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On the Porch

Jeff Zentner (March 2019)


Silas chats with author Jeff Zentner on this installment of On the Porch. 



HOUSE: I'm Silas House. This is On The Porch on WUKY 91.3. Jeff Zentner is the author of The New York Times Notable Book, The Serpent King, which is one of my favorite young adult novels ever, as well as Goodbye Days. He has quickly become one of the most beloved writers working today and has a rabid following. He's won a host awards, but I'll just list that he won the William C. Morris Award and has been longlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal. He lives in Nashville. Thanks so much for being with us today, Jeff. 


ZENTNER: It's a pleasure. Thanks for having me.


HOUSE: I just finished your latest book and, as I've told you, I really loved it. But I'd like to ask you to tell our listeners what you want them to know about Rayne And Delilah's Midnight Matinee.


ZENTNER: I'll just give a brief synopsis of the book and then I'll tell you a little bit about how it came into being, if that's all right. So Rayne And Delilah's Midnight Matinee is about two, I guess, newly graduated or about to graduate high school seniors, who have their own television show on their local public access station in Jackson, Tennessee. And on the show, they are horror hosts. So they dress up like vampires. They kind of do like Elvira, Tales from the Crypt. And they host a schlocky horror movie every Saturday night. And they get these horror movies from this trove of VHS cassettes that one of my main characters -- whose name is Delia; she goes by Delilah Darkwood on the show, hence the name Delilah -- her father sort of bequeathed her unintentionally when he abandoned their family when she was young, when she was eight years old. Her partner on the show is Rayne Ravenscroft -- her best friend Josie Howard. And the two of them are, in the book they're approaching crossroads, where Josie wants to do television professionally and she's got an opportunity to intern at the Food Network. But the problem is she doesn't want to leave Delia behind and their show behind. Delia is using the show to try to reconnect with her father in the hopes that, you know, maybe he'll see it and regret having left their family. So the whole struggle and conflict of the book is whether they will be able to make this schlocky public access creature feature do for each one of them what they need it to do. And I came up with the idea for this book -- and as a writer, you know, that inspiration strikes in the strangest and most unexpected times -- I came home on a Saturday night, and I just flipped on the television, and I started channel surfing. Now that's not something that I do in this time when I've got Netflix and Hulu and you know, Amazon and all these streaming services where I've got a queue a mile long. I don't just channel surf. But I did this night, and I hit on the Nashville Public Access arts station. Nashville has a public access station specifically devoted to the arts. So if low production value songwriter-in-the-round shows and interview shows are your thing well, then this is the bonanza. So on this station they were showing what looked to be a very low budget horror movie from the early '70s, late '60s. So I was kind of intrigued. I kept watching, and the show cut to these two young women dressed, you know, in kind of horror garb dresses -- sort of like Elvira-ish. And it turned out this was a show called Midnight Mausoleum, which is a syndicated public access show that runs out of Davenport, Iowa. And it was just these two girls in their 20s. They were not polished television personalities. They just looked like they we're having a great time. And here I was sitting in my living room in Nashville, Tennessee, watching this sort of home-grown television production. And it fascinated me to (think about the) kind of people who do this, who put together this DIY television show and put it out into the world for people to see or not. And here I was watching it. And I wanted to get in the head of somebody who made that kind of show. I love writing kind of misfits and people who do the best they can, but maybe the best they can isn't necessarily spectacular.


HOUSE: Yeah. You do such a great job of showing all of that and showing that world of public access TV. And this book is a little different than your other books in that I think it relies a little more on comedy. You have this knack for making readers laugh out loud on one page and tear up on the next one. And I think comedy is so hard to pull off in a book. And you've done it just beautifully in here. Was that difficult for you to do?


