|photo: J. Hernandez
YA novelist, lawyer and former singer/songwriter Jeff Zentner is a believer in creative outlets. His The Serpent King won the William C. Morris Award; his new novel is Goodbye Days (Crown, March 7, 2017). Here, Zentner, who lives in Nashville, Tenn., explains to Shelf Awareness why he doesn't (always) write in a gazebo beside a lake while sipping bourbon.
A prosecutor for Tennessee? An alt-folk-noir musician? An acclaimed YA author? Do you sleep?
I do! Seven hours a night! First off, I'm not a musician anymore. Turns out, I'm a lot better at writing books.
Do the music and the lawyering influence the writing? And vice versa?
Music influenced my writing by giving me a deep love for mood and ambience, as well as melodic flow of language. Lawyering influenced my writing by teaching me to write clean, clear, precise declarative sentences.
Writing influenced my lawyering by giving me a better eye for story arc. The one who best tells the narrative of the case will control the case, and who controls the case wins.
In a TEDX talk you gave, you spoke about keeping a sacred space in your life for creativity. How do you balance the different creative aspects of your life?
I write on the bus to and from work, on my iPhone. I wrote about 70% of The Serpent King on my phone and about 80% of Goodbye Days. I do a lot of multitasking in general. I do a lot of writing in my head while I run and walk and kayak.
I write in my head while I'm standing in line at the grocery store. I think it's important to view writing as something you don't only do in a gazebo beside a lake while sipping bourbon.
Does being creative for a living compromise your creative output?
My living actually doesn't come from creativity. That's what my day job is for, and I think that's key to maintaining my creative output. I'm at my most creative when I don't need to be; when I'm not relying upon creativity to pay the bills. I'm not a bohemian personality who can set material worries aside to create. I like security. If I don't know where the mortgage payment is coming from, I don't write well.
Where did your ideas for The Serpent King and Goodbye Days come from?
The idea for The Serpent King came from two of my songs from my music days-- songs which had no apparent connection until I started writing the book.
I got the idea for Goodbye Days while I was out for a walk one day and several military helicopters flew over. I suddenly had a flash of inspiration for a story about a young man who helps the families of soldiers from a small Southern town who are killed in combat mourn the loss of their sons. With the help of my editor, we refined and evolved that idea into its present form.
Do you have stories to share about how your music or writing or legal work have changed someone's life?
Writing sure changed my life. I started writing in my mid-30s. That's far too old to have your big musical break, but perfect for breaking into writing. I never imagined in a million years that I'd be living my most exciting creative life just shy of 40.
As for others, I got an e-mail from a brilliant young man a couple of weeks ago, in which he said that The Serpent King literally saved his life. I'm afraid I don't know exactly how. That's just the phrasing he used. It's not the first e-mail like that I've gotten. I get beautiful letters from teens all over the country, telling me that The Serpent King gave them hope and made them feel less alone.
I guess my legal work changes people's lives by sending them to prison for long periods of time.
What were you like as a teen?
I was very broody and angsty. I felt lonely a lot. I had a wide goth streak in me. I wore a motorcycle jacket every day, even if it was 100 degrees.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a comedy right now that's about two high school girls who have a public access show where they show cheesy old horror movies. Think Wayne's World meets Ghost World.
Anything else you'd like to share with the readers of Shelf Awareness?
In the book I'm working on, not even one person will die.
--Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor