Jeff Zentner discusses his debut novel in this author interview. Discover all of the Jeff Zentner books in order & his writing process for, “The Serpent King.”
I love discovering debut novelists, and today’s guest author has been my favorite since his first book, The Serpent King.
I promise you, it will be one of your favorite reads! It’s a gripping YA read that had me laughing and crying (sometimes simultaneously), and I was so sad when this book ended.
It’s as epic as The Fault in Our Stars (read my John Green exclusive interview on The Fault in Our Stars movie).
Be sure to scroll down for the complete list of his books and answers to your most asked questions, including what new book projects the author is working on.
The Serpent King Synopsis
The Serpent King follows three unlikely friends in the rural South, each battling their personal demons.
Dill’s family struggles financially due to his scandalous, snake-charming Pentecostal preacher father. Travis seeks solace in a book series to escape his abusive father. Lydia plans to start a new life in New York as a blogger but grapples with leaving her loved ones behind.
Together, they form an unexpected, heartwarming bond to confront unforeseen challenges.
This friendship is beautifully woven with humor and heart.
I could not put this book down and read it in a single day. I had to know what would happen with these three, and I couldn’t wait to chat with Jeff about his incredible writing.
The Best Jeff Zentner Books (Exclusive Interview)
I know many of us feel like we have a book in us, but we also feel like we never have the time to start one. But you managed to write your book on your phone while commuting to work. Can you tell us a little bit about that process?
It was a process born of simple necessity! I had almost two hours of bus commute each day, plus a day job and family, so I had to squeeze the writing in whenever possible.
So, I’d try to write 500 words on my iPhone 5S on the way to the office, 500 at lunch, and 500 on the way home.
Yes, my right thumb would get very tired.
At night, I’d put my son to bed and then try to write another thousand words or two on my laptop.
What makes writing so wonderful is that I can whip out my phone at various times and get a little work done. Before writing, my creative outlet was music; I couldn’t use the same process as I do with writing.
Even in Nashville, bringing your guitar on the bus and trying to work out a new song is frowned upon.
I grew up in a very religious home, so I could relate to Dill’s need not to disappoint God or his parents.
Yet Dill still had a solid connection to his faith, even under challenging circumstances.
Why did you think it was important for Dill not to turn away from God? Did you want your readers to take away that message?
I gleaned insights about what growing up with less supportive and loving religious parents would look like from my own experience in a conservative religious home.
Throughout my life, I’ve struggled with faith, and I’ve had to come to my own view of God because I don’t always believe everything I’m told about him.
Faith is not a thing that can be abandoned easily, and I think it would have been dishonest of me to depict it as something one can simply walk away from.
It felt more honest to me to have Dill wrestle with faith until he could come to know a God more concerned with his joy than putting him to constant tests that could harm him.
Lydia was my favorite character because I could relate to her humor and to her job as a blogger.
As a blogger, I know I am very thoughtful of my brand, and I related to Lydia’s struggle with not sharing photos of her friends to stay consistent with her brand’s message.
Do you think it was wrong of her to do that, and how did you come up with this all-too-true blogger struggle?
I don’t believe that it was wrong of her to do that.
It’s her blog, persona, and brand, so I think she is entitled to craft those things as she sees fit. But even though I think she wasn’t wrong to exclude Travis and Dill, she was right to include them once she felt brave enough.
Though as an author, I lost all power to dictate how people felt about her behavior once I published the book with her in all of her flaws.
So if anyone else thinks she was wrong to exclude Dill and Travis, who am I to say otherwise?
I came up with this struggle sort of by intuition. Lydia was loosely based on Tavi Gevinson and her fashion blog, Style Rookie.
It looked like she associated exclusively with people with equally amazing style.
I thought it unlikely she only knew and loved people with exceptional fashion sense. So there seemed to be some image control going on there.
Also, I’ve maintained Internet presences for years for various musical projects, so I knew that part of crafting an image and persona was selectivity in what you reveal about yourself.
*Editor’s Note: Style Rookie is no longer active, and Tavi Gevinson’s current website is https://www.tavigevinson.world/
Dill grows up in a Pentecostal church that believes in snake-handling. What type of research did you do to create your church scenes?
I’ve long been fascinated with the practice of snake-handling, so I’ve done a fair amount of reading on it. The definitive work is a beautiful book called Salvation on Sand Mountain, which I highly recommend. I also interviewed friends who have attended worship services at snake-handling churches.
The nice thing is that there’s no central authority for snake-handling sects. There’s no pope of snake-handling. So I invented the church in the book; no one can say I got it wrong!
