Author Interview: Jeff Zentner on In the Wild Light

Jeff Zentner author photoJeff Zentner’s latest novel In the Wild Light is a quiet, meditative story about nature, poetry, love, and all of the things that can save us. I don’t have much in common with Cash, so it was a surprise when I identified so deeply with his story, his grief, and his dread of the next calamity. It’s hard to pick favorites in the “Zentner-verse” but I really love the journey Cash and Delaney take over the course of this novel, and I know I’m not the only one. Which is why I’m delighted to have Jeff back today to talk a bit more about In the Wild Light.

Miss Print: What was the inspiration for In the Wild Light? Did you always know this book would connect so closely to your previous novel Goodbye Days?

Jeff Zentner: Every time I go to write a book, I think about all the things I love and then I try to somehow write a story that weaves them all together. When I went to write In the Wild Light, I was in love with rivers, poetry, stories about boarding schools (“Dead Poets’ Society” and Looking for Alaska) and stories about geniuses and their best friends (“Good Will Hunting“). In the Wild Light contains all of that DNA. Did I know it would connect so closely to Goodbye Days? No. That’s part of the magic–finding out how my stories connect after I’ve already started them.

Miss Print: This book marks a big change in setting for you as Cash and Delaney travel to New England and far away from everything they know in East Tennessee. How did you go about bringing Middleford Academy to life? Did any real locations inspire the settings in the book?

Jeff Zentner: I did a lot of study of elite private schools like Phillips-Exeter Academy and the like. One of my author friends has a son who attended one of these elite schools on scholarship from Tennessee. He was a great resource to me. Ultimately, I decided I would have more control and creative liberty if I invented a school that’s a composite of several schools than if I used a real school.

Miss Print: One of my favorite things about In the Wild Light is Cash’s journey to not just finding solace in poetry as he adjusts to his new surroundings but also how he finds inspiration to write poetry of his own. Did your own relationship with poetry help inform how you wrote Cash’s own feelings about it?

Jeff Zentner: Absolutely. Poetry has always been the final frontier of writing for me. The thing that scared me the most. I’ve written many song lyrics and then I’ve written several novels. But I’d never really written or publicly shared poetry. I’m wired to confront my fears and this was how I decided to confront my fears. It’s not a perfect way–I definitely hid behind Cash and borrowed his voice. But baby steps.

Miss Print: Working off the last question, what poems or poets would you recommend to readers interested in reading it for the first time? What poems would you recommend to Cash and Delaney?

Jeff Zentner: My favorite poet is a relatively unknown one: Joe Bolton. He has one book available, The Last Nostalgia, and I highly recommend it. Other favorite poets include Ocean Vuong, Marie Howe, Ada Limon, Jim Harrison, Jack Gilbert, T Crunk, Joanna Klink, and Kim Addonizio. I recommend the poems “The Name of Desire” by Joe Bolton, “Dead Stars” by Ada Limon, and “The Cinnamon Peeler” by Michael Ondaatje to Cash and Delaney.

Miss Print: Has living and working through the pandemic changed your writing process? How do you think Cash and Delaney would have managed the pandemic?

Jeff Zentner: I used to write on my phone on my bus commute to and from work. I wrote most of my four books that way. Now, though, I work remotely and I don’t have a bus commute, which means I have to find other times to write. But I do find the time somehow. I recently sold one manuscript and I’m getting ready to submit another to editors. So it’s working. I think Delaney would have spent the pandemic looking for a cure for COVID. Cash would have spent it writing poems. They would have done a lot of facetiming together.

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

Jeff Zentner: The manuscript I sold is a verse novel that I cowrote with an incredible YA author and poet friend. The one I’m submitting soon is an adult novel. I’m excited for y’all to read both!

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 In the Wild Light.

In the Wild Light: A Review

“Because for every way the world tries to kill us, it gives us a way to survive. You just gotta find it.”

“Every hurt, every sorrow, every scar has brought you here. Poetry lets us turn pain into fire by which to warm ourselves. Go build a fire.”

