SBBT Interview: Take a Gander at That Which Is James Kennedy
No. No, this will not do. This will not do at all. When you read my little title up there you should see the name "James Kennedy" and get very very excited. Your mouth should suddenly salivate for no apparent reason. Your eyes bug out, ever so slightly. Because if you know the man, then you know what he is capable of. He wrote the world’s greatest authorial blog post America, Emulate This Man back in March. He penned the YA novel The Order of Odd Fish, a title that fellow author Rob Weston called, "H.P. Lovecraft meets Monthy Python at a Willy Wonka convention." And now he joins us here today to discuss "Naked Man" festivals, the Evelyn Waugh of children’s literature, and Zork. Zork!!!
Fuse #8: Bursting onto the scene as you did with your YA novel The Order of the Odd-Fish (your debut, no less) one is inclined to wonder how this book was formed. From whence did you spawn? Book-wise, I mean to say.
James Kennedy: My spawning as an author was long and painful. I always wanted to be a writer; I’ve never felt fully comfortable doing anything else. Even still, I ended up trying nearly other possible job before finally buckling down and writing a book.
It turns out that I was right to delay. The experiences that I had in the wilderness were invaluable for writing The Order of Odd-Fish.
I had graduated college with a degree in physics, but I knew I’d be a terrible physicist, and I itched to do some charity work—so my first job after college was as a volunteer science teacher for a junior high school in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. I lived in a grubby convent in the city with a couple nuns and some other unpaid volunteers.
This convent, more than anything, was the inspiration for the knights’ lodge in The Order of Odd-Fish. It was a run-down warren of queer little rooms that also served as a kind of storage room for unwanted junk from the parish. Gloomy oil portraits of distinguished churchmen glowered on the walls. Some rooms hadn’t been lived in for years. Every once in a while a bat would escape from the attic and flap around the halls, and it usually fell to me to kill it. The ratty red carpet reeked of cat pee, especially in summer. When I moved in there was only one nun living there, a woozy, wobbly, extremely aged woman who crept around the halls at odd hours. Later a sixteen-year-old Ethiopian refugee girl who spoke no English stayed with us. Everyone took turns cooking for everyone else. It was truly a community, because we all got on each other’s nerves and had no money.
The best thing about this convent was the basement, which was a music room for the adjoining elementary school. There was a piano, drums, xylophones, guitars, an autoharp, and dozens of other instruments. Many of my friends were musicians, and similarly poor, and so we would spend Saturday nights boozing it up in the convent basement, writing songs. Our idea was to write a song, immediately record it, and then quickly move on to the next song, so that at the end of the evening, theoretically, we would have recorded an entire album. We recorded about twenty albums this way, weird hodgepodges of the unlistenable and accidentally hilarious. I’m sure everyone else living at the convent appreciated them. Only writing about this now do I realize how obnoxious we probably were to the nuns and other volunteers.
In any case, it was this kind of enthusiastic embrace of amateurishness, of making do with limited resources, of doggedly pursuing interests that almost certainly would never pay off, that inspired the idea of the knights of the Order of Odd-Fish, who raise the idea of dithering and pointlessness to a principle, to an art form.
After DC, I moved to Tokyo to teach English, fully aware that teaching English in Japan is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But I loved Tokyo: living in that overwhelming, alien, bizarre city inspired many aspects of Eldritch City, the fantastical metropolis that is the setting of The Order of Odd-Fish. My heroine Jo Hazelwood’s efforts to come to grips with Eldritch City are partially based on my adventures in Tokyo (and later, in India).
A couple years after Tokyo, my fiancée and I moved to rural Japan. I preferred the countryside of Japan to the city. My Japanese improved much more rapidly, the slower pace enabled us to make closer friends with the locals, and I was able to do wonderful things such as explore local ruins and shrines, participate in religious festivals, and bike a month-long solo trip following a pilgrimage path around the 88 temples of the island of Shikoku.
Marinating in Japan’s thousands-year old culture inspired Eldritch City’s rollicking civilization of bizarre religious traditions, colorful festivals, and crazy, half-believed legends. At one point I participated in Okayama’s “Naked Man” festival, which involves fighting with thousands of other nearly naked men, in the cold night, for a couple sticks thrown down to us by Buddhist priests:
I nearly got killed at that festival (and indeed, people often die at it); I was sucked down into the crowd, men were blindly stomping on my face, and I could barely breathe. It’s impossible for experiences like that not to make their way into one’s fiction. I wanted Eldritch City to have a similarly rich public culture of astonishing, violent, beautiful rituals. It’s something we are deprived of in America, but I think it’s something humans have a natural appetite for.
There are many other experiences that went into the genesis of The Order of Odd-Fish—the various bands I’ve been in, the failed musical I tried to pull off in college, my experiences in Chicago improvisational comedy. I wrote about them in a short essay that you can read here. Here’s a quote:
“The ability to get distracted is an easily misunderstood talent. Irresponsibility is a secret virtue . . . Having many little interests, amateur enthusiasms, and failed ambitions creates a rich stew out of which you can boil fresh ideas . . . Maybe it’s better to make a principle of fickleness, to deploy a strategic laziness, to be staunchly flighty.”
Fuse #8: The cover and interior spot illustrations, I see, were done by one John Meyers. Did you know Mr. Meyers before all this began? If so, friend or foe? Did you take to the pictures? Would you consider them the visual equivalent of your rambling mind?
JK: I love John Meyers’ cover for Odd-Fish. It’s got so much going on, it’s wild, it’s funny, it’s detailed, it has tiny secrets planted all throughout it—which is exactly what I wanted The Order of Odd-Fish to be like. I wanted Odd-Fish to be the kind of book that you can reread many times and still discover new things, a book that you can wander around in, and book you can inhabit. John caught that spirit: he included in his cover all kinds of little in-jokes and references to the story that you might understand only once you’ve finished it. It’s the kind of cover you want to keep looking back at while you’re reading, and discover new things as you come upon them in the story—Dame Isabel’s smell-collecting apparatus, or the biscuit-sword, or Korsakov’s digestion, or the brains in jars that contain Aunt Lily, Korsakov, and Sefino’s memories. This was a cover done by someone who clearly loved the book and wanted to share that love.
I didn’t know John Meyers before he did the cover. The cover was originally to be illustrated by my good friend and renowned graphic novelist Paul Hornschemeier. Now let us be perfectly clear: Paul’s not some jackass sitting in his mother’s basement, drawing Boba Fett erotica. He’s the real deal. I first met him when he illustrated my first published short story, The Lam of Hal Hamburger, in the Chicago Reader back in 2004. This is the great illustration he did for that story:
We found that we shared a lot in common, and we quickly became friends. We became such good friends that he did me the honor of drawing Heather’s and my wedding invitation—which took the form of a medieval-style map for the land of “Noredy,” a combination of our names (James Kennedy and Heather Norborg).
So naturally, I wanted Paul to do the Odd-Fish cover. And when I first saw what Paul had done for the Odd-Fish cover, I was overjoyed—it was brilliant, it was perfect, as is everything Paul does (the book title is to go in the center picture-frame):
But the marketing folks at Delacorte didn’t take a shine to it. They decided to go with someone else instead.
I had no idea who. So at first I was in a panic. I mean, there are so many terrible YA covers out there. I don’t want to name names, but I think you know what I mean: a slack-jawed, clumsily drawn boy staring vacantly into the middle distance, while some lumpy orc galumphs around in the background. Terrible, terrible. Yes, there’s some great covers out there, whatever and whatever, and certainly there’s more good stuff than there used to be—but in general, a walk down the YA aisle at the bookstore is visually dispiriting.
So when I saw John Meyers’ cover, I breathed a huge sigh of relief. It’s gorgeous. I know that a lot of people have picked up the book just because of its compelling cover:
And there’s a happy ending for everyone, after all! As it turns out, Delacorte has decided to use Paul Hornschemeier’s cover for the paperback edition, which is coming out in 2010! So now I have not one, but two absolutely brilliant covers—both by true artists with visual flair.
I’m proud to have the best-looking books on the library shelves. I’ll knock down anyone who says different.
Fuse #8: You have made the claim that your fans are the best in the world based on the evidence of them creating cakes and hats in your honor. Are you prepared to defend that statement? For example, I was just speaking to a lovely young woman the other day who told me that when she was younger she used to send Neil Gaiman boxes of rose petals and mirror shards due to her overwhelming love. Can you compete with that?
JK: I’m afraid that this poor young woman, if she wanted to be a fan of mine, would have to do rather better than sending me a boxful of broken glass and bits of dead plants. I hope we can all agree that a cake is more delicious.
Fuse #8: What do you do other than write YA? The bookflap of your novel says only, "James Kennedy lives in Chicago. The Order of Odd-Fish is his first novel." This is sparse. Please to explain.
JK: I’m in a band called Brilliant Pebbles. We sound like melodramatic video game soundtrack music, or moon-man opera, or gypsy sex metal. Our singer emigrated from Poland when she was ten years old, and she sings half in English, half in Polish. Our keyboard player, Sam, emigrated here from Hong Kong about five years ago, and he has the largest collection of fanny packs I’ve ever seen. I play the bass. I was invited into the band by the drummer, Philip, who’s an old friend of mine. There’s usually a lot of costumes and theatrical frippery going on. Our first EP is coming out this summer. This July, at the Oak Park Library in suburban Chicago, I’m going to do a reading from The Order of Odd-Fish and then Brilliant Pebbles is going to play a concert. It should be satisfyingly insane to play for a group of junior high and high schoolers at the library.
