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Interview: James Kennedy

By Marcus Gilmer in Arts & Entertainment on Apr 27, 2009 5:00PM

2009_04_28_oddfish.jpg Local writer James Kennedy has created a fantastical universe in his Young Adult novel, The Order of Odd-Fish. Thirteen-year-old Jo Larouche has been living a rather mundane life with her unique Aunt Lily. But that all changes in a flash upon the appearance of a talking cockroach, a Russian Colonel who converses with his digestion, and a box that falls out of the sky addressed to Jo from a group known as The Order of Odd-Fish.

What happens next is a rollicking tale in the fashion of Roald Dahl and Douglas Adams as Jo is whisked off to Eldritch City where she and Lily join the Odd-Fish and engage in adventures (and misadventures). Along the way, Jo uncovers a dark secret about her family and herself as she hurtles towards a destiny she never expected. This magical world is inhabited by vivid, quirky characters from rival Orders, various hooligans, and even villains that are darker and more sinister than could be imagined. Kennedy gives us an excellent new entry into the fantasy genre that both youngsters and adults alike will enjoy, propelling us through each adventure and each step in the story, engaging us even as the roller-coaster careens through this new universe.

We caught up with Kennedy ahead of a pair of local appearances this week to talk about Odd-Fish, his influences, the elements of fantasy and Young Adult fiction, and Harry Potter.

Tuesday, April 28, Bookslut reading series at Hopleaf, 5148 N. Clark, (2nd
floor), 7:30 p.m.

Wednesday, April 29, The Book Cellar, 4736 N Lincoln Ave, 6 p.m.

Chicagoist: To be honest, half the time I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I loved it. It’s a compelling read and it was definitely one of those books that just propels the reader forward, especially the last 100, 150 pages.

James Kennedy: Thank you. That’s my kind of honesty.

C: You’ve created this complex, fantastical universe. We’ve seen it with the Harry Potter books. How important for you is creating a mythology within this universe to work with? Is that something you set out to do before the book, or did things just kind of come at you as you were writing?

JK: It came piecemeal. It started out as a short story that actually bears no resemblance to the final novel. I fiddled with the story over the years, adding characters and subplots like a Chinese millionaire, or a Russian colonel who talks to his digestion, or an eccentric order of knight-scholars, and various other things. Eventually I just got rid of the original short story, because it had become bloated. But I wanted to write a new story that included all these new elements.

So The Order of Odd-Fish came out of trying to find a way to put all of these things into one story. If I had designed it from the top-down, I don’t think it would have been as freewheeling or compelling. Some of the most important elements of the story, like the All-Devouring Mother, came about ad hoc. Once I came up with it, I revised it to make everything consistent with that. It’s a circuitous way to write, but I like to work that way.

C: The Silent Sisters, the villains of the novel, was that one mythology that you had planned out beforehand, because it’s such an important plot device, or was that something that kind of emerged?

JK: It emerged. When I first wrote the story, there was no Eldritch City. There wasn’t even an Order of Odd-Fish. There was no Ichthala. I discovered the best things about the story as I wrote it. The first draft was like 500 pages long and it was a mess, and I went back and cut out whole chapters or characters to force it into some kind of story. But I do feel that, precisely because it started out in such an improvisational way, the story has many more interesting quirks sticking out of it, because it came from rough timber, because it was a bottom-up design. Even the main villain, the Belgian prankster, the inspiration for him was—do you remember how somebody put a pie in Bill Gates’s face, back in 1998?

C: Yeah.

JK: Whenever they referred to that incident in the news, all the newspapers and magazines always referred to Noel Godin, the guy who threw a pie in Bill Gates’ face, as “Belgian prankster Noel Godin.” It’s like they all agreed in advance to use that tag. Anyway, I loved the way “Belgian Prankster” sounded. It had a sinister lilt to it. It sounds like the name of a supervillain. It’s kind of like how, a few years before that, the newspapers and TV anchors would never say just “Manuel Noriega,” but always “Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega.” So I named my villain the Belgian Prankster, but I had him graduate to more insane and dangerous stunts, like filling the Grand Canyon with pistachio pudding, or turning the Eiffel Tower upside-down. He’s a celebrity terrorist, a kind of whimsical Osama bin Laden. But the inspiration came from nothing more than I liked the sound of those words, “Belgian Prankster,” together.

