New York City bus driving down a Manhattan street
#62: Jeff Zentner 2018
Walking Into A New Dawn, July 29, 2022
In this episode, Jeff Zentner tells how he invited his characters to live inside his head for months in order to let them tell their own stories. He encourages listeners to write who fascinates them and that the story threads will follow.
Debbie Visser: In this episode, Jeff Zentner tells how he invited his characters to live inside his head for months in order to let them tell their own stories. He encourages listeners to write about characters who fascinate them, observing that the story threads will follow.
My name is Debbie Visser, and I am a Faculty Fellow for the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
Jeff Zentner is a musician, lawyer, and author of the young adult novels, Goodbye Days and The Serpent King, which earned New York Times Notable Children’s Book of 2016, the William C. Morris Award, and others. The Serpent King was also longlisted for the Carnegie Medal and was a finalist for the Southern Book Prize.
Please enjoy Jeff Zentner from the 2018 Festival of Faith & Writing.
Jeff Zentner: So what I'm going to talk about is how I became a writer. And the takeaway that I hope you will take away is that there is no one path to becoming a writer and that the creative life is one with a lot of twists and turns, and as the title of my presentation, sometimes you feel like you're walking into a sunset of your life when in actuality you're walking into a dawn–sort of a new beginning.
So, my story begins when I was actually about the age of the kids I write for and about. When I was about 17, I had two obsessions. I was obsessed with music, and I was obsessed with books. And I was getting to a point in my life where I was no longer content to passively consume these things. I needed to participate in them. I needed to be a participant. I needed to make something that I loved; I needed to make something beautiful. That was a hunger that I had, that I still have, and it is as real hunger to me as thirst or the hunger for food, the hunger to make something beautiful, that will be remembered, that will live after I'm gone.
And so I looked at the two things that I was in love with. And I very quickly decided that music was the thing I needed to make. Why did I decide that? Because writing books was not something that people like me did. I had no idea where books came from. I met my first published author when I was 33 years old. I turned 40 years old yesterday.
I had no idea where books came from. For all I knew, books sort of descended from ivory towers carried by teams of doves on silken threads in baskets, you know, woven from silk, and you know, written by people wearing tweed jacket and smoking pipes sitting at large, mahogany desks in these ivory towers, and on the walls behind them were ivy league degrees. And they were scions of important, you know, publishing families and creative families, and they weren't kids like me who grew up in a small farm town and used to ride their bike to the local grocery store where they had books. And that's where I could sit in the aisle at the grocery store cross-legged and read Stephen King books, which I was not allowed to read because I grew up in a very religious household, where I was not allowed to read Stephen King books.
So, I loved books. I worked at a bookstore when I was in high school and college. I loved books. Didn't know where books came from. Ergo, I was not going to become a writer of books. So I did what I could do, which was to go out and buy a guitar. I went out and bought a guitar, I took it home, and I started practicing, and I practiced for hours a day. Every day. Six, seven hours a day until my fingers bled, and my wrists ached. And I got good at the guitar, and I got feeling good enough that when I was in my early 20s, I moved to Nashville to try to make a life in music.
So I started a band, and I toured with the band, and I would perform, and I wrote songs, and I recorded songs, and I did all the things that I thought you needed to do to be a professional musician–make a life in music. So that was all going great. And I was having a great time, fantastic time.
And then I hit age 30, and I had this sort of sobering epiphany one day. Which is this: if you haven't made it big in music professionally by the time you're 30, you probably will not. Okay, now, some of you are saying, “Oh, but what about Steven Tyler of Aerosmith who is 99 years old this May, how sir is it that he is able to be in music after age 30?”