ZENTNER: Well, first of all, thank you for saying that. You never know how comedy is going to translate on the page. But, you know, in the spirit of public access, I decided to just go for it. And if it worked, it worked. And if it didn't, it didn't. So, was it difficult? It was; although I'm not going to be the first to make this observation, but the link, the line between comedy and tragedy is a thin one. So I think if you have a sense of tragedy, if you have a sense of darkness and heaviness, it's not but a hop, skip and a jump to get over to comedy from there. The other thing, too, is we live in such a strange time. I mean, the year 2019, the year 2018, 2017; we have seen so many bizarre things. I mean, just on a daily basis, there's something surreal going on in the news. And it's unavoidable. I mean, just the other day I saw a video where pharmaceutical sales representatives were dancing and rapping around a giant anthropomorphic Fentanyl bottle. You just can't make this stuff up. And so our world as depicted accurately is so absurd that sometimes all you can do is laugh. And that's kind of what I was shooting for in this book. I was trying to capture just the absurdity of the world in which we live. So I hope it worked. I hope it connected. I hope somebody finds it funny, but that's where it came from.


HOUSE: I certainly did. And besides being funny, it's also very moving. You're really able to get inside the bonds of friendship like few other writers are able to do. And I think that's sort of become a trademark of yours. How do you account for that? How do you articulate that so well?


ZENTNER: Well, thank you again for saying that. For me friendship is an entity unto itself. So you've got an Individual A and Individual B and they form this friendship. And I think that friendship becomes Individual C, and that's the character who I really like to write about. I really like to write about the intangible ethereal entity that two people create between them, and that entity is that friendship. How am I able to capture that? I think part of that is process driven. So every writer, as you know, writes differently. There are as many ways to write a book as there are authors. And the way I go about it, because I don't know what I'm doing -- I've never had a creative writing class really; I came to writing through music just a few years ago -- I really don't know what I'm doing, so I cheat when I write my novels. And the way I cheat is by letting my characters do the writing for me. And the way I do that is by letting the characters develop in my head until they're such fully-formed personages that they are telling me their story, and I'm basically acting as a scribe. And it doesn't feel like it's coming from within me. It feels like it's coming from a distinct entity outside myself. So I will act as an observer to these friendships for months and months before I ever start to write. In my book, The Serpent King, the beating heart of that book is a friendship between three misfit kids in a small town near the Cumberland Plateau of Middle Tennessee. And I observed those kids and their friendship in my mind for a good three or four months before I ever presumed to put pen to paper. And I think that's where it comes from. I think it's from just being quiet and observing and watching.


HOUSE: I do the same thing. I call that method writing. Everybody knows about method acting, but it's sort of the same thing, you know, where you're living in the skins of your characters and you get to know them. And then, you're right, I mean the plot sort of arises through the characters, and I think it makes for a much richer book when you do it that way.


ZENTNER: I see that in your books. I see that method, because when I started writing that's what I was shooting for. I was saying to myself "This has got to be Silas House quality character development."


HOUSE: Well, I appreciate that. You referenced earlier music, but I know that you became interested in writing for young adults in particular, after volunteering at a couple of camps for young people. I think these camps had something to do with music, right? Can you tell us about those?