C: The book is considered a Young Adult novel. What do you see as the ideal age of the reader? I’m 30 and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

JK: I think young adult literature is at the point where every book has potentially two audiences: kids and the adults who love to read YA. I’m writing for both of those audiences. Some jokes the adults will get and the kids won’t. But there are some things that the adults will miss, that the kids will get, because kids are much more attentive readers than adults. They seize upon trivia and details and inconsistencies. For adults, we’ve already read so many books that they all kind of blur together, and so they’re not as precious to us. But for a kid, a new book can become their whole world. They’ll quiz each other about Harry Potter trivia. I guess the ideal age for my book is middle school. But my niece read it when she was in second grade. And high school kids read it. And people in college have read it, and adults read it. So it’s for everyone. Maybe that’s why this kind of fantasy has caught on lately, because people want a book that works for everyone.

C: They want to identify with their kids?

JK: That too. There’s a cultural near-unanimity about Harry Potter, which almost never happens. About something good! I like that. My book might not achieve that, but that’s the spirit in which I wrote it.

C: Okay. Do you also think that younger readers are more inclined to go with the flow of a book if you pull something out of nowhere, just throw it out there? There were a few times in the book when I thought, “Well, that came out of nowhere.” Do you think kids are more likely to roll with it, accept it and move on than adults?

JK: I think that as a writer, you have to make a story that, step by step, seems unpredictable. But when you look back at it, at the end, it should all somehow feel inevitable. That’s what I was going for. And as weird and random as Odd-Fish seems on the surface, I think it’s got a sound underlying structure. The way that I first wrote it was undisciplined and went in so many different directions, and I knew I needed help, so I found myself in bookstore cafes reading screenwriting manuals that tell you about “three-act structure” and things like that. I tried as hard as I could to force it into a conventional structure. It didn’t always work. I almost feel like the book is restrained [laughs] from what it had been originally. In a good way. I’m glad it was restrained.

C: This is your first novel?

JK: Yes.

C: But, like most writers, I assume you have quite a backlog of things that have yet to be published?

JK: I wrote some short stories that were in the Reader. One in 2004 and one last year in 2008. But other than that, not much. I’m working on another novel now.

C: Is that also Young Adult?

JK: Yes. The stuff that I wrote for the Reader is pitched for an age even younger than YA. The language in Order of Odd-Fish is very florid at some times. The stuff that I wrote for the Reader is simple and stripped-down. One of them is called “The Lam of Hal Hamburger” and the other one is called “The Most Dangerous Beard in Town.” I’m writing another story called “Bride of the Tornado,” also in the same very simple style.

C: How do the conventions of writing Young Adult literature differ from trying to write exclusively for an adult audience? Do you think that certain rules, like we were talking earlier, apply or you’re able to get away it? Because kids are more willing to accept certain things, or because like you said, kids are more finely attuned to certain aspects when they’re reading.

JK: I see where you’re going, but I don’t know if realistic fiction is in itself—I mean, the conventions of literary realism are a bit fantastical. I mean, realism presumes to tell you about reality, or the world as it is. And that, I think, is a fantastical claim. How many “realistic” novels have you read actually resemble your real life? At least fantasy is honest about its artifice and remove from reality. And I think it’s precisely through that artifice that the fantasy writer can address issues and access emotions that are unavailable in “realistic” fiction. Maybe with fantasy novels, a back door opens and you can get some truths that you can’t get at, that are blocked by the conventions of the realist novel.

C: Because you have more freedom, more leeway.

JK: Yeah. Or maybe it’s not even more freedom, but the terms have changed. The are some things you can do in conventional literary fiction that you can’t do in a children’s fantasy. And there are some things that can be achieved quite naturally in a children’s fantasy that would seem strained in conventional literary fiction. So maybe not more freedom, but a different kind of freedom.