And the answer to that is: well, he was 22 when he was performing in arenas, wearing leather pants. So therefore, he gets to be 99 years old next May and still performing music. But, here I am; I'm 30. I am painfully obscured despite my best efforts, and I haven't made it big. So that's a problem, right? That's, that's that's a problem, but I'm no quitter. Okay, I've heard all the inspirational stories about people, continuing to chase their dreams in spite of everything. So I'm not a quitter, and I keep plugging away at it for a few more years until I'm 33. And that's when it really sets in that this is not going to happen, right? Because if you haven't made a big, if very few musicians make it big after they’re 30. Well exponentially fewer make it big after they’re 33, and it just keeps narrowing and narrowing. And that's when I realized that sometimes your dreams will die. Your dreams will simply wither on the vine and, you know, fall off the vine and turn to dust and be blown away in the wind and trampled underfoot.
Anyway, thank you all for coming today. I'll be signing out here. Yeah…I'm going to commit to that bit one of these days, I really am.
I give this talk at high schools and I do actually walk off stage, and I just kind of enjoy watching the aghast librarians and teachers like kind of looking at each other, like what do we do. What do we do? And the students, you know, kind of uncomfortably applause, like oh I guess dead dreams, okay, that’s fine.
So, I've got this basket filled with dead dreams, and so I go to the place where dreams go to die, which is law school. And I get a law degree, and I start working as a prosecutor for the state of Tennessee. That is actually the job I currently hold, I have as we speak a desk filled with autopsy photos, so that's what I'm going to go home to on Monday.
So, I really, on the weekends, I deal with the best that humanity has to offer, people who like to come hear people talk about books, and how they became a writer. And then I get up, and I go to work on Monday, and I deal with people who like to kill other people. So there's kind of a wide gulf there in the sort of experiences I have. Maybe someday I'll get some middle ground in there. People who are somewhere between people who like to get up on a wet Saturday morning and hear people talk about books, and people who literally murder other people. Just find somebody like right kind of in the middle of that sort of deal, but so far, that's what I've got.
So I start working as a prosecutor, and I haven't totally kind of shut myself of music, right? I still feel the urge to make music and maybe to pass music on to somebody who can do with it what I couldn't. So I start volunteering at a music camp for teenagers called Tennessee Teen Rock Camp. And there's a sister organization called Southern Girls Rock Camp. And these camps are really a magical experience. What we do, we bring in kids ages 10 to 18, we sit them down on a Monday morning, and we say, “Okay, what instrument do you want to play?”
Now, a lot of these kids have never touched any musical instrument before this week. And we say, “What instrument do you want to play?” And they tell us, and we get them into classes for their instrument. I used to teach guitar. And we form them into bands. They don't get to choose what band they're in. We put them in bands together because that's a valuable lesson: learning how to work with, create with people you wouldn't ordinarily choose to.
And then for that week, Monday through Friday, every day from 9:00 to 5:00, it is intensive musical training. Classes about how to play their instrument. Classes about how to write songs. Classes about how to record. Classes about how to book a tour. How to, you know, turn the dials on an amplifier. All of the things you need to know to be a performing rock musician, we teach these kids. And then, on Saturday, we put them on a stage in one of Nashville's bigger venues. And with full lights and sound, they perform for an audience of hundreds of people. These shows always sell out. They are a staple of the community. For hundreds of people, and some of them have never touched a musical instrument in their lives before that Saturday.
Okay. It yeah, it's I'm seeing, you know, hearing people going, “Wow.” It is wow; it is a wow, experience. It is so magical, and I sit off-stage, and I help them tune their guitars before they go on stage, and it's just a truly magical experience.
And so I did this for a few years before I finally put my finger on this specific thing that I love so much about this experience. Which is: I love the way young people love the art that they love. Young people love the art that they love in such a beautiful and unguarded and open way. There is no artifice about it. There is no playing it cool. There is the art that you love, and you weep openly about it. You wear t-shirts with your favorite bands to school. It is part of who you are. It is part of your identity, part of the way you relate to the world. And I remember that from when I was a young adult, but seeing that from those kids, it was just pure magic.
