Author Interview: Jeff Zentner on The Serpent King

Jeff Zentner author photoJeff Zentner’s debut novel The Serpent King made a splash earlier this year. His meditative novel about three friends contemplating the end of high school and what comes next is a quiet and empowering read. As soon as I finished it, I knew Jeff would be the perfect author to ask on the blog for an interview. Happily, he’s here today answering some of my questions.

Miss Print (MP): Can you tell me a bit about your path as a writer? How did you get to this point?

Jeff Zentner (JZ): I started my creative life as a musician, but I switched to writing after I was inspired by my work with Tennessee Teen Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp to create art for young people. At that point, I was too old to make the sort of music marketed to young adults (and plus I had no idea how), but I wasn’t too old to write the sort of books marketed to young adults.

MP: What was the inspiration for The Serpent King?

JZ: I was actually inspired by two songs that I had written in the past, that I thought had more of a story behind them than I told in the song. I thought about writing a novel about either of them, but in the end I combined them into the same one.

MP: The Serpent King alternates narration between Dill, Lydia, and Travis. Did you always plan on this structure for the novel? Who was your favorite character to write? Who was the hardest?

JZ: I did always plan this structure because I could have written a whole novel about each of those characters, but my impatience led me to cram them all into the same book. So that I wouldn’t give anyone short shrift, though, I gave them each a point of view. Lydia was my favorite to write and the hardest because her experience was so far outside my own and because she’s smarter than me. It’s hard to write a character who’s smarter than you.

MP: Were any locations in The Serpent King inspired by real locations you have visited?

JZ: The town of Forrestville is inspired by Sparta, Tennessee. The column where they spend Friday nights was inspired by a column I used to go to where I grew up.

MP: In addition to being a novelist, you are also a musician–a trait you share with Dill. Did you always know that music would play such a large role in this novel? How did your experience as a musician and songwriter translate to your writing a prose novel?

JZ: I had a feeling that as I transitioned from music to writing, I would need a novel or two where music played a heavy role, to sort of ease me away from music into writing. My experience as a musician and songwriter led me to really consider atmosphere, imagery, and the way words rang on the page like notes.

MP: Since Lydia spends so much of the novel styling Dill, I have to ask: Favorite piece of clothing or fashion accessory?

JZ: Lately I’ve taken to wearing bandanas like ascots, inspired by some of the looks on the show Narcos. I have some really beautiful old bandanas that I’ve had since high school and they’re so perfectly soft. I’m sure I look ridiculous but I don’t care because I’m doing my own thing and I’m doing something different from the crowd.

MP: In The Serpent King, Travis convinces Lydia and Dill that they should write something down in a public place as a kind of legacy. What would you write?

JZ: I would write a line from The Serpent King: If you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.

MP: Can you tell me anything about your next project?

JZ: My second book, Goodbye Days, comes out in March 2017. It’s about a young man struggling with grief and guilt in the wake of the deaths of his three best friends–deaths he may have caused by texting them while they were driving. As part of his grieving process, he embarks on a series of “goodbye days” where he spends one last day with his friends’ families, to say goodbye.

Thanks again to Jeff for taking the time to answer my questions.

You can see more about Jeff and his books on his website.

You can also check out my review of The Serpent King.