Two things surprised me instantly about James Kennedy.
First: at ten a.m. on a Sunday morning, after a chock-full weekend at the Rochester Teen Book Festival, we entered the coffee shop where we were to conduct the interview and he ordered, not the weary intellectual’s double espresso latte, but a berry smoothie.
Second: on a whim, I brought along a deeply nerdy book about signals of divine transcendence in the world—one of which is laughter. I thought I might, perhaps, slowly hand it over, with the proper hint of social embarrassment, and discuss it with him in light of his very funny book, The Order of Odd-Fish. This would be long after he finished his double espresso latte, of course, which would have softened him up for philosophy. No need,though. He noted the book’s cover before we even sat down.
“What does it say?” he asked, hungrily.
And that about sums up our interview, and James Kennedy. Who needs coffee, when you can have ideas?
Odd-Fish and Religion
Let’s jump in at the deep end. You’ve talked in other interviews about wanting to sidestep in Odd-Fish the influence Christianity has on fantasy. This intrigued me intensely, because I’m a spirituality wonk, and I actually don’t think you escaped it completely. For example, I wanted to get your take on the idea that laughter is actually a sign that there is a metaphysical reality out there.
I don’t know if I agree with that, but it’s a really interesting idea. Laughter as an expression of not being quite at home in the universe…
… and you’ve had training as a physicist, so you’re also coming at metaphysics from several critical angles.
Yes. Although I actually became a novelist in part because I wasn’t going to be a good physicist.
What led you to that conclusion?
My grades. (laughter) My parents were very kind about it, but they did say, “You will finish this undergrad degree in physics.”
I actually don’t think Odd-Fish does escape Western religion, though. It’s a Western-style novel, written by a Westerner who was raised Catholic. You really can’t get beyond that cultural influence. Many of the tropes of storytelling, the basics of crisis and rebirth, have their strongest and most influential expression in our culture through scripture. So my main character Jo has a Passion, of sorts, though I only really realized this after I’d finished writing the book. She enters Eldritch City much the way Jesus enters Jerusalem. Someone even pointed out to me that the name “Ichthala” is very close to “ichthys”—
–the Greek word for “fish,” and a Christian symbol.
Right. When I wrote the book I just wanted to make a creepy-sounding word that sounded as scary as Madeleine L’Engle’s “echthroi,” which was also taken from the Greek for “enemy.” Mostly, I just wanted a word that sounded icky.
(Note: check here for some very cool research on how vowel sounds can scare the heck out of us.)
But I made a very deliberate aesthetic decision to stay away from overt ties to Christianity. Fantasy is arguably dominated by Christian writers —and science fiction by Judaism– and I wanted to get beyond that in the book. An aesthetic decision, but not a moral one.
Is there a universal principle to which you would give your assent?
Community, I think. We’re obliged to live together, no matter what we believe. Jo, who felt out of place and really lonely in the world, finds a home with the Order of Odd-Fish.
I also noticed that she shares the climax with her friend, Ian. Jo would not have been able to overcome the massive obstacles she faces in the book without handing over the reins at a critical point to him.
Yes. Community is a controlling idea in the book. It’s really in direct contradiction to some of the facile libertarianism going on right now in the world.
It’s also why I like the writer G.K. Chesterton. I don’t always agree with his ideas, but I love the way Chesterton plays with them in writing. It is an agile mind at play. It’s about joy.
Or “style,” as Sir Festus of the Odd-Fish puts it.
Yes, that’s right.
To what extent does your own experience as a teen play into the idea of community? Did you also seek community?
I moved to a new school after 8th grade. My parents wanted to ensure that I got a good education at the time, and I did, but the adjustment was difficult. I suppose I started to find my niche there: I became the copy editor for our yearbook, and my goal was to create as weird a publication as I possibly could.
Later, when I went to Notre Dame for college, I realized that I was somewhat “among the enemy”: dudes who defined themselves through sports. I got hooked up with the college radio station, and found a home there. WVFI: The “Voice of the Fighting Irish”!
Do you think teens who feel outside the norms, who seek community, are also drawn to your book?
It’s hard to say—that’s a highly personal judgment, and what do I really know about my readers? The stories I write will probably never have monstrous mainstream success, but it would be a dream come true to find my own little corner of the culture and work that niche, the way David Lynch or Neal Stephenson did. I just hope to cultivate a small, committed band of people who like my books and… who will help send my kids to college.
