For most of his life, Jeff Zentner has made music his creative outlet. He has released three albums of original work as a solo artist and two albums with a band he played with from 2004 to 2009, and he worked as a sideman on recordings with big-name artists such as Nick Cave, Debbie Harry, and Iggy Pop. Zentner began writing in earnest in 2012 after releasing an album that he considered the pinnacle of his music career but that didn’t take off. He felt, as a musician in his mid-30s, that the time had passed for him to get his big break.
Zentner came upon the idea for The Serpent King (Crown, Mar.) in a roundabout way, having already written a postapocalyptic YA novel that wasn’t garnering interest. Mining his musical background, he picked two songs out of his catalogue that he thought had a story to tell, but that didn’t immediately seem to have anything in common. One of those songs was called “The Serpent King.” He soon realized that these two songs had more in common than he first thought, and thus was born the idea for a book.
The Serpent King follows three friends as they navigate their last year of high school—and what comes after—in a small, working-class Tennessee town. One of the characters, Dillard “Dill” Early, has a father in prison who made his name as a Pentecostal preacher who dabbled in snake handling. Zentner says that incorporating religious themes came naturally to him, as religion had been a source of comfort and turmoil in his life when he was growing up. “Something that could influence my life in such diametrically opposed ways would make for good conflict,” he notes.
Zentner says he’s also long been drawn to stories about friendship. “I grew up loving movies like The Breakfast Club and Goonies that centered around friendships of misfits,” he says. The setting also plays a huge part in The Serpent King; to the author, Tennessee is a “place filled with ghosts and legends and rustic beauty.”
If readers assume that the three characters in the book are modeled after Zentner or based on people he knows, they’d be right—to a point. The narrative alternates between the three main characters, and the author says he split his personality into thirds, while creating people he’d want to know, turning “write what you know” into “write what fascinates you.”
The road to The Serpent King’s publication is every aspiring author’s dream scenario. In mid-April 2014, Zentner met his agent, Charlie Olsen of Inkwell Management, through a friend who was helping him polish the manuscript. A week later, Olsen offered to represent Zentner, allowing him to skip the entire (sometimes grueling) query process. Emily Easton of Crown snapped up the book in late June, winning a five-house auction. Writing came relatively easily, Zentner says, “mainly because I had no idea what I was doing,” and so he didn’t feel constrained by any specific writing process.
When asked what he looks for in a good story, Zentner says, “Heart—a huge, beating heart.” He adds: “I don’t know how to describe when a story has heart, but I know it when I see it and I strive to fill my stories with heart. It’s that feeling, I suppose, when you’re reading something and you can tell it’s no academic exercise for the author. They’re bleeding onto the page. You’re reading about people they love deeply. That’s heart.”