And I started thinking boy, wouldn't it be cool to make art for that audience? Wouldn't that be a wonderful audience to create art for?
Now I've got a real problem though, because you remember I said, if you haven't made it big in the music industry by the time you're 30, you probably won't. Well, folks there's not an exception to that rule for people who want to start making pop music when they're 35 years old.
The kind of music that gets marketed to young adults. I believe I could Google this but I just prefer to say it as though it's fact. But I believe that I'm two years older than Justin Bieber's father.
That being the case, I'm not a likely candidate to be able to make music that gets marketed to young adults.
So what am I going to do? Here's the audience I want to make art for. Here's the art I know how to do. Never, the twain shall meet. So I have to find a completely new art to make at age 35. I have to reinvent my life and find a whole new art that I want to make to reach this audience I want to reach. So I start looking around, and I'll tell you right now, if it had been juggling that would have allowed me to reach teenagers. For some reason, the teens can't get juggling. They just love to, oh, I don't know, ride their skateboards around and juggle and go to the juggling conventions. I’d be speaking at a juggling conference right now, the Festival of Faith and Juggling. I assume they have them. I mean surely there are people of faith who are jugglers.
Anyway, but it wasn't juggling. Okay, obviously wasn't juggling.
A few things started to fall into place at this point. By this point in my life, I had met my first published author, and it wasn't just any published author. I didn't just walk into a bookstore and see somebody sitting at a signing table and go up and talk to them. No, here here is here is who I met it was…a friend of mine who I watched go from being a librarian with a manuscript in the works, to getting an agent, to getting a publisher, to becoming a New York Times bestselling author. I watched every step of that progression from the very beginning. And that got some wheels turning in my head because we, you know. It got me thinking if she's friends with me, there are two possibilities. Possibility A is that she considers me roughly an intellectual equal. You know, somebody who she can talk to somebody, you know, who can talk about stories with. Or B, the other possibility, is that I serve kind of a role as sort of a court jester for her where, you know, I'm kind of a source of entertainment for her and granted, it does frequently occur that I will get my hand stuck in, you know, a peanut butter jar, or a, a bucket will fall on top of my head, and I'll sort of comically go stumbling around the room, going who turned out the lights.
But, I assumed that it was the former, right? That I was roughly, she considered me roughly to be on her same intellectual level, and if that was true, well then maybe I can do what she does. And by the way, she would tell me about these amazing teen readers. Who she would meet and interact with. And I don't know if I mentioned this, but she's a YA author.
I really need to open these bottles before I'm holding a microphone. Okay?
So she would tell me about these amazing young people she would interact with. So that got wheels turning in my head. I started thinking, “Boy, I really love books. I've got a friend who writes books, a friend who talks to me as an equal who writes books.” Here's another piece that fell into place. In my job as a prosecutor, I do a lot of writing. I write every single day from 8:30 to 4. Thousands and thousands of words a week. I basically write what amounts to a true-crime novella every couple of days.
And writing in the legal world, you have to write clearly and cleanly and concisely. And you have to take facts and shape them into a compelling narrative. Because if you can tell a compelling narrative, then you're going to win. So, I was getting a lot of practice crafting, narratives and writing, and I was feeling good and confident about my writing.
So that was another piece that found a place. But here is the third piece that fell into place. And I daresay the most important one, which was that I just was no longer afraid to fail. I had failed at music. I was a failed musician, and I was still alive. I was still fine. I could walk down the street and people would not point and laugh at me because I was a failed musician, specifically.
For that specific reason. So, I just, I wasn't afraid to fail; I could fall on my face and who cares my creative life is already over. I'm dead in the water. If I try another one, and I fail, what does it matter?
So, I decide I'm going to write a book for young adults.
So I go back to my songwriting catalog, and I pick out two songs that I think have more of a story to them than I had told in the original song. One was a song told from the perspective of a young man who liked to sit around and watch trains go by in his small town, that was his form of entertainment. And he was reflecting on that and how he wanted to lead a larger life than living in this small town afforded him.
