Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Jeff Zentner. I’m the author of a book called The Serpent King and another one coming out in March called Goodbye Days. I am so very honored to be speaking to you and I want to thank the organizers of this festival for inviting me. I love Book People. You are truly my people… I got the invitation to speak to you months ago, and I had all planned out what I wanted to say. I wanted to talk to you about living a creative life and clawing out the time to create and then guarding it from the world.
And then, in those intervening months, the world changed and so what I wanted to say changed. It’s a humbling privilege to get to speak to an audience like this and I don’t know how many more times I’ll be asked to do so, so I’m going to pour out some things that have been weighing heavy on me for many months…
I’m going to talk to you today with two voices. Sometimes I speak with the voice of an author. I will definitely speak to you with that voice. But being an author isn’t my only job. Like most authors, I have another job.
I prosecute murderers and rapists and child abusers for the State of Tennessee. I don’t talk about it much because this space, this book space, is a garden for me. It’s a place of love and hope and beauty, whereas I see so many of the dark and terrible things that people do to one another in my day job.
In that job, I make cases. I make cases for justice to be done so that people can’t hurt anyone anymore. And today, I want to speak also with that voice and with my voice as an author and make a case for stories. A case for empathy. A case for goodness.
I want to start with a very simple truth, and if you’ve already figured this out and I’m sure you have, then that’s great, but here it is: Adults will let you down. Our highest institutions will let you down.
What do I mean by that? I mean that people who lack empathy in their hearts will win important contests and be entrusted with great power and they’ll try to use that power to harm those who are weaker than them or different from them or who our society has traditionally pushed to the margins. They’ll try to use that power to limit the ability of people they disfavor to lead joyful and complete lives, as full participants in our society. They’ll use their positions of power to convince fearful people to place the blame for their fears at the feet of people who have less power than them.
The world has always been thus and to some extent, it will probably always be thus. I believe this stems from fundamental weaknesses in the human character, weaknesses that take a lot of work on the individual level to overcome. Work that many people aren’t willing to do because it feels better to be selfish; because our society often elevates selfishness to a virtue. There have been times in our country’s history when it has been easier to forget this and I believe you all may be coming of age in a time when it is harder to forget this.
I believe there are tumultuous days ahead. You’ll be entering adulthood in a time when many will be telling you that wrong is right, bad is good, and up is down.
Are we having fun so far? This is a fun speech, right? I’m more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Our world is dark and dangerous and full of evil. Good times! Anyone who’s read my books knows that I believe in hope, but I also believe in making you crawl through a sewer pipe filled with sadness to get to it.
And that brings me to why I’m talking about these things at a gathering of young people who love books. It’s because you’re my hope. One of the fundamental qualities needed to fight the gathering darkness of which I speak is empathy. Empathy is the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s shoes. To imagine what it would be like to be them. To feel their joy when they feel joyful. To feel their sorrow when they feel sorrowful. People of empathy do to others as they would have others do to them because they can imagine how terrible it would feel to be wronged.
And I believe that Book People are our brightest beacons of empathy, and you all are Book People. If you weren’t Book People, you wouldn’t be here and you wouldn’t be Book People if you didn’t possess extraordinary empathy. It takes great empathy to be so interested in the lives of other people that you don’t even demand that they really exist! It takes great empathy to be able to so vividly imagine the lives and inner hearts of others that you can do it simply by reading ink symbols on slices of processed wood pulp, and furthermore, that you enjoy doing it, and enjoy doing it enough to come to a conference full of other Book People and listen to an obscure author whose favorite restaurant is Cracker Barrel give a depressing speech!
In the coming days, you Book People will need to exercise your powers of empathy to help identify and prevent harm to others. I’m very big on people protecting people. It’s why I work both the jobs I do. One of the best ways you can do that is by standing with the people who are the targets of harm. The coming days will require your empathy to armor itself with courage. They’ll require you to love others more than you’re afraid for yourself, because the only thing that drives out darkness is when love is more powerful than fear.
In the days to come, you need to allow your empathy to become an unstoppable force inside you, something that moves you to action. Something that won’t let you stand idly by when evil happens in the world. It needs to become a force that makes you stand up with someone who’s being abused in public. That makes you stand up with someone whose place of worship is vandalized or desecrated. That makes you pick up the phone and make calls to lawmakers when you see something you know is wrong. Your empathy needs to become an active force that makes you lift your voice in support of people whose voices are unheard.
In the days to come, you Book People will have to be the keepers of our values. You’ll need to become our nation’s memory and conscience. You’ll need to carry a bright and unquenchable flame inside you.
Because we may not be able to count on the highest seats of power to remind us that the diversity of our nation is one of its greatest values. So it will fall to you.
We may not be able to count on the highest seats of power to remind us that consent matters. So it will fall to you.
We may not be able to count on the highest seats of power to honor facts and truth and learning and wisdom. So it will fall to you.
We may not be able to count on the highest seats of power to protect those in our society who have not been empowered to protect themselves and allow all Americans to live lives of joy, as full participants in society. So it will fall to you.
We may not be able to count on the highest seats of power to stand against greed and corruption. So it will fall to you.
We may not be able to count on the highest seats of power to stand for kindness and decency, so it will fall to you.