ZENTNER: Yeah, you bet. So I am now a board member for an organization called Youth Empowerment Through the Arts and Humanities. And we put on music camps for teenagers every summer. We do Tennessee Teen Rock Camp. We do Southern Girls Rock Camp. Southern Girls Rock Camp, in particular, has produced some pretty exciting and vital musical acts. There's a band out there called Soccer Mommy right now that's making some waves. The frontwoman of Soccer Mommy was one of our campers. There was a band called Those Darlins that popped up a few years back and made quite a bit of noise; did some really cool things. They were from our camp. So we bring in kids in the summer, and we have 'em for a week, and we teach them how to be rock musicians -- I mean head to toe, front to back. We teach them how to play guitars. I used to teach guitar at this camp. We teach them how to book shows, how to fix a guitar amplifier; how to do all the things you need to know to be a rock musician. And at the end of this week we put them up on stage in one of Nashville's big venues where you know, people like Jack White and Taylor Swift and the Black Keys have played. And these kids play on this stage, full lights and sound. And some of them have never picked up a musical instrument before this week. So doing that was just an absolutely magical experience. I really fell in love with the way that young adults love the art that they love. I mean, there's such a beautiful way that young people make themselves vulnerable to the art that they love. They let it we've itself into their bones, into their being and become part of them and part of the way they express themselves to the world. And it occurred to me that it'd be really cool to create art for those young people. But of course, by the time that had occurred to me, I was about as old as Justin Bieber's father. So that meant that I wasn't going to be making the kind of music that gets marketed and consumed by young adults. So I had to find another inroad into that. And I'll tell you, honestly, if it had been juggling that would have let me reach the young adult audience, I'd be a juggler right now. I would not be writing novels. Now I'm glad it was novel writing, because it allows me, you know, to have opportunities like this to talk to some of my writing heroes, but I was in it for the audience first and foremost. And this book in particular Rayne and Delilah's Midnight Matinee was inspired by a very particular facet of volunteering at these camps, which is that I get to see what happens at Southern Girls Rock Camp when these young women, when these teenage girls get to come together and create something together free from judgment free, from worrying about what the world's going to think, because the world put so many pressures on teenage girls. They come together, and they create something, and it is so magical, and it is so beautiful what they make. And that spirit is something that I wanted to pour into Rayne And Delilah's Midnight Matinee -- that spirit of young women coming together and making something together. And the way that manifested for me was two girls making a public access show. But it could have just as easily been about two girls who have a band or two girls who have a podcast or any anything like that.


HOUSE: When I'm reading your books, what I'm constantly thinking is "How does he get so inside the minds of teenagers?" I mean, you are a young guy, but you've not been a teenager in a little while.


ZENTNER: Very. Not a bit at all.


HOUSE: How do you do that? How do you get into the mind of an 18-year-old or 17-year-old?


ZENTNER: Well, there's two things. First of all, I just happen to be blessed with a very keen memory, a very keen emotional memory for what it was like to be a teenager. I remember it like it was yesterday. And I think most young adult writers have that. I think that's probably the defining characteristic of a young adult writer. And I have that. And I think some adults say they have it, but they don't really. I really, really have that; that form of memory. I can't remember a name to save my life. I can't remember a face to save my life. But I can remember that. So that's one component to it. Now to make that manifest into teenage speech, I cheat a little bit again. My writing process is full of cheating and shortcuts you'll find. So what I do to cheat is I do not attempt in any way to reproduce teen slang because, by definition, teen slang is impenetrable to adults. By the time it percolates up to the adult world, and, you know, we're saying things are lit by that time, it's long obsolete, and that's by design. So I don't try to reproduce that. What I do is I take a step back, and I approach it from a philosophical standpoint where I say, "How do teenagers like to talk, regardless of how that speech manifests itself?" Regardless of the specific words used, how do they like to talk? They like to talk with great energy. They like to talk with wit. They like to jab at each other. They poke at each other. They love to burn each other, tease each other. They love to speak to the very margins of their intellectual ability. So they're using words that they barely know what they mean. They're taking on the great issues of life and death in the universe. They like to talk about things that matter. They like to talk about things that are important, things that have stakes. So that's the standpoint from which I approach teen dialogue and teen speech. And as long as I stick to that, and I don't try to get in the weeds of figuring out, you know, what's the hot new teen slang, I generally do okay.


HOUSE: Jeff, the first book I read of yours was The Serpent King, and I really fell in love with it. One of the reasons is because I thought you did such a beautiful job of portraying working class and rural characters in a way that we rarely see them in literature. You've done that again with the new book. Do you consciously set out to portray rural young people because they're seen less in today's books? Or what draws you to them?


ZENTNER: I do. I mean, first of all, I grew up that way. I mean, I grew up around blue-collar people. I grew up in a rural place, and so that's simply what I know. I'm writing what I know. And, I still have a great affection and love for rural people, for working class people, for rural Americans, particularly the rural south. So that's one aspect of it. The other aspect is that they truly are not seen a great deal in books and especially economically depressed rural kids. And, you can see that it produces desperation anytime you don't see yourself reflected in pop culture. That feels like a commentary on your value as a person. That feels like a commentary on how much you matter. And if you feel as a young person like you don't matter, well, then you're going to act like your life doesn't matter and all of the things that come along with that. So I just think it's of the utmost importance for these kids to see themselves in these books. And that's something young adult literature has been doing marvelously lately, is telling stories of young people whose stories haven't been told a whole lot. But that's kind of where I come from on that. I write who I think I can write well, and I write who I love.


HOUSE: Yeah. I love that one of the characters in this book lives in a trailer. Usually when you see a character in contemporary media who lives in a trailer it's always a caricature. But she's the farthest thing from a caricature. So I love the way you complexify that. As somebody who grew up in a trailer that's really important to me. I don't think I can ever remember another character in literature living in their trailer unless it's being used in a negative way.


ZENTNER: Sure. trailer trash. Yep. I think it's so important for these kids to see kids like them living lives of dignity.


HOUSE: Absolutely. Well, we talked about music little bit, but I just have to ask as a musician you've played with folks like Debbie Harry, Nick Cave, and Iggy Pop among others. Tell us a little bit more about your music career.


ZENTNER: I began as a blues musician. I fell in love with blues when I was probably 16 years old. I just fell absolutely head over heels for it. So while all my friends were listening to Pearl Jam and Nirvana and punk rock, I was listening to John Lee Hooker and Charley Patton and Blind Willie Johnson and Lightnin' Hopkins. So it was a little isolating to be the only one who listened to that kind of music. But it quickly became not enough for me to just listen. And I had to begin participating. So I taught myself how to play guitar. I moved to Nashville. I started a band called Creech Holler, and we played around the southeast a little bit, recorded a couple albums that I'm proud of. And from there, I moved into kind of a solo career. Now up until that point, I had mainly been doing, you know, traditional songs. I'd been doing a lot of traditional Appalachian tunes. I'd been doing Pretty Polly, Cuckoo, Wild Bill Jones, you know, doing Dock Boggs tunes, Homer Smith tunes, that kind of thing. And then I discovered the Southern books of Cormac McCarthy. So Child of God, his Appalachian period. I just wasn't aware that he had written those books. All I knew was his stuff from, you know, the Western stuff, Blood Meridian on. So I discovered those books and it really inspired me to start crafting my own words. He's got such a way with language. I wanted to write my own stories and so I began writing songs. And the songs I wrote came out very differently from the songs that I was playing as a band. They were very kind of, I guess songwriter-y. I became very influenced by Townes Van Zandt, his way of telling stories; Leonard Cohen, those beautiful turns of phrase, those nuggets of words that you could just really sink your teeth into. And so that's kind of how my career then progressed right up until I realized that I was past 30, and in the music industry, generally speaking, you don't hit it big after 30. Now I think some people in recent days have. I think Chris Stapleton and Margot Price have had great success after 30, but that's the exception and not the rule. And I just assumed it wouldn't be for me. So I decided that the dream wasn't going to happen. And I started volunteering at Tennessee Teen Rock Camp, and from there moved into writing.


HOUSE: Music shows up a lot throughout your work as well. In a previous conversation we had you told me how important the music of Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker both were to this particular book. We played my favorite Phoebe Bridgers song to start the show, Motion Sickness. And I just found out yesterday that song had an impact on this book while you're writing it. What about those artists spoke to this story?


