The Search Artist Ep 4 Jeff Zentner author of The Serpent King
Maybe it was 2004 or 05? My friend Chelle Rose was telling me, "You have to play a show with this band Creech Holler." I'm not sure if I ever did but I remember watching them at The Radio Cafe, when it was across from Lipstick Lounge on Woodland. Dave Brown was running the place, Sunburn was working the door. My band at the time, The Sunday Best played there pretty often. I think Creech Holler was opening for The Rounders (Damn that band was good) out of Chattanooga. I remember Creech Holler was a loud dark drone. Appalachian Blues with amps.
A few years later front man Jeff Zentner and I both played a night at The Family Wash, back when it was on the corner of Porter and Greenwood. From his between song banter I got it right away that he was a literate guy so when I heard he wrote a novel I wasn't surprised.
Besides this history with Jeff I was curious to read his book because he'd been on a very similar soul searching journey to what I had experienced. I'd wanted nothing but to be a songwriter for a band since I was sixteen. But after two decades of churning out songs and playing shows I had nada, zip, zilch to show for it. Barreling into 40 I was tired of it and miles beyond the realization that the world doesn't want a 41 year old rock star. The world doesn't even make rock stars any more. I decided to turn to a life of crime, crime novels that is. Jeff took a similar route but he focused on Young Adult fiction. Since then he's been on quiet a tear. He's published two books, to rave reviews I might add, and is working on a third. What follows is an interview we did about what I'll call emotional research.
Adam Hill-Reading The Serpent King I was taken back to high school. I thought of things I hadn't in years. I had a favorite teacher in high school for art and I realized while reading that over the last two decades he has morphed into a friend of my parents from the same time period. What I'm getting at is the book reminded me of a time and place in personally specific ways which is really a testament to your book. So it's odd to say the phrase “research emotions” or “emotional research” but did you do any things to get back to that head space?
Jeff Zentner-The one really tangible thing I did was start listening to a lot of the music I listened to as a teenager—Depeche Mode, The Cure, etc. In general, though, I have a keen (sometimes better than I'd like) memory of what teenagedom was like, especially from an emotional standpoint. I really remember what it felt like.
AH-I know you do the Rock n Roll camp. So I imagine the camp is a research of sorts. I think at your book launch for The Serpent King you said that they inspired you to reach that age group. You figured you could do that as a writer much easier than you could as a musician. There is a practicality there but it seems there had to be an inspiration point for it to work. Do you remember the point where it went from an idea to a new road?
JZ-I remember the exact moment the idea gelled. It was a cold, rainy day in February 2013. I was out running and I suddenly got an idea for a story. Something I knew I could commit to. That Sunday, during church, I wrote the first lines of that story on my phone. It would become my first manuscript (which never sold, but who knows...someday?)
It really was a eureka moment, but I'd been pondering for a while how I was past my musical prime in terms of making that my primary creative career, especially if I wanted to reach the young adult audience, which is what Rock Camp left me wanting to do.
AH-Let's talk about the flesh of the characters and the way you crafted them. Dill is a songwriter. I think knowing you and that you were in bands and whatnot I can see how you made him. You could tap into that pretty easy. But a fashionista blogger? Did you research YouTube celebrities? Did you follow them on twitter? How deep did you go Jeff?
JZ-At the time I wrote The Serpent King, I was obsessed with the work and story of fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson. The idea that an 11-year-old girl could use the internet to muscle her way into the national dialogue on fashion was so intriguing to me and so different from my own growing up. So I used her blog a lot as inspiration and followed other fashion bloggers in her orbit on social media.
AH-I was talking to J.D. Wilkes about his book The Vine That Ate the South. In it he incorporates a vast collection of Kentucky mythology, old strange and creepy Kentucky stories that he has heard, read about, and collected. Where did the Serpent King story come from? It seems made of a similar fabric. I think the cool thing here is how as Southerners or Appalachians we can take old stories and make them a fabric for new tales. What’s your take there?