Fuse #8: Authors you admire? Authors you loathe and detest? Authors you don’t care about one way or another but would hate to be compared to (or have already been compared to)?
JK: Let’s start with authors I admire. I vividly remember the first time I read Douglas Adams’ Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. It was sixth grade, and it was electrifying. To this day, I don’t think I’ve gotten over him. If there’s any writer I explicitly set out to emulate, it’s him.
I’m rather surprised, and chagrined, at the blank reaction I get at schools when I mention Douglas Adams. Most kids have never heard of him, or if they have, they’ve only heard of the Hitch-hiker’s movie—which, though it has its charms, does not adequately capture the manic intelligence of the books or radio show. But plus ça change: Few of my classmates knew who Douglas Adams when I was in high school either. Even though he’s sold millions of books, he will always be a kind of Masonic secret, known only by the smartasses goofing off in the back of the classroom.
I was also creeped out and fascinated by Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. They are a perfect combination of the scary and cozy. You can’t truly touch the depths of scary unless you establish the cozy, and you can’t honestly and unsentimentally render the pleasures of cozy unless you visit the horrors of scary. The first chapter of A Swiftly Tilting Planet does it all: the Murray family contentedly enjoying their Thanksgiving dinner, which is interrupted when they find out that the world is about to end in a nuclear war. And best of all, the solution doesn’t come from heroic battling of monsters in some celestial battlefield, but in the deeper understanding of one’s own family secrets, with Charles Wallace laying on a rock in the backyard, connected by a strange psychic empathy to his sister, who is herself half-dreaming, warm in bed, even as his soul is traveling all over the scariest regions of space and time. Great stuff, great stuff! And the bizarre ecology of mitochondria and farandolae, and how the entire universe is depending on it, inside Charles Wallace’s body in A Wind in The Door? Genius. L’Engle’s gift of connecting the intimate and the cosmic still blows me away.
I love all of Roald Dahl – I remember reading Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator aloud with my best friend when I was in elementary school, and being unable to get through it because we couldn’t stop laughing. The casual mercilessness of Dahl makes him a kind of children’s Evelyn Waugh.
I also loved C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, especially The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (it felt like Lewis really let his imagination go nuts on that one: Lucy and the bearded mirror! So random!) and A Horse and his Boy (I liked the Calormenes as much as the Narnians, possibly more). And The Last Battle is one of the strangest children’s books ever written. The idea of stuffing the Book of Revelation into a Beatrix Potter tale—it overflows the Narnia framework in all kinds of bizarre and astonishing ways. The Last Battle is better than a success: it fails in fascinating ways. It feels like some weird Italian avant-garde play from the 1930s. I hope they keep the weirdness in when they make the movie. When I was writing The Order of Odd-Fish, and people were asking me what I was working on, I would always say “It’s kind of an urban Narnia.” If I can touch a fraction of that magic, I’m golden.
I also enjoyed Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, all of Beverly Cleary, John Bellairs, Oliver Butterworth’s The Enormous Egg, de Bois’ The Twenty-One Balloons, O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain series, Selden’s A Cricket in Times Square, all of E.B. White’s children’s books . . .
And best of all, Alice in Wonderland. I didn’t read it until sixth grade, and that was a blessing. I think if I had read it before then it would have alienated me. By the time I read it, I had already read Hitch-hiker’s, so I was ready.
When I moved on to junior high school I naturally got into J.R.R. Tolkien, Lloyd Alexander, Ray Bradbury (especially Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, and The Martian Chronicles) and Isaac Asimov (especially the Foundation series).
But all of this is obvious! It’s just canon, right? I’m sure you’ve spoken with many children’s authors who appreciate the same books I just mentioned.
So here’s a big influence that’s not canon. Ever since fifth grade I’ve been obsessed with Infocom’s well-written all-text computer adventures from the 1980s (Zork, Enchanter, Trinity, etc.). They probably influenced me just as much as the books I just mentioned. You know the kind:
The trap door crashes shut, and you hear someone barring it.
You are in a dark and damp cellar with a narrow passageway leading north, and a crawlway to the south. On the west is the bottom of a steep metal ramp which is unclimbable.
Your sword is glowing with a faint blue glow.
The Troll Room
This is a small room with passages to the east and south and a forbidding hole leading west. Bloodstains and deep scratches (perhaps made by an axe) mar the walls.
A nasty-looking troll, brandishing a bloody axe, blocks all passages out of the room.
Your sword has begun to glow very brightly.
The troll swings his axe, but it misses.
The troll swings, you parry, but the force of his blow knocks your sword away.
The troll hits you with a glancing blow, and you are momentarily stunned.
>kill troll with sword
The troll is staggered, and drops to his knees.
