Meet James Kennedy!

(Have you signed up for Genre Galaxy yet? Join the day of stars and get ideas for books and programs in several genres to inspire teen readers. This event will be held all day Friday, July 10 in Chicago! Authors include:

James Kennedy | Dom Testa | David Lubar
Simone Elkeles | Patrick Jones | Libba Bray | Holly Black

Contact Nichole Gilbert at ngilbert@ala.org to order a ticket and reserve your place!)

Were you a fantasy reader as a teen? Who were your favorite authors then and now?

I wasn’t much of a fantasy reader. I read the classics of fantasy, of course-Tolkien, Lewis, Alexander-but other than that, I didn’t go in for it much. Partly because fantasy wasn’t as huge as it is now, but mostly because I was more into science fiction: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Douglas Adams, Madeleine L’Engle. I also belonged to a science-fiction book club, and every month in the mail I got an unpredictable melange of awful and awesome and quirky books. Some of it shocked my delicate eyes, because it was SF for adults, and there would be bizarre alien sex scenes or rough language that I vaguely disapproved of.

(I was a pious, prudish child. I recall, after a field trip to the Detroit Institute of Arts in third grade, I came home and tearfully confessed to my mother that I had seen naked ladies in the paintings. She assured me it was OK because it was art.)

In high school I read 1984 and Brave New World only because they were science fiction. They were so good, though, that I went ahead and read everything I could find by George Orwell and Aldous Huxley. The worlds they opened up to me were fresher and more fascinating than the diminishing returns I was getting from science fiction, so I more or less gave up SF. But I still occasionally read it. I read Ender’s Game for the first time last year and I was blown away. Ender’s Game, where had you been all my life? Marvelous.

My favorite books nowadays include The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor, A Rebours by J. K. Huysmans, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Seven Men by Max Beerbohm, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Augustus Carp by Henry Howarth Bashford, A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul . . . and so on.

What do you draw from your teaching experiences for writing?

My first job out of university was as a volunteer science teacher for a Catholic junior high school in Washington, DC. I lived with a couple other volunteers and some nuns in a run-down convent.

I only lasted for a year. I was a lousy teacher. I had just finished my degree in physics, and so I kept teaching material that was way over the heads of the class. One time a four-foot-long black rat snake, which I had brought into the classroom for the purposes of science, got loose in the middle of a lab, and so I panicked and killed it in front of my screaming students. I also replaced their annual science fair with a bewildering, frustrating competition where everyone had to construct Rube Goldberg machines. (The science fair was quietly reinstated after I left the school.)

Even still, I had a good rapport with the students. Probably because I was very easily fooled. I remember trying to teach the Doppler effect. I led all the kids outside and ran past them while blowing a note on my trumpet. The kids kept saying, “Mr. Kennedy, Mr. Kennedy, we didn’t hear the pitch change. You’ll have to blow that trumpet while running past us again.” I ran back and forth in front of my thirty students, blasting that stupid trumpet, about a dozen times before I realized they were screwing with me.

Another story: this was 1995, and O.J. Simpson’s verdict was about to be announced. The social studies class upstairs got to watch this on TV as it happened, but I was sick of the O.J. Simpson case, so I told my students they’d have to wait until after class to find out the verdict. But in the middle of class, the floor above our heads shook with pounding stomps. All my kids yelled, “INNOCENT!” It turns out they had worked out a code with the kids upstairs: one stomp meant guilty, two meant innocent. I had been outsmarted.

Another time I, and all the other teachers, received a series of obscene anonymous notes from a student who only signed himself as simply “THE FOGGY WIENER.” This went on for weeks. These notes were masterpieces of absurd, debauched, pornographic, insane imagery, which unfortunately I cannot quote on a family website. We teachers couldn’t figure out who was doing it. We rounded up the usual suspects and troublemakers and brought them into the principal’s office, one by one, to accuse them, “Admit it. You’re the Foggy Wiener.” Of course the kid would inevitably burst out laughing, because (a) he’d never heard of “foggy wiener” before, and (b) the phrase “foggy wiener” is possibly the funniest thing your nun principal can say.

