SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Family is hard for a lot of us. Relationships can be strained in the best of times and for the pettiest of reasons. But what do you do when the people who raised you and have loved you are downright bad people or hold racist beliefs that are at odds with yours? Those are some of the central questions for the main character in the novel "Copperhead," the latest work by Alexi Zentner. He's with us now from Ithaca, N.Y., to tell us more. Welcome.
ALEXI ZENTNER: Thank you.
MCCAMMON: So your novel is set in upstate New York on a cold Friday night during a high school football game. That is where we meet Jessup Collins, the main character. Tell us about your young protagonist and the world he occupies.
ZENTNER: The main character, Jessup - and I think this is true of many young people - he struggles with communicating his ideas and feelings about all the things that happen in "Copperhead." One of the big problems is that he comes from a family that goes to a church, and that church is the Blessed Church of the White America. And I think one of the interesting things about having a 17-year-old main character was to think about how we learn to address and unpack complex issues as young adults. What are the consequences remaining silent in the face of hatred - what mistakes we're going make on the way to trying to be better people.
MCCAMMON: There's a pivotal event after the football game, and I'm not sure how much of the plot you want to discuss. But what do you want to tell us about what Jessup gets mixed up in? Because it really does drive a lot of the story.
ZENTNER: There's an incident on a football field that sort of spills over to a party. And one thing that's hard is that he can't escape his history, and so when he's confronted by a black football player at the party, there are racial overtones just inherent in that. And he makes a bad decision, but it's an accident. But because of his history, he doesn't feel like it's something that he can walk away from. And it's also partly a question of class for him. He knows that if he came from a family with money that he could afford lawyers, and he could walk away with a slap on the wrist.
MCCAMMON: And Jessup's stepfather David John is a racist, a white nationalist, as are some other members of his family. He's also devoutly religious. And I was wondering if you would read a letter he writes from prison before he gets out to Jessup.
(Reading) In almost every letter David John writes, he encourages Jessup to return to the fold. Church is family, and you don't walk away from family, Jessup. You can't turn your back on family - family first and always. I worry about your soul, of course. Don't you believe that Jesus died for your sins? But I worry about your place here on earth as well. It's important to spend time surrounded by people who are like you with no outside distractions - nothing to dilute the purity of Christ's love. These are your people, your tribe.
MCCAMMON: And, of course, the novel opens with this football game, and his stepfather David John is there, having just gotten out of prison for his role in a fight that killed two young black men. Tell us a little bit more about how Jessup is making sense of what his stepfather did and the position his family occupies in the larger community there.
ZENTNER: He's really torn. I think one of things that's impossible for him is that, you know, his family goes to this Blessed Church of the White America, and his stepfather has been the most profoundly good influence on him and his family. His stepfather got his mom to stop drinking. He brought stability to his life. But his stepfather also brought sort of this great shame to them with this hate crime that Jessup's half-brother and his stepfather were involved in. And it's a small town, so everybody knows about it.
Jessup as a football player is really torn between sort of the worlds of his family and the world of school. You know, on the football field, his brothers are both white and black, and he has a black girlfriend. And yet, when he goes home, he's encouraged to worship at this place that believes that blacks should be with blacks, Jews should be with Jews and whites should be with whites. And it's really an impossible situation, particularly in a town as small as Cortaca.
MCCAMMON: The name of that church - the Blessed Church of White America - does not leave much ambiguity about what they stand for.
MCCAMMON: Is it based on a real church?
ZENTNER: There are churches similar to this. This is a fictional church. But the hard truth is that there are churches like this in America, and they're scattered all across America. It's set in upstate New York, where I live now, because I think it's important to acknowledge the nature of hate. White supremacy is a national and international problem.
MCCAMMON: Why did you want to write about this intersection of white nationalism and Christianity in America?
ZENTNER: I think it's really important to recognize that people who might hold views that are abhorrent to our own are still people and complicated. Any book that doesn't recognize that would've been something I would have written just to show that I'm a good person. I think particularly now, particularly this week, we have to ask some hard questions, and they're scary questions. White Americans don't like to talk about race.
I don't know that I have answers, but I do think "Copperhead" is the kind of book that asks really important questions. It's a tough book but also, I think, a really hopeful book. And, you know, one of the really difficult questions in America is, how is religion entwined with these questions of white supremacy?
MCCAMMON: Now, your book, of course, is out at a time when there's a renewed understanding that white supremacy didn't go away in the 1960s when the president of the United States says things like there were very fine people on both sides of the deadly protests in Charlottesville and suggests that American citizens, elected congresswomen who all happen not to be white should go back to where they came from. How much were these themes and these political themes on your mind as you were writing this novel?
ZENTNER: You know, when I was a kid, you know, my mom was an activist against anti-Semitism and racism in our community, and we had years of threats. And when I was a teenager, my senior year of high school, white supremacists firebombed my parents' office twice. That felt extreme when I was a teenager. But now, a quarter century later, I look back, and I think, no, that was just a warning of what was coming.
And I finished my first really substantial version of "Copperhead" the same weekend as the Charlottesville protests almost two years ago, the same weekend that Heather Heyer was murdered. And my wife was reading this draft of "Copperhead" at the same time that all this was on the news, so it was very much on my mind.
I mean, my family history - you know, I look back, and I think, OK, this has always been coming. But right now, it feels louder. It feels scarier. But I struggle with the idea that if we somehow hate more, hate louder, hate harder - that's how we're going to win this fight. I think the only thing that can beat away darkness is light. But at the same time, one of the reasons I think this book is important is that we have to have honest conversations about race and class - all of us.
MCCAMMON: Did you have teenagers in mind as a potential audience for this novel? Would you, for instance, want a high school English class to study "Copperhead?"
ZENTNER: When I was writing it, I didn't think of it that way. But I think it's an excellent book for teenagers and college students because there are things to talk about. The point of the book isn't to deliver a moral. It's not out there sort of signaling that, yes, we're all good people. It's saying to teens, hey - your actions have consequences, and you have to think about who you want to be.
MCCAMMON: Throughout the novel, Jessup is grappling with his family's racist history and his own level of responsibility and how much it's possible to get away from the people and places that have shaped him. Do you think it's possible to get away from the evils that have shaped us, both individually and collectively?
ZENTNER: Absolutely. Look, I think that part of being progressive is progressing. And I look at even in my own life the way in which I've grown as a person. But part of it's hard because you have to choose. I think right now, if you're one of those people who've always said you would've stood up to the Nazis or you would have fought against segregation, well, now's your time. Like, whatever you're doing right now, that's what you would have done. And language matters. What we say becomes who we are and what we do. And I absolutely, truly believe we can move forward. We can become better people. But we have to work at it.
MCCAMMON: That's Alexi Zentner, author of the new novel "Copperhead," which is out now. Thank you so much.
ZENTNER: Thank you.
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