Friday 10 March 2017

We sat down for a chat...with Jeff Zentner

Jeff Zentner is the author of debut The Serpent King, a warmly funny, charming and moving young adult novel that I couldn't put down. After reading his novel, and looking over his website, I'm delighted to have asked him a few very random questions.

WSD: Do you like Segway (I looked at your twitter too)?

Jeff Zentner: I would rather walk slowly down a busy street completely nude, with people pointing and laughing and trying to hit me in the butt with darts than ride down the same street on a Segway. 

WSD: You have 9 tattoos! I have none. Tell me about yours and make it sound interesting (but be sensitive, I'm scared of needles).

Jeff Zentner: It's actually 11. Many have very long, boring stories. I have one I got to commemorate appearing on a recording with two of my musical idols, Nick Cave and Iggy Pop. One I got when I decided to become a writer, to burn the bridge behind me and force me to go through with it. I have both of my book titles in my title font. I hope this sounds interesting. They were all done by, uh, a...pirate captain? There you go. 

WSD: Yes, that sounded interesting. But, do you like snakes (like needles, I'm also afraid of spiders)?

Jeff Zentner: Not especially, but nor am I especially afraid of them.

WSD: What do you like about cast-iron skillets?

Jeff Zentner: I love how durable and nondisposable they are. I use one from the 1940s on a daily basis. You can see the marks where a human being hand-filed down a rough spot. There's something poignant to me about creations that endure and endure. Plus, they're a southern cooking tradition and food made with them tastes really great. 

WSD: Do you like fantasy novels?

Jeff Zentner: I do, but I've read very few. Harry Potter. Lord of the Rings. Game of Thrones. That's about it. 

WSD: We know you like music. You can wax lyrical for a bit now.

Jeff Zentner: Music was my first love. It was the thing that made me believe I had something beautiful to share with the world. 

WSD: Did you ever want to leave Tennessee (I'm assuming you grew up there)?

Jeff Zentner: At times, and I tried, but I came back. This is my home. 

WSD: And here, you can answer a question I haven't asked.

Jeff Zentner: Why yes I do have another book out soon! GOODBYE DAYS will be out in March!

WSD: So there we go - another book out this month!


The Serpent King was nominated and has been longlisted for the 2017 Carnegie medal.

Thursday 9 March 2017

A Life Discarded - Alexander Masters

148 diaries found in a skip. The author is unknown and a stranger starts to read them, and then write this book about them.

It's years since I read a biography (and I don't think I've ever done it just for fun). Invariably, they're all about celebrities of some sort (generalisation, I know, but still....) but this one! The social researcher inside me was alerted and my brain chemistry was already smouldering.

A Life Discarded is a wonderful interweaving of the biographer's inner thoughts with those of the unknown diarist. Who were they and, perhaps more intriguingly, why were these diaries dumped (died alone was probably my foremost presumption)?

The diarist doesn't name themselves, and there doesn't seem to be a clear chronology. This makes for lots of narrative twists and turns, which A Life Discarded uses to good effect. The biography is deliberately written and structured to heighten this sense of intrigue and ever-deepening mystery. Alexander Masters alludes to this intention by offering up, early on, mistakes that he discovers in his assumptions about the diarist's life. Of course, these add an extra element of humour and poignancy to the narrative.

And, of course, there is the whole question of ethics: entering into the private space of a person's life - these are a lot of diaries; does them being in a skip mean you have been invited or not? And history; again 'of course', how do we make it and record it? How reliable is it, and at what and whose expense? Masters doesn't ignore these issues that are potentially big ethical problems, and includes conversations he's had with his history and philosophy academic friends. Throughout the novel, Masters talks his way through his ever-changing methodology. It feels a bit like the Famous Five Does a PhD, and I was charmed on both counts.

A Life Discarded brings the diarist's recordings (otherwise discarded both on paper and in their own mind) alive, and also plays a wonderful tribute to important people in Alexander Masters' life, most notably Dido Davies who gave him the diaries and was living with terminal cancer throughout the development of the autobiography.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's probably one of those where little things about it will stick with me and I'll bring them up in conversation at some point in the future.

Read further if you want to find out a bit about the diarist. It's a little bit spoilers but not too much. You decide.

Publication details: 2017 (paperback edition), 4th Estate, London
This copy: received for possible review from the publisher

Spoiler Alert! 

Spoiler ahead!

Alexander Masters talks about the diarist as a 'he'. And then he discovers that he is a 'she'. This brings another ethical dimension to the biography, which Masters does not shy away from: a man reading a woman's intimate thoughts and descriptions about her personal life. Oh boy! Frankly, this could have gone so wrong. But, it doesn't.