An Interview with James Kennedy

August 17, 2010, Posted by Kate at 10:00 am

Way back in May I had the good fortune of going to the Rochester Teen Book Festival where I got to see several of my favorite authors and get loads of autographs (and essentially be as fangirly as humanly possibly while still trying to appear slightly professional). One author I happened upon while sitting in the new authors panel was James Kennedy, author of The Order of Odd-Fish. He gave a great reading out of his book which included jumping around the room and audience participation. Needless to say I loved it and immediately bought his book, which I also loved. James participated in A Midsummer Night’s chat here on Eve’s Fan Garden and thoroughly entertained us all. James was nice enough to do an interview with me, so without further ado…

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Describe yourself in 5 words.
I always use one extra word.

Did you always want to be a writer?

Definitely! (Though I spent a lot of time doing other things first.) I started early, actually. I wrote and illustrated my first “book” when I was seven years old. It was called The Strange Ship. It was about two ghosts who visit a ship full of aliens and blow it up.

A couple years ago my mother rediscovered The Strange Ship in a box of old papers. So I scanned in all the pages and posted the book on my blog. Here’s a taste:

Clearly a masterpiece. Of course, it was impossible for me to wrap up all the loose ends of The Strange Ship‘s labyrinthine plot in just one book, so you can also find the inevitable sequel, The Strange Ship Part II, here.

Humiliating fact: I visited a fifth grade classroom to talk about The Order of Odd-Fish, and a kid told me that even though he enjoyed Odd-Fish, he liked The Strange Ship better.

So basically, I peaked at seven.

Is writing a full time job for do you have a “day job”?

Until recently I was working as a computer programmer. Now I’m writing full time, frantically trying to finish up my next book before the end of the year.

Did you always want to gear your book towards young adults?

Yes. Young adults are a more intelligent, more discriminating audience. I’ve found that many “adult-adults” are shockingly illiterate. I’m not joking. It’s only adults who complain that Odd-Fish is too long, too complicated, or too weird.

Young adults pay more attention to books than adults do. They read them more closely because books mean more to them. Adults are overwhelmed by media: there’s so many books, movies, TV shows coming at them all the time that they are actually looking for reasons to hate something, to find an excuse to dismiss, so that they don’t have to read it. “Oh great,” you can almost hear them groan, “another masterpiece I’m required to read? But I haven’t even gotten through all my DVDs of The Wire yet!”

Young adults, on the other hand, want to love the books they’re given. They’re actively looking for a book to make the center of their world. There’s a reason why young Harry Potter fans know more about the details about every character in the Harry Potter series than adult “fans.” The adult reads the books once, vaguely gets the main idea, then goes back to fiddling with Excel spreadsheets or whatever it is adults do all day. But younger readers read and reread the books again and again, memorizing every last relationship and subtlety. That’s real reading.

If you make a reader out of a kid, you have a reader for life. That’s the kind of reader I want, and that’s the kind of book I try to write: something worthy of that close attention, that careful re-reading.

What are some of your favorite books and authors?

Even though I love them, and even though they’ve influenced me deeply, I’m going to skip over the usual suspects—Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis, Douglas Adams, J.K. Rowling, etc.—because that’s whom everyone loves. I’d rather to use this megaphone you’ve handed me to blare my appreciation for some authors you might not have heard of.

The following recommendations come with my 100% guarantee. If you read them and sincerely don’t like them, then the next time you see me, you have permission to throw a drink in my face.

The Man Who Was Thursday and The Club of Queer Trades by G.K. Chesterton. The Man Who Was Thursday is a mad, hilarious, astonishing novella about an undercover turn-of-the-twentieth-century London policeman who infiltrates a group of anarchists, each named after a different day of the week. The Belgian Prankster of The Order of Odd-Fish is partially inspired by the nightmarish Sunday. The Club of Queer Trades is about a club of eccentric gentlemen who have all invented novel ways of making a living. It inspired the idea of each knight having to research an original specialty for the Odd-Fish Appendix.

