An Interview with Jeff Zentner by Colleen Graves
The Serpent King came out yesterday and I can’t wait for you to read it.
Here’s the lowdown:
Dill is a high school senior stuck in a small town. He has his close knit group of friends, Lydia and Travis, but still feels so trapped. Plus, his dad is in jail, so there’s that stigma he has to deal with. Dill and friends all want to get out and start living. This gorgeous telling of their senior year is beautiful, touching, and completely southern. It’s a must read for teens who love John Green and teens who love books period. I was lucky enough to chat with Jeff and I invited a group of my favorite readers from my school who’d read his ARC.
But let me back up a bit, Jeff and I actually went to Jr. High School together! So the start of our Hangout went a little like this:
Me: Hey, Jeff! It’s been like 20 years!
Jeff: Wow! So good to see you. Hey, kids, did you know your librarian used to be a punk rocker?
Me: Yep, from Chelsea girl haircut to library cardigan, who knew?
I’m happy we had this connection, because I found out about his book a year before on Facebook and started hassling him right away for an ARC. This summer he finally got his hands on advanced reader copy and mailed me one.
When I got the book from Jeff, I told him, “I’m so excited to read this great book you wrote! It’s going to be the BEST BOOK EVER!” He was like, “Uh, no pressure!” However, I knew it was going to be great because I’d read few sample pages he’d posted on Facebook while he was still in editing mode. I couldn’t wait to dig in. He said, “I hope you dig the book.” And I replied….
When I started The Serpent King, I made an immediate connection to Lydia, I loved her taste in music (Nick Cave), her taste in books (Donna Tartt – also one of my favorites) and her quirky personality. I thought, wow, it’s teenage me in book form! I’ve never really felt that kind of connection with a character before. I don’t often see myself in books. I was stoked, and started pinging Jeff, but as Lydia grew, I realized she is her own person.
And that’s one of the things I love the most about this book. These three characters felt so real, so authentic, and I loved them so much. I felt like they were my best friends in high school. Plus, I felt so connected to them because I moved out of that cool college town where I knew Jeff and to the south to a tiny town in East Texas with less than 300 people in our graduating class. I felt trapped and couldn’t wait for graduation day, because I knew, that was the only way out. That I wouldn’t be able to start living my real life until I was freed from the constraints of this small, small town. And that’s what these three kids are battling with throughout this atmospheric novel. You may not remember, but just trying to make it those last few months is JUST SO HARD.
So when we chatted with Jeff, that was one of my first questions. How did you know what it was like for me? How did you know what it’s like to feel trapped in a small town? (See full interview below)
The storyline is great, but the real beauty behind The Serpent King is that Jeff pours hope and inspiration into this work of art. There are moments where I cried with joy at the awesome things happening to these characters.
On the other hand, I also cried when I finished reading this book. Not because it was sad, but because I was sad for it to be over. I actually could’ve finished reading it the night before, but I held off because I wanted to savor the last 20 pages with my coffee and the morning sunlight. I wanted to finish this book on a memorable morning (like when I sat in a yurt and finished reading The Riverman in the dappled sunlight with my youngest child curled up in my lap.) An early quiet morning with fresh brewed coffee, that’s how I remember my last few moments with Dill. To be honest, I miss him. This book and these characters made an impact on me. I can’t emphasize how real they felt, how connected I am to them, and how much I miss them. I’ve bugged Jeff about this a few times. About how I want to know more about Dill. He promises his next book has a cameo from a character in The Serpent King and I can’t wait to read it. Until then, you need to check out The Serpent King and spend a few days with Dill, Lydia, and Travis. But before you go, check out the interview below:
Me: How in the world did you know what it’s like to be trapped in a small town? I felt like Lawrence was so cool and it really shaped my personality and then I had to move to a small town where all I wanted to do was get out of that small town. How did you do such a great job world building?
Jeff: I put myself in Dill’s shoes. Plus, I’ve spent a lot of time in small towns in the south (playing music, traveling, etc). Plus, Colleen, you may not remember, but Lawrence was a small town growing up we only had one high school in our whole town!
Me: Oh right! We all knew each other even though we all went to different junior high schools.
RHS Student: What inspired you to write The Serpent King?
Jeff: I helped teach at a Rock Camp which is sort of like a summer camp where you learn how to be a rock musician. I was so impressed with these teenagers that I wanted to make something for them and I was only a musician at the time. I didn’t feel like I could make music for them, but I felt like I could write books that young people would like.
For this book, I thought about all of the types of people I was fascinated with at the time which includes: young musicians, people who grew up in religious households (Dill), young people who have a presence on the Internet and are part of a national conversation (Lydia) and blue collar fantasy nerds (Travis).
RHS Student: What do you do before you start writing?
Jeff: Before I start writing, I invite the characters into my head. I figure out who I want to write about and then I invite them into my head for a conversation. I know it sounds a little crazy, but the characters are telling me where the story should go. I get to know them and listen to them, and they tell me what they want to do and I make that happen. I actually spent 3-4 months thinking about the characters in The Serpent King before I started writing the book.
RHS Student: I really liked your book, even though I read more Fantasy. This was a different genre for me, but it was really good. And the way you describe writing, that’s what I do too. I get my ideas from weird dreams I have and I have hundreds of stories in my head right now. I wish I had the words to describe all of them.
Jeff: It’s kind of like trying to grab a bar of soap, right?
<We all giggle in agreement>
RHS Student: What is your favorite place to go if you have writer’s block?
Jeff: I am a big walker. I go for a 3-4 mile walk at night. I love the night sky and the lights and sometimes I see vignettes of families through their windows. That makes me think about their lives and I think, “Oh, how I am connected to these people?” That usually helps me think about how we share our lives and how we are all connected as human beings.
RHS Student: Sorry, I have to ask this because I like gaming. Are you a nerd type of person?
Jeff: Yeah I definitely am. I define “nerd” in the sense that I like really, really geeky stuff and I get really into things.
Me: Tell us about your music career?
Jeff: I played music for 15 years and toured around and was definitely nowhere even close to famous. Want me to play a little bit for you?
Jeff plays an amazing blues song
Jeff: That’s the sort of music I played. I was a blues guitarist and I played country/folk type music.
Me: Wow! So cool! Our students have to go, but we so appreciate your time today! THANK YOU!!!!
Jeff: It was great chatting with you!
Actually, Jeff I and continued to talk about that time he played on a record with Nick Cave and I turned into a total fangirl…. but you don’t want to read any of that….
The Serpent King came out March 8th and is published by Crown Books for Young Readers an imprint of Random House.
Colleen Graves is a teacher librarian at Ryan High School in Denton, TX. She’s obsessed with makerspaces, but loves books too! She’s a Google geek and Google Certified Trainer, SLJ School Librarian of the year finalist 2014. She’s collaborating on two books with her #superlibrarianhubs one to be published by TAB_DIY an imprint of Mcgraw Hill and a second book for ABC-Clio with Diana Rendina. Follow her makerspace journey and get #teched ideas on her blog, on Twitter, or on Instagram.