Things I Didn’t Realize I Wrote
I noticed, trolling through the multiple book reviews and interviews on Odd-Fish (and then went ahead and did it myself), that we all tend to describe the book as a mash-up: Kafka, Monty Python, Lemony Snicket, Roald Dahl…
It’s funny, because I actually set out to write something normal. I held myself back a bit. I have noticed some teens on reviewing sites like Goodreads describe “Odd-Fish” in terms like “this is the weirdest book ever!” but I’ve come to discover that only a small group of people want to read “the weirdest book ever.” I tried to give it a particularly strong British flavor of humor, though, and indeed for a little while it actually seemed like Odd-Fish was going to be published first in Britain, and not the U.S.
(Note: more on that below.)
I think it was Umberto Eco who said, “The author should die after finishing his work, so as not to trouble the path of the text.” Has anyone surprised you with their literal and/or symbolic reading of your work?
One that sticks out in my memory came from a student when I was speaking to a YA lit class at a university. One of the students asked me, “Why don’t you characters have blogs?” At first I thought she meant, why don’t your characters maintain real blogs or have Twitter feeds as a kind of promotional tool for the book? But on further questioning, I discovered that she meant that she didn’t understand why my characters didn’t use social media in my book. As if being in the Internet is the default state of human experience.
She was an exchange student from China, so I was certain at first that I had misinterpreted what she’d said, but after careful questioning, I found that’s indeed what she meant. The moment gave me a curious weightless feeling. Has the Internet become that pervasive? A couple years later, I’m wondering if she was just messing with me.
You tell a story of walking away from the first book deal for Odd-Fish.
Yes. The first publisher to offer a deal wanted to cut the book in half. Long-form fantasy doesn’t sell, they said. I knew it was a risk to turn it down, but I’m glad I stuck to my guns. My wonderful agent did some four-dimensional agent jiujitsu by getting an offer for publication in Great Britain and then turning that around to get a strong offer at Random House with an editor who was really great for me.
What about Odd-Fish would not have survived a half-cut?
It’s a world-building book, you know? It takes time to do that.
Additionally, it depends on its dithering—its seemingly aimless wanderings. Dithering is another controlling idea of the book. What society deems as aimless has a beauty and value all its own.
For example, I actually spent quite a bit of time in my physics studies learning about various discredited theories, and finding them almost as fascinating as the real science. My advisors had to pull me back from that line of inquiry, but it inspired the research of Sir Oort of the Odd Fish Knights.
I wanted Odd-Fish to be like a haunted house. It’s a closet you open, and all this stuff falls out. Less like a tightly controlled roller coaster, which is a better description of the book I’m working on now.
You’re talking about The Magnificent Moots.
Yes. I’ve finished it, but the first draft wasn’t exactly what I wanted. There was some big post-modern game-playing in it that I now realize doesn’t work. Luckily much of it is easily excised. That’s fine. To write a novel you have to try a lot of ideas and be comfortable with many of them failing. The trick is to learn how to fail faster and put the next idea out there right away and learn more quickly. I learned a lot from writing Odd-Fish, but as a result my challenge now is not to overthink the drafting process on the current work.
And you’ve written the sequel and prequel to The Order of Odd-Fish as well?
I have them planned out. It’s been three years since I published Odd-Fish, so I know I have to get something out there! I did have children in the intervening time, though, and I’ve also been working hard on getting the 90 Second Newbery Competition off the ground. Next year we’ll be screening in New York and Chicago again, so I’m excited about that.
My daughter (nine) is shaping up to be a reluctant writer. (Quote, when I mentioned to her I was interviewing you: “I like stories, but I don’t like to write them. All the punctuation and spelling and capitalization. Oh, my gosh!” What advice do you give kids like her? How do you encourage them to take creative risks?
I read somewhere that Roald Dahl was an infamously bad speller. But he was a brilliant storyteller. Don’t let the mechanics of writing get in the way of the joy of storytelling. Many great storytellers have been illiterate! They are two separate skills. My advice would be to read a lot of stories and always keep writing. If you read a lot of stories (and if you’re serious about writing, you must) you will probably unconsciously internalize all the rules you “have to remember.” They will become second nature almost without effort.
A thoroughly lovely morning. Thank you, James.