And the other song was a song called “The Serpent King,” which was, it was kind of a, it was kind of in the tradition of Appalachian Balladry. It was a story about a man who decided to take revenge on snakes after a snake killed his daughter. It's sort of a Moby Dick kind of story about the futility of human action in the face of great natural forces. How we sometimes attack things with futility.
So, I took those two songs which are very different stories, and I thought I can't decide which one of these I want to write a book about. You know what, maybe I don't need to decide. Maybe I can mush them both together and then find the common threads between the two as I start to explore the story. So there we go. So now, I've got an idea. I've got an idea for a story roughly.
But a story needs characters. So, how many of you are writers in here? Yeah. Okay. Good. Wow. Good percentage. All right. How many of you have heard the writing advice: write what you know? Yeah, I mean we've all heard it, and it's great advice. I definitely definitely write what I know, but here's the writing advice that I gave to myself at that point, and that I now give to you, which is to write who fascinates you. Write the people whose lives you want to inhabit because that's what will take you through the deserts of writing a book.
And there will certainly be deserts any time you're writing a book. So, write who fascinates you. And I thought about the three types of people who most fascinated me at that point in my life.
Type of person number one. It was a type of person I encountered a lot in Nashville. People who grew up in these small towns in the rural South, and they were musicians. They learned how to play in their churches and their praise bands. So they would play guitar or drums or bass. And this musical education to be able to play in church led them to love music generally. And so they would find themselves loving music that kind of made them a misfit in these small towns in the rural South, you know, just nobody else was into it.
And then they would move to Nashville as soon as they could at age 18, and they would find their community. They would find their other musicians, and the other people who kind of grew up the way they did, and they would have a rich and full life, at that point. So, I wanted to know their story before they came to Nashville. I wanted to tell that story. So that's type of person number one.
Type of person number two. How many of you either follow on some social media platform, be it YouTube or Instagram or what have you, or know somebody–a kid or somebody who follows on a social media platform–someone who is a teenager who has thousands if not millions of followers?
My son is eight years old and his favorite, top 10 favorite TV shows are all people on YouTube from Sweden who are like 16 who play Minecraft and unwrap packages. Okay?
So we live in an amazing time for teenagers to be able to make their voices heard, whether they're talking about Minecraft, or whether they're talking about something else. There are, there is an ability now for teenagers to reach so many people just from, you know, from their bedrooms, they can create these massive things. And that was fascinating to me. You know, somebody who grew up as a teenager, you know, our idea of fun was sort of to stand in a circle around I don't know a barrel and sort of bang on the top of it with sticks rhythmically, you know, until our arms got tired. We just didn't have a way of reaching the world the way teenagers now do.
And I wanted to know the life of a teenager who was able to do that because I imagined that there had to be some sort of strange dichotomy between this tremendous internet fame and the reality of your life. And it was very easy for me to imagine the circumstances under which a young person who created a vast internet following that that would not provide them with any sort of social cachet in their own high school. And that sort of divide intrigued me, and I wanted to write a character like that.
And the third type of character I wanted to write is a character that I encountered in real life. I would best describe this character as a redneck wizard. Here's what I mean by that. When I worked at the bookstore, these guys would come in. These big, burly, beefy guys like they looked like construction workers. I mean, they would wear clothing that had, you know, drywall mud on it and just ordinary mud and paint and like you could tell that they were working with their hands. They would come in always at the end of a day like around 6:00, so you knew they were coming off work, and they would go right over to the fantasy section of the bookstore. They would go get a big stack of pulp fantasy books. You know, at the time it was the Dragonlance novels that were huge. And they would go get a big stack of these Dragonlance novels and just plop them down on the counter, and they'd have like 12 books there.