C: Is this a universe that we’ll see more from?

JK: I would love to write another book in the Odd-Fish series. I have two sequels planned and, then obnoxiously enough, a prequel. But I think that all depends on how well this one sells. Right now I’m working on a new, unrelated book for young adults called The Magnificent Moots. It’s more like a science fiction comedy.

C: Let’s talk about your process of writing, because you said this was originally a 500-some odd page novel.

JK: It was too long.

C: And it’s still 400-odd pages, which actually is not that long considering the later Harry Potter books were all 700 pages.

JK: Only kids have patience for books like that. That’s another way in which kids are more sophisticated or more surprising in their abilities than adult readers.

C: Do you think there’s something about being a kid - you’re not working, at the end of the day, you’re more likely to just sit down with a book on the couch or in bed and read 30 to 40 pages before they fall asleep. They don’t even understand--

JK: Yeah. A kid, it’s their job to read. That’s why--

C: Kids would read these Harry Potter books in one night when they came out.

JK: Yeah, they--that’s what’s great about being a kids’ writer or Young Adult author. Every teacher and librarian is your salesperson. If you’re writing literary fiction for adults, then unless you’re very lucky, nobody’s pushing your book like that. There were big cuts and layoffs at Random House recently, but I heard that my imprint, Delacorte, wasn’t affected as badly. Maybe because the kind of books they put out still get bought by kids and adults and libraries.

C: I’m interested because you’ve cut a hundred pages, and you mentioned plots and characters that were cut. How do you decide what stays and what goes?

JK: It was difficult to figure out, because I never took a writing class. I guess I figured it out from reading a lot of books, seeing a lot of movies, reading books on story structure, and always mulling over my own book while I was reading or watching, and that built up my instinct of what should stay and what should go. I was a physics and philosophy major in college. I wasn’t formally taught anything about creative writing. I always wanted to write a book, all my life, but I think that’s partially why I didn’t become an English major. After college, I noticed that some my friends who were English majors stopped reading and writing creatively. Because they just got sick of it. Or they got infected with certain theories and ideas that made reading and writing boring, or burdensome, or something that caused anxiety. But writing was always freeing for me, it was always something I did on my own time, for fun. Perhaps I was able to sidestep all those anxieties by studying something unrelated to writing. Maybe, by studying something outside the domain of literature, I could gain a unique perspective to my own writing.

Isaac Asimov had a doctorate in chemistry, right? From that perspective he was able to write all this stuff that people love—I certainly loved it when I read him in junior high school and high school—and he was a good science fiction writer maybe because he wasn’t coming from a background of literature, and so he was free of certain conventions and orthodoxies. That might have given him a more idiosyncratic way of approaching literature, because he was an autodidact. When he read Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, that inspired him to write Foundation. I doubt he read Decline and Fall in class, or for an assignment. He just picked it up as a person who cared about literature. Maybe only somebody scientifically trained could come up with something as wacky as the Foundation novels. Have you read them?

C: I haven’t; my father has. He’s a big sci-fi fantasy buff.

JK: I haven’t read Asimov since high school, but I really loved him. I’m sure I’d still like him.

C: So you think you have a certain freedom that comes with not being forced at gunpoint to read these classic novels like The Great Gatsby in school?

JK: Well I love those classic novels. I think I love them because I was not forced to read them.

C: You were able to read them at your own pace.

JK: Actually, I read The Great Gatsby in high school, so that’s a bad example, but in general, yeah. I read The Faerie Queen on my own and loved it. I think if I had to read it for class I might’ve hated it. At my college, they had a required class called Freshman Seminar, in which a Humanities professor teaches some classics to a bunch of freshmen, regardless of what major they’re going on to. My professor for Freshman Seminar was a Joyce scholar named Dr. Cronin, and he invited me to join his Ulysses class. It was great. I loved it. I felt like I was getting away with something by studying Ulysses. It was an oasis in the middle of all the science and math classes I was taking. Every time I took a class that involved literature in college, it felt like I was sneaking some treat. And anyway, Ulysses, I think you have to take a class in it to understand it. It’s a difficult book. I’m grateful I got to learn about it. Dr. Cronin made it accessible, showed us how to understand it.

