IF YOU’VE HAD YOUR FINGER on the pulse of contemporary YA lit, you may know Jeff Zentner. Zentner’s debut, The Serpent King (2016), was a searing stunner that won the William C. Morris Award, among a long list of other accolades. His follow-up, Goodbye Days (2017), was a mind-bending cautionary tale about modern technology, topical and (im)pertinent. The recently released Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee (2019), a bittersweet tale of female friendship, is so hilarious it had me howling with laughter.
Many themes course through Zentner’s books — love, loss, the challenge of facing an unknown future — but the lifeblood that nourishes them is friendship: the friendships we remember from our teen years that we never again attain in adulthood; the friendships that define who we have become. In The Serpent King, a “misfit friendship” among three outcasts becomes the foundation for a profound bond. Goodbye Days, a risky, tricky, raw-hearted book, tells the story of four young male friends, three of whom perish in a shattering accident that may or may not be the fault of the protagonist. In Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee, two 18-year-old girls run a public-access television show that features cheesy horror flicks. They are bonded by their alter egos — “Rayne Ravenscroft” and “Delilah Darkwood” — before their friendship is tested by a journey that deftly redefines their futures.
Artists, misfits, and underdogs will exult in Zentner’s depiction of the power and necessity of friendship, especially those for whom friends are their “chosen family.” In each book, these teens stand on the shores of adolescence gazing at the horizon of adulthood, facing all the possible reckonings of what society deems as normal: college, career, marriage, children. And then what? And what else? And why? In Zentner’s domain, youthful friendships may not last forever, but they offer truth and determination to guide the young people into their futures.
A darkly handsome and affable fellow, Zentner looks and dresses like a rock star — which is apropos, considering that he was on his way to becoming one. On top of the virtuosity of his writing, Zentner’s journey from musician to author caught my attention. We discussed this transition, as well as the key themes of his books and his affinity for the YA genre, in an email exchange. You can find out more about him on his website or Twitter account.
TIM CUMMINGS: How did you spend your younger days, and how has this past informed the way you write?
JEFF ZENTNER: This will shock you, but much of my youth was spent reading. We had one library in my town, and my mom would drop me off there with a quarter for the pay phone to call her when I was done. She couldn’t hang for the hours I was capable of spending there. When I wasn’t doing that, I was riding my bike to the grocery store to read Stephen King books. I read all of Christine and Carrie at the store.
I think my childhood instilled in me a love for stories about young people who find great solace in the things they love, especially when their lives are limited in other, important ways, such as by having abusive parents or being bullied. Being so interested in books as a kid also made me, in many ways, a misfit and an outcast, and so I have a deep love for outcast and misfit kids and I find them relatable subjects for my stories.
You started out as a musician. Can you talk about your journey to becoming a writer?
If you thought that my love for books made for a linear journey to becoming a writer, you’d be wrong. It was the opposite. I held books in such high regard growing up that writing them never entered my mind for many years. I didn’t know what sort of people wrote books, but I assumed that I was unworthy of doing it. So, instead, I became a musician. I moved to Nashville in my 20s, started a band, and did that until my 30s.
That was when the hard reality set in — that if you haven’t achieved musical success by age 30, you probably won’t. So I laid to rest my own musical dreams and devoted myself to helping others accomplish theirs. I began volunteering at Tennessee Teens Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp, teaching guitar. And, in the process, I fell in love with the way young adults love the art they love. It made me want to create art for them. But I was past my musical prime — especially for making music toward which young adults would gravitate. So, instead, I decided to have a go at publishing a novel for young adults. I didn’t feel any more worthy of writing books; I was just less afraid to fail, having seen how you can survive the failure of a creative dream.
So I wrote a book called The Serpent King on my iPhone during my bus commute to and from my job as a state prosecutor, handling murder and rape cases. My friend Denise Grollmus helped me get the manuscript into an agent’s hands, who got it into the hands of Emily Easton, my editor at Crown.
With three books on the shelves now, can you tell us whether a writing career has met your expectations?
Two things have exceeded my wildest hopes and expectations. First, I never imagined that my books would reach as many people as they have. By no means am I best-selling author, but I regularly do single events where I sell more books than I ever sold all of my solo albums. And that’s a wonderful feeling. The idea that I can wake up to an email from a reader in Indonesia, telling me how much she loved my book about misfit kids in the rural Southern United States (which happened the other day) is a particular sort of magic.
Second, I expected to find the work of creating art for young adults rewarding, but I wasn’t prepared for how rewarding. The thing I love about young adults is how unabashedly and unashamedly they love the art they love, how they let it serve as salvation and identity. And so I regularly get emails from kids telling me that my books were a comfort in some pretty bleak circumstances, and I can’t think of anything more rewarding. I’m very proud of that.
