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A Conversation With One of the Few Men in Young Adult Fiction

Jeff Zentner, author of ‘The Serpent King,’ on how to write about and for teenagers in a female-dominated space.

If you want to write young adult fiction, you have to be pretty woke. It’s an increasingly diverse genre that tackles unapologetically weighty subjects, and with more diverse characters than other genres. YA authors are unafraid to deal with suicide, terminal illness, bullying, disability and marginalized characters. It’s also presumably geared toward female readers, who read more than men in general. This is why the genre is largely dominated by female authors — like Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games) and Stephenie Meyer (Twilight) — with some male standouts who’ve established a foothold, like John Green (The Fault in Our Stars).

And if you want to be a dude writing in young adult fiction, you must first and foremost know your audience—without pandering. Young adult author and Nashville resident Jeff Zenter is one such dude. His stunning debut The Serpent King made 2016 best-of lists at Kirkus for its unforgettable protagonist (a misfit teenage blogger named Lydia) and Publisher’s Weekly for its delicately rendered portrayal of small-town friends fielding racism, sexism, outsiderism and religious fervor. A slew of accolades followed, including the American Library Association’s William C. Morris Award and the International Literacy Association’s Young Adult Book Award; it was also named a New York Times Notable Book.

Zentner, who has carved out a unique space in young adult fiction by setting his bittersweet, coming-of-age tales in the deep South and confronting the challenges specific to the region, spoke to MEL about the challenges of writing for teenage audiences who demand authenticity. (Disclosure: Zentner is a friend, and I gave notes for and helped research some of The Serpent King.)

You told me something like 90 percent of the authors in YA are women.
That’s a rough estimate, but yeah, about 90 percent. It’s primarily a woman-dominated space, which is one of the things I like about it. My editor is a woman; my publisher is a woman; most of the publicity apparatus at Random House Children’s are women. Children’s publishing is very woman-heavy. To me that’s a great positive. You have to be the kind of guy who’s comfortable working for and with women if you want to work in this space.

Do you have a heavily female background in terms of family or friendships?
I’ve always had a lot of women friends, gotten along well with women—I like the way they interact and communicate. It sounds pandery, but I’ve just always loved women, think they’re amazing, and have the most tremendous respect for them. That helps a lot.

I assume this is common of other male YA writers.
Yeah, you won’t find too many men who find youth literature a comfortable place who are also terribly misogynistic. There’s just no cachet that comes from being one of these kind of hyper-masculine writers — a Hemingway or a Jim Harrison or Cormac McCarthy type, whom I love. But that sort of persona doesn’t get you anywhere.

You’re in a space that caters to teenage girls, but you also write nuanced teenage boy characters, too.
Sure, definitely. Teenage boys read, and I want them to be able to see themselves in books, because there are so many women writing YA. There are a lot of great female characters, too. I’m not breaking any ground here by any means, but I really like to write both. My first book [The Serpent King] has two male protagonists and a female protagonist, and it alternates their points of view. My second book, Goodbye Days, has a male narrator. My third book [TV Six], has two young women narrators whose points of view will alternate. Right now I’m really having fun writing about teenage girl friendship.

What research do you do to write about teenagers in general, or what sort of tenets do you keep in mind to craft relatable teen characters?
I stay plugged in on social media and stay culturally aware. I think the biggest mistake someone can make writing for teenagers is trying to reproduce the exact way teens talk at any given time. Teenagers talk in a way that by design is impenetrable to adults. If you try to write the way teenagers talk you end up sounding like that Steve Buscemi meme where he’s holding the skateboard.

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So you don’t get slangy to seem “hip” with the kids?
I really don’t. My cheat is I try to write dialog that’s funny, witty and moves with a lot of energy and stakes. If you drill down to the fundamentals of what teenagers love about language, it’s energy and wit and stakes. Teenagers have tremendous intelligence, the same as adults. They may not have the experience or the emotional intelligence that comes from a lot of experience, but in general they speak with more sophistication and intelligence than we give them credit for.

What do you know about your male readers? You mentioned something to me about teenage readers in detention who love YA.
They run the gamut. I have male readers who say they read my book for the first time in a detention facility, and I also heard this anecdote from Jason Reynolds, too, a phenomenal, acclaimed writer. When he visits detention facilities, there’s a great hunger among men in those facilities for romance stories, because romance is an incident of freedom. And that is what they desire—freedom and all of the things that come along with it.

What, if any, considerations do you make for male teen characters when writing for an audience that’s arguably mostly female?
I just write them as honestly as I can, and I think teenage girls are interested in reading about their own experience, but also the experience of the teenage boy. If I can portray the experience of the emotional inner life of the teenage boy, I think that’s interesting to teenage girls, too. And the inner lives and goings-on of teenage girls were interesting to me as a teenage boy, too.

What’s your research or points of reference for male characters?
My own experience, empathetic imagining, and I think I’ve got a knack for imagining what people’s lives are like. I interact with teenagers a lot on school visits and book festivals and signings. Women do outnumber men in those spaces, but there are some teenage boys, too.

You write such amazing teen girls. Reading your books reminded me of reading another writer, Wally Lamb, who writes really great teenage girls. I kept checking the author photo to make sure this was really a dude writing about women because it was so relatable.
I just have so many amazing women in my life, and my characters are composites of those women, a quality from one friend here, or another friend here. They’re all created out of people I know. I think also if I have one skill that helps with this, it’s getting cool people to be friends with me.