ZENTNER: So both Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker are young women. They're in their 20s, and their music is so soulful. It embodies the spirit of yearning and reflection that I want all my books to have. And both of them just seem to me like I could have had them as my campers at Southern Girls Rock Camp. Julien Baker actually lives not far from Nashville, I think, or maybe in Nashville. And I believe that she's come and spoken to our campers before. So she's kind of a local, actually. But in any event, the whole time I was writing this book, I was looking for that energy of young women creating things together. I wanted to be steeped in that energy so that energy could come out in the book. And I think they do it exceptionally well. One of the ways I draw inspiration for writing is by going on long walks at night. I love the quality of the light at night. I love that you can just go and let your mind wander. So I would go on these long walks at night. And I would listen to the Julien Baker song Claws In Your Back over and over and over and just weep while I was walking down the street, looking like a crazy person out, walking alone, weeping, listening to the song. But I would do that while I was writing this book. And I would just be tremendously inspired, and it would put me in an emotional headspace I think that I needed to be in to get at the soul of these two girls, Josie and Delia.


HOUSE: Your male lead in this book loves mainstream country music, and the two female leads just tear him apart. They hate mainstream country music. So I'm wondering if there are some contemporary mainstream country artists that you think of as the real deal.


ZENTNER: Oh man. Well you know here's the funny thing about that. There's a funny conversation around country music where people talk about you know Gillian Welch. She's the real deal. She's real country music, and she's great. I love her. But if you go to Harlan, Kentucky, they're not necessarily going to be listening to ...


HOUSE: She's not playing on the radio.


ZENTNER: No, no. They're going to be listening to what's playing on the radio. They're going to be listening to what albums you can buy at Walmart and what's available. So I think it's kind of interesting to say that pop country music isn't real country music, because I'll tell you rural people are listening to pop country music, and they're mixing it up with rap. And there's a real interesting thing going on in the music of rural America right now. So who do I like out of these pop country artists...


HOUSE: ...that's on the radio. Who do you like on pop country radio?


ZENTNER: Sure. And I listen to a bunch of it. Honestly, I enjoy it. I think the songs are well crafted. It's part of the industry in the city where I live, which is interesting to me, because that's one of the things I do love about Nashville is that it's such a creative city. So who do I like on the radio? I like Maren Morris quite a lot. I think she's got a great voice. I think her songs are great. I love Kacey Musgraves. I think she's fantastic. I like Miranda Lambert, especially what she does with the Pistol Annies. Now recent news suggests she may be a bit of a handful as a human being, dumping salads on people's heads and whatnot. But I like her music quite a bit. I like Sam Hunt. I think what he's doing sonically is one of the best distillations of what's going on right now in rural America where kids are listening to, seamlessly, country music followed by rap, followed by more country music, followed by R&B. So where Sam Hunt is kind of almost, not really rapping but, you know, using these sounds that you would expect to hear in R&B and hip hop, and these heavy bass drops and things like that. I think he sounds kind of like what kids are listening to. And I think his songs are great. He's got a song called Break Up In A Small Town that I think is just so perfectly realized right down to the detail of a white Nissan Maxima being his girlfriend's car. I think it's such a wonderful, wonderful detail. So I like Sam Hunt. I like Dan + Shay. I think they're great. Obviously, I like Chris Stapleton and he's one of those people who tends to satisfy both the people who think pop country can be a legitimate music form and the people who think that country music kind of died with Waylon Jennings, you know. So I like him quite a bit. Jamie Johnson I like quite a bit.


HOUSE: I really like Ashley McBryde right now.


ZENTNER: I think Ashley McBryde is great. Yeah, I like Kelsea Ballerini. Man, there's a lot of great song craft going on out there. And a lot of great writing. And you don't have to like it, but man they write a catchy song.


HOUSE: Yeah. I think we tend to play on our station all those artists that are playing what people think of is more like real country. I mean, that's one thing that we play. You know, Jason Isbell would be a good example. The thing that will never be on the radio now that people who grew up loving country radio now love that, you know. So that's an interesting conversation about contemporary country music and how diverse it is and how some people just hate it, and other people just love it, etc. I've read that as a kid, you used to get dropped off at the library and spend the whole day reading. And you've worked in bookstores. I mean, how did reading help you become a better person?


