I haven't interviewed a YA author since sitting down with Anthony Breznican to discuss his novel Brutal Youth, and so I'm thrilled to bring you a conversation with The Serpent King author Jeff Zentner. The Serpent King, a coming of age tale of three friends struggling through their senior of high school in rural Tennessee, has just the right balance of grit and tenderness to make it honest, authentic and captivating. It's a definite recommendation for teenagers, but The Serpent King is also one of those powerful Young Adult novels that strikes a chord with adult readers as well.
Steph Post: Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that I am a high school teacher, I couldn't imagine writing Young Adult fiction. I think it takes such a deft hand to make it truly authentic, as you do in The Serpent King. In your opinion, what challenges does writing YA have over Adult fiction? What rewards?
Jeff Zentner: One of the great challenges of writing YA is that teenagers have an incredibly keen nose for artifice, disingenuousness, and preaching. Therefore, you have to be incredibly honest and wear your heart on your sleeve, hard though it may be. Also, teenagers have so many options for entertainment that you don't have much room for error in the stakes of your story. If you write a meandering, low-stakes story, you can count on that audience checking out quick.
The rewards, however, are even greater. No one clings to the art they love and allows it to be their lifeline like young adults. No one is more willing to make themselves vulnerable for the art they love. If a book made them cry or laugh, they'll tell you. That's what drew me to wanting to create for young adults. The way they open their hearts to the things they love. It's a wonderful audience.
SP: Still with The Serpent King's genre and audience in mind, I'm wondering how you were so fully able to capture the minds of the three main teenage characters- Dill, Lydia and Travis. Did you draw upon your own memories of being a teenager?
JZ: Absolutely. I have a very vivid memory of what it was like to be a teenager. Like it was yesterday. This is something many, if not most, YA authors possess. In crafting the three characters, I divided my personality into thirds and gave each part to one of the three to carry. Travis got my nerdiness for the things I love. Lydia got my sense of humor. Dill got my melancholy, struggles with faith, and general worldview. No one of those characters is all of me, but together they are.
SP: The Serpent King is divided into chapters each told from one of the three main character's point of view. Did this constant POV switching affect your writing process?
JZ: It required me to plan ahead quite a bit. Not only did I have to think in advance of what was coming plot-wise, I had to make sure it would be queued up in time for the right POV to tell it. I couldn't very well do a chapter where Dill visits his dad in prison if Lydia or Travis were up. It also made me keenly aware of voice--that is to say, that I was sufficiently differentiating the characters' voices.
SP: I have a feeling that most readers of The Serpent King will agree that Travis is the heart of the story. He was certainly my favorite character and not just because of the pathos he invokes in the plot. In having three main characters, I'm wondering if you ever felt closer to one over the others. If so, did these feelings ever change or shift as you went through the writing process?
JZ: I certainly did love Travis a great deal. I think I felt equally close to all of them, given that they each carried such an integral part of me. I'd say I felt closest to whomever I was writing at the time. I loved Lydia pretty unconditionally, so it was hard for me to hear from my editor that I needed to sand off some of her rough edges for her to shine through as a sympathetic enough character. But in the end, I think that judgment was correct, because even now with some of her sharper tendencies more in check, she takes the most critical heat of any character. I love her deeply, though, flaws and all.
SP: One of the reasons I was drawn to The Serpent King was its inclusion of signs following Pentecostal religion, which is featured heavily in my upcoming novel Lightwood. How much research into Pentecostalism, and in particular, snake handling, did you do before writing? And why did you choose to set The Serpent King partially against the backdrop of Pentecostalism?
JZ: Over the years, I've done a fair amount. I used to play in a band called Creech Holler that did electric interpretations of Appalachian balladry, and our bass player was from rural East Tennessee, where he encountered a lot of signs gospel followers. He said we sounded like the music in the snake handler churches, so we adopted some of their imagery into our music and persona, as a shorthand way of expressing the regionalness of our music and our fervor. I've interviewed several friends who attended signs churches. As for reading, I'd say the definitive work on Pentecostal snake handling religion is Salvation on Sand Mountain, a book I would recommend to anyone.
One saving grace (pun intended) is that there's no central authority of snake handling religion as there is in, say, Catholicism. I invented Pastor Early's church, The Church of Christ's Disciples with Signs of Belief. Therefore, I'm the ultimate authority on its doctrine and practices, which is nice.
SP: On the back cover flap of The Serpent King you describe your novel as a "love letter" to struggling young dreamers. Can you go into more detail about what this means? Is The Serpent King perhaps more personal than it might appear to outsiders?
JZ: It is very personal. In a real sense, Dill's journey in the book mirrors my journey from music to writing, when I thought I had gone as far as I could in life, and then this magnificent door to a huge new world opened to me. Also, I tend to write what and who fascinates me even more than writing what I know, and I've always been fascinated with dreamers from places where dreams aren't thought to be able to survive past the county line.
SP: Admittedly, I don't read too much Young Adult fiction. Aside from Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican and the books of Andrew Smith, I haven't had much exposure to the genre. Can you give me three contemporary YA authors whose works you'd recommend?
JZ: I'm afraid I can't just limit myself to three. Here are some of the contemporary YA authors out there doing truly exceptional work:
Kerry Kletter (her book The First Time She Drowned is my favorite YA book ever), David Levithan, John Corey Whaley, David Arnold, Becky Albertalli, Adam Silvera, Kelly Loy Gilbert, Nicola Yoon, and Nic Stone.
So many thanks to Jeff Zentner for the conversation and recommendations! The Serpent King is available now so be sure to check it out and add it to your TBR pile. Cheers and Happy Reading!