Monday, April 27, 2009

The Order of Odd-Fish Week---James Kennedy Interview: Part Two

Today's questions deal with the book, The Order of Odd-Fish. For some reason, not everybody has read it yet (although I'm sure you all plan to), so here's Booklist's brief synopsis:

The basic plot of Kennedy’s first novel is fairly standard fantasy fare—Jo, a 13-year-old girl who gets whisked off to a strange world, discovers that she is a child of destiny and must combat evil forces bent on the destruction of the world—but it’s so dizzyingly arrayed with Monty Python–inspired window dressing that one might not notice. Jo is a squire to an order of knights dedicated to “fiddling about” and studying such topics as “the philosophy of napkins.” Talking cockroach butlers, a Russian colonel who takes orders from his digestive tract, and a villain called the Belgian Prankster, who wants to either destroy the world or tell the worst joke in history, are just a few of the blatantly weird characters that veer the story into the ludicrous at nearly every turn. Some might find it difficult to sustain interest in such determined high jinks, but in small doses, this is quite hilarious, and readers with a finely tuned sense of the absurd are going to adore the Technicolor ride.
And here's my review:

It rules.

And now, part two of my interview with James Kennedy:

The plot is pretty wild. Was it planned that way or did you just write awesome scenes and then try to figure out some way for the scenes to further the story?

A little bit of each. When I started Odd-Fish my only goal was to move from one entertaining scene to another, keeping the structure open-ended enough to accommodate whatever goofy idea I had next. But then I got to the point where Jo and her friends woke up in the belly of a fish, and they discovered a mysterious building in its stomach, with a mysterious man in the kitchen. And that’s when I started to ponder what exactly the story was about. I stopped writing for a year to brood over it, and I came up with Eldritch City, the Order of Odd-Fish, the legend of Jo as the All-Devouring Mother—the meat of the book. I revised the chapters I had written thus far to make them consistent with the new direction I was taking. But even though it was now turning into a proper “story,” and not a picaresque set of adventures, I wanted to preserve the beginning’s carefree romp feeling. But now I wanted the romp to begin to deepen and transform into something scarier, with higher stakes.

My favorite parts of the book are things that probably aren’t all that critical to the story. Were there more things like this in early drafts that you were asked to take out, or did you add some of the stuff in subsequent drafts to serve as sort of comedic interludes?

Surprisingly, almost everything that I wanted to be in the final version of Odd-Fish actually made it into the final version. The stuff that got left on the cutting room floor was edited out before I ever found an agent or a publisher. I don’t rule out introducing some of that material in a sequel. There was a comical subplot about Dame Isabel (whose specialty for the Order of Odd-Fish is unusual smells) doggedly hunting various scents around Eldritch City. There was a scary scene in the eelmen’s neighborhood. The beginning was longer, especially the scene at the Dust Creek CafĂ©. But I like the book as it stands, and I wouldn’t change anything about it now. I’m actually surprised I was able to publish it in the form I had envisioned. And really, even some scenes that seem arbitrary at first—such as Ken Kiang tempting Hoagland Shanks with increasingly avant-garde pies at the illicit patisserie in Paris—do have a role in the story as a whole, even though when you first read it, it may seem just like self-indulgence. But isn’t the very act of presuming to write a book self-indulgent?

What I really want to know is this: What is the philosophy of napkins?

Only years of earnest study and unsparing self-mortification will yield such difficult truths to the heart that is pure and the body that is undefiled. Let us not pry too deeply into higher realities that, if trifled with, would only annihilate our fragile souls. And the higher reality will laugh at you, even as it annihilates!

The cast is rather large. Any tips for writers dealing with similar population density?

Make every character as aggressively themselves as possible. The reader should be able to know Aunt Lily or Colonel Korsakov is speaking without the tags of “Aunt Lily said” or “Colonel Korsakov said.” If you can make a different character say the same line without loss of meaning, then the line is probably badly written.

Also, establish a kind of hierarchy among the characters. Humans are social animals, and when we’re confronted with a large group of people our minds instinctively try to figure out who’s on top of the pecking order and who’s not. We’re geniuses at figuring this out very quickly, so the writer should exploit this inborn ability in order to make the characters distinctive. Who’s the bully in the group? Who’s the martyr? Who’s the scapegoat? Who’s the person everyone rolls their eyes at? There’s one in every group. Who dislikes whom, and why? It can be a subtle pecking order, or even a dynamic one where roles are always shifting, but once you figure it out, characters become very distinct very quickly.

Even if the cast is large, the reader can hold all the personal information in their mind—indeed, it’s a pleasure to negotiate these imaginary social networks. Listen to kids talk about all the different rivalries, loyalties, loves and hates in the Harry Potter world. It’s a rich, complex social system, with many different elements, but we can keep track of it because it’s our nature.

