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Feature Wed Jan 21 2009

An Interview with James Kennedy

jameskennedy.jpgAfter reading James Kennedy's The Order of Odd-Fish, I jumped at the chance to talk to the author about this immensely creative story, the use of adult vocabulary, whether a nose is really just a nose and how this book fits alongside the now-canonical Harry Potter series. [Read my original review of the book here.]

Something that people are really going to want to know when they read this story is, where did the story come from? It's so out there and creative - where did you get it from?

I started the story in 1995. It was a short story I was doing in college and it was just called "The Cockroach and the Music Box," and over time I just added more details and added more details and finally the original story just fell away and all the details I had encrusted around it became the main story and then I kind of rethought everything from there and rewrote it and rearranged things. It was a really long and crooked way of getting there. It was never really conceived from the beginning as what it was. I just kind of followed it wherever it went. At one point I stopped - when they come to the building in the belly of the fish - I stopped for a year because I had no idea where it would go from there. It was a time-consuming way to write a book.

What are some of your literary influences? I know you talked a little bit about it on your website - how did you incorporate those into the story that you were writing?

I remember reading Evelyn Waugh for the first time, Decline and Fall and Brideshead Revisited and Vile Bodies (I named the gossip columnist in Odd-Fish after the gossip columnist in Vile Bodies), and his books struck me as really, really funny, and it occurred to me that this was comic territory that had gone unmined for a while in children's literature. I love Waugh's tone of breezy understatement and his casually horrible characters, and I wanted to do something similar. Odd-Fish's foppish cockroach butler Sefino, and its passive-aggressive eccentrics like Sir Alasdair, are inspired by Waugh. Odd-Fish also owes a lot to Roald Dahl, Douglas Adams, and especially G.K. Chesteron. But I think anybody writing for kids nowadays owes a huge debt to J.K. Rowling. She opened up the opportunity to write longer, more sophisticated books for young adults. She was confident that kids would read and understand a more complicated story. She opened that up, and now it feels like you can do anything. Young adult literature now - it's such an exciting time, there are great exciting books being written.

We are now at a time in children's literature where everything that comes out is going to be compared to the Harry Potter series. How do you feel about coming up against the comparison? Do you think it's fair that everything that comes after it now, for at least a good ten or twenty years, is going to be thrown back against that?

It's great. It challenges children's authors after her to come up with something that's up to Rowling's high standards. I also think it's salutary because it takes some story options off the table; Rowling's already done them too well. It forces you to be more original. ...I was halfway done with one version of Odd-Fish when Harry Potter came out and it forced me to reassess some of my decisions. It's a very risky move now to write about a kid who's living with a family that doesn't understand them and is abused, or about wizards at boarding schools, for instance. Harry Potter put the nail in the coffin, aesthetically, of those kinds of stories. You just can't do them. If you're going to write about any of those things, you'd better be really, really original about it because Harry Potter has used up all the juice there. But that's good, I think - it forces you to write something else, maybe something more interesting than your first idea. If Harry Potter's success means that children's authors are challenged to a higher standard, then I support that.

One of the things that sets your book apart is that your vocabulary is so rich and mature and I think it's the kind of thing where kids reading for the first time might not understand, but going back as an adult they'll understand it. It'll have that double thing where it means something different to them as an adult, which, personally, is something that I like, going back to the books I read as a kid and finally understanding them as an adult. Why did you decide to use such mature vocabulary and were you concerned that it would go above your readers?

Kids will understand a lot through context. If the context is strong enough, they're going to understand the words. Also, kids like to read above their level, or at least I feel that you're being invited to the big table in the book that you're reading. That's why I think YA languished for so long, until J.K. Rowling came along - before her, you'd read your C.S. Lewis and your Roald Dahl and you'd try to graduate, if you were a smart kid, to Tolkien or to some adult books, but there was nothing between those two levels. Now that YA has allowed itself to become somewhat sophisticated, to fill that gap, it has an audience. I have written stories that have very simple language, but the world of Eldritch City needed something more florid, it's so bound up in complicated traditions, and then there's the cockroaches with their ludicrous frippery, it demands [the mature language] of the story. It came out of that and it's very fun to write...maybe that's one of the things that I felt could distinguish the book, something that could use language in this kind of bombastic way. It was something that I had not seen done enough.

It's not out there enough - writers tend to write down to children and it's nice to see someone write up to children using words that, maybe, they'll look up in the dictionary.

