Jeff 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 also check out my review of In the Wild Light.