Goodbye Days Author Jeff Zentner on the Evolution of an Idea

In Jeff Zentner’s sophomore novel, Goodbye DaysCarver lives each day under the weight of unbearable guilt: that, with a text message sent to someone he knew was driving, he doomed a car carrying his three best friends to crash. Now, with his friends dead and what feels like his entire hometown calling for his head, Carver navigates heartbreak and aimlessness as the last remaining member of a once tight-knit crew. When the grandmother of one of the dead suggests they perform a life-affirming ritual known as “goodbye days,” spent sharing happy memories of the lost trio, it may, along with the help of an unexpected friend and a new therapist, help Carver survive his losses. Zentner’s debut, the Morris Award–winning The Serpent King, almost made me bruise a rib ugly-crying, and his sophomore novel will do the same.

Here, Zentner shares the spark that became Goodbye Days, and how it evolved.

I felt like I’d won the lottery when I sold my first book, The Serpent King, in a two-book deal to my editor. Not only was I realizing my dream of publishing a book, but I’d be doubling down on that dream. Two for the price of one. But then reality reared its ugly head.

I had no clue what this second book—which I was now contractually bound to deliver—should be about. And that’s a scary feeling. I came up with several ideas, none of which my editor thought would work. This was another instance of reality rearing its ugly head: you might be able to write a book that an editor loves, but you’re not safe from having bad ideas. (You never are.)

I went for many long walks that summer, and spent a lot of time floating on my back in my apartment complex’s pool, my preferred ways to let my mind wander and be receptive to the universe sending me ideas. One day, on a walk, three military helicopters flew overhead, probably on their way to Clarksville, Tennessee, where the 101st Airborne is based. I had a flash of inspiration: a story about a young man in a small Southern military town that experiences the loss of three of its sons in war. In this story, the young man gets an idea to approach the families about having “goodbye days” with them, in which they would do the things with him that they would have done with their sons if they’d had the chance before they died.

Now, I don’t remember the exact sequence of what follows, but what’s important is the give-and-take. I approached my editor with the idea, and she said, “I like it, but can we make the young men young adults to provide more of a YA hook?” And I said, “That’s a great idea. In fact, to raise the stakes, maybe we should make the young men not only young adults, but friends of the protagonist, so that these goodbye days become an exchange of insight and information.” And my editor said, “That’s a great idea. In fact, to raise the stakes, maybe we should make the protagonist somehow at fault for the deaths.”

And that’s where we are today. That story idea, inspired by three military helicopters, evolved and morphed into its current form: Carver Briggs is struggling with grief and guilt after sending a text message that may have resulted in the death of his three best friends. He’s seeing a therapist after suffering panic attacks, he’s getting close with the girlfriend of one of his deceased friends, and he’s under threat of prosecution. In the middle of this turmoil, the grandmother of one of his friends asks him to spend a “goodbye day” with her, in which they memorialize their deceased friend and grandson and do the things they would have done if they’d had one more day together. The other families want their goodbye days as well, but with different results and motivations.

You never know when that magical idea will come, and you never know what that idea will grow up to be.

Jeff Zentner’s Goodbye Days is available now.

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