Absolutely! I'll go a step further -- I think we have to write up to children or young adults, because they pay more attention to books than adults do. They read them more closely. There's a reason why kids know every single character in the Harry Potter series, they know all the data about them, all the different relationships; an adult reads it once and gets the main idea, but kids love to collect and store data. You have to be more careful with a kid. My niece and her friend were driving home one day and they both read my book and they were quizzing each other on the book, like, "What was the name of Jo's ostrich? What was the name of Sephino's ascot?" Do adults ever quiz each other on the data of a book? No, never.

Some of the content of the book, too, is somewhat mature, specifically the images of the Belgian Prankster and his nose and what he's going to do with his stinger with Jo. Was that intended?

Yes. Like you said before, there are certain things you read as a kid just in terms of the story and you read it as an adult and you think "I can't believe I read this as a kid." Everybody reads the Narnia novels, but nobody gets the Christianity aspect of it as a kid. Actually, I'm surprised that no reviewers have taken exception to that scene. That said, I do think the scene is justified in the context of the story.

Are you worried that it'll be misread or that parents are going to react to it badly?

I hope not. It's certainly a kind of scene that I've never read anything like it before, although there is an unfinished book by C.S. Lewis called The Dark Tower in which there are these characters that have these stingers coming out of their faces and they sting people and turn them into automatons and I kind of stole that from him. And he, in turn, stole that idea of a weird organ growing out of your head from A Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay, a Scottish fantasy writer from around 1920... I liked the idea of the same weird image passing through three different sensibilities, creating a kind of conversation between the books.

When I was coming upon that scene I wondered, "Where is this going? What is he doing?" was surprising, but didn't feel over the top, which was good.

It had to be very carefully written. My favorite books have something in them that seems like it shouldn't work, but it does. At the beginning of a book I feel there should be a feeling of some impossibility, and that contradiction is teased out throughout the entire book. I like books that posit some kind of impossibility at the beginning, and the book gains a secret energy from that. Towards the end, when everything's coming together, that contradiction is the secret motor that puts the character again and again in situations that hopefully make the reader feel, "There's no possible way they can get out of this. I don't see how this book can go on for ten more pages because it must end now because it's all going to go to hell." That's the feeling I wanted the climax to give. If you can bring a story to that pitch, I think it's likely to be a successful story.

Why did you conceive this as a children's novel instead of an adult fantasy novel? Did it start out as a children's novel?

It always was. If you make a reader out of a kid, you have a reader for life; kids also reread their books and care about them more deeply. Anyway, this is just the mode in which I naturally write. I don't feel confident writing for adults. There are some themes you can get away with addressing in YA, but then you try to do it for adults, you might prey to all kinds of interpretations or boring ways of looking at literature that don't interest me. Maybe I should have, but I've never gone through a writing program, I've never taken a class in creative writing, and I sometimes feel that one is in danger of picking up some bad habits from that. Regardless of the rightness or wrongness of theories one might learn in those programs, it has the danger of synchronizing your sensibility with everyone else, and art, as I see it, is kind of a cultivated idiosyncrasy. I felt that I could sidestep all of that by writing young adult stuff. I also figured that if I wrote a fantasy novel I wouldn't have to do any research. If I wrote about Chicago, someone could call me out and say "Chicago's not really like that." If I make up the world, on the other hand, I don't have that problem. I create my own data instead of researching data.

I read on your website that a lot of the rituals in the book are based on the festivals you saw when you were in Japan. How important was it for you to create a sense of long-standing traditions and rituals within the book?