Do you think you’re writing a particularly modern teenage boy?
I think it’s that teenage boys are just much more sensitive and have a much more rich emotional life than we’ve expected of them or given them credit for. I like to write teenage boys who cry, because they do cry. Who fall in love and feel things deeply. There’s an expectation of the way men will conduct themselves emotionally, but teenage boys are just like anyone else.

What about male anger?
That’s part of their emotional life, too, and I like to let my characters make mistakes and handle anger and jealousy poorly. That’s part of being a teenager. Learning to deal with those emotions gracefully. When you’re 14 or 16, you don’t have a lot of practice, but you get better as you go along.

In Goodbye Days you explore how a teenage boy deals with grief, and unlike the stereotype we might see, he isn’t shut down. You don’t seem to approach your characters with any gendered stereotypes.
Grief is so universal and teenage boys should see other teenage boys contending with it. I don’t think about those outside constraints on the character. I let them grow and I let them form from the inside out, and grow organically, the way people do.

Have you ever hit any assumptions in this arena because you’re a man tackling these emotional issues?
I’ve found it to be a welcoming space. As a straight white man it’s really important to be aware of privilege. YA and youth literature is one area where some of the most vibrant conversations are happening, with more depictions of marginalized people. So you have to make sure those depictions are correct and sensitive.

Why do you think that is? Why is YA so much more woke, for lack of a better word?
The generation we’re writing for is just a very woke generation. They insist on the literature they read not being regressive. They want stuff to read that reflects their reality — which is a reality with incredible nuance. Tired old stereotypes just aren’t going to work. So as a man writing in this space, I’m ever-vigilant of the privilege I have in trying to make sure what I write isn’t clouded by privilege.

Can you give me an example of how you do that?
In Goodbye Days, I have black characters. I’ve never lived as a black person in America, so in order to not just assume that I was getting it right — privilege can sometimes make it difficult to see your blindspots — I had black friends read my manuscript and make sure they were sensitive and not clouding anything.

You also let your lady friends read female characters, too.
Yeah, any time I’m writing someone I’m not, I like to have readers who are that person I’m not give feedback.

Teens also have a such a good bullshit radar detector.
You do have a great responsibility as a writer for teenagers to get depictions of marginalized kids right. If you don’t, you leave a kid already on the margins even more vulnerable. They see right away that even in the places that are supposed to be safe for them, they aren’t safe really.

What would you say to men wanting to write YA lit?
Come to it with a great deal of respect for the intellect of teens, their ability to see through bullshit, and for the responsibility you have to write experiences outside of your own, with sensitivity and to get it right, and with humility. You may not be able to just intuit your way to every correct depiction. And some experiences may not be yours to write. Also, If you want to be a hard-drinking Hemingway-esque author and live that romantic ideal, YA is not the space for you. You have to do it because you love writing about teen protagonists.

What’s the landscape right now in YA books? For a while it was all dystopian, then sick lit.
What’s doing well are diverse books that depict protagonists and narrators outside the straight white kids that have traditionally populated the vast majority of youth literature. I don’t see that changing. That’s publishing finally making moves to right the ship and depict society as it really is. That means dealing with poverty, addiction, abortion, rape. It’s taking on a lot of heavy topics in a socially conscious way, and I’ve seen this in YA lit more than any other fiction space. There are some really great conversations going on.

Why do you think it’s hard to pin down the male YA reader — is he just not willing to admit he’s reading it?
Young women may be the ones who blog about it more or run Instagram accounts that are book-focused, whereas young men are a little quieter. I do think there’s a sense in our society, an anti-intellectual strain in our society that rewards people who don’t read, and are vocally stupid. You can ascend to pretty great heights in our society being proudly stupid.

Men specifically?
Yeah, I think there’s a certain conflation of ignorance and masculinity where ignorance is given a sort of cachet. Until that changes, there’s always going to be some segment of the male population to stay in the closet about their intellectualism, that they read books and love books and love diving into emotional lives of others. It’s to the point where men reading gets sexualized.

Oh yeah the hot guys on the subway reading Instagram. Do you think then, that’s connected to YA sometimes being maligned as a less respectable genre of writing — because it’s essentially a female space trafficking in female concerns?
Yes, the reason people even women scoff at YA is because it’s overwhelmingly read by women and young women. This is the same reason why Harry Styles is scoffed at. Anything young women like is going to be derided as juvenile, silly and unserious. Regardless of its merits. You see women engaging in this, too. I think there’s a certain internalized misogyny and contempt for things young women like.

You seem able to sidestep that completely in your writing.
I just don’t care. I used to be a musician and I made very adult music — as opposite as the kind of the music that gets marketed to YA adults as you can make. And I wouldn’t go back for anything. Teenagers are so honest an open with the art they love, so guileless. They will put their hearts on their sleeves for the art they love, make themselves vulnerable, and make it part of their identity. They’re so not concerned about about whether the things they like are cool. The things they love, they love.

That has to be the opposite of being a musician in Nashville, where everyone’s such a critic and so cool they can’t dance.
Yeah, it’s so unjaded, and it’s really nice.

Zentner’s third book, TV Six, will be published in spring of 2019.