In the Wild Light by Jeff ZentnerNothing in Cash’s life has been easy in Sawyer–his small Appalchian town. His mother died because of her opioid addiction when Cash was a child. Now, as a teen, Cash is watching his Papaw deteriorate from emphysema while he and his Mamaw are powerless to help. Cash knows he’s lucky to have his grandparents at all, to be on the river he loves, to have his summer work mowing lawns, to have these small pieces of safety and stability.

Sometimes it feels like the one bright spot is his best friend, Delaney. But Cash has always known Delaney will eventually leave–that’s what happens when your best friend is a genius. When Delaney discovers a life-changing bacteria-eating mold in a cave, Cash knows she’s headed for better things. Without him. And even sooner than he expected when she receives a full scholarship to Middleford Academy, an elite boarding school in Connecticut.

Except Delaney has plans of her own. None of which include leaving Cash behind. When Delaney tells Cash a scholarship is his for the taking he will have to choose between an unimaginable opportunity with the best friend he’s ever had and his love for his grandparents and the only place he’s ever called home.

As Cash grapples with everything he has to let go, he’ll remember everything worth holding onto and learn new ways to dream bigger in In the Wild Light (2021) by Jeff Zentner.

Find it on Bookshop.

Zentner’s latest novel can be read as a standalone but is set in the same world as all of his other novels. The story here is most closely connected to Goodbye Days with direct references to those characters. Cash and Delaney are white, secondary characters include Cash’s new friend Alex who is Korean-American (and also on scholarship) and Delaney’s Brazilian roommate Vi who is wealthy leading to thoughtful commentary on income diversity throughout the novel. Cash’s poetry-teacher-turned-mentor is queer and she and her wife also play key roles in the plot.

Cash’s first person narration is eloquently introspective as he describes the river and nature he dearly loves but less self-aware when it comes to identifying his own wants and, as his world expands at Middleford Academy, understanding what he needs to continue growing.

Cash is keenly aware of his past traumas and how they have shaped him and his loved ones in a small town where poverty is high and many have fallen victim to the opioid epidemic as he describes them, “Here we are, survivors of quiet wars.” At the same time, Cash and especially his Papaw and Mamaw are free with their affection, their praise, and their unconditional love. In a world where toxic masculinity is still so dangerous it is refreshing and powerful to see a teenaged boy given space to cry and grieve and feel while also seeing the same things in his grandfather.

While Delaney is eager to start fresh, Cash is hesitant to embrace this new chapter and let himself imagine a world beyond his quiet life with his grandparents. Even as he makes new friends, joins crew, and discovers an unexpected passion for poetry, he’s still waiting for the ground to fall out from under him the way it always does–a fear that will resonate with readers who have struggled with unpredictability and chaos in their own lives. On first glance, I don’t have much in common with Cash, so it was a surprise when I identified so deeply with his story, his grief, and his dread of the next calamity. When Cash says “I have nothing in my life that isn’t falling apart,” I felt it in my bones.

In the Wild Light is a quiet, meditative story about nature, poetry, love, and all of the things that can save us. In the Wild Light is a resonant story about healing; the perfect book to see you through a rough season.

Possible Pairings: The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, Vinyl Moon by Mahogany L. Browne, Lawless Spaces by Corey Ann Haydu, The Porcupine of Truth by Bill Konigsberg, An Emotion of Great Delight by Tahereh Mafi, The Deceivers by Kristen Simmons

Author Interview: Jeff Zentner on Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee

Jeff Zentner author photoJeff Zentner’s new novel Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee is  a story about big dreams, big chances, and the mediocre results we sometimes end up with as a result. It is also a laugh-out-loud funny ode to friendship, creativity, and horror movies. This book totally snuck up on me and is fast becoming one of my favorite novels of the year. I’m very excited to have Jeff back today answering some of my questions.

Miss Print (MP): What was the inspiration for Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee?