And so on. I loved that stuff. As a kid, I probably spent as much time reading it as I read actual books.
And as it happens, Douglas Adams co-wrote an all-text computer adventure for Infocom based on The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which was just as funny as what he wrote in his books. So that brings us full circle!
Those were the books I liked as a kid. Now that I’m older, I also like G. K. Chesterton, Edwin O’Connor, Marcel Proust (I first read him when I was in India, unable to leave my bed due to gastrointestinal agony, and I needed a long book to keep me occupied) James Joyce, J.K. Huysmans (especially A Rebours, which inspired the Ken Kiang parts of Odd-Fish), Evelyn Waugh, Yukio Mishima, Flannery O’Connor, V.S. Naipaul, Robert Walser, George Orwell, J.F. Powers. . . I could keep going.
As for whom I dislike? Well, not any particular author, but I will tell you what cheesed me off when I was a kid—even though I couldn’t really articulate it at the time. And that was books that were too East Coast-y, too New York-centric.
I grew up in suburban Michigan. I read my fair share of, say, Judy Blume, Robert Cormier, Paul Zindel, and E.L. Konigsburg—but many of their stories presumed common knowledge about, say, how subways worked, about class divisions, about urban life, that just alienated me. I had no idea what they were talking about. And the way they described it, New York seemed like such a dirty, squished, tense, terrible place that I didn’t want to know what they were talking about. As a kid, it seemed to me that too many authors wrote about New York, as though it was the default state of humanity. Since I didn’t know anybody who spent any time in New York, that seemed presumptuous to me. I was more attracted to authors like, say, Beverly Cleary or Ray Bradbury, who seemed more “Midwestern” to me, and frankly, more human.
I’m not saying I was right to feel this way, I’m just describing my instinctive, subjective reactions as a kid. As a child I was also obsessed with The Jeffersons, so there’s no rhyme or reason here.
I think because of the attitude I picked up from those books, I was always faintly repelled by New York City, and indeed the entire East Coast, all the way through high school. Everybody’s supposed to love The Catcher in the Rye, but I hated it. The world it described might as well have been of Martians—of college preparatory schools (what the hell were those?), about mental hospitals, about this kid wandering around New York feeling depressed in boring, complicated ways—as a high school student it didn’t make sense to me at all.
I haven’t read it since then, but I vividly remember thinking: stop whining, rich kid! What the hell is wrong with you? What’s so bad about everyone that you get to call them a “phony”? I sensed that his precious psychological problems were just another kind of luxury that I had no access to, and didn’t want anyway, like caviar.
It wasn’t until after college that I actually got a chance to visit New York and New England and see that, luckily, they were nothing like what I’d gleaned from books. But it was a difficult attitude to shake. The New England that, say, Robert Cormier describes in The Chocolate War seemed so grim, joyless, and deterministic to me that I still feel a faint repulsion whenever I hear the word “Massachusetts.” Nothing in that book corresponded to anything or anybody I knew in my real life—nobody I knew was that merciless—even though the story was supposed to be “realistic.” This is one of the ways in which “realism” is more fantastical than fantasy. Fantasy, at least, is up-front about its artifice. Books that presume to trade on “realism” are in fact just creating another fantasy world. All fiction is fantasy.
As a kid, I didn’t like books in which there’s a tacit presumption of, “Life sucks, kid, and deluding yourself otherwise is for the weak. Get smart, kiddo, and screw the other guy before he screws you!” They just turned me off. And still do.
But here’s the mystery: I read and reread all those books, again and again! Why?! I must have been getting something out of them. But when I look back on the experience of reading them, I feel no joy, no desire to revisit the books, just feel a gray heaviness.
So that’s what I dislike: cruel, humorless, joyless, “problem” YA books. Which in my mind will always be “East Coast books,” as unfair as that term might be.
Fuse #8: And finally, the question that no one actually enjoys being asked (though they may protest and claim they love it): What are you working on at the moment? You may lie, if you prefer.
I am pleased to say that Delacorte has signed me up for a second book. This one isn’t a sequel to The Order of Odd-Fish—though I do have sequels planned—but something entirely different. It’s a science-fiction adventure comedy called The Magnificent Moots. I usually describe it as a mash-up of Hitch-hiker’s, A Wrinkle In Time, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, the movie The Royal Tennenbaums, and the 1970s-1980s TV show Battle of the Network Stars.
But I’ve only written about a quarter of it so far, so I’d better get cracking.
In fact, I should probably do that right now!
Intrigued by what you’ve read here? Wondering about the book? Here you may see Mr. Kennedy read a bit of it for sport.
Huge thanks to Mr. Kennedy for the sheer amount of time it must have taken to answer my questions. Best. Interview. Ever.
Filed under: Uncategorized
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
SLJ Blog Network