And they'd be like, “Well, there's my reading for the week.” And I'd laugh. I think they were joking because, you know, who is going and hanging drywall all day or, you know, operating a backhoe whatever they do, and then going home and reading multiple books in an evening? Who's doing that?
Well, they weren't joking. They were like, “No, really. This is my reading for the week. This is my life.” And you would start to notice little details, wonderful, little details about these guys, like, one of them would come in, and he'd, you know, wear his Carhartt jacket with the hood and his John Deere hat. But then he wore this dragon necklace where the dragon was kind of one of those cheap renaissance festival dragon necklaces where the dragon is holding the little crystal ball. And I just thought that was such a lovely detail, and it was so kind of moving to me and interesting to me how complex people are and how they defy our expectations. And so I wanted to write a character like that, who was so kind of defiant of expectations.
Oh, and here's the other thing. Once more, I couldn't decide–just like with my ideas for the novel–I couldn't decide which of these three characters I wanted to write a novel about. I thought any one of them were worthy of their own novel, any one of them were a worthy main character. And I thought, you know what, I'm not going to decide on this either because the real beauty of writing characters–misfit characters in a small town in the rural South, which is what I intended these characters to be–is that you don't get to choose your friends as a misfit. If you live in a big city, well, if you're a misfit because you like skateboarding, you can hang out with the other skateboarding misfits. Or if you like anime, you can hang out with the other anime misfits. Or if you like heavy metal, you can hang out with the other heavy metal misfits, and it's fine. You can find your little group. If you grew up in a small town in the rural South, Skateboarding Misfit hangs out with Anime Misfit hangs out with Heavy Metal Misfit hangs out with Collects Bugs in a Jar Misfit because you don't have those choices.
So you end up with very different people hanging out with each other and forming these wonderful bonds of friendship because there's no one else who will have them. The only place they fit in is with each other. So that's the story I wanted to write.
Okay. I've got these characters. I've got this story. Now, it's time to write a novel.
I don't know how to write a novel. I really still don't know how to write a novel. My process looks approximately like this, I'll just do a little interpretive dance for you–how my novels come into the world. So it kind of starts in fetal position like this. And it's like, I can't, I don't...
And that goes out into the world, and I go back into fetal position once more and then, I don't know, I don't know what I…and then another novel appears.
And that’s how that happens. So I realized I didn't know how to write a novel. I've never had a creative writing class in my life.
I thought, if I can get these characters to tell me their story, maybe I can do this. Because, here's the deal, I could not tell any of you your story. I could not sit down across from any of you and say, “Let me tell you about yourself. Let me tell you your story.” I couldn't do that.
What I could definitely do is sit across from you and say, “Tell me your story and I'll write it down.” And I could do that. If I could know these characters well enough to sit across from them at a table and say, “Tell me your story,” then I can write it down.
So, I invited these characters into my head and I said, “Come live inside my head, and I will start writing this novel. When I hear your voice, when you tell me your story. When I know you well enough that you're going to be telling me your story, and I'm not going to be telling you your story.”
So for three or four months, I lived with the most wonderful sort of madness, which was just hearing voices of imaginary people in my head as they incubated and became real people to me. I would visit them in line at the grocery store. I would visit them while I was at a meeting at work. I would visit them while I was sitting in church, supposed to be paying attention. And they would just be talking to me and telling me about themselves. Maybe 10% of that actually ended up in the book. I knew so much about these characters by the end of three or four months. By the end of three or four months, they were just scratching at the inside of my head begging to be let out, begging to be released from the cramped confines of the inside of my head. And that's when I knew it was time for them to have a larger life to live on the page.
Okay. Idea. Characters. I know the characters. I know their story. I know what I'm going to write. Now, I don't have time to write a novel, right? Because I have a 9:00 to 5:00 job. I have a family. I have a son. I have an eight-year-old son. Okay, I have church responsibilities. I have responsibilities in the community. I'm on the board of directors for that organization I told you about the puts on the music camps. I don't have time to sit in a gazebo by a lake and watch the sunlight dapple the water and smoke a pipe and drink a glass of bourbon and type the great American novel over four or five years. That's just not available to me.
