I first heard of James Kennedy through Jacqui's blog, where she linked to his post on the ALA Awards. I thought it was the funniest thing I'd read in a long time and so I vowed to buy his book, The Order of Odd-Fish. I finished it a couple of weeks ago. I liked it. A lot. It's the kind of highly imaginative book that I wish I could write. It's one of those books with parts crafted so deftly they demand to be read aloud (and I did, to The Wife). It is everything I like in a novel: smart, original, fun, and, most importantly, extremely entertaining. When I finished it I emailed James to tell him how much I enjoyed it. He emailed me back and offered to do an interview. I accepted, and because I went a little hog-wild with the questions, The Order of Odd-Fish Week was born.
I caught up with James through the magic of the Internet. Part one of my interview, in which I ask him some questions about writing and publishing, follows.
Complete this sentence: I write because…
I like my stories, and I think there should be more of them.
Tell us about the road to publication for The Order of Odd-Fish.
It took ten years, and it was a long, complicated, interesting road. I almost never worked on the manuscript full-time; years would go by and I wouldn’t look at it at all. In the meantime, I was busy teaching junior high school science, living and working in Japan and learning Japanese, writing other stories, traveling around Asia, working as a computer programmer, trying my hand at improv comedy, participating in music projects, helping my friends make a movie, throwing costume parties. All of those experiences contributed to what eventually became The Order of Odd-Fish.
When I finally finished the manuscript, I had a very hard time landing an agent. I didn’t have any contacts in the publishing world, so I just blindly sent out query letters to whomever I found in Publisher’s Marketplace. I got rejected by over a hundred agents. In my petty way, I logged them all into an Excel spreadsheet and saved all my rejection letters. When I visit schools for author events, I sometimes bring along a collage made of all the rejection slips I’ve ever received. The idea is to teach the students a lesson about perseverance, but when they see this big reject-collage, they just pity me. So I rarely bring it anymore.
I finally got my lucky break in 2006, after three years of rejections. Up until then, I had been only querying smaller agencies, because I figured the bigger agencies wouldn’t be interested in me. But after nearly everyone else had already rejected me, I figured, what do I have to lose? So I queried ICM—one of the biggest, most established agencies in the world—and I was shocked when I got a swifter, more polite, more professional response than any of the nickel-and-dime, dog-and-pony agencies that had rejected me before. And to my astonishment, ICM (through the agents Lisa Bankoff and Tina Wexler) wanted to represent me! It was a total up-is-down, the-world-is-insane moment for me. The mediocre agencies had said no, but the cream of the crop was saying yes!
But my trials weren’t over yet. Lisa and Tina landed a deal with a major publishing house—but the editor wanted to cut the manuscript’s length in half. I was aghast. The editor’s rationale was that “long fantasy doesn’t sell.”
I realized I couldn’t work with this editor. Even though this was the only deal on the table, I walked away from it.
It was a difficult decision. Was I burning my only bridge? Was I walking away from the only deal I was likely to get? What if no other publisher offered to buy Odd-Fish? But I couldn’t conceive of putting out Odd-Fish in a mangled, truncated form. I stuck to my guns—and amazingly, through their mystical agent ninjutsu, which I can’t even begin to fathom, Lisa and Tina somehow got me another deal, this time with Random House’s Delacorte Press, with a fantastic editor, Stephanie Elliott, who is a great fit for my sensibilities.
So everything worked out after all. But it was a long wait, there were some risky decisions, and there were some harrowing moments.
What was a lesson you learned while writing your first book?
I learned that it’s okay to plan and structure the book in advance, which is something I resisted at first. When I started Odd-Fish in earnest, I wrote in a very improvisational style. The story went wherever the jokes went. I discovered that you can generate some good scenes this way, but I eventually also realized the story as a whole wasn’t hanging together in a larger sense. I had to do a lot of retroactive editing to previous chapters every time I finished a new chapter. I found out that without a good overall structure, even the best, funniest individual scene will fall flat.
I’d never taken a creative writing class, and I didn’t know where to start when it came to story structure. So I sat at bookstore cafes and read book after book on screenplay structure. I found them to be really helpful. The screenplay books had a no-nonsense, frankly mercenary tone that appealed to me. I didn’t follow them to the letter, but it was nice to learn what was conventional good structure. Once I had a clearer idea of story structure, I gained the confidence to go off on flights of weirdness without being afraid that the whole metabolism of the story would be disrupted. Structure gave me the freedom to be weirder.
Tomorrow night: Interview Part Two: The Book (including a vee-log of me reading from The Order of Odd-Fish. And I know how much you all love the vee-log.)
Tuesday: Interview Part Three: About the Author (new pictures included!)
Wednesday: Interview Part Four: Pick 'Em--In which James makes a stunning revelation about chocolate milk!
Thursday: The Order of Odd-Fish Contest--Win an personalized copy of the book and a copy of The Order of Odd-Fish soundtrack!
Sunday: Contest winner announced
While you're waiting, buy James's book. Amazon makes it really easy.