Dillard Early and his misfit friends, Lydia and Travis, have mixed feelings about their upcoming senior year. Dill grapples with a past that he can’t shake while feeling nervous about what the future holds; Lydia’s excitement and future prospects often lead her to forget what she has in the moment; and Travis is content to escape into the world of his favorite book series. But when loss turns their lives upside down, they must learn to deal with endings they may not be ready for.
With his debut YA novel, The Serpent King, Nashville singer/songwriter Jeff Zentner captures coming of age in the South with understated authenticity. This novel is a personal look at what it means to grow up—and whether or not we choose to let where we come from define us. We spoke with Zentner about hometown roots, music, the importance of literature and much more.
Most of the characters in the novel have something they use as a form of escape. For Dill, it’s music and friends. Lydia has her fashion blog. Travis disappears into a book series called Bloodfall. Was escapism (particularly for teenagers) something you wanted to thematically explore in this book? Why?
Absolutely. I think escapism is very much part of growing up in a small town for anyone who has big dreams and wants to see more of the world.
You use the perspectives of Dill, Lydia and Travis to tell the story. Why did you choose to use multiple perspectives in this particular story?
Because I wanted to write a book about each of those characters. And being an impatient person, I crammed them all into one story. But I couldn’t let go of each of their points of view. So I gave them each a point of view and got into their heads.
The book deals a lot with family ties, particularly with parents, as well as hometown roots. How important are these things in shaping who we become and who we choose not to be?
I think place and blood have a huge influence on who we are, if only as an opposing force, like when you try to push two magnets together the wrong way. If there’s one idea I hope The Serpent King conveys, it’s that we are not predestined by virtue of geography or genes.
What was it about your experience with the Tennessee Teen Rock Camp that inspired you to write for young adults? To write The Serpent King?
Working with the amazing teens at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp showed me how young people cling to the art they love and are willing to wear their hearts on their sleeves and be vulnerable for it. The art you love as a young person is so formative. I wanted to create art for that audience. As for influencing The Serpent King specifically, I would say that volunteering at Rock Camp made me want to write about kids who are creators—musicians, specifically.
Along with being a writer, you are also a musician. How has that background influenced your writing? Do your creative processes have any similarities? Differences?
I think being a musician taught me to trust my process and my instincts. I know how I work, I know what inspires me, I know the things I’m interested in speaking about through art—all because of music. My creative process for music differs in that I don’t think in longterm narratives. My songs aren’t character-driven. My writing, by contrast, is completely character-driven.
Dill is also a musician. Do you have anything in common with Lydia or Travis? Did you draw from your own personality in the creation of your characters?
I have a lot in common with Lydia and Travis. Lydia’s sense of humor is very much mine. I wrote Lydia as the sort of sassy, spirited daughter I’d hope to have if I ever had a daughter. I’m a huge nerd like Travis; I love the things I love to an insane degree like him. I live in my own imagination a lot, like he does.
Travis is obsessed with a series of books in the novel. Were there any books that heavily affected you as a teenager?
I was pretty into Stephen King as a teenager. I couldn’t get enough of his books. I loved It in particular. Also, Different Seasons really made an impression on me. In my later teen years I started reading Cormac McCarthy and Jim Harrison. If George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series had existed when I was a teen, I would have been obsessed on a level similar to Travis.
What do you think the importance of literature is to young adults?
I think literature in general teaches empathy, because it requires you to inhabit the consciousness and point of view of someone else. I think empathy is one of the most valuable qualities a person can have.
What’s next for you?
I have a new book coming out in spring 2017. It takes place in Nashville. It’s about a young man coping with grief, guilt and redemption in the wake of the deaths of his three best friends—which he might have caused. And there might even be a cameo appearance from one of the Serpent King crew.
Author photo credit J Hernandez.