ZENTNER: Oh, that's a good question. Reading expanded my horizons. Reading taught me to be curious about the lives of other people -- I think my formative experience. So I've had a lifelong obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the way it manifests in me are these kinds of monomaniacal interests. I get interested in something and I've got to read everything in the world about it. So when I was a kid, I would go to the library and I would get on these tears where I would need to know everything about whales or everything about Vikings or everything about construction equipment. These are all true by the way. I've gone through all these. And I would just read literally every book in the children's section start to finish till I got to the end of the row. Then I would go read the adult books on that topic, just all the way down. So that was how I started as a reader --in that nonfiction space. Then when I was in fourth grade, my fourth-grade teacher had us read a book called Child Of The Owl by Laurence Yep, that is about a Chinese-American girl who goes to live with her grandparents and kind of learns about her Chinese-American heritage. And this story couldn't have been farther from my own experience. And yet, I was fascinated with it. I was absolutely fascinated with it. I felt like I was getting to peer into a window and see somebody else's life unfold. And it made me realize that I care a lot about other people, and I care about other lives and other experiences. And that's what that taught me. So it was a great empathy builder for me. It made me understand that there is a richness to lives that are not my own, that there's a richness to experience that is not my own. And it makes me want to, if I'm not able to participate in that experience, at least view people participating in that experience and understand them. And that's really impacted who I am as a person. I mean, I don't see how you can be an avid reader and not care deeply about your fellow man. And I notice a through-line with people who are not empathetic people, who don't particularly care about their fellow man: none of them like to read, because reading demands empathy. Reading demands that you engage with stories, and if you don't have empathy there's just nothing for you in a book.


HOUSE: Yeah, empathy is the key to it all, but especially for a writer. Absolutely. What have you been reading lately that you loved? What's the best book you've read recently?


ZENTNER: Wow. Well let me name two here. These are both going to be adult books. One of them is out now, and one of them you're going to have to wait for. So the one that's out now is called Dreyer's English. It's written by Benjamin Dreyer, who is the copy-editing chief at Random House. He is a friend of mine. He's an absolutely lovely man. He is absolutely hilarious and absolutely brilliant. And he has written this style guide that is so approachable, that is so engaging to read, that you'll want to take it to the beach and read it cover to cover like you would a novel. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


HOUSE: I wish everybody on social media would read it.


ZENTNER: I do too!


HOUSE: That should be required reading right now for all Americans.


ZENTNER: It really should. And Benjamin is active on social media. He's a very active Twitter user. He loves language in all its forms. So that's a fantastic one. The other book that I read this year that has just made a tremendous impact on me is Ocean Vuong's On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous. And that one is going to be coming out in June of 2019. Ocean Vuong is a young Vietnamese-American poet. He has an absolutely brilliant volume of poetry called Night Sky With Exit Wounds. And he has written now his first novel, which is told from the perspective of a Vietnamese-American young man who is writing letters to his illiterate mother and kind of narrating his life to his mother in these letters. And it is so devastatingly beautiful and so poetic. If you think you've seen what words can do, this book is going to show you a whole new land full of shimmering waterfalls and high mountains. It is just absolutely extraordinary. So you're going to have to wait till June of 2019 for that one to come out. I got to snag an early copy. But it is well worth it. So read Dreyer's English for now; On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous later.


HOUSE: Yeah, that last one I've heard so much buzz about. So I'll look forward to that. Well, thanks so much for being with us today. Jeff.


ZENTNER: Well, thank you Silas. It was an honor to be on your show and to speak with you.


HOUSE: Once again Jeff Zentner's new book is Rayne And Delilah's Midnight Matinee. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It's available wherever fine books are sold. Thanks for joining us On The Porch and, until next time, be good to one another.


Transcribed by https://otter.ai