What do you feel are the most important issues contemporary YA can engage with?
I can really only speak for myself here and the sort of stories I write. I think it’s important to talk about income disparity in America. This hits kids particularly hard, where so much social status depends on the clothes you wear and the things you possess. This is a growing problem in America. I’ve lived in Brazil, a country with pronounced income inequality, so I’ve seen what it looks like in a society with a very few haves and many have-nots.
I think it’s important to talk about mental illness, so that we can keep destigmatizing it, so that people can get the help they need without shame.
Finally, I think it’s important to start taking a sledgehammer to toxic masculinity in America — particularly the version that exists in the American South. It’s important to me to show kids that there are so many healthy ways to be a man, that they don’t need to choose unhealthy ways.
Who are some of your heroes, and how have they influenced you?
I would have to say Stephen King. For decades, he’s produced, in my opinion, some of the greatest works of American literature, all while never really receiving credit for the level of his craft. Based on what I can see of his life, he appears to be a deeply kind and decent person who lifts up the people around him. I loved his books as a kid and I love his books now, for all sorts of reasons. He’s instilled in me a desire to never give up a relentless creative spirit and to always lift up the people in my orbit.
Some other literary and non-literary heroes: Jesmyn Ward, Ocean Vuong, Michael Ondaatje, Nick Cave, Mohsin Hamid, Cormac McCarthy, and Donna Tartt. As to the latter two in particular, I’m inspired by their patience and apparent lack of need for attention and adulation. I think these are worthy aspirations.
If you had the opportunity to sit around a table and have a meal with five amazing writers, who would you choose and why?
First, let’s get Stephen King in there, for all the reasons I’ve already said and because that’s going to make me look cool. Based on his books, Ted Chiang seems like one of the smartest people on earth, so I’d want him there. Mohsin Hamid is very funny, so I’d want him there. Benjamin Dreyer is a friend and absolutely hysterical, and he could lead some lively discussions about grammar and usage, so I’d want him there. And, although he’s no longer with us, I would have dearly loved to have met David Rakoff. His writing was so piercing and warm and generous and funny. Just perfection.
In addition to the theme of friendship that drives your books, you also focus often on loss, the challenge of facing an unknown future, and the role of music as solace and refuge. Why do these topics resonate with you?
I have, in many ways, an awful memory. I forget the names of people to whom I’ve just been introduced. I forget the names of favorite bands. I always used to forget my own song lyrics when performing. But one thing indelibly etched into my mind is the emotional memory of being a young adult. I remember how music was a salvation and an identity for me. I remember how keenly I felt every loss. I hadn’t lived long enough to understand how cyclical life is, how many peaks and valleys there are. So every breakup felt like the end of my world. And I remember feeling how out of control of my own life I was, and how frightening that made the future seem. All of these things are a real and vital part of the teenage experience, and so I write about them.
Are there any characters in your books that have an autobiographical basis?
This is a bit of a cop-out answer, but here goes: all of my main characters have a healthy dose of me in them. I take one or more of my attributes or viewpoints and plant them in the soil of another character to see how they grow. That’s one of the beauties of writing — that you get to see how your life would have turned out if you had the same curiosity, sense of humor, hungers, and dreams, but instead of being you, you were an internet-famous teenager in a small, fictional town in rural Tennessee (like Lydia from The Serpent King) or the son of a Pentecostal snake-handling preacher (like Dill from The Serpent King).
What do you most want readers to take away from your books?
That there’s always hope, even in the darkest of circumstances. That’s the through-line of all my books. I believe in hope. Based on the messages I get from readers, that message is being received.
Can you talk about any particularly memorable experiences you’ve had meeting fans and how those meetings have affected you?
I’ve had several readers tell me that my books literally saved their lives. I had a reader tell me that my book inspired them to contact their father for the first time in 10 years. Just last week, I had a wonderful reader show me the tattered copy of Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee that she kept in her purse during a difficult year. All of this has been deeply humbling, and I feel unworthy. All of this is a reminder of what a sacred duty it is to write stories for young people.
How do you see the future of YA literature panning out?
Increasingly, young adult literature is telling the stories of kids who haven’t gotten to see themselves much — certainly not positively — in stories. That’s a trajectory I hope will continue. I think it will. I hope to contribute to that in any way I’m able.
Tim Cummings holds an MFA in Writing for Young People from Antioch University Los Angeles. His 2019 essay, “You Have Changed Me Forever” was published by Critical Read and won their ‘Origins’ essay contest. It was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Other recent work has appeared in F(r)iction, Lunch Ticket, Meow Meow Pow Pow, From Whispers to Roars, and LARB. He is the recipient of three LA Drama Critics Circle awards for his work on the stages of Los Angeles. You can visit him at timcummings.ink.