Banvard’s Folly: Thirteen Tales of Renowned Obscurity, Famous Anonymity, and Rotten Luck by Paul Collins. Thirteen essays about once-famous eccentrics who are now forgotten. They could all easily be Odd-Fish knights: the celebrated physicist who discovered ‘N-rays’ (which do not, actually, exist); the man who made a language of musical notes; and John Banvard, the once world-renowned artist whose fifteen thousand square foot moving panoramic painting of the Mississippi River (now destroyed, tragically, with the rest of his work) is the inspiration for the Odd-Fish tapestry.

A Rebours by J.K. Huysmans. The title is translated as Against Nature or Against the Grain. Called ‘the Bible of decadence,’ this is the unnamed ‘yellow book’ that corrupts Dorian in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. This catalogue of the aesthetic indulgences of a weary aristocrat was the inspiration for Odd-Fish‘s Ken Kiang.

Titus Groan and Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. The stifling, oppressive, fascinating rituals of the rambling castle of Gormenghast, the eccentric grotesques who make their home there, the intricate slowness of the plot and the unapologetic length make this one of my favorite books. I wanted Eldritch City to be a ‘character’ in its own right, just as the castle Gormenghast is here.

I could go on: anything by Evelyn Waugh, Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, Max Beerbohm’s Seven Men, Ernest Junger’s The Glass Bees, Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea . . .

Assume for a second that you are granted the ability to take over the identity of anyone in the world (and throughout all of history- why limit yourself), whose life would you take over and what would you do?

What a ghoulish concept! What would happen to the poor fellow whose life I “took over”? Would their soul simply be flushed into the galactic void?

If forced to choose, perhaps I should take on the identity of some horrible historical criminal, so I could prevent him from his evildoing. But wait—by “taking over their life,” do you mean that I, too, would be forced to commit this person’s crimes?

These waters have grown too deep and stormy for me to continue. I need to lie down.

Describe your book in 7 words.

Fantastical city. Dangerous baby. Dithering knights. Apocalypse.

Your book, The Order of Odd-Fish, is totally off the wall (I mean that in the best possible way). What was the inspiration for your book? Where did you come up with the ideas for things like the festivals, the Belgian Prankster and the All Devouring Mother?

The festivals came from when I lived in rural Japan. Experiencing, and as far as I could manage, participating in aspects of Japan’s thousands-year old traditional culture inspired Eldritch City’s civilization of strange religious traditions, monstrous legends, and violent, beautiful rituals. For instance, I twice 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 sometimes die at it); I was sucked down into the crowd, men were blindly stomping on my face, and I could barely breathe. Such a festival would be unthinkable in America. Living in a different culture for years, learning the language and folkways, gave me the imaginative tools to create a world that was truly foreign and unique but recognizably human; not just a rehash of what we already experience in America, or worse, a rehash of other fantasy worlds, or even worse, something just arbitrary and disconnected to real human experience. I feel my experiences in Japan gave me access to material that makes Odd-Fish unique.

As for where the All-Devouring Mother came from? Well, Jo is a female hero. I thought the villain should be female too. For instance, in Star Wars the hero is a boy, Luke Skywalker. The villain is therefore Darth Vader, or “dark father.” My heroine is a girl, so what would a “dark mother” be like? I considered of the dark archetypes of femininity from legends and pop culture: Kali, the Hindu goddess of death and destruction; the mother alien from Aliens; the nightmare of mother hamsters eating their young—I crammed those all together and came up with the “All-Devouring Mother.”

I like stories in which the hero and the villain are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. So the All-Devouring Mother isn’t something outside of Jo that she must fight; she is the All-Devouring Mother, and she had to find a way to thwart the apocalypse she’s about to cause. So Jo is both the hero of the book and its secret ultimate villain.