C: So how did you find yourself in a position where you wanted to write a book?

JK: I’ve always wanted to write a book. I felt like I took a crooked path to get there. I realized, halfway through studying physics, that I would make a terrible physicist. So I did various other things. I was a volunteer science teacher in Washington DC. I moved to Tokyo for a little while, then came back, became a computer programmer, moved back to rural Japan for two years, came back to Chicago, and now I’m still a computer programmer. I almost always had a day job. Writing a book was always something I did on my off-hours.

C: What’s harder for you: the actual writing or the revision?

JK: Actual writing. It’s hard to force out the words. However, I usually don’t have writer’s block, because my solution is just to write badly. Sometimes I’m writing and it’s so bad, I literally close my eyes, I can’t look at it, how bad it is. Then sometimes I look at what I wrote the next day, and I’m like, “Hmm! Not bad!” No matter how good you are, ninety percent of what you write is going to be crap, so you just have to get the crap out there, then sift through it and try to find the diamonds. Then I take all those little good bits and piece them together, writing transitions between them. That’s the fun part. So the actual writing is harder because it’s exhausting, you know that you’re generating a lot of stuff that’s useless and horrible.

C: How long did you work on this book? Even including the short story mentioned.

JK: I worked on it off and on for about ten years. But there would be years in which I would put it away and not look at it at all. I wrote the original short story in 1995. At one point I quit my job and just went to a coffee house every day, to work on it for eight hours a day. So it’s difficult to say how long it took. Maybe three solid years of work.

C: So this is something you were continually working on. When you get the idea about pitching it to a publishing house, or an agent?

JK: That came even before I finished it. But as you know, when it’s your first novel, you can’t pitch an idea, or even half a book, or three-fourths of a book. It has to be the whole book. An agent is not going to accept a partial manuscript from an unknown writer. So I had to really, really finish it.

But even after I finished it, I got over 100 rejections for the original manuscript. I think it was my query letter. I didn’t know anything about agents or the publishing business, so I wrote these terrible, five-page query letters. I did not really understand that they should only be one page. And I was sending it to all the wrong people.

I made a poster of over 100 rejection letters that I received. When I visit schools to talk about The Order of Odd-Fish and writing, I used bring it in and show it to the kids, to teach a lesson about perseverance. But then I realized that the kids were just pitying me and my little craft project made of rejection slips. So I don’t bring it anymore.

Even after I got an agent, my problems weren’t over yet. She first sold it to a different publishing house, but they wanted to cut the book in half. On the dubious premise that long fantasy doesn’t sell.

C: In spite of the best-selling examples that we just went through.

JK: Yeah. And so I made the difficult decision to walk away from that deal. Even though there was no other deal on the table. And my agent, God bless her, found another publisher, in my opinion a better publisher, in Delacorte Press at Random House. I don’t know how she did it, but I’m very thankful to her for it.

C: Is there a lot of back and forth between you and the publishing house?

JK: My editor Stephanie was great because instead of just saying “cut it in half” or whatever, she would ask very specific questions. Like, “If this happens on page 18, how can this happen on page 400?” She was very good at spotting inconsistencies or things that clunked. That was very, very helpful. By thinking of the book in this way, it eliminated problems, and naturally it became shorter. It had been 450 pages, but between my editors and me we were able to winnow it down to 400, and it made for a much stronger book.

C: It’s very, Roald Dahlian? Dahl-esque?

JK: Oh, he is exactly what I want to be like.

C: It’s very James and the Giant Peach-ish. I take it his writing was--

JK: Love Dahl. Love everything about him.

C: One of the biggest inspirations in this book?

JK: He’s one of the inspirations but he’s not the biggest. Probably the biggest is—have you read anything by GK Chesterton?

C: No.