So, what did I learn from all this? Well, from the Doppler and O.J. Simpson incidents, I learned that you mustn’t underestimate the intelligence of a young adult audience. My students often were bored with books that I had liked at their age, because for them, those books were too simple. Nowadays kids are more sophisticated about narrative, because they have been soaking in media more intensely, from an earlier age, than we had. Since they’ve seen a million stories, they will sniff out a cliche or a clunky part faster than you will. So you must always write up, and never presume to write down, for the YA audience. I think that’s why the Harry Potter books were so successful. They dared to be long, complicated, socially rich, and sophisticated in their irony, which satisfied an unmet yearning in the YA audience.

From the “Foggy Wiener” episode I learned that no matter how gross, insane, surreal, or wacky you make your story, it is small beer compared to the actual imaginations of junior high school students. Some adult reviewers have complained that The Order of Odd-Fish is too wild-too whimsical, too absurd, too gross, too hell-bent on jokes. To them I can only say, This book is not written for you. It is written for the Foggy Wiener. And the Foggy Wiener almost certainly hates the kind of books that adult YA reviewers inexplicably routinely favor, i.e., dreary problem novels about disease, divorce, drug abuse, etc. I know I hated those books when I was a kid. I still do. Why is there this persistent subgenre of YA that masochistically glories in cheerless depictions of misery? I have no idea why adults think kids would enjoy them. They must have this notion that such dismal books are somehow “realistic.” In my experience, the relentless drabness of some of those books is more cockamamie, more detached from reality, than the most arbitrary fantasy.

That said, a YA author shouldn’t be afraid to go to the dark places. And fantasy is supremely well suited for precisely this. In fantasy, you can kill the snake in front of the class again and again, and the screams from the kids, instead of being alarmed and confused, are shouts of catharsis. There are some parts of The Order of Odd-Fish that are quite terribly dark, but I was only able to access that compelling darkness through the back door of absurdity and fantasy, and not through the obvious front door of what people are pleased to call realism.

Dreariness is not depth. And comedy and absurdity enjoy privileged access to territory that goes deeper than tragedy, territory that tragedy can’t even comprehend.

Do you have other unusual experiences you put in your writing?

I lived in Japan for three years-one year in Tokyo, and two years in the countryside. I was on the JET Programme, which I enthusiastically recommend to everyone. I was supposed to be teaching high school, but months would go by in which I wasn’t called upon to teach a single class. Instead, my new Japanese friends would take me camping, or fishing, or out to strange restaurants, or to marvelous religious festivals. The generosity and hospitality was overwhelming. They made me feel like a celebrity.

One religious festival that I participated in was the Hadaka Matsuri, or “Naked Man Festival.” In this festival, which takes place on a cold night in February, thousands of men must take off their clothes, put on a “fundoshi” (like a Japanese thong; an old man wraps it around and under you, then YANKS it painfully up between your legs before tying and tucking it to keep it secure), and then run nearly naked down the streets, whereupon you jump in a pool of cold water, circle around an idol a couple times, then jump out, run down some more streets, and climb up into an open-air temple atop some stairs, with countless other similarly naked men, crushed and gasping. Far overhead, on terraces, priests look down on the crowd with supreme contempt, occasionally flinging water onto the crowd, which immediately evaporates into a dirty cloud of yellow steam.

Then, at midnight, the priests throw a bunch of sticks into the crowd, the lights go out, and everyone beats the crap out of each other, trying to get those sticks.

Participants sometimes die in the Hadaka Matsuri, trampled or asphyxiated by the mob. I was pulled under the crowd, people were stomping on my face, I was swimming through bodies, gasping for air, certain I was going to die. I never got near any of the holy sticks-which, if you manage to get them out of the temple, are supposed to confer supernatural virility. It was enough, for me, just to survive.

I didn’t get the sticks; but what I did take out of that festival, and the many other traditional religious festivals I experienced in Japan, was a desire to create a place like Eldritch City in The Order of Odd-Fish-rich with similar bizarre traditions and violent, beautiful rituals. We don’t have the same kind of elaborate public theatrics in America, but I think we all secretly hunger for them. So I put them in my book.

What do you do when you are not writing?

My daughter, Lucy Momo Kennedy, was born just a couple weeks ago. So that’s keeping me pretty busy right now!