Jeff Zentner: One night, three years ago, I came home on a Saturday night and turned on the TV and started channel surfing. I never do this because I have a Netflix queue a mile long. I came to the Nashville public access station and it was playing a low budget horror movie. This was very strange. I kept watching, fascinated. The movie then cut to these two young women dressed in horror garb, named Marlena Midnite and Robyn Graves. They were the hosts of a syndicated public access show out of Davenport, Iowa called Midnite Mausoleum. I was fascinated. It was so goofy and fun and sweet. It got me thinking about who hosts these kinds of shows. I immediately started thinking up an idea about two young women who host their own public access creature feature.

MP: This novel alternates between Josie and Delia’s narrations. Who was your favorite character to write? Who was the hardest?

JZ: I loved them equally. I loved writing Josie’s sense of humor, because it’s closest to my own. And I loved writing Delia’s sense of poetry about the world, because it’s closest to my own. I loved writing the relationship between Delia and her mother and the relationship between Josie and Lawson.

MP: Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee is your third novel. It’s one of the funniest books I’ve read and a bit of a departure from your previous novels which were much heavier stories. Did this shift in tone require a shift in your writing process? How did you go about channeling the quirkiness and humor to tell this story?

JZ: It did require a shift. I love very lyrical, poetic writing. But that sort of writing often comes at the cost of humor, so there wasn’t as much room for this kind of writing as in past books. As for channeling the humor, I love to joke around. It was just a matter of storing up humorous observations and insights and putting them in Josie and Delia’s mouths.

MP: How do you fit writing into your daily routine between working full time and other obligations? What does a typical writing day (or writing session) look like for you? Where are your favorite places to write?

JZ: I have a pretty intense and demanding day job, so I really have to fit writing into the cracks. I do 80 percent or so of my drafting on my iPhone with my right thumb on the bus to and from work. It’s not my favorite place to write, but it’s where I do most of my writing. My favorite place to write is my writing studio at home. I have a room devoted to it that’s full of favorite books, letters I’ve gotten from fans, scented candles, cool vintage bookshelves and typewriters, and my vintage pulp paperback collection. It smells like heaven. It’s so cozy and wonderful. I’ve never before lived in a house with a room devoted solely to work and creativity and it’s wonderful.

MP: So far, all of your novels exist in the same world with a few references (and even characters) traveling between books. Can you tell me anything about your next project? Can readers expect more connections between your novels?

JZ: My fourth novel is about two young people from small town East Tennessee who get scholarships to an elite northeastern prep school. As readers may (or may not) recall, Nana Betsy from Goodbye Days is from East Tennessee, and it turns out that my main character in this fourth book is her grandnephew. She has a small, but pivotal role in the new book. Also, if it survives the edit, there’s another really fun cameo from an important figure in the Zentnerverse!

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 Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee.

Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“Sometimes small and unspectacular things can be a universe.”

cover art for Rayne and Delilah's Midnite Matinee by Jeff ZentnerFor most of high school best friends Delia and Josie have spent every Friday night transforming themselves into Delilah Darkwood and Rayne Ravenscroft, hosts of Midnite Matinee their public access show on TV Six where they show a campy B (or C) horror movie with their own shorts in between.

The movies are never good and Delia and Josie’s segments aren’t much better, but it’s their show that they built up from scratch which counts for a lot. Even if it isn’t enough to ensure the show will continue now that high school is ending.

Josie is eager to pursue her lifelong dream of being on television when she goes to college but isn’t sure what to do when her dreams might be leading her away from her hometown and her best friend.

Delia, meanwhile, is desperate to find a way to help Midnite Matinee grow beyond its current syndication so that Josie can pursue her dream without leaving Delia behind the way her father did.

With one last summer to make it big or call it quits, Delia and Josie’s friendship and their show will be tested as they confront old hurts, embrace new dreams, and take one epic road trip to a horror convention with the potential to change everything in Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee (2019) by Jeff Zentner.

Find it on Bookshop.

Zentner’s latest standalone contemporary is a funny, strange story that explores all of the things that brought Josie and Delia together and all of the things that are starting to pull them in different directions.

