order of oddfish cover order of oddfish cover

The Order of Oddfish


How To Be Irrelevant

Email: kennedyjames@gmail.com
Twitter: @iamjameskennedy

Many years ago—in 2008, when my debut novel The Order of Odd-Fish was first published—this is what I had written about myself on this page, in an essay called “How To Be Irrelevant”:

I remember writing my first story when I was seven. It was called The Strange Ship (you can read it here!) and it was about two ghosts who visit a spaceship full of aliens and blow it up. After I illustrated it, drew a cover, and stapled the pages together, I was astonished. Producing a book was so easy! I felt as though I’d gotten away with something.

Encouraged, I tried something bigger: an epic that started with the creation of the world, progressed to a story about a talking Christmas tree and a dinosaur detective who fight against a grinning pile of hair and his army of squabbling freaks, and ended with the apocalypse. I kept rambling off into digressions and subplots, so I never finished, but that’s why I enjoyed writing it so much. I discovered early on the pleasures of getting distracted.

The ability to get distracted is an easily misunderstood talent. Irresponsibility might be a secret virtue. Throughout grade school I left many stories unfinished; in high school I half-programmed a lot of computer games; in college I co-wrote a musical, but even though we got a cast together and rehearsed it, it was never properly performed. Yet I learned a lot by being undisciplined. G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Yes – and I’d add that if something is worth doing, it is also worth doing halfway and then quitting. It’s also worth brooding over, and making lots of plans, and then going off and doing something else. Having many little interests, amateur enthusiasms, and failed ambitions creates a rich stew out of which you can boil fresh ideas.

I’d always wanted to be a writer, but for a while I abandoned writing. In college I decided I’d rather be a physicist. After getting my degree in physics, though, I realized I didn’t want to be a scientist after all. I had friends who were in bands, so I learned how to play the guitar, but as soon as I was halfway proficient I stopped. I taught science at a junior high school, but then I stopped that too. I moved to Japan and came back after a year; then I moved back to Japan; then two years later I came back again. I took classes in improvisational comedy, but when it came time for real shows, I often dropped out.

We hear advice about how perseverance pays off. That’s true, but I think the opposite is more interesting and equally true. My favorite experiences and ideas have come when I’ve wandered away from what I should’ve been doing. Maybe it’s better to make a principle of fickleness, to deploy a strategic laziness, to be staunchly flighty.

By letting myself get distracted by interests other than writing, I gave myself something to write about. The specialties of the knights in The Order of Odd-Fish are almost all subjects I’ve been curious about at some point or another. The Odd-Fish lodge itself has its roots in the grubby convent I lived in when I was a volunteer teacher (a mishmash of queer little rooms full of junk nobody had touched in years, an attic seething with bats, fraying red carpet that smelled like cat urine, and a woozy, extremely aged nun that trundled around the halls at all hours). Ken Kiang’s failed musical is inspired by my own musical. The rituals of Eldritch City are partly based on festivals I saw and participated in while I was living in Japan. My tastes in reading are similarly scattershot, and The Order of Odd-Fish borrows from writers as various as Douglas Adams, Evelyn Waugh, Madeleine L’Engle, Edwin O’Connor, C.S. Lewis, James Joyce, J.K. Huysmans, and Roald Dahl.

Maybe I wrote The Order of Odd-Fish because I felt I’d be at home in an organization like it: a society of dilettantes, living together in a fascinating but homey lodge in a big city, bound together by weird but not oppressive traditions, contributing to each other’s idiosyncratic projects, and occasionally going off on a quest. If I can’t join the Odd-Fish, writing about them is a fair substitute. I suspect there’s enough in Eldritch City to distract me for a long time. And when I eventually find myself going astray from that world, into new and irrelevant terrain, I’ll know I’m on the track of something good.

I still stand by those words! But even then, I never would’ve predicted how much I’d end up fulfilling them.