My favorite scene in the book is the following:

You studied physics in college, so tell us this: is it really faster to run through the bag at first base than it is to dive headfirst into it? As a lifelong fan of Chet Lemon, I have my doubts.

David Lynch has an interesting idea about art called “The Eye of the Duck.” He says that, when you look at a duck, and grasp the relationship between all its parts, you realize that the duck’s eye is in precisely the right place on the duck’s body—that if the duck’s eye were placed on its abdomen it would get lost, or if the eye was located on its bill it would be too busy. There’s no firm reason, structurally speaking, that the duck’s eye should be where it is, in the center of the head—except that it’s perfect there and nowhere else.

David Lynch uses this to explain that in each one of his movies there’s a scene, which he calls the “eye of the duck” scene, which may be inessential to the plot and mechanics of the movie, but is absolutely crucial to the overall artistic effect of the movie. It’s the kind of scene a well-meaning editor (though, I hasten to say, not my editor) would want to cut in order to “keep the story moving.” But if you cut that seemingly extraneous scene, the entire work would suffer, though you couldn’t put your finger on why.

When Sir Oort explains to Jo the relationship of Eldritch City to our world, that’s the “eye of the duck” scene in The Order of Odd-Fish. It seems unnecessary, it doesn’t “move the story forward,” but it’s exactly where and what it should be, and in its own way it sums up the spirit of the whole book.

It’s also a kind of homage. When Sir Oort explains his crackpot cosmology of bugs on crumpled wads of paper to Jo, I’m referencing Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, when Mrs. Whatsit is describing tessering to Meg by asking her to imagine an insect crawling along a thread. I’m also referencing Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, when Ford gives Arthur a convoluted, ridiculous story of how the universe began. It’s a kind of loving send-up of those “explanation scenes” you often have in speculative fiction.

And Chet Lemon was the “eye of the duck” of the 1980s Detroit Tigers.

There is no Acknowledgements page in the novel. Care to acknowledge anyone?

I regret not including an acknowledgements page. It wasn’t because I’m not thankful to my friends, family, editors, and agents. It was just that I was sick of the egotistical, ludicrous ten-page long acknowledgements I’ve seen in other books. There was a hilarious takedown of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s self-regarding acknowledgements sections in Salon a couple years ago, and the effect of reading it made almost all acknowledgements sections seem pompous to me.

But that’s an overreaction. I now realize that I should’ve thanked my wife, my family, friends who had read the various drafts, my agents Lisa Bankoff and Tina Wexler, my editors Stephanie Elliott and Amalia Ellison, and my publicist Dominique Cimina.

But you know what? I’m sure none of them are losing sleep over it.

To be sure, I didn’t include an author photo, either. If one is going to go through all the trouble to create a fantasy world, why include anything that yanks the reader back into our world? As a kid I would read books by, say, Madeleine L’Engle or Isaac Asimov, and all I really knew about them was their queer, fascinating names. From that scrap of data, my imagination filled in a kind of ideal author for me. Is anything else really necessary?

Here's James reading from his book. Note his enthusiasm in contrast to my own rather drab performance above. Sorry, I'm tired.


Monica said...

awesome, once again, Murph. good job.... great reading.

Unknown said...

I loved Chet Lemon and Alan Trammell, what a double play combo! But I grew up in KC so my all-time favorite player is George Brett. Thanks for including obscure baseball reference, though not obscure to me.

I really can't wait to read this book. Wow, James has either eaten a lot of shrooms and taken notes while doing so or he is naturally wicked in the head in a purely brilliant kind of way.

Fantasy writers are an intriguing species.

Paul Michael Murphy said...

Tracy, you're thinking of Sweet Lou Whitaker. Chet played centerfield. I won't hold it against you though since you grew up in KC. I also loved George Brett. Frank White, too. And who how can you not love a guy named Buddy Biancalana?

Monica--thanks. I assume your 'great reading' comment is sarcastic, since that reading sucked. But that's cool. I like sarcasm.

chris said...

great interview, pmm. the book was already on my list, but now i will move it up.

Kelly Polark said...

Very thorough interview. This book sounds wild! Liked hearing the excerpts (James is very expressive!).

Monica said...

sigh. That's my biggest problem, sounding sincere, when i actually am. I was not sarcastic at all, PMM. I loved your reading. It didn't suck that bad. I think there was a certain amount of enthusiasm. It made me want to have you read the entire book to me... When can you come over.

James Kennedy said...

Marvelous reading, Murph! (NOT sarcastically.)

I'm listening to it while my neighbor downstairs is blasting tunelessly (and continuously) on a trombone. The combination is eleven kinds of awesome.

Tina Lee said...

Thank you, Paul Michael Murphy and James Kennedy, for that "eye of the duck" link. I found it really interesting and