And all of this will require you to keep filling yourself with the best words and ideas, because these’ll be your sword and shield in the battles to come. It’ll require you to keep filling yourself with the stories of courage and hope that make you feel strong and lift you up when you feel exhausted and hopeless. It’ll require you to share these words and ideas with those who need them. It’ll require you to create new stories filled with the best words and ideas; new stories of courage and hope.
Nothing forces people to confront the humanity of others like engaging with their stories. It’s no accident that, like clockwork, evil people throughout history have attacked stories and art and tried to stamp them out or control them in order to force them to tell the story they want to hear. Art softens hearts and teaches. It raises us up. Even those in the highest seats of power can be wounded and chastened by falling on the wrong side of art.
So I hope, Book People, that you’ll let the stories you love take root in you and grow and blossom and bear the fruit of other art. I hope you’ll tell your story so powerfully that no one can deny your humanity or anyone else’s. I hope you’ll tell stories so prescient and wise that no one can deny their lessons. I hope you’ll tell stories so filled with hope that they set a fire in everyone who reads them. I hope you’ll tell stories so filled with goodness that evil withers and turns to ash before them.
I wish you weren’t on the edge of adulthood in a time like this. I know what it’s like to come of age at a perilous and tumultuous time. On September 11, 2001, I was 23 years old. I had been married for less than one month. I had just moved into the duplex my wife lived in in college. I was older than you and still, I felt like a baby. I watched the towers burn and I still remembered reading once on the side of a packet of oatmeal that each tower was its own zip code. I must have been 10 when I ate that oatmeal but it still felt like yesterday. I got up on the morning of September 12, 2001 and went for a run and the street was lined with American flags and even though we were united against a common foe, I still felt the dread of knowing that I had inherited a world different from my parents’ world. I felt the fear of sailing into uncharted waters.
During those dark days, I clung to stories because stories are there for us in dark days. I know that there are days coming that’ll force all of us to cling to stories.
…In difficult times, we can lean on stories as a source of strength and comfort. They can lift us and sustain us. I hope you’ll seek out the stories that make you feel strong. I hope you’ll share those stories so that other people can feel strong. I hope you’ll create stories that make you feel strong and that make other people feel strong.
And look around you. These are the people sitting around the fire with you. This is your band. These are your people. Let this community of Book People lift you and sustain you if you feel alone and afraid. Be there for each other. I am here for you. Every author in this room is here for you. Every teacher and librarian is here for you…
(Stories) tell us the truth of other people’s lives. They shine a light on shared humanity. They make us understand that we are different, but not different. That our differences are something that makes the human tapestry richer and more colorful, and not a threat.
Who here has heard of Anne Frank? Show of hands. You know her because you know her story. She wrote it down so that history couldn’t deny her humanity.
Who here knows the name of the guy who invented the Berlin Wall? No one? History does not honor the names of people who build walls.
History does not honor the names of people who build monuments to fear and hatred. History honors the names of people who tear down walls. History honors the names of people who tell stories so powerful that walls crumble and fall before them. History honors the names of those who have the best ideas. Who walk the best paths. Who act with the most kindness and decency and empathy toward others. Who protect those who are being bullied and mistreated.
In the coming days, there’s a question I want you to ask yourselves: “if not me, then who?”
If not me, then who will stand for people whose voice isn’t being heard?
If not me, then who will stand for the right of all people to lead lives of joy and dignity?
If not me, then who will stand for facts and reason and learning and truth?
If not me, then who will stand for kindness and decency and generosity?
If not me, then who will stand for justice and equality?
I want you to demand that the people in power in our country uphold these values, whomever it may be. I want alarm bells to go off in your heads every time people in power talk about using the law to push around or punish people who are different from them—whether it be by virtue of skin color, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, religion, gender identity, or social class or anything else. I want alarm bells to go off in your head because this is a failure of empathy. And without empathy, we have no society. We have a small group of powerful people and a lot of powerless people. Without empathy, we have a fundamentally and structurally unfair society where some people enjoy incredible privilege and others enjoy none. I believe we can do better than that. I believe we are better than that.
As I said at the beginning, I wrote a book called The Serpent King. It’s not a fantasy novel; it’s the story of three misfit teenagers who’re best friends, trying to survive senior year in their small town in Tennessee. In it, I try to talk about these things I’ve talked about. There are characters with great privilege who use their privilege to lift up others and make their lives better. I wrote this book because I believe deeply in the things I’ve just told you. I wrote it because I love you and I want you to have stories where people struggle and find hope. I have a lot of hope.
I believe that your future is bright, Book People. I believe that you’ll laugh and fall in love and get married and lie on the grass in the summertime and stare into the stars and build lives and hold your children and grandchildren, and read stories and write stories and create beauty and friendship, and lead lives of great joy. But more than any other generation that’s come before you, you’ll have to make it bright. Not just for yourselves, but for everyone.
I can’t pretend to know everything that will happen in the days to come. But I know that stories are like fire. They give us light. They give us warmth. They burn things down so that new, green things can grow up and replace them.
Keep reading stories. Keep writing stories. Keep sharing stories. I will forever be at your side. Thank you.