I’m also in an art-punk band called Brilliant Pebbles. We’re kind of an unholy mash-up of video game music, movie soundtracks, Eastern European pop music from the 1980s, and gypsy sex metal. Our singer, who emigrated from Poland when she was 8, sings half in Polish, half in English. Her fashion sense is pretty amazing: kind of like She-Ra vomited a rainbow unicorn onto Strawberry Shortcake. Our keyboard player came over from Hong Kong only a couple years ago, and has a similar amazing fashion sense-I’ve never met a man with so many exotic, colorful fanny packs. I was invited to join the band by the drummer, Philip, an old friend of mine. I play the bass. We just finished recording an EP which should be out this summer.

And as it happens, this summer Brilliant Pebbles is going to play at a library! The Oak Park Public Library in suburban Chicago has invited me to come to their library, read from The Order of Odd-Fish, and then Brilliant Pebbles will play. It should be joyfully ridiculous and amazing to be playing for a library full of junior high school and high school students. Usually we just play for jaded hipsters.

I also used to do improv comedy, but that’s not too special in Chicago. Every other person I know has taken classes at Second City or ImprovOlympic or the Annoyance. Improv classes helped me tremendously as a writer, though. Since you’re required to improvise full scenes, or even shows, without a script, it encourages the fertility of ideas, to be open to ideas that might seem terrible at first. A million bad ideas, stewed together and combined in interesting ways, might lead to a couple genius ideas. On the other hand, one good idea, diligently protected and fussed over and kept “safe” from other contaminating ideas, will probably just degenerate into a mediocre idea. Improv taught me to stay open to the glory of bad ideas, that you shouldn’t be afraid to run with a seemingly stupid notion, to turn off one’s internal editor. You can only access the great idea through the terrible idea.

How do you think librarians can best connect with fantasy readers?

I think the best fantasy stories create a world that the reader wants to live in. And the most generous fantasy invites the reader to co-participate in the worlds’ own creation. It’s only fantasy and science fiction, after all, that inspire fan art, fan fiction, and people dressing up as the characters for conventions. The Chocolate War might be a great book, but nobody wants to live in that world, and nobody dresses up as the hapless Jerry Renault.

Like medieval monks adding their own artistic marginalia while copying holy texts, fantasy fans want to be part of the process of creation of the books they love. So maybe librarians can best connect with fantasy readers by encouraging this impulse to co-create. Pick a fantasy book (preferably The Order of Odd-Fish), and encourage fan art, or fan fiction, for that book. Design, make, and wear costumes from the book, and film a scene from it. Do reader’s theater.

And then send this stuff to the author! If the author is anything like me, indeed if the author is rational at all, they will respond with the warmest appreciation, put the stuff up on his or her blog, and possibly will come visit their library. So these kinds of things build on each other.

I’ve noticed that libraries are much more vibrant social centers for kids than when I was growing up. Another way to connect with fantasy readers is to have events that offer something for everyone. At my wife’s library in Evanston, they put on a fantasy festival that involved, first, manga drawing and fantasy video gaming; then I read from The Order of Odd-Fish; and then there was a screening of Spirited Away. People who come for one part stayed for the others. At another library, in Highland Park, they started with chess and fantasy card game playing in the morning, then I read from Odd-Fish, and then there was a screening of Prince Caspian. That was successful too.

The trick is to schedule the semi-unknown author in between two events the kids will certainly show up for. I once spoke at a library that had a video game tournament in the morning. Then the schedule was to have the kids break for lunch, and then come back to see me read from my book. Of course, after the video game tournament, most of them split. I ended up talking to only three kids, when there were originally about three dozen.

What are some of the favorite responses you have received so far on Odd-fish?

I’m astonished at how creative and generous my fans have been. Many have sent me art they’ve made. It might be because Odd-fish is very visual, and it almost cries out for illustrations of its creatures, costumes, mechanisms, and neighborhoods.

I’ve noticed that a good number of young artists on DeviantART are fans of The Order of Odd-Fish. One of the DeviantART artists mentioned on a message board that she’d like to organize her and her friends to dress as some of the 144,444 gods of Eldritch City. They went ahead and invented their own Eldritch City gods, which I thought was fantastic! I loved the idea of Odd-Fish cosplay, so I got in touch with the young lady (a certain DarkshireWarlock) and she drew me some beautiful fan art: Jo (the hero) and Fiona (her rival) dressed up in their divine battle armor for the climactic duel. Jo is dressed as the god “Aznath, the Silver Kitten of Deceit,” and Fiona is dressed as “Ichthala, the All-Devouring Mother.” Marvelous stuff!