One line in your book is, “And if you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.”
I really loved it because it is so true.
I imagine putting your book out into the world took a lot of bravery.
Do you feel like this is one of the bravest things you’ve done? Have you always dreamed of writing, or was this something you discovered you enjoyed later in life?
I do think it’s one of the bravest things I’ve personally done, but that doesn’t mean it’s one of the bravest things that can be done.
But I think what Dill does in the book takes more courage– he endures harsh circumstances, including bullying, unloving parents, and poverty, without letting those circumstances define him.
For much of my life, the idea of becoming a writer wasn’t even a dream I entertained. It seemed too impossible and daunting, as if books could only descend from ivory towers and be carried by doves.
However, my perspective has shifted in recent years, thanks to getting to know several published authors personally. This made writing seem like a possibility for me as well.
Moreover, having a day job that demanded extensive and disciplined writing every day provided the last push of courage I needed to give it a try.
You signed a two-book deal with Crown/Random House & Tundra/Random House Canada, which is fantastic and, for me as a writer, a little terrifying too.
Did you have to immediately get to work on the second book after this book was published? Has your writing process changed with this book, or are you still writing on a bus?
It was terrifying for me too! I had no idea what my second book would be, and yet I needed to deliver my editor something she loved as much as The Serpent King, a story I’d thought about for years.
I ran several ideas past them until, finally, something clicked on idea ten or eleven.
It’s not a companion or a sequel to The Serpent King, but it does feature a cameo from one of The Serpent King’s gang.
*Editors Note: This book, Goodbye Days, has since been published!
My process for this book was different than The Serpent King. I gave my full attention to writing The Serpent King– no outside reading, no TV, no movies, nothing.
With book two, I made sure to leave plenty of time to consume the books and shows I loved while writing.
Since I had now reserved my evenings for reading and shows, I wrote book two on the bus even more than I had with The Serpent King.
I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone, but it seemed like it was left wide open for The Serpent King sequel.
Do you see this story continuing, or do you feel you’ve closed the chapters on these friends?
I can’t envision writing a sequel.
I’m happy with where things end, and I think I gave my readers enough for them to write their own lovely sequels in their heads.
There used to be an epilogue, but I cut it out because I was unsatisfied with how neatly it tied everything together. I wanted to leave room for imagination.
I’ve had the unique opportunity to interview a few musicians turned novelists over the years. I understand you are a musician (as well as an attorney & youth camp volunteer!).
Are you still writing music too?
Do you find these processes to be similar?
Sadly, I find that the music-writing muse has left me.
But hopefully, only for a time. I’m starting to make friends with my guitar again.
I went a long time without even playing it.
I’m just trying to renegotiate my relationship with music now. It feels like we broke up, and we’re just learning how to be friends again.
If you could tell anyone to read one book (other than your own), what would that book be?
I’m going to cheat and do two.
On the adult side, my all-time favorite book is The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
It’s so brutal and unsparing yet beautiful and filled with ferocious love. I feel like I can survive anything with that story in my mind.
On the young-adult side, my favorite book is The First Time She Drowned by Kerry Kletter.
It’s so incredibly lyrical and gorgeous and filled with wisdom. It inspires me as a writer to work harder.
New to Jeff Zentner? Here are some answers to your most frequently asked questions!
What are the best Jeff Zentner books?
My favorite books are The Serpent King and In the Wild Light.
In fact, I selected Jeff’s book for the 2022 MomAdvice Book Club and it was voted as the Best Book of the Year by our readers.
His fourth book, In the Wild Light, is also his highest-rated novel on GoodReads.
What are Jeff Zentner’s books in the order published?
- The Serpent King (2016)
- Goodbye Days (2017)
- Rayne & Delilah’s Midnite Matinee (2019)
- In the Wild Light (2021)
- Colton Gentry’s Third Act (April 2024)
- Sunrise Nights (June 2024)
What new projects is Jeff Zentner working on?
Jeff has two projects that were recently announced.
Jeff Zentner and Brittany Cavallaro’s novel is a poetic tale of two individuals who form a profound bond during Sunrise Night at an arts camp.
They agree not to communicate until the next Sunrise Night, using this annual event to rediscover themselves and explore the potential of their relationship.
Pitched as a YA Before Sunrise, this book is set to publish in June 2024.
Love this author interview? Stream the Book Gang Podcast wherever you get podcasts. We discuss debuts, backlist, and under-the-radar book gems with your favorite authors.
TELL ME: What is YOUR favorite Jeff Zentner book?