Named a PW Flying Start in 2016, Jeff Zentner has since written three more acclaimed novels, the most recent of which is In the Wild Light. His new novel follows best friends Cash and Delaney, who, after making a notable scientific discovery, are awarded full scholarships to a Connecticut boarding school far from their Tennessee hometown. Zentner spoke with PW about his mission to combat toxic masculinity through writing, the need for a more nuanced depiction of Appalachian people, and how his own journey to becoming a poet informed Cash’s story.
Your novels are set in Appalachia and often explore the main characters’ connections to the place they’ve grown up and, in some cases, their wish to escape those places. But the characters at this heart of this story depart somewhat from that narrative. What called you to write this story and from this perspective?
This story is sort of a spiritual sequel to The Serpent King, in that I wanted to follow some of the ideas in that book but to different conclusions. So, instead of two characters going their separate ways, there are two characters who stay and go to school together. I wondered, what if two characters—Cash and Delaney—go out into the world and discover that they may end up back there again.
Many of the characters in this book challenge expectations and stereotypes, like many of the male-identifying characters actively rejecting toxic masculinity. Can you speak about these characterization choices and their importance?
The fight against toxic masculinity is something I took on subconsciously when I started writing books, but by the time I started writing In the Wild Light, I had accepted that this is a question I’m actively trying to contend with through my writing. It’s my ministry, if you will, to young men, particularly southern young men, because it is such a destructive force on an interpersonal and societal level. I feel I had an opportunity and obligation to write young male characters who reject that model of masculinity and instead approach masculinity with tenderness and love.
Family, both biological and chosen, is central to all your novels. How do you approach portraying strong, tender familial relationships?
I write my aspirational family in each of my books. In The Serpent King, I wrote my aspirational father figure in the form of Dr. Blankenship, and In the Wild Light I wrote my aspirational grandparents, teacher, and therapist. It’s as simple as trying to write the best manifestation of something that I can imagine. The found-family relationships in my books are modeled after those I’ve developed in my own life, that relationships that have sustained me and been a comfort during difficult times.
A major focus in the book is characters grappling with where they come from and challenging what the world says they can be or achieve because of their socioeconomic statuses and backgrounds. Why did you feel it was important to explore these themes?
Another of my missions is to explore social class [in young adult literature]. It’s an issue in American society and increasingly determinative of what you can do in your life and what opportunities will be available to you. I’m continually amazed by the fact that America is the richest country on Earth, yet we have people going into debt to pay medical bills next to billionaires shooting themselves into space. It’s mind-boggling! I lived in Brazil when I was younger and saw first-hand what happens when wealth is extremely concentrated in a tiny percentage of the population, with 99% of the people in poverty. Ironically, Brazil’s middle class is now growing while the U.S.’s is shrinking, but I feel like America is growing toward the Brazil I experienced. I wrote this into the book, somewhat, with the Brazilian character of Viviani.
I grew up in a middle-class home where my mom stayed home while my dad worked. He didn’t make an exorbitant salary, but it was enough to own a home, a couple cars, and to go on modest vacations and live debt-free. The ability to live that way today is disappearing. It’s one of the reasons that, every time one of the teens in my books needs medical treatment, I always try to drop a little explanation of how they access that medical treatment. It’s something I didn’t understand until I was older, but teens need to know that not everyone in the United States has access to medical care. You can’t go to the doctor the way you would call the fire department if your house was on fire or like you can attend a public school; our medical system is private and designed to make a profit.
Though much of this novel is set at an elite Connecticut prep school, Cash and Delaney’s Appalachian hometown is a character unto itself. What do you hope readers both from and outside of the region take from your fictional rending?
That Appalachian people are not the stereotypes on the television screen: in-bred, hillbilly yokels wearing overalls with no shirts and spitting in tobacco jugs. I feel a lot of people’s experiences with Appalachia comes from the book Hillbilly Elegy. I haven’t read it, but many people who have take exception with the conclusions Vance draws in his narrative, which discounts the larger systemic issues that have contributed to poverty in Appalachia, choosing instead to pin it all on individuals and their poor choices. I hope readers understand that Appalachia is a beautiful place and a region filled with people who are proud and intelligent and have agency and, sometimes, have made choices to be and stay where they are.
