Jeff Zentner's On 'Goodbye Days,' Why He Writes For Teens, And What Comes Next
Carver is just like any other teenage boy — he spends most of his time hanging out, staging pranks for ridiculous YouTube videos, and planning elaborate "squirrel rodeos" with his three best friends: Eli, Blake, and Mars.
Or he did.
Now they're dead.
And it might be his fault.
In Jeff Zentner's new novel Goodbye Days (March 7; Crown Books for Young Readers), Carver Briggs sends a text message that, some would argue, distracted the driver and caused the accident that killed the teens. With the help of Eli's ex (current?) girlfriend (uh, widow?), Jesmyn, and the families of his dead best friends, Carver must find a way to cope with the grief — and guilt — of losing three of his favorite people all at once. When Blake's grandmother asks him to participate in a "Goodbye Day" — a chance to relive all their best memories of Blake — Carver is skeptical. But he soon discovers that saying goodbye is the only way to move forward.
Goodbye Days, like Zentner's first novel, The Serpent King, is a heart-wrenching look at the expansive, insistent, burning pain of grief and the halting, awkward path to healing — all told through the voice of a teenage boy who, despite his loss, hasn't entirely lost his ability to see the humor and vibrancy of the world around him.
"I just love writing for the teenage audience," Jeff Zentner tells Bustle. "That's why I got into writing originally. Because I wanted to make art for teenagers, and I didn't know how to do that other than by writing books."
Zentner, who lives in Nashville, was partially inspired to write for teens during his former life as an aspiring rock star. When he hit his 30s, he began to question whether or not he'd ever get his "big break" in music. A lifelong reader, he started to seriously consider literature as a medium to reach young adults.
"I was volunteering for Tennessee Teen Rock Camp and Southern Girls Rock Camp, where I was teaching teenagers how to play guitar and do rock band kind of stuff," he says. "It made me really want to create art for teenagers. But now I had a double problem: not only was I too old to make music professionally, and therefore reach teenagers, I was too old to make the sort of music that gets marketed to teenagers... so, I had to find something else to do to reach the audience I wanted to reach. I mean I just love the way teenagers grasp onto the art that they love, and just really let it be a part of them and let it be a part of their identity."
Zentner, who won the William C. Morris Award for debut young adult novelist in 2017, sees YA lit as an opportunity to speak to people during the most formative — and often, most painful and confusing — years of their lives. "Teenage-dom is such an inherently tension-filled part of life," he says. "You are on the verge of adulthood, but there's still instances of childhood in your life, and to me, that's a really interesting confluence. I think it's fascinating to tell stories about people who are so young and intelligent and just filled with so much yearning and hunger to know the world."
His first book, the critically-acclaimed (and Bustle-beloved) The Serpent King deals with one teenager's tragic loss and subsequent grieving. The fact that Goodbye Days also tackles death is no coincidence.
"There's a lot of things in The Serpent King that I didn't get to say about mortality that I felt like I could say in Goodbye Days," Zentner says. "So I felt like even after wrestling mortality in The Serpent King, I had more say on it."
Like Dill, the main character of The Serpent King, Carver deals with more than just grief over the course of Goodbye Days: he learns some hard truths about love, he attempts to figure out what the hell he wants to do with his life, he comes to better understand his family and his friends, and most of all, he discovers that he's capable of overcoming more than he believed possible. All of these realizations are complicated by the loss of his friends, but they're all universal teenage experiences. Carver is pushed to his limits — and there, at the brink, he discovers some important truths about himself.
But this isn't just Carver's story. The book is peppered with stories from Eli, Mars, and Blake's lives. These bittersweet flashbacks make Carver's loss more palpable, but they also make the book much more relatable. Their foursome (The "Sauce Crew," they call themselves) is an ode to the strange, wondrous, passionate friendships that somehow only seem possible during high school.
So, what comes next for Jeff Zentner? Definitely more quirky friendships — but maybe fewer deaths. "My next book is going to be a comedy," he says. "So, where The Serpent King and Goodbye Days were probably like a ratio 70 percent tragedy to 30 percent comedy, this new book I'm writing I’m shooting for a ratio of 70 or 80 percent comedy to 20 percent tragedy. I'm trying not to but tragedy in at all. Nobody dies in this new book!"
His third novel, which doesn't yet have a title or release date, is a story of two high school girls who host a TV show on their local public access station where they stream cheesy horror movies. "It's Wayne's World meets Ghost World," Zentner says. Like his previous novels, it will be set in his home state, Tennessee, and it will follow these friends through their senior year in high school as they reckon with their looming separation.
For now, Zentner is continuing to write and read; Dear Martin by Nic Stone, After The Shot Drops by Randy Ribay, Done Dirt Cheap by Sarah Nicole Lemon, and A Million Junes by Emily Henry are on his 2017 TBR list. Reading widely, he says, is an essential component of YA writing. "My advice is read as many of the best books as you can, and don't just read books for teenagers, definitely read those but also read adult books," he says. "Read poetry. Read great memoirs. Just read widely. Read as much as you can, and make yourself a promise that you won't let criticism break you. You'll only let it make you stronger. And if a criticism isn't making you stronger, then you'll just let it roll off your back. You won't let it break you."