When Jeff Zentner lived in Asheville (a very literary-oriented town), he was working on his solo music endeavor and still playing the occasional show with his Southern Gothic/Americana band Creech Holler. But then Zentner relocated to Nashville (a very music-oriented town) where a new job allowed him to focus more on writing. He also started volunteering at the Southern Girls and Tennessee Teens rock camps where, he says, “I fell in love with the way [the kids] are vulnerable for the art they love. It made me want to create for them.” But Zentner’s music career was winding down, so he turned to fiction.
Zentner presents his debut young adult novel, The Serpent King, at Malaprop’s on Saturday, April 9. Local YA author (and Zentner’s longtime friend) Stephanie Perkins will lead a Q&A at the event.
The Serpent King follows three small-town misfits through their senior year in fictional Forrestville, Tenn. Dill is a budding songwriter longing to escape the troubles of his Pentecostal family. Travis — part redneck, part gamer — turns to fantasy to escape his dad’s disapproval. And sassy Lydia, who runs a popular fashion blog, contains a self-possessed cool despite disapproval from her sheltered peers. The story centers on Dill who, though his own future seems limited by circumstance, finds inspiration in his friends and begins to imagine possibilities for himself.
“My writing process involves me inviting all these characters into my head for what I call a residency,” Zentner says. “By the time I put pen to paper, they’re telling me their story.” Pen to paper is a bit of a misnomer — he typed The Serpent King on his cellphone during his daily bus commutes. (An advocate of carving out time for creativity, Zentner gave a 2012 TEDx talk on the subject.)
Though a YA novel seems like a drastic turn from a rock music career (Zentner has recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and Debbie Harry), there was a link between the two. After an initial attempt at a novel that didn’t garner any attention from the publishing world, Zentner plumbed his songwriting catalog. “I found a couple of songs that had a story in them, and I expanded out the story,” he says. One of those lent its title to the novel.
There is a kind of modern Southern Gothic mood to The Serpent King — it’s name references the handling of snakes, for which Dill’s pastor father was known (before he landed in prison). In the story, Dill and Travis both suspect they’ll be stuck in their small town. For Dill, that fate is especially alarming when Lydia, his closest friend and secret crush, gets ready to realize her dreams on the much larger stage of New York City. But there’s plenty of humor, too, especially from Lydia, who excels at snappy comebacks and withering criticism. She describes Forrestville High as “a fashion wasteland … full of outlet mall-clad drones who smell like survivors of an Axe body spray truck crash with a school bus.”
“I really love the character of Lydia because, with her, I just wrote the daughter I’ll never have,” Zentner says.
He quickly found representation for The Serpent King and sold the book to Random House. He’s already completed a second novel for the publisher, which is on track for a spring 2017 release. “A character from The Serpent King has a cameo in that book,” Zentner reveals, though he won’t give away who it is.
There is a kind of reverse parallel between the release of a novel and an album: With music, “I had the product, but nobody cared about it,” Zentner says. With the book, “I didn’t have the product, but many people cared about it and were excited for it.” The long promotional process allowed Random House to build interest, especially among teen readers and book bloggers who have been enthusiastically vocal about Zentner’s novel on social media.
But it’s worth mentioning that Zentner’s solo albums, perhaps especially folk-noir record A Season Lost, is evocative of a similar mood as The Serpent King and would serve as apt accompaniment. Plus, it’s not a stretch to imagine Dill singing those songs in the Tennessee countryside. After all, fiction rarely falls too far from real life.
Editor’s note: Alli Marshall was a beta reader of The Serpent King and has reviewed Zentner’s music in the past.
WHO: Jeff Zentner presents The Serpent King with special guest Stephanie Perkins
WHERE: Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Saturday, April 9, 7 p.m. Free