It was really important because I wanted to have a place that was utterly alien, that was not American, or British. I think that one of the reasons American kids love Harry Potter is that they get this taste of British-ness, or maybe kids in Britain get this taste of British-ness that they've all read about but never actually experienced. I wanted to have a completely foreign place. The odd thing is, I'd only spent a year in Tokyo in the late 90s and I wrote all of Odd-Fish after that. I was just editing it when I went back to Japan in 2004 to 2006 and that's when I really saw all the festivals, that's when I traveled to India, that's when I saw a lot of things that made me make more florid my descriptions and make them more vivid. But it was actually a case of writing something and then it coming true in my life. These festivals were things that I read about and when I got to experience them I'd already written about them. I wrote about Eldritch City and then I went to Mumbai and I was like, "I'm in Eldritch City!" But there's a danger in that...I know there's a story that Tolkein went to Venice and he said "This is like a dream of Gondor," - let Venice be Venice, it doesn't have to be something out of your book! So there's an absurdity in that too. Another reason I wanted to have rituals that seemed very old is that we live in a society that has none. That's a gap...people want that. You travel to Japan or India and you see things that have been around for a long time and you ask them, "Why is it this way?" and they say, "It's the way it's done," and that's enough. When you're in your own you society you think that the way that your society works the way that people, in general, act. But people can act all kinds of crazy ways and when you ask them why they do it this way they would think it's perfectly natural to do it this way and that you might be a little impoverished that you don't have this. We have these needs for rituals, but in our society they're not met. One of the things that book do is give you things you can't get in real life and if you can experience these things in a book maybe you can understand them and that can give the book some energy.

I also read that a lot of the specialties of the knights are based on your own interests. How so? Do you investigate lost causes or weird smells?

I have a lot of false starts in what I've been interested in in my life. I was, in college, a physics and philosophy double major, but I was terrible at physics. I don't think I would've made a good physicist at all, but I was so into it that I wanted to learn more about it and it wasn't until my junior year that I realized I never be able to make a career out of this. That's why I became a computer programmer, which is the kind of like last refuge of a scoundrel for a physicist. When I was in college I was flailing around, thinking, "What am I interested in?" Luckily, there was so much crackpot stuff at the Notre Dame library that you can get lost in, and that was very inspiring. I just started to really like the idea of really dubious reference works and then, once I got that premise, the book started coming alive for me.

Did you get specific ideas from the library there?

Yeah. One of the knights is interested in discredited metaphysics and that was inspired by a class I took on the history of science. We studied all these previous cosmologies, like the Ptolemaic system or phlogiston theory, and I often found these more interesting than the currently accepted scientific theories of the universe. That's where I came up with the idea of Sir Oort, who is an expert on discredited metaphysical theories for their own aesthetic sake - he doesn't really care if they're true or not.

You deal quite a bit with the dichotomy of good and evil in the story and that they're not as separate as we might expect them to be. We see this whole world through Jo's eyes and we want to believe that Jo is a good person and we're given the idea that Jo is a good person, but everyone else, if they knew who she really was, would think that she's evil. Then, Ken Kiang is a character who, try as he might to be evil, ends up being good. How much of the story was built upon the idea of looking at good and evil and were you trying to think of new ways to discuss this really huge idea with children?

I didn't start with that grand of a concept, but I think later on, even after I'd finished the book, I thought it could be that way, and so I went back and edited it to make it that way. Ken Kiang and Jo are the two protagonists of the book. Jo is not evil and everyone believes she is - though deep down she does have this evil spark in her. Ken Kiang has the opposite problem. Try as he might to be evil, he can't manage it, and over the course of the story they pass each other. He's the jokey B-story to her serious A-story. At first blush, when I was editing it seemed like I should cut Ken Kiang's character, but I do feel that he enriches her story by contrast. And I also felt it was important that he become a member of the Order of Odd-Fish at the end, through no merit of his own. I like an author's worldview to be generous, not punitive. One problem with some fantasy, or at least what I've read, is that there's a very rigid idea of good and evil. The good guys go out and they slay Orcs, and there's nothing to the Orcs, other than they're evil and they get slain. I find that to be really ungenerous, and it doesn't correspond to anything I understand. It's not as though I have an agenda, but I find more in common with something like the Miyazaki movie Spirited Away. In that movie, and from what I understand of Japanese mythology, the dichotomy isn't between good vs. evil, but rather between things that are more value-neutral, like rough vs. smooth or in-place vs. out-of-place. In Spirited Away, the no-face character is harmless when he's outside the gods' bath house, but once he's inside he goes crazy and starts hurting everyone. But once he's taken out of the bath house and brought to the witch's hut, he's mild again. That seems more interesting and mysterious and fertile to me than "the battle between good and evil."

What can we expect from you next?

I'm writing a book, I'm six chapters into it, it's called The Magnificent Moots, it's about this family's difficult to describe, but what I usually say is it's Ender's Game meets A Wrinkle In Time meets The Royal Tenenbaums meets The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I don't know what else I can say about feels very proprietorial about an idea before it hatches, you don't even want to tell your friends the idea too much or else all the energy seeps out and you want to keep it all in that little egg.

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