Alexi Zentner

Alexi Zentner, who was the second editor of the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark  under its present owner, Wednesday Journal Inc., has published his third novel, Copperhead, which has garnered excellent reviews from Smith Henderson in the New York Times and NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, who called the book “a smart, propulsive story about racism, class and the limits of individual possibility.”

It’s been five years since Zentner’s last work of literary fiction — not counting the four mystery/horror novels he’s penned under the pseudonym Ezekiel Boone — and it’s taken so long, said Zentner, because writing Copperhead was a leap of faith for him.

The novel was inspired by events that happened to his own family while he was growing up in Canada. His parents were both social workers and his mother was a local activist who fought anti-Semitism and racism.

In Zentner’s late teens, local neo-Nazis firebombed the family home twice. The events were disturbing enough, but in the back of Zentner’s mind he wrestled with the motivations of the offenders who were never arrested: the ingrained racism but also their humanity. 

The book is not about his own firsthand experience as a victim of bigotry, but rather it is told from the point of view of a teenager born into a family of virulent racists, his desperate wish to escape it, and the moral conflicts he faces because he loves his family.

“It took me a while to find out how to write about this,” said Zentner in a phone interview last week. “It’s hard to write about people who do bad things but are still good people. It was a difficult moral question for me.”

Zentner, now 45, was fresh out of Grinnell College when he was hired as editor/reporter for the Landmark in March 1998. During his eight months at the paper, Riverside was embroiled in controversy over the construction of a new water tower to replace the one that formerly stood on Northgate Court.

In addition to his work as a novelist, Zentner teaches creative writing at Binghamton University, about an hour’s drive from his home in Ithaca, New York. He tells his students that his short stint in journalism taught him something valuable about writing. It’s a job.

“You can’t wait for the perfect desk, with curtains billowing in the breeze,” Zentner said. “You have to write, and that’s a good lesson for any writer.”

Copperhead is published by Penguin Random House/Viking and is available online through IndieBound, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Apple iBooks.

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Bob Uphues