Josie and Delia alternate first person narration in this story and by the end of the novel both girls completely won me over. Although Delia and Josie are facing some big decisions, they do it all with levity and obvious affection for each other as well as the other important people in their lives.

Zentner has filled this book with Easter eggs from his earlier novels as well as some amazing jokes–I can’t reveal too much but let’s just say I’m still cracking up about the baby Basset Hounds.

Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee is a story about big dreams, big chances, and the mediocre results we sometimes end up with as a result. Josie and Delia are hilarious, endearing, and some of my favorite characters to date. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: Love and Other Perishable Items by Laura Buzo, The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo, Happy Messy Scary Love by Leah Konen, The Piper’s Son by Melina Marchetta, Famous in a Small Town by Emma Mills, Nice Try, Jane Sinner by Lianne Oelke, Baby and Solo by Lisabeth Posthuma, How to Say Goodbye in Robot by Natalie Standiford, Six Impossible Things by Fiona Wood

You can also check out my exclusive interview with Jeff about this book!

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.

The Serpent King: A Review

The Serpent King by Jeff ZentnerDill is used to being an outsider. First because of his father’s Penecostal ministry where members handled poisonous snakes to prove their faith. Then later because of his father’s arrest for possession of child pornography. Consequently Dills tries to keeps his head down and does what is required to get by while attracting as little attention as possible.

Travis doesn’t worry much about what other people think of him, his dragon necklace, or the staff he carries everywhere. He knows who he is and refuses to let anyone diminish his abiding love of fantasy novels–also he’s 6’4″ which is a big help even if he hates aggression and violence.

Lydia has never avoided notice in her life. Born and raised in small town Tennessee, she dreams of life in the big city. And she knows that her ambition and her fashion/lifestyle blog Dolly Would will help her get there–starting with her application to NYU.

While Lydia and Travis have their eyes on the future, Dill knows that this last year of high school is as good as he can hope for. As everything ends and falls apart around him, Dill will have to try to write a new beginning for himself in The Serpent King (2016) by Jeff Zentner.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Serpent King is Zentner’s first novel. It alternates first person narration primarily between Dill and Lydia with fewer chapters from Travis.

This novel is filled with evocative descriptions and dynamic characters. Lydia especially comes across as larger than life throughout the novel. While all three friends have a strong bond, they also have a lot of secrets. The contrast between their narrations highlight the ways that these friends come together and also the ways that they keep each other at a distance.

In addition to dealing with his family’s poverty and the repercussions of his father’s arrest, Dill also struggles with his faith throughout The Serpent King as he tries to reconcile his religious beliefs with his ambitions (and his mother’s refusal to believe that Dill can or should want more from his life).

Lydia’s life is a huge contrast to both Dill and Travis. Her family has more money, stability, and affection than either of the boys can imagine. While Lydia refuses to rein in her ambitions because of Dill and Travis’ limitations (they are both poor, have weaker grades, and fewer prospects after high school), she does unpack her privilege and gain some hard-won empathy as the novel progresses.

The Serpent King is an introspective and meditative novel closely focused on Dill, Lydia, and Travis. Thoughtful prose and a tense plot build to a satisfying conclusion as these characters realize the future can be whatever they choose to make it. Although the overall tone of this novel is melancholy, the story remains empowering and ultimately hopeful.

Possible Pairings: Down and Across by Arvin Ahmadi, Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman, Teach Me to Forget by Erica M. Chapman, Rapture Practice by Aaron Hartzler, Everyone Dies Famous in a Small Town by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock, This Raging Light by Estelle Laure, When We Collided by Emery Lord, The Sky is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan, 500 Words or Less by Juleah del Rosario, Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell, Birthday by Meredith Russo, This Song Will Save Your Life by Leila Sales, The Beginning of Everything by Robyn Schneider, As You Wish by Chelsea Sedoti, Cloudwish by Fiona Wood

You can also check out my interview with Jeff Zentner starting tomorrow.