So, one day I get on the bus to work, and I pull out my iPhone. It was actually a little bit smaller than this one. And I open up a Google Document, and I entitle it “The Serpent King.” And I start typing with my right thumb, always only with my right thumb. I can't do both thumbs. And I start typing, and I do that all the way into work. I get to work. I put away my phone. I start walking the halls of death and mayhem and the dark corners of the human spirit. I get to lunchtime, pull out my red beans and rice that I eat everyday for lunch, get my phone back out, and I start typing again.
Lunchtime is over; I put away my phone, reenter the halls of mayhem and the dark corners of the human spirit, and my work day comes to an end. I get back on the bus, pull my phone back out, start typing again.
Rinse and repeat for 25 days. From January 2013 to February 2014. Sorry, you guys are having to watch me do something with numbers in public–that's not a good thing to have to see. That's really the sausage getting made. You don't want…nobody wants to see that.
I did that for 25 days, and I came up with the first draft of this book, The Serpent King, okay? Now, let me be clear, I did not write this book in 25 days. I wrote this book over the years that I spent writing songs and coming up with the idea. I wrote this book over the time that I observed these redneck wizards coming into my bookstore. The times that I observed my friends at rock camp who grew up in these small Southern towns. The times that I could hear about these 12-year-old fashion bloggers who were being flown to London and Paris to meet with the heads of design houses because of their brilliance. It was the four months that I had these characters banging around in my head. All of that amounted to a situation where I could write out their story in 25 days on my phone on the bus. But I did not write their story in 25 days.
I ended up getting an agent with that manuscript after giving it to a friend to read who had an agent. She passed it along to him. And in June of 2014, the book sold to Random House, along with my second book called Goodbye Days.
So that is my long and twisty windy story. What I hope you will take from it is that there are second acts in the creative life in life in general, that nothing ever dies. If you have a desire to create, you may have to switch horses like I did. Like sometimes dreams will die, but there are new dreams that will rise up to replace them, green things will grow up. So I want to just read maybe a short little passage from The Serpent King. I am after all at the Festival of Faith and Writing, so I want to read a passage where a character is, is recalling sort of a pivotal moment in his faith. And then after that, I'll leave it open to you guys for questions.
So in this part, just to set it up for you a little bit…Dill, Travis, and Lydia are my three main characters in The Serpent King. Dill is our musician, who grew up in a family of Pentecostal snake handlers. Lydia is our fashion blogger, our Internet famous fashion blogger. And Travis is our redneck wizard, who loves fantasy novels, he works at his father's lumberyard and uses fantasy novels as an escape. And in this scene, Dill, the son of the preacher, has prevailed upon them to go watch trains with him. He loves watching trains. And here, he finally explains why he loves that so much, and it triggers a memory for him.
Reads from his novel The Serpent King:
They sat on a picnic table near enough to the train tracks that when they heard a train coming, they could get close.
Lydia checked her phone. “Watching trains. Dill’s version of YouTube. You know this is a very weird thing to do, yes?”
“Said the girl currently wearing clothing from five different decades.” “Touché.”
“Should we ask the guy wearing a dragon necklace if he thinks it’s weird?” Dill asked.
“I don’t think it’s weird,” Travis said. “Trains and big machines are cool.”
“Why are you so into this?” Lydia asked.
Dill pondered. “I’m trying to think of the least weird way to put it.” “Uh-oh,” Lydia said.
“Okay. So, when I watch trains, it makes me think about how much movement there is in the world. How every train has dozens of cars and every car has hundreds of parts, and all those parts and cars work day after day. And then there are all these other motions. People are born and die. Seasons change. Rivers flow to the sea. Earth circles the sun and the moon circles Earth. Everything whirring and spinning toward something. And I get to be part of it for a little while, the way I get to watch a train for a minute or two, and then it’s gone.” The way I get to be part of your life before you’re gone, and I’m left here, watching trains pass me by too.
