We at YARN are thrilled to share this interview with Jeff Zentner, one of our favorite young adult authors these days. If you haven’t yet read his Morris award winning novel, “The Serpent King,” or his latest, “Goodbye Days,” trust us–you’ll want to after hearing more about him and his work.
YARN: What does your writing process consist of, from the idea to publication? If you have a drawer full of shelved projects like many writers, how do you push a project you love aside to work on something else? Any tips on finding the story that gets sold (to agents, editors, and readers)?
JZ: I actually don’t have a whole lot of shelved projects. One realistic post-apocalyptic YA novel and half of a novel about surgically modified Russian teenagers crashing an aircraft in Roswell. Pretty much the only thing that will cause me to push a project aside is when no one will publish it.
My writing process for each novel has been the same: I think about who fascinates me at that point in my life, and I invite characters into my head to spend three or four months, with me just listening to them and getting to know them so that they can hold my hand through the writing of the novel.
Tips? You gotta write a story that you’re passionate about. If a story doesn’t make you laugh and cry, it won’t make anyone laugh and cry.
YARN: Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing? What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before the due date?
JZ: Sure, every writer has. Just keep pressing forward. One word after another. You’ll get unstuck. Go take a walk and listen only to the sound of your heartbeat.
YARN: In both your novels, “The Serpent King” and “Goodbye Days,” you contemplate grief. Why is this heartbreak so rewarding and difficult to write about? Is there a “right” way to approach and write about grief?
JZ: I think writing about grief is rewarding because it’s so universal an emotion. It’s difficult to write about because it takes so many forms and can be so irrational and unpredictable. So there’s no right way to write about it. Which can be unnerving.
YARN: Are writing books and songwriting similar for you, or does each discipline require a completely different process and set of skills? What have you learned from songwriting that you think teen writers of prose might learn from?
JZ: Writing songs is very different from writing books, because in songs the protagonist doesn’t necessarily need to grow or change in any way. Also there were always two different entrances to a song for me: through a melody that came to my mind which I would later write words, or through words to which I would later fit a melody.
One great lesson of songwriting is economy of language. In a three or four minutes song every word has to count, you don’t have time to write soliloquies.
YARN: In GOODBYE DAYS there is a particular exchange between Blake and Jesmyn that is worth noting:
Blake: “I’m not that sensitive.”
Jesmyn: “First of all, sensitivity is an awesome trait in men; and second of all, yes you are, and that’s okay. I was trying to give you a compliment.”
Why this exchange? Is this a topic that is not discussed enough in YA?
JZ: I think in general in American society, we give short shrift to the emotional inner life of boys. Young men are very sensitive and society tells them that’s not okay, even in 2017. So they bottle things up and put on brave faces when they’re hurting.
YARN: Both your novels are set in the South. Do you think they could have been set anywhere, or are there specific details that ring especially true to the Southern experience?
JZ: I think there are certain details to both stories that are particularly Southern. For instance, in “The Serpent King,” Pentecostal snakehandling is just not something that goes on in say, New Jersey. “Goodbye Days” is a little more susceptible to being set outside the South, but even then, I intended it as Alice letter to Nashville, so it needed to be set in Nashville.
YARN: The theme of loss comes up in your writing, and is something teens in particular might struggle with. Do you have any advice for those dealing with personal loss?
JZ: Let yourself grieve; remember that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve; remember it’s okay to not be okay.
YARN: In “The Serpent King,” Dill idealizes Lydia to a great extent. Why was this necessary? Why are idealized characters, and the self-awareness that they are idealized, important in YA? When should this tactic be utilized? When shouldn’t it be?
JZ: Part of teenagedom, at least for me, was constructing elaborate myths around people I had crushes on. I think this is part of many people’s experience, so it’s necessary to the realism of a novel. I don’t think idealization should tip over into romanticizing things like self-destructive behavior or fetishizing people.
YARN: Without giving too much away, can you tell us a little about what else you’re working on?
JZ: I’m working on a comedy about two girls who have a public access show where they show horror movies. Wayne’s World meets Ghost World.
Other Books/YA stuff:
YARN: What do you think YA is currently missing? Where are its strengths and its weaknesses? How has the genre evolved since you’ve begun writing?
JZ: YA always needs more books showing the experience of young people from diverse backgrounds. These are the books I want to read, because I love to experience the world through very different eyes.
I think the YA category is working on this, but there’s still much to be done.
YARN: If you could write a YA novel with any other author who would it be? What would it be about?
JZ: I actually do have a plan to write a novella with Brittany Cavallaro about a young man and a young woman, both White House interns, in the waning days of the Obama administration.
YARN: Have you ever tried the so called Snickers salad mentioned in GOODBYE DAYS (Cool Whip, peanuts, and cut-up Snickers)? If you could create a specific food/drink (Example: Adventure Time sandwich.) that would eternally be linked with one of your novels, what would it be and why?
JZ: I have. It’s amazing. I would say Mars Dip—peanut butter mixed with maple syrup that Mars from GOODBYE DAYS loves.
Jeff Zentner is the author of William C. Morris Award winner and Carnegie Medal longlister “The Serpent King” and most recently, “Goodbye Days.” Before becoming a writer, he was a singer-songwriter and guitarist who recorded with Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, and Debbie Harry. In addition to writing and recording his own music, he worked with young musicians at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp, which inspired him to write for young adults. He lives in Nashville.