I was a state prosecutor in Tennessee for almost a decade before writing In the Wild Light, so also wanted to show the effects of the opioid epidemic on the region. I saw firsthand what devastation the opioid industry wrought in Appalachia, with big pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson making and aggressively marketing drugs to influence their use and dependence.
At what point did you know that poetry—and Cash’s poems—would play a central role in the story? Were they written before, during, or after the prose?
Each one of my books is kind of a referendum on whatever I love and am obsessed with at any given time. I try to pack it all in one book and see what sticks! While writing In the Wild Light, I was becoming very interested in poetry, which is, to me, the final frontier of writing. I wrote songs with original lyrics for many years, which is kind of like poetry, but I was hiding behind the performance of the music and my guitar. It’s not the same as just putting your words on the page to sing for themselves. And I was writing novels, but, again, that’s not distilled down to the absolute essence of feeling and idea like poetry. I was on a journey to understand and write poetry. I’d also always wanted to write a boarding school story, since I loved the movie Dead Poets Society as a kid, with it having a profound influence on my world view. I thought, what if I made this journey towards becoming and calling myself a poet part of In the Wild Light?
I wrote Cash’s poems as I was writing the prose because I wanted the poetry to reflect his life. The one thing I kind of reverse-engineered was the phrase “in the wild light,” which came to me very early in the process as a single phrase. I knew I wanted it as a book title; I had to work it into the text to justify it as a title!
I was tentative while writing the poems, writing in such a way that my editor could just delete them out of the story if they didn’t work for her. She didn’t delete any, so I guess it worked out okay! But it was a funny experience because I was teaching myself how to write poetry through the character of Dr. Adkins, writing my own instruction in poetry into her dialogue and interactions with Cash and then, through Cash, enacting the lessons that I had taught myself through Dr. Adkins.
Cash’s relationship with poetry is fostered by Dr. Adkins, a professor and poet from Appalachia. Are there poets in your life who encouraged your connection to poetry?
I’m friends with the incredible poet Ocean Vuong, who encouraged me in such a gentle and intelligent way. Dr. Adkins is also heavily based on my friend Brittany Cavallaro, who writes the Charlotte Holmes series, but is also an incredibly accomplished poet who teaches poetry. I’ve had the opportunity to see her teach a class and she is so brilliant, doing it with such compassion and empathy. She was one of my first readers of my poems. The combination of Ocean and Brittany treating me like a poet inspired me to create a character like Adkins who meets a kid who normally wouldn’t fit the stereotype of a poet, sees the ability in him, and fosters it.
Speaking of your own poetry, what are the chances we will see a book of poetry or even a novel in verse from you someday?
There’s a good chance you’ll see both! I am working on a verse novel now, but I can’t say too much yet. And I’ve challenged myself to challenge a book of poetry, too. When I wrote those poems through Cash’s voice, I still hadn’t arrived where I wanted to be as a poet; I was still hedging by letting Cash’s name be on the poems; I was holding back. The next step is to write poetry under my own name.
Does your work as a musician impact your approach to storytelling? Is music part of your writing process?
Music is a part of my process in that music of a certain tone and mood can put me in a place where I am more receptive to receiving inspiration. I’ll go for a long walk and listen to someone like Julien Baker or some beautiful instrumental music. I’m a big fan of post-rock bands like Slow Meadow and Beach House.
What music really taught me is that it’s okay for me to love all kinds of music, but that there’s a kind of music that I make and that I need to make to tell the stories I need to tell. That there is a certain tone and atmosphere to the music I create. I apply this to writing, too.
What’s next for you, other than the poetry projects you mentioned?
In September, a month after In the Wild Light releases, I have a short story coming out in the anthology Battle of the Bands. It’s about a three-girl light and sound crew, very much in the comedic vein of Rayne and Delilah’s Midnite Matinee.
In the Wild Light by Jeff Zentner. Crown, $17.99 Aug. 10 ISBN 978-1-5247-2024-7