Jo in her Aznath, the Silver Kitten of Deceit Armor, (c) 2008 by DarkshireWarlock


Fiona in her Ichthala, the All-Devouring Mother Armor, (c) 2008 by DarkshireWarlock
Another fan, Libby, wrote a dramatic, intense “two-voice” poem about Odd-Fish. And a Florida woman baked an amazing cake depicting the scene when a giant fish vomits the Odd-Fish lodge into Eldritch City:

Elise Carlson's Cake

My editor said, “This is simultaneously the most impressive and least appetizing cake I have ever seen.” And it’s another example of what libraries can do to connect with fans: this cake was baked for the University of Florida Libraries’ Third Annual Edible Book Contest, in which contestants baked cakes inspired by their favorite books. What a great idea!

Another great response is when Paul Michael Murphy, who is a writer of YA fiction himself, put on an Order of Odd-Fish Week on his blog (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4). Every day he doled out content from a long interview I had done with him, he put up videos of himself and his daughter reading from Odd-Fish, and at the end there was a contest in which participants had to think up their own scholarly specialty as an Odd-Fish knight. I was impressed by the energy, fertility, and ingenuity of the responses! Paul and I picked a winner, and we sent her prizes. I felt very honored to have been the focus for a whole week for that blog’s community!

Probably the most flattering fan response I got was when a high school student named Kevin Buckelew showed up at this year’s ALA Midwinter conference in Denver, proudly sporting a three-foot-long, red-and-white fish hat in honor of The Order of Odd-Fish.

I got hold of a picture of him in his hat, put it up on my blog, and wrote a story about his adventures at the ALA Midwinter conference. In it I revealed that the ALA is a dark cult of snuffling troglodytes, ALA President Loriene Roy was a many-armed lizard clothed in the gruesome remains of beloved children’s authors, and that Newbery winner Neil Gaiman is in fact two millimeters tall and that all his books are written by bees.

Within two hours of it going up, Neil Gaiman somehow found out about the post, was amused, and mentioned it in his own blog. BOOM-my site was crashed with thousands of visitors at once. A lot of people found out about me, and The Order of Odd-Fish, that way. So I owe Neil Gaiman a great debt.

Later Kevin Buckelew, himself a DeviantArt artist, did some fan art for me, which I proudly put up on the blog-it’s when Colonel Korsakov and some squires are chasing the elusive Schwenk through the streets of Eldritch City:

The Hunting of The Schwenk by Kevin Buckelew

A couple weeks later I got an email from someone named “Jim Rettig.” He claimed that Loriene Roy’s term as President of the ALA had actually ran out, and that he, Jim Rettig, was the current President of the ALA. Therefore, my jokes that were directed at Loriene Roy should’ve been directed at him. He said he didn’t know whether to be relieved or offended at my mistake.

But you know what? I asked around among other librarians, and get this-nobody has ever heard of him! But when you think about it, isn’t it kind of touching? “Jim Rettig” has even made his own cute ALA business cards with crayon and construction paper, he put up his own “blog,” but in fact this mischievous scamp holds no official position at the ALA.

However, I did some further digging around, and learned that there is a “Jimmy Rettig” well-known in librarian circles, a semi-tolerated eccentric who tramps from library to library, telling anyone who will listen that he’s “President of the ALA”! “Just popping in for a quick inspection,” he’ll simper, his eyes wandering over to some donuts on the break table. It’s traditional for librarians give “Jimmy Rettig” a shave and a hot meal and send him on his way. That’s all he really wants.

Sometimes I think it’s almost inspiring. Jim Rettig, the last American cowboy, a wandering minstrel, tramping that open road, a nickel in his pocket and a song in his heart. He’s the last unicorn.

I guess we all wish we could be Jim Rettig, in a way. But then again, we grow up.

What will audience members at the preconference take from your talk?

A sense of furious exaltation. There will be wrestling. This is going to be big, people. Buy your tickets now.

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