JK: He wrote a book in around 1905 called The Man Who Was Thursday. It’s about a group of anarchists in turn-of-the-century London, each of them named after a day of the week. They’re led by Sunday, who’s this larger-than-life, beyond-good-and-evil character. The hero, a policeman, infiltrates the group as Thursday, to get at Sunday. The Belgian Prankster and Sunday have a lot in common. Sunday seems to float above the narrative. His character reminded me of like, when you see Bill Murray in a movie, he sometimes seems like he’s detached from the movie he’s in, that he’s ironically distant from the story that his character is in. Anyway, the idea of Sunday fed into my idea of the Belgian Prankster, who’s ironically removed from the entire world. Of somebody who he wants to make the worst joke ever.

The Comedian from Watchmen is kind of like that too, isn’t he? I have my own theory about Watchmen, it’s probably not correct, that the Comedian does not actually believe in the terrible things he’s doing. He is actually doing all these evil things as a kind of commentary. That he himself is a good man, but he does these evil things in order to function as a mirror, to show us how terrible we are. Like, “this is you. This is America.” But he himself does not believe in any of those things.

C: The scene between him and Nite Owl, about the American Dream?

JK: Yeah, exactly. The Joker in Batman is kind of like this too. Or, specifically like the Heath Ledger incarnation.

C: The less cartoonish incarnations.

JK: You get the feeling that he doesn’t do evil things in order to be evil, but in order to send a message, to show people something, to make a point.

C: The scene in The Dark Knight with the people on the ferries.

JK: Yes. Exactly. He’s trying to show people something about themselves, about how ruthless human nature can be, about how fragile civilization is. It’s a terrible, evil thing he’s doing, but he’s making a moral point. And I think maybe it’s the same thing with The Comedian. This is all a bit off-topic for The Order of Odd-Fish. The Belgian Prankster is different, he’s somebody who got in too deep with The Silent Sisters. It’s something I want to deal with in subsequent Odd-Fish books. The way by which he got there was by taking the world flippantly. And Jo, the hero, does not take the world flippantly. She is his contradiction, the opposite of the Belgian Prankster. Jo is based on this friend that I had in high school, one of my best friends in high school. She had a lot of fascinating, slightly mad friends, but she was always a dry, ironic, practical person, though with a great sense of humor. But she attracted these whimsical people.

C: When you go back and look through the book, or talk to readers do you think about things like, “oh, I could have done this differently”? Because, with a book, how do you know when it’s done? You don’t know. But at a certain point you just have to give it away because if not you keep revising and revising.

JK: And I did revise and revise and revise for years. I was so eager to stop revising.

C: And at a certain point you just said “it’s done.”

JK: It’s ironic, because you spend so much time getting something totally perfect. But then you stop at an arbitrary point. Literally, you look at your proofs and you’re just like “I’m not even going to finish reading this. It’s done. Screw it.”

C: [Laughs.] If the publisher says it’s good to go, it’s ready.

JK: Yeah. But obviously, the flaws are mine.

C: Do you feel there are some points of the story that are stronger than others?

JK: Yeah. I was learning how to write a book as I wrote it. And even though the first few chapters are the most heavily revised, they may not be the strongest chapters. I really like them, but I can understand how someone might criticize them as arbitrary or ridiculous or cartoony. It’s only when Jo gets to Eldritch City and interacts with people her own age that I feel the story really takes off.

C: There are a few instances where characters got dropped, and I don’t know if they’re going to be brought up in a later book--the guy dressed as a hedgehog in the very beginning shoots the colonel, and Fiona--I don’t know if I was just really intrigued by her character-

JK: Let me take those one by one.

C: Let’s try the hedgehog.

JK: The hedgehog--

C: It’s a very intriguing scene. It’s on the dust jacket for a reason.

JK: In the very first chapter, a boy takes out a gun and shoots at Jo, because Colonel Korsakov wouldn’t apologize to him. And in the end of the book, another boy, who is Jo’s best friend, shoots Jo with a gun. But it’s a boy who owes her an apology, and he shoots her with an apology gun, a piece of the Odd-Fish armory we learned about earlier. So at the beginning, it’s a boy that Jo doesn’t know, she’s at a party where she doesn’t know anyone. At the end, she’s at a party where she knows everyone. And this was a boy that she’d become very close to. So this kind situation mirrors, and has become transformed, through the intervening story. And the apology gun was introduced in the exact middle of the story.

