In August 2008, James Kennedy (Nara-ken, 2004-06) published his first novel, The Order of Odd-Fish, a fantasy novel inspired partially by his experience in Japan. Book sales have been going well and JETAA DC Newsletter Editor Gina Anderson (Nara-ken, 2003-05) recently talked with James about the book and, well, some other things.
Let’s start with your hair. Do you razor it or clippers? Neither?
Usually my wife Heather cuts my hair. Scissors all the way. Recently I’ve been getting my hair cut by a friend instead. At first it felt like a kind of betrayal, but actually Heather is relieved.
Paper or plastic?
I generally write on paper.
Are you an extrovert or an introvert?
Like many introverts, I enjoy playing the extrovert.
Who’s your favorite author?
That’s not fair! There can’t be just one.
The authors who have most inspired my own writing are Evelyn Waugh, Douglas Adams, Roald Dahl, Madeleine L’Engle, Edwin O’Connor, C.S. Lewis, J.K. Huysmans, G.K. Chesterton, and Lewis Carroll. I find myself rereading their stuff again and again.
(My all-time favorites are James Joyce and Marcel Proust, but that sounds mighty pretentious. And anyway, since I don’t have the chops to emulate them, they don’t directly affect my own work.)
What made you do JET?
I had lived in Tokyo from 1997-98 and loved it. Tokyo was thrilling – like living in a frantic video game, or on the moon – but I did feel something was missing. I was curious about life in the inaka. In 2003 my fiancee and I applied for the JET Program and I was lucky enough to get placed in Nara, our first choice. I much preferred Nara to Tokyo. I made Japanese friends more readily, and I was able to learn Japanese more quickly. We stayed there from 2004 to 2006.
My school gave me a lax schedule, and with this free time I was able to do wonderful things such as explore local ruins, temples and shrines, participate in matsuri, and bike the month-long solo trip following a pilgrimage path around the 88 temples of the Shikoku. The school at which I taught was not a first-tier school, but the students were very friendly and rambunctious. I learned not to push them too hard, especially if they were shy. Many of them just wanted to hang out with a foreigner, but not necessarily speak English. That went for many of the adults I met as well. I spent a lot of time in Nara drinking with old men. I have a feeling this is a universal JET experience.
Were you inspired by Japan and/or its people while writing this book?
The book was already finished by the time I came to Japan, so during JET I was editing the manuscript and sending it around to agents. Details about Japan did manage to sneak in, though. Eldritch City, the setting of most of the story, is a teeming tropical metropolis, each of its neighborhoods with its own colorful rituals and festivals for the city’s many gods. These festivals were certainly inspired by the matsuri I’ve attended.
Do you remember how to speak any Japanese?
I meet my friend Yuko weekly to gossip in Japanese for an hour or so. This slows the rate at which I’m losing my Japanese ability, but it’s inevitable – I’m losing it.
Did you go to any special writing school or are you just that darned good?
(Well, thanks for the compliment!) No, I never went through a writing program. I majored in physics and philosophy at university, and a couple of years later I studied computer science. I know that many people like writing programs, but I don’t feel they fit my habits. For me, writing is a fragile, solitary, long-term process, and though I do send drafts around to my friends for criticism, the idea of workshopping doesn’t appeal to me.
How long of a labor of love was Odd-Fish?
I wrote the first version of The Order of Odd-Fish in short story form in 1995. It was called “The Cockroach and the Music-Box” and it has no relation to Odd-Fish except for a couple of the characters.
After I wrote the story, I put it away and forgot about it for a while. I wrote other things. But from time to time I took the story out, fiddled with it, and then put it away again. I started adding characters and situations. Little by little, I chipped away at the original plot until there was nothing left of it. Finally I completely overhauled the whole thing. The original short story had only been a scaffolding, and so I dispensed with it.
At last I finished the first draft of The Order of Odd-Fish in 2003, and I completed the final draft in 2006.
How many more books do you have in you right this second?
I’ve got two, possibly three more Odd-Fish books in mind. Right now I’m working on a young adult sci-fi comedy called The Magnificent Moots. I also have a couple of short stories and an unfinished novella kicking around. Having ideas for books isn’t the problem – the problem is making the time to get it all down on paper. (I work full-time as a software engineer at the American Medical Association.)
What do you want people to remember most about you? Start with this: “Here Lies James Kennedy: [fill in the blank]
“He never gave unicorns an even break.”
Okay, we’re going to do this in reverse importance level questioning. This way you’re so amazed at how easy the questions are that you forget that it’s hard! Oops, did I wait until the end of the questioning to tell you this? My bad!
Oh, this is geared towards JETs returning to the D.C. area? Then I’ve got more stuff to say.
My first job after college was a volunteer science teacher for a junior high school in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. I lived in a grubby convent in the city with a couple of nuns and some other volunteers. For those of you familiar with D.C., the convent was Blessed Sacrament on Chevy Chase Circle. I don’t know if it’s even a convent anymore.
The convent had lots of odd little rooms full of old junk nobody had touched in years, an attic full of bats, fraying red carpet that smelled overpoweringly like cat urine, and a woozy, wobbly, extremely aged nun that trundled around the halls at all hours. The basement was a music room for the adjoining elementary school, with a piano, drums, xylophones, and other instruments we liked to play; an Ethiopian refugee moved in with us for a while; everyone took turns cooking for the rest of the convent; gloomy oil portraits of distinguished churchmen glowered on the walls and none of us had any money. Looking back, the atmosphere of that convent was a very much an inspiration for the lodge of the Order of Odd-Fish.
Thanks James, and thanks Gina as well!
In addition to writing novels and engineering software, James is also the bass player in the Chicago-based band Brilliant Pebbles and blogs at http://jameskennedy.com.