Gabby: Today, I’m thrilled to be chatting with Jeff Zentner. He’s the author of the YA novel, THE SERPENT KING, out now, and GOODBYE DAYS, coming out in March of 2017. If you’ve read Jeff’s work, you already know you better have your tissues handy. Jeff lives in Nashville, TN where he like to rock out, show kids how to rock out, and write books that will make you cry. Thanks for hanging out with us, Jeff!
Jeff: Thanks for having me on Winged Pen!
Gabby: I’m going to dive right in. What’s the best writing advice you ever got?
Jeff: I always struggle with story stakes because I find people just living their lives so fascinating. My two amazing critique partners, Kerry Kletter, and Adriana Mather, both gave me the advice to “put a ticking clock” on my story, have something impending, something my characters are racing.
Gabby: What was your favorite book as a kid? How about this year?
Jeff: As a middle grader, my favorite book was A HOUSE WITH A CLOCK IN ITS WALLS, by John Bellairs. As a young adult, it was THE OUTSIDERS, by SE Hinton. My favorite book this year has been OLD SCHOOL by Tobias Wolff.
Gabby: What writers inspire you?
Jeff: My friend Kerry Kletter inspires me with her use of metaphor and lyricism. I’m also hugely inspired by Jesmyn Ward, Joan Didion, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Ondaatje, Ocean Vuong, Donna Tartt, Stephen King, Joe Bolton, Charles Frazier, Anthony Doerr, Phillipp Meyer, Cormac McCarthy, and Leslie Marmon Silko.
Gabby: Can you talk about your most difficult craft hurdle?
Jeff: Try as I might, my first drafts never have high enough stakes. I’m so content with very quiet stories. But ultimately, I want my stories to be more propulsive, and that won’t happen without stakes.
Gabby: I’ve read that you came to writing through your work in music. How did that happen? Are you still involved in the Nashville music scene?
Jeff: I’m pretty much retired from music. I have time for a day job, and one serious creative pursuit. So I pick writing. I do still maintain my connection to the music world through my work with Tennessee Teen Rock Camp, and Southern Girls Rock Camp.
Gabby: What is your work/writing schedule?
Jeff: I’m not one of these writers who writes every day. I go months without writing a word in my work in progress. But I do a lot of writing in my head, especially when I go on walks. I consider consuming other stories – books, TV—part of my writing process. When I’m in a writing phase, I’ll write for 45 minutes on the bus on my way into work, over my lunch hour, and for the 45 minute bus commute home. I try to do 1,000-1,500 words a day. I can generally do that without having to work nights.
Gabby: Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you get past it?
Jeff: Sure. I go for walks. I’ve never gone on a walk without finding a solution to a problem.
Gabby: Your newest book, GOODBYE DAYS, comes out in March, 2017. What’s it about and what was the inspiration for the story?
Jeff: It’s about a young man struggling with grief and guilt in the wake of the death of his three best friends, which he may have caused by texting them. While struggling with panic attacks, and undergoing therapy for them, and contending with the threat of prosecution, he embarks on a series of “goodbye days” with the families of his friends. On these, he spends one last day with them trying to recreate their friend and loved one’s life for one more day. It was inspired by my obsession with death and loss.
Gabby: Do you have any strange writing habits?
Jeff: Before I’ll begin writing, I invite my characters into my head for a months-long residency, where they have conversations and I listen in and eavesdrop, until by the time I start writing their story, they’re telling me their story and I’m not telling them their story.
Gabby: One of the quotes I’ve seen floating around about THE SERPENT KING, is from the New York Public Library. They said, “Move over, John Green; Zentner is coming for you.” So, my question to you is, do you have anything you want to say to John Green? Will there be fisticuffs?
Jeff: I would say, “Move over, John Green, I’m coming for you,” and he would call down from his castle walls, “What? I can’t hear you!” And I would yell back, “I said I really loved Looking for Alaska!” In all seriousness, I really enjoy John Green’s books and I think he does a tremendous amount of good in the world. I’m glad he exists.
Gabby: Okay, Jeff. It’s time for the Lightning Round. *hands Jeff a burger* Ready?
Jeff: Mmmph [eating burger]
Gabby: Coffee or tea?
Jeff: Moroccan mint tea from Trader Joe’s. I’m a junky.
Gabby: Sweet or salty?
Jeff: Yes. I’m a kettle corn man.
Gabby: Dog, cat, or other?
Jeff: Dogs, but I feel no great need or desire to actually own one.
Gabby: Plotter or pantser?
Jeff: Plotter. Who often wears pants.
Well, thanks for hanging out with me at The Winged Pen. We’re wishing you even more success with GOODBYE DAYS. For all you readers and writers out there, we strongly advise you to check out THE SERPENT KING, if you haven’t already, and to keep a weather eye for GOODBYE DAYS. Don’t forget your tissues.
— Gabrielle Byrne lives in rainy wilds of the Pacific Northwest, and writes dark and twisty tales for middle graders. She is represented by Catherine Drayton at Inkwell Management. Find her on Twitter.