C: That’s a good transition point because I thought that scene where they were being chased underground was one of the more vivid scenes and it led to the introduction of the apology gun. It’s a very British humor moment. It’s something that, I don’t know if you could compare it to Dahl, but the humor of it, was very like “Oh, it’s okay, it’s just a reflection. Hey, wait!”

JK: Like Dahl, or Monty Python.

C: Yeah. Very Monty Python, very outlandish but within--

JK: Outlandishness only works if it’s within a code of expectations. The Ministry of Silly Walks is a perfect example. John Cleese is dressed up in a certain way that you expect certain things from him. He’s walking this ludicrous way, but even though it’s ludicrous, it has its own weird propriety to it. Crazy situations are funnier when they have their own weird propriety.

C: For you, none of these characters in this book--it’s not a good and evil story, it’s an antagonist, protagonist—

JK: I didn’t want to have characters that were good and evil. I wanted each of them to have their own motivations that, from a certain perspective, made sense. For instance, the commissioner of the squires, he’s mean, yes, but he’s mean because he has to be. He’s the enforcer of the law. And that causes him to do things that get in the way of Jo, so he’s her antagonist in a way, but he’s not evil. Eldritch City would be poorer if he wasn’t there. Certain people might be frustrating to deal with, and maybe in your less praiseworthy moments, you would describe as evil, but that doesn’t make them evil.

C: Where does the Belgian Prankster fall in all of this?

JK: He’s a tool of The Silent Sisters. He does their dirty work. And even the Silent Sisters have their own perspective, that they want to bring peace to the universe by having it gobbled by the All-Devouring Mother. It’s a mad scheme, and it seems evil, but they have their own perspective that, to them, doesn’t seem evil.

C: Will we see the other orders in future books?

JK: Yes. There are seven orders of knights in Eldritch City, but there wasn’t enough room in the first book to talk about them all. We only learn about two orders in this book. In the next book, I want to leave Eldritch City and explore the world outside of it. The Odd-Fish will go on an expedition, but it will still tie into The Silent Sisters and the Belgian Prankster. I don’t know how much more I can say.

C: The narrator, in the book, it shifts from character to character.

JK: From Jo to Ken Kiang. Either Jo or Ken is always in the scene. It’s never anybody else. With Ken, the language is a little bit more elevated, because he’s an adult. It’s a bit more sophisticated.

C: It feels like you’re more inside Ken’s thoughts?

JK: But also, the voice is constantly undermining him. But he is, in the end, ridiculous. And so he’s being described in his own terms, the terms of which he would approve, but it’s always undermining an essentially ludicrous character with ludicrous ambitions. With Jo, I respect her more, so maybe I have some more distance from her. Maybe there are certain thoughts of hers that I’m not going to probe because she feels more real. Sometimes you can cheat reality by getting inside every single thought somebody has, but sometimes you can cheat reality by giving a character some privacy. And letting the reader fill in the rest.

C: Is it related to the fact that so much more of the narration of action takes place with Jo?

JK: Yeah. With Ken Kiang, they’re usually very short chapters, and I have to do a lot more telling than showing.

C: Yeah. Very specific scenes.

JK: And also, if there’s any character in this book that’s me, it’s Ken Kiang.

C: Really?

JK: Yeah. He is pretentious. I think that sometimes I can think of myself, sometimes I’m a bit pretentious. You see that, and you can spin that into comedy if you’re maybe--

C: How about Jo?

JK: Jo’s funny in a dry way. But to be funny in a dry way, you have to have distance from the person who’s saying something in a dry way.

C: She’s also fiery. She doesn’t back down.

JK: Yeah. She’s a bit braver than I could be sometimes.

C: I get the sense that throughout the story there are certain situations where she doesn’t back down from certain situations, that seem a little bit out of character early, but then by the time you get to the end, it makes sense. Her actions make sense, her standing up in a certain way. And there are certain things where she proves herself to be a bit mischievous. There’s hidden mischief in her.