That is to say: instead of publishing more books after The Order of Odd-Fish, I spent the next decade or so getting distracted in all sorts of other things. (Now, finally, in September of 2021, I have a new book coming out—an adult sci-fi thriller called Dare To Know—which is itself a left turn from the kind of writing I was doing with Odd-Fish.)

What was I doing all those years, if I wasn’t publishing? Well, I was still writing, to be sure. But I was also unconsciously taking my own advice, and letting myself get fruitfully distracted.

For instance, one of the first things I noticed when Odd-Fish came out was that a lot of very talented young people were making amazing fan art based on it. I collected the Odd-Fish fan art here on my website. A year or two later some friends and I got together to put on a real-life gallery show of Order of Odd-Fish fan art. And not just an art show—it was also a costumed dance party and sacrificial ritual.

Inspired by that experience, I started the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival—an annual video contest in which kid filmmakers create short movies that tell the stories of Newbery-winning books in about 90 seconds. (The Newbery Medal is the highest honor in children’s literature.) I’ve been running the film festival for ten years now, and it’s given me the excuse to travel around the country doing live screenings annually in fourteen cities across the U.S.—in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston, San Antonio, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Oakland CA, Rochester NY, Tacoma WA, Ogden UT, and other cities. I always co-host these live screenings with other children’s authors, and in this way I’ve had the pleasure of befriending authors from all over the country—some of them whom I’ve looked up to for a long time! Almost everyone I’ve met in the kidlit and YA author community—writers, librarians, teachers, and most importantly, readers—have been so generous, enthusiastic, and friendly. (And you’ve got to check out the brilliant and hilarious movies kids have made—I’ve gathered some of the best here.)

Indeed, getting distracted gave me a chance to meet a longtime favorite writer of mine! In 2009, pretending to offended that legendary fantasy author Neil Gaiman—and not I—won the Newbery Medal (for his excellent novel The Graveyard Book), I wrote an unhinged 4000-word screed called “America, Emulate This Man” in which I demanded the Newbery Medal be rightfully awarded to me, and in which I revealed Gaiman’s dark secret: that he is 2 mm tall and all his books are written by bees. Gaiman somehow found out about this and, presumably amused, mentioned it on his blog. I decided to escalate this fake, completely one-sided feud when I was invited to speak at the American Library Association conference, an event at which I tackled Neil Gaiman’s doppelganger, wrestled the Newbery Medal from him, and engaged him in a series of mental and physical trials to see whom among us truly deserved the Newbery (you can see all that here). Again Gaiman tweeted about this, although I wonder if he was getting worried. The whole thing was resolved when I invited to do an opening speech for Neil Gaiman—in person!—when he came to speak in Chicago for our “One City, One Book” program. At that event I confronted the man himself in person before an audience of hundreds, revealed his true origin of his lustrous black hair, and serenaded him with Katy Perry’s “Firework.”

And thus I learned the lesson that you can meet your heroes, if you go out of your way to creatively bother them. But truly, the whole thing sprouted out of a goofy blog post I had written when I should’ve been doing something else.

I got productively distracted in other ways too. I was in a band called Brilliant Pebbles. For a few years I taught writing and filmmaking at summer sessions for high schoolers at Northwestern University. For the past few years, I’ve been doing a podcast for novelists and screenwriters with my friend Matt Bird exploring storytelling techniques called “The Secrets of Story.” And most importantly, I’ve been having a ball with my wife raising our daughters Lucy and Ingrid.

I went off in many directions the past ten years, but through it all I was always writing, writing, writing. There were many different projects, some of which will be published, some of which may never see the light of day.

And then at last I really let myself rip, and while I should have been working on a more conventional book, I found myself instead compulsively writing something else, all the while saying to myself, “This will never get published. It’s too weird. But I can’t stop writing this book, I need to write this book.” That book is Dare To Know, and when it comes out this September, I hope you dig it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

And as much as I appreciate distraction, I promise it won’t be another ten years before my next book!

Now here, free of charge, are various pictures of me throughout the years that you can use to train your deepfake algorithms: