Rural Poverty, Fashion Blogging, and Parenting: An Interview With Jeff Zentner author of THE SERPENT KING / by Dave Connis




Me: Hey Jeff freaking Zentner. How’s it going?

Jeff: Hey Dave, good man. Really good.

Me: How's stuff going with the book? You’re underway? Can’t go back now.

Jeff: Yeah, yeah, it’s wild. Been doing a lot of traveling for the release. Got a lot yet to come. Going to be going to the festivals and what not. I just got my hardcovers yesterday.

M: Did you geek out a little bit?

J: Yeah. It was very cool.

M: Were there tears shed? If you were Eric Smith tears would’ve been shed.

J: *Laughs* Yeah, I didn’t shed any tears, but I came close.

M: That’s fair. It took me a long time to shed tears over something that wasn’t an emotional issue. The first movie I cried in was Inside Out. It took me that long.

J: That one almost got me too. The last movie that got me was Interstellar. When he’s realizing that he missed his kids life while he was on that planet for an hour. That was rough.

M: Oh man. I didn’t even think about that. I was too confused by time construct thing at end.

J: I’ll tell you what does make me cry. Good reviews. When someone drops a good meaningful review like, “This book really meant a lot to me." That’ll get me pretty good.

M: You know, I bet that would get me too. I'll have to let you know. Those sorts of reviews are always something you hope for as an author, but never really expect.

J: Yeah, absolutely.

M: What’s been the review that killed you the most?

J: Oh gosh. There have been a bunch, but there was this one from a girl in Texas. She put it up on Goodreads, but she didn’t even have a Goodreads profile pic. She basically made her profile just so she could review the book. She said, “I never review books, but I felt like I needed to review this one because it meant so much to me,” and that just really meant a lot to me.

M: Oh man. I don’t know how I’m gonna handle that if that happens. I’ll probably just be distraught all the time. Alright, we’ll I’m going to lay it on you. So, the setting for TSK, the rural south, isn’t something that’s been explored a lot. Did you have this itch to scratch knowing that that sort of context hadn’t been explored or was there a deeper connection to a specific story?

J: When I started writing YA, I hadn’t read a ton of it. So I didn’t actually really know if the rural south had been explored that much. It wasn’t like I saw a gap there and said, “oh, I should fill that.” It’s just the place I like to write about. It’s the place I’ve been drawn to all my life and feel deeply about. I knew if TSK was going to be the first book I'd try to get published, then I needed to write it in a setting I had a deep connection too. I knew that if I had that sort of emotion going into it, I could do such a better job at writing a good story.

D: So the concepts, a pentecostal snake handler, a machismo obsessed father, the tumultuous relationship between Dill and finishing high school, did you just observe these things happening around you growing up or did you research some of it?

J: Yeah, a lot of it is observation while growing up in a religious community. I was raised in a place where there's this idea of machismo, these deeply embedded notions of what a man should be, act like, and be interested in. As far as the practices of Dill’s dad’s church, I did a lot of research on Appalachian snake handling churches. A lot of reading, talked with a friend who’d attended these churches. I just wanted to make sure I was getting the details of the practice right.

M: I’m working right underneath sand mountain, did you do any research into them?

(Sand Mountain is known by most locals in the area for it's snake handling)

J: I did. I read a book called “Salvation on Sand Mountain. That’s a really good book, have you read it?

M: I have, and it's a funny story how I heard about it. So, I work in Dade County, which is in North Georgia, but where I go is nestled in between Sand Mountain in Alabama and Lookout Mountain. One day I'm working on something or rather and co-worker comes in and starts carrying on about how their friend’s father was the pastor of a snake handling church who died during a revival. It was crazy.

J: Wow. That's awesome

D: Yeah, after I heard that I was like, “alright, I think I need to read that book. Alright, I'm off-topic but not really. Jump back with me to the machismo theme really quick. So as a dad, you’ve got this theme in there that we talked about earlier with this idea of what it means to be a man. When you were writing about such a complex and tough theme, how did it affect your parenting and what you want for your son?

J: I basically wrote the the character of Dr. Blankenship, Lydia’s Dad, as the kind of dad I want to be, and I wrote Travis’s dad as exactly the kind of dad I don’t want to be. It’s as simple as that. Lydia’s dad encourages her to be who she is and take opportunities, while also trying to teach her to be respectful of the way other people live. Travis’s dad is the complete opposite of that. He’s trying to teach Travis not to respect the way other people live and pressure him to be someone he’s not.

D: We talked about being immersed in a culture of rural poverty, as a southerner who’s observed it, do you see this issue of rural poverty being addressed?

J: That’s a good question. I mean, I don’t really see any kind of poverty in our country really being addressed, so I’d say the answer to that is no. I think, in some ways, rural southern poverty remains more invisible. It’s still sort of socially acceptable to mock southern poverty. You know, make jokes about marrying your cousin and calling people rednecks, stuff like that. And those sort of jokes don’t take into account that there are problems in our country with class and with divisions between class and economic inequality. That was one of the things I hoped to bring to the floor in TSK was showing the way that there are two Americas and one of them is leaving the other behind. One America has endless opportunities, the other? It’s just a small town, and they try to survive working these dead end jobs that you don’t even get minimum wage on. It’s really concerning.

M: So If we’re neighbors to a Dill or Travis, what are some of the ways we should respond?

J: I think doing whatever we can to share any privilege we have the way Lydia does with Dill. She uses her privilege to help him get ahead. To inspire him. To give him some tools to get out of his situation. I think this is a good way, but don’t know if that’s the thing you do in every circumstance.

M: Yeah, poverty isn’t a one size fits all sort of problem.

J: Yeah.

M: Okay, well this next questions is going to be a hard one, but it’s just been in my head for so long so I need to ask. A while back, I messed around with this book idea that’s got a southern rural poverty context to it, and when I kept trying to think through the plot line and the main character arc, I kept coming back to this plot device of, “well, he just needs to get out of that town. He just needs to leave.” There was a part of me that wasn’t happy with that plot, because how does that help the town? It helps the main character for sure, but how does that help this cyclical idea that people just need to leave their small town to get ahead. Do you see any other option? Is the answer always just “this person needs to get out.” I don’t mean this to be a dismissal of the plot line of your book, I loved your book. I’m honestly just curious because I’m having a hard time seeing alternatives.

J: Man, that is the problem. When there are no economic prospects where you’re at then you kind of have to leave or get really really creative, you know? Start a bee farm or vegetable stand, I don’t know. It’s hard to be entrepreneurial in a place like that. It’s like what Lydia says while she’s doing her college application, “Tech companies aren’t exactly looking to set up shop in Forestville, TN.

M: *Laughs* right.

J: But then there’s the issue of income equality, and the issue of happiness and I don’t believe that everyone needs to leave a small town to be happy. To underscore that point, I have the characters of Dr. and Mrs. Blankenship. They’re sophisticated, intelligent, educated, and they live in Forestville, and it works for them. They make their drives to Nashville to stock up on Trader Joe's, and they’ve got their Netflix subscription to watch their fancy documentaries, and drink their red wine. They're leading this modern lifestyle, and they do it in Forestville because Forestville is the way they escape. Travis escapes through his fantasy novels, that's a perfectly valid way to handle a small town and get by. Forestville just wasn’t right for Dill because he needed to escape his family legacy. He had to much baggage to stay there and make a life out of it. He needed to get out. And I think that’s the answer for some people. That’s a really good question, I think rural areas need tourism and agriculture, those sorts of things can revitalize rural America, but I think it’s really hard to know the answer.

M: It is. It’s one of those situations where what helps one person, or one town even, is probably not going to help the other. Everything is so context specific which makes it all so hard to parse out. Alright, I’m going to switch gears here. Moving on from the tough topic of poverty. One huge thing that I was super encouraged by in TSK is seeing Dill go through this horrible warped version of what his parents, and his dad’s congregants, think God is. The town just rakes the basic principles of grace and forgiveness through the legalistic conservative extremist mud. Dill has to face all of that, even gets the brunt of it, and still chooses to believe in God and hold to his faith. Why did you choose that particular story arc when a lot of other people would’ve just ended with the agnostic/atheistic idea that maybe God is just an asshole, or doesn’t exist, or is not for me?

J: Well, first let me say that I'm super thankful that you and many other people, many here being a relative term because not that MANY have read TSK, picked up on that. I really wanted to show a respect for faith, while also showing the struggle that people have with it. Dill’s struggle with faith is my struggle with faith. That’s one of the most autobiographical things about the book...I’ve had to come to my own understanding of God because other people's understanding of him can’t be the foundation for my faith...I can have the agency to say, “No, I don’t have to take your word about who God is. I don’t think that’s how it has to be"...I think it’s a really pat and simplistic answer for for people struggling with faith to say, “Just leave it. Just leave the faith." I think doing that fundamentally misunderstands how faith works, how it becomes a part of you, how it becomes something you rely upon when you don’t who you are, and I wanted to address all of that, and I think it would’ve been dishonest to offer an easy explaination. For Dill to just walk away from God after his life experiences.

M: Great answer. That part in the book was such a breath of fresh air because while I was reading, there was this thing at the back of my mind going, “oh, this is just going to be another one of those “faith is useless, God is useless. It isn’t for me” sort of endings. I’ve come to expect that in YA contemporary stories, so when you did what you did, I was shocked. I think I remember DMing you after I finished reading going, "I CAN'T BELIEVE IT!" You said that others are picking up on it?

J: Yeah, people have responded really positively to it. A lot of people from similar backgrounds, those who have grown up in a conservative religious faith, and they’ve still got faith, and they’ve had to struggle with it. Even people who don’t struggle with faith.

M: This question is from Eric Smith, What fantasy novels did you read as a kid to inspire Travis?

J: *laughs* Here’s the funny thing, I really didn’t read a lot of fantasy as a teenager and I don’t read a ton now. I’ve read Lord of The Rings, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, and those are sort of my main ones, and it’s sad because I love fantasy. It's just such a vast world. I don’t really know where to start, and I have to do so much other reading that I’m not able to get into it. What I did read as a teen was Stephen King. I loved his books so much. I will say that, if they’d been available as a teenager, I would’ve been obsessed with the Harry Potter books, for sure. Still, I didn't read fantasy, but the escapist part was still there for me.

M: I think most books, if it’s a good book, is probably going to have some sort of escape factor. You know?

J: Oh, totally.

M: This question is going to be like a condensed summary of a few of the things you’ve already talked about. How did you decide that you wanted to tell these three people’s specific stories (Dill, Travis, and Lydia) when each one depicts such a different story in relation to each other?

J: *Laughs* That's a good question with an easy answer. I took all of the sorts of people I was really obsessed with at that time, pushed them all together, and prayed that it worked out. That they’d work as friends. I wanted to write a book about a kid who struggles with faith and who's a musician, that’s Dill. I wanted to write about someone from rural Tennessee who becomes internet famous, but it doesn’t affect her standing in her town in any way, in fact it might affect her negatively, so there’s Lydia. And then I wanted to write about someone who escapes through books, so there’s Travis. And I didn’t want to take the time to write about each one of those because my goodness I wanted to get something published before I was dead. So I just wrote them all into the same story and was like, “Okay, hope everyone gets along.” And you know, as I think about it, that’s kind of how it happens in a small town. You’ll have three people who really aren’t all that similar, and maybe in a bigger place they might not be friends, but they all are sort of outcasts that come together and it’s beautiful in it’s own bizarre way.


M: (laughs) That’s fantastic. It’s always my favorite thing when an author responds to some question that could potentially be a deep and meaningful discussion about all the symbolism of their creative choices, but instead they say, “well, I just did it.” It’s like were expected to be some sort of mountain-living mystics injecting meaning into every comma, but in the end you just get to a point when you’re writing the story and have to decide what the last name of your character is so you pull up that online last name generator and take the first one that comes.

J: Yep. Our lives. Totally true.

M: Okay. Truth time. I read that you wrote TSK on your phone on the bus ride to and from work. Is this true?

J: Absolutely true. Actually, just today I posted a pic of me sitting in my usual spot on the bus working on my third book. I’ve got a new rig to do it, a tablet with a keyboard, but when I was working on TSK tablet keyboards sucked, it felt like typing on gummy bears so a keyboard wasn’t an option and I didn’t want to take a whole laptop on a bus.

M: So how long did that take? I can’t imagine writing a whole book on a phone.

J: Well, I didn’t write the whole book on the phone, I think it was about 60% - 70%. I know I wrote more than half on the phone. I got where I could do 1,000 words on the bus to and from work. 500-1000 over lunch, and then when I got home that night another 1,000-2,000. The drafting went really quick. It only took about 25 days.

M: Did you edit on the phone?

J: No. I didn’t do that.

M: Oh, thank god. I was about to…I don’t know, something, if you said yes.

J: As far as the raw materials, I’d just open a Google doc on the bus then,when I got home, I’d take everything out of the Google doc and dump it into the master.

M: Did Siri help at all?

J: *laughs* No. Autocorrect helped a little, but not Siri.

M: That’s good. She changes nothing for me every time I draft a message now. I think she’s just given up. She just lets me look like an idiot. Oh, do you secretly have a fashion blog called Dollywould?

J: No, I’d be a terrible fashion blogger. I don’t know anything about it.

M: You could have Tennessee (Jeff's son) write the articles for you.

J: That’s true. Do you know Emily Henry? The author? I’d get her to run it for me.

M: Ah, so you already have a go to fashion blogger. I was hoping that maybe as some promo thing you’d unveil some fake fashion blog with articles written by random authors.

J: Oh man, it was so intimidating writing Lydia’s blog post in the book. I was  like, "how am I going to be convincing that people actually like to read her stuff." No, that’d be terrifying to do a fashion blog and for no other reason because the real teens who are fashion blogging are so much smarter than me. So much smarter. The girl who Lydia is based on, a girl named Tavi Gevinson, she’s genius. I’ll never be as smart as she is.

M: Does she know that Lydia is based on her?

J: Probably not. She’s also like super famous, so I’m sure she’s never heard of TSK.

M: Without taking away to much of reader autonomy and interpretation, what are some of the things you want your readers to take away after reading TSK?

J: If there’s a message of TSK its that you can break a cycle, pave your own road, and make your own path. You can have choices on how you want to live. It might be difficult to break the cycles, but you’ve gotta do it. I mean, I don’t really write with a message in mind, I’m not trying to teach anyone anything, but I kinda can’t help but have something in there for people to take away. So whether they do or don’t get that, that’s fine.

M: I forget who said it, but I’m realizing more and more how true it is, that once you let your book go into the world it’s not yours anymore. It becomes everyone else's and they’re going to read a completely different book than you wrote.

J: Oh yeah. Totally. I 100% believe that. People ask me questions about Lydia, “does she do x?” and I’m like “I don’t know! She’s yours now.” I’m not J.K Rowling where I’m telling people what the deal is with stuff I didn’t put into the book.

M: So 10 years down the line you’re not going to tweet announce Lydia and Dill’s marriage anniversary?

J: Hahaha, exactly. That’s exactly that’s what I’m not going to do.

M: Alright, ready for lightning round?

J: Yes. Lets do it.

D: If TSK becomes a movie, who plays Lydia, Dill, and Travis?

J: Oh dude, this is the hardest question because I don’t know child actors. So, I’m always like, “I don’t know, Johnny Depp.” So, let's just go...Ezra Miller from Perks of Being A Wallflower for Dill. Mae Whitman would make a good Lydia. Travis? I don’t even know. He’d have to be a newcomer. It’d have to be the first time you’ve ever saw him in anything.

D: Would you dedicate your book to Donald Trump if someone paid you 1 million dollars?

J: No. Not worth it.

D: What’s the song that best catches the feel of TSK?

J: Now, I didn’t say I wouldn’t dedicate TSK for 10 mil. Just kidding. Sorry, what was the question? Oh...I’d say the song Tether by Chvrches

D: Are there any songs out there that you’ve written based on TSK/have you put music to any of the songs Dill wrote?

J: No, but I wrote TSK based on two of my songs. I wrote a song called Rusty Town back in the day, which is Dill's story. Then I wrote a song called The Serpent King, which is Dill’s Grandpa’s story. I took those two songs and said, “Maybe there’s a story here," expanded them out, and they became the book.

D: Why are you stuck in Durham?

J: *Laughs* I got snowed in. I couldn’t leave.

D: Did you cry while writing any of TSK? 

J: Oh yeah. Absolutely. All the time. Any part of TSK made you cry or want to cry, I’ve cried already. There were parts of TSK where I had to get off the bus, compose myself, and then get on another bus.

D: Did you make your wife cry when she read TSK?

J: Yeah.

D: Were you happy about it?

J: Yes. So happy.

D: Favorite place to write?

J: The bus to and from work. Well, it might not be my favorite place to write, but it feels the most like home.

D: In the far future, someone pulls a time capsule out of the ground and your book is inside. Who finds it, and what do they say?

J: An anthropologist, and they say “wow, these people had written language. That’s amazing."

D: So, you’re obviously a really good writer, what happens in 20 years when you’re a YA mainstay and you run out of room to tattoo your book titles on your arms?

J: *Laughs* Man, that’s a good question. Wow. I haven’t thought that far ahead, to be honest. I’ll tell you what. I’m going to get a pet pig, name him Little Jeff, and he’s going to have the tattoos.