JZ-The story of The Serpent King came from a song by the same name that I wrote while deeply immersed in Appalachian balladry. I wrote it after Hurricane Katrina while thinking about how futile most human action is against the forces of the natural world. The thing I love about Appalachian songs is how ancient the stories they tell sound. I wanted to write a song that sounded like it could have come from the Old Testsment.
AH-Your new book Goodbye Days is about texting and driving. That's a heavy topic. There is a film by Werner Herzog One Second to the Next about the dangers of texting and driving. I've not seen it but it sounds excruciating. Have you see in it? Was there a key event you can talk about that inspired the story? Once you decided on this as the crux of your narrative what sort of research did you do?
JZ-I have seen it! But the key event that inspired the story was actually something quite different. One day I was out walking and three military helicopters flew over my head. I suddenly got an idea for a story about a young man who lives in a small Southern military town and text upon himself to start doing goodbye days with the families of the soldiers killed in battle. My editor liked the basic idea, but wanted to see a more young adult focused story. So she suggested having the subjects of the goodbye days be my protagonist's friends. And I suggested raising the stakes by having my protagonist in some way partly responsible for their deaths. And I couldn't think of a better way to do that than by texting and driving. Most of my research for the story was coming up with the legal theory by which my protagonist could potentially be prosecuted for this. As a state prosecutor in my day job, I had a lot of resources at my disposal.
AH-Travis is such a lovable character. He loves fantasy because his real life is so awful. He's sort of the quintessential teen book reader in that sense looking to literature as an escape. Are you a Sci-Fi reader or did you have to do a crash course in this genre?
JZ-I'm actually not a huge fantasy reader, but the stuff I love, I really love. Because I'm a huge Game of Thrones junky, I invented a very Game of Thrones-esque series for Travis to obsess over.
AH-My favorite part of Stranger Things, the Netflix series, was when they had to call the Science teacher to find out how to make a sensory deprivation tank. I miss that mystery and discovery that used to be inherent in experiencing life whereas now you just google something. I think we are more creative when we go on gut and feel sometimes. Assumptions are really powerful for a reason. At the same time, a fact or a piece of a story can really explode a narrative and bring it into focus. What’s your fine line here?
JZ-That's a really good question. I think when I'm writing, I set forth a framework of facts and then fill it in by a process of assumption and gut-work.
AH-Not to give anything away but I kept thinking of a quote by C.S. Lewis quote while reading the book.
"In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald's reaction to a specifically Caroline joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him 'to myself' now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald. ... We possess each friend not less but more as the number of those with whom we share him increases." I don’t think I really have a question here but this struck me reading the book with the chapters reflecting each of the characters experience.
JZ-That's an amazing quote. I'm filing it away.
AH-As a Christian I really appreciate the positive view of faith in the book. You presented a lot of small town Christian issues and resolved them with respect to the virtues of a small town and of the faith. Most people I know have no desire whatsoever to revisit high school, their small town and by extension have a negative view of faith but you capture it all in a really hopeful way. As sad as the book is it reminds you that there are good things possible. A good book, a good teacher, and good friends can make all the difference. We’re at a time in history where popular entertainment takes a decidedly cynical turn. Was this something you set out to react against?
JZ-Honestly, not really. I wanted to show a realistic picture of the South, and faith is such an important part of the fabric of Southern society that you can't be too cynical about it if you want to depict the South in a way that will resonate with southerners. I've struggled with faith enough to know what a difficult thing it is, and I tried to show that struggle in a nuanced way.
AH-Do you keep a stack of church sign quotes?
JZ-In my head I sure do!
Gang, that's a wrap. Don't forget to follow me on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook so you'll know when I put up new work. I'd love for you to come along on the ride.
You can buy Jeff's book locally at Parnassus Books.
If your not in Nashville it seems Jeff is constantly doing events, check that out here.
Of course his book is available at all online retailers.
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