His cheeks flushed and he looked at the ground, preparing himself for whatever clever thing Lydia had to say. “Anyway. Sorry. Weird.” He glanced over at her. She stared at the tracks.
“No,” Lydia said, all teasing gone from her voice. “Not weird. I mean, obviously you’re still generally weird—let’s not get carried away—but that’s not weird.”
Almost on cue, a train whistle sounded in the distance.
As the train approached, they got up off the picnic table and stood near the tracks, close enough to feel the wind from the train. Dill experienced the familiar rapturous rush of excitement and adrenaline as it neared and began laying on the whistle. That orgasmic rise as the clamor and energy of it built, threatening to overwhelm his senses, until it was right upon him. He closed his eyes and listened to its various parts. Wheels squealing on the rails. The chug-chug-chug of one of the cars. He absorbed its violence and brawn as it slithered past, a massive steel serpent. That pounding, pulsing din stirred something in him.
He’s thirteen and standing at the front of his father’s church with the rest of the praise band. He’s wearing his too-large electric guitar, playing as loud and fast as he can while the drums and bass jar the flimsy walls and low particleboard ceiling of the tiny church. He makes mistakes left and right, but nobody notices because they’re caught up in the Holy Spirit, and the walls also vibrate with the exalted and chaotic glossolalia of tongue speaking. Shoes and boots muddy from the unpaved parking lot stomp and make the floor quake. Several congregants, including Dill’s mother, pound tambourines.
Dill’s father stands at the front of the congregation and raises a mason jar half-filled with strychnine before taking a long swig, his eyes rolling back. He shakes his head, wipes his mouth, and shouts, “Hallelujah!” He hands it off to Dill’s mother, who sips it like it’s lemonade, passes it on, and goes back to beating her tambourine.
Dill’s father strips off his white dress shirt, down to his undershirt. He stands with his arms outstretched. Supplicants approach him and put their hands on his veiny arms and bony shoulders, seeking healing from maladies real or imagined.
A call goes up through the congregation and two of the brothers do a shuffling dance down the center aisle, a wooden box containing a snake in each of their hands. They stop and set them on the ground and Dill’s father dances up to them, clapping his hands. They pull back the chicken-wire lids on their hinges and reach into the boxes with hooked poles, pulling out two rattlesnakes and two copperheads. The brothers begin distributing them among the congregants like so many neckties. Brother McKinnon holds a rattler inches from his face, spraying it with spittle as he prays, daring the serpent to strike and test his faith.
Dill plays faster, his heart thumping, sweating in the suffocating humidity of so many animated bodies pressed into one place. His father starts in his direction, carrying a copperhead draped around his neck. He stands in front of Dill and lifts the copperhead off himself. Dill’s heart thrums in his ears. He stops playing. The bass player and drummer keep on without him,
playing ever more furiously. He’s always been afraid of the snakes. He’s never taken them up before and he prays to God to cleanse his soul and to give him the faith, if this is to be the hour. And these signs shall follow them that believe. And these signs shall follow them that believe. They shall take up serpents. And these signs shall follow them that believe. They shall take up serpents. His breath leaves him.
His father reaches out to him with the thick, sinewy copperhead and Dill extends his hands. He imagines how the snake will feel when he holds it. Cool. Dry. Sleek. Pulsing with malevolent vitality. He meets his father’s eyes. His father gives him a slight, sad smile and turns away, holding the snake above his head, triumphant, before handing it off to an elderly sister. Dill breathes again. He tries to pick up the rhythm but he’s shaking too badly. He’s relieved but disappointed that his lack of faith shines through his skin.
A week later, officers arrest his father.
Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.