenty of time to consume the books and shows that I loved while I was writing. I did write almost all of it on the bus. I wrote even more of it on the bus than The Serpent King, in fact, because I reserved my evenings for reading and shows.
I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, but I felt like it left it wide open for a sequel. Do you see this story continuing or do you feel like you have closed the chapters on these friends?
I can’t envision writing a sequel. I’m happy with where things end and I think I gave my readers enough for them to write their own lovely sequels in their heads. I even used to have an epilogue that I cut because I was unsatisfied with how neatly it tied everything up with a bow. I didn’t leave enough room for imagination.
I’ve had the unique opportunity to interview a few musicians turned novelists over the years and I understand you are a musician (as well as an attorney & youth camp volunteer!) as well. Are you still writing music too? Do you find these processes to be similar?
Sadly, I find that the music-writing muse has left me. But hopefully only for a time. I’m starting to make friends with my guitar again. I went a long time without even playing it. I’m just trying to renegotiate my relationship with music now. It feels like we broke up and we’re just learning how to be friends again.
There is, truly, the best prom date ever written in your book. Please tell me your high school prom was that cool?
I wish I could tell you that! I barely even remember prom. I remember we got rained on and my date’s hair was still wet for our pictures. That was pretty funny. And pathetic. So I guess we had kind of a pathetic prom.
I’m going to cheat and do two.
On the adult side, my all-time favorite book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy. It’s so brutal and unsparing yet beautiful and filled with ferocious love. I feel like I can survive anything with that story in my mind.
On the young adult side, my favorite book is The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter. It’s so incredibly lyrical and gorgeous and filled with wisdom. It inspires me asa writer to work harder.
You can connect with Jeff Zentner on his website or through Facebook! I’m always thankful for these moments with writers and I hope you will pick up this amazing book! You can always connect with me on GoodReads, through our books section of our site, and you can read our entire Sundays With Writers series for more author profiles. Happy reading, friends!
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