A small note about villains. I noticed that, looking at classic fantasy, each story often has not one but two villains. There’s an active, known, “Everyday” villain who does most of the actual villainous work, but is actually the junior partner of another villain: the “Ultimate” villain, who doesn’t directly do much, and not much is known about him, and he does not appear until the end. For instance, in Star Wars the ultimate villain is not Darth Vader but the Emperor—Darth Vader does the Emperor’s dirty work, and the Emperor doesn’t show up in any substantial way until Return of the Jedi. Similarly, in Lord of the Rings the ultimate villain is not Saruman but Sauron. Sauron is almost abstracted out of existence, having no reality other than a nightmarish flaming eye, less a person than a rarefied, almost theological category. I wanted the All-Devouring Mother to be something like that.

Is the Belgian Prankster truly evil or just plain crazy?

I wanted the Belgian Prankster to inhabit the ambiguous space between “truly evil” and “just plain crazy”—similar to classic villains like Batman’s Joker, or Watchmen’s Comedian, or Sunday from The Man Who Was Thursday. When these characters act, they’re coming from such a weird, incomprehensible psychological place that one queasily never knows what to expect next from them.

Interestingly, the Belgian Prankster is inspired by an actual man named Noel Godin. He’s the fellow who put a pie in Bill Gates’ face in Belgium in 1997. Whenever newspapers or reporters referred to Noel Godin, they always called him a “Belgian prankster,” and the phrase stuck with me. You can learn more about Noel Godin, and watch a video of his pie attack on Bill Gates, here.

Which of the characters is your favorite?

Probably Sefino, the foppish cockroach butler who is constantly complaining about the way the tabloids and paparazzi treat him. Or Ken Kiang, the feckless Chinese millionaire who can’t quite manage his villainy. It hurts me to admit it, but there’s a lot of me in both characters.

Which character or scene was the most fun to write?

Chapter 20, the scene in which the hapless Ken Kiang is playing (or believes he is playing) a complex city-wide game of wits against the Belgian Prankster. I just let it rip. On page 275, there is a 112-word sentence that is my favorite sentence in the book.

If you were an Odd-Fish, what specialty would you chose to study?

I have a lot of documented experience in dithering. I suppose I could find a way to study under Sir Oliver.

Do you have a soundtrack or book trailer for Odd-Fish?

I don’t have a book trailer, but I have compiled a soundtrack of songs for The Order of Odd-Fish. Think of it as a kind of soundtrack for the ideal Odd-Fish movie in my head. There’s all kinds of stuff here: French ye-ye, Kinshasa street bands, pseudo-classical, puzzling blippity-bloopity music, and more.

You can listen to a stream of the Odd-Fish mix, and read why I chose each song (complete with pictures!) here.

Would you want to see The Order of Odd-Fish made into a movie?

Of course! Though it’d probably be very expensive to make. Three foot tall, foppish cockroach butlers? A fish vomiting a building into a bizarre, chaotic city? Airborne duels with flaming double-sided lances on flying armored ostriches? Expensive stuff.

In my ideal world, The Order of Odd-Fish movie would be animated by Hayao Miyazaki. If there was a live-action version, though, I’ve already got most of my fantasy cast in my head: Helen Mirren as Lily Larouche, Jim Broadbent as Colonel Korsakov . . . Michael Hogan (the rebooted Battlestar Galactica‘s Saul Tigh) as Commissioner Olvershaw . . . Anil Kapoor (the game show host in Slumdog Millionaire) as Sir Festus . . . oh, I could play this game forever. Why do you torture me?

Last one, do you have any upcoming projects you can tell us about?

Yes! I’m working on a science-fiction comedy called The Magnificent Moots. It’s about a brother and sister who have been invited to play in a kind of Interplanetary Olympics. It’s like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy meets A Wrinkle in Time meets Ender’s Game meets the movie The Royal Tennenbaums. Along with “Battle of the Network Stars.” Paul Hornschemeier, who did the paperback cover of The Order of Odd-Fish, is going to do illustrations for Moots—ideally, I want the book to be partially in graphic-novel form. You can find some of his preliminary illustrations, plus a link to audio of me reading a rough draft of the prologue of Moots aloud, right here.

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Thanks James for joining us at A Midsummer Night’s Chat and for doing this interview!

~Kate

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