JK: At the beginning she’s impatient with her own lack of daring. I think it’s good to not always be privy to a characters’ every single thought. Sometimes it’s nice when they just act, and the reader fills in the gap of all the thoughts that went up to that. And so you get this tick of energy, and you get jolted along more readily in the story, rather than watching her agonizing over her problems and then acting.

C: Are you one of the writers who go where their characters take them, the characters take on this life of their own, or are you much more omnipotent, and controlling in their characters?

JK: When I wrote the first bunch of chapters I thought, “I’m just gonna follow these characters wherever they go!” And maybe that’s why they might not be as compelling as the later chapters. Once the story gets to Eldritch City, about a quarter of the way in, I started to plan it. Well, actually, from that point I tried to plan it out all in advance, but whenever I would get three chapters into that plan, I would have to change the plan. So there was a plan, but it was always changing. My next book is more carefully planned. I know that part of that plan will change, but I feel better with a plan.

C: But there’s still room for your characters—

JK: I will change a whole chapter or a whole arc for a joke. If there is a really, really good joke, I will go there. Because a good joke is not to be wasted. And I read somewhere that that’s how Douglas Adams wrote, like he would just do stuff like--

C: Now that’s a good example I hadn’t thought of, to be honest.

JK: Douglas Adams was a huge influence on this book. Both Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Order of Odd-Fish have an unreliable reference work at the center of the narrative, and my sense of humor is very much inspired by his. You probably know this, but you know he wrote Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy as a bunch of radio plays, right?

C: Right, it was the original incarnation.

JK: Yeah, in the late ‘70s, and then like he--

C: He wrote the novelization. And that’s the thing about that story, every incarnation is supposed to be different?

JK: Yeah. Which I love. I love the idea that nothing’s definitive about it. In that it would just like, the guide itself, is something that’s--

C: Ever-evolving.

JK: Right. And so I wanted to have The Order of Odd-Fish have that same kind of freewheeling, anything-goes attitude. Which, maybe in the same way that, to loop back, that fantasy novels do things that are looser than the realistic novels; you can access certain truths. The Odd-Fish, by having a more lax attitude towards truth, are able to maybe discover some truths that would not be in a strict encyclopedia. Wikipedia became big after I kind of conceived of this and started writing it, but the Order of Odd-Fish is kind of like the embodiment of Wikipedia. They’re a bunch of eccentrics who are deeply interested in trivia that may or may not be true. They collect all this ridiculous knowledge of dubious value, but there’s a place in the world for that.

Speaking of Douglas Adams—when the most recent Hitchhiker’s movie came out, I felt scooped. The climax hinged on a new joke, a “point-of-view-gun,” and Marvin, the depressed robot, shoots that gun at the Vogons, and they’re all overcome with his point of view and die. When I saw that I thought about the Apology Gun in Odd-Fish and thought, “Oh no, it’s a whimsical gun that does something counterintuitive.” I thought, maybe I’ll have to scrap that joke. But actually, it’s different enough, and luckily few people saw the movie. [Laughs]

C: No one saw the movie. And it’s one of many incarnations of that story.

JK: I felt the same way when Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix came out. The name was so similar to The Order of Odd-Fish, which I had already finished, and I was like “Aw, great. You already occupy so much brain space, Rowling, why do you have to take even this from me?”

C: But it hasn’t backfired.

JK: Oddly not. Nobody has called me out on it.

C: I think J.K. Rowling has bigger fish to fry right now.

JK: Not her, somebody saying “Oh, you wrote Order of Odd-Fish, I saw Order of the Phoenix.”

C: But it’s such a separate story from that. There are similarities, but they’re—

JK: I feel that Rowling totally opened up the field for everybody else, really blew open the doors for longer young adult fiction. There are people who want to read this, somehow she got a book through, it got huge, and so a whole lot of stuff that’s being written now only because of her, and the aftershocks of the book she did. Everybody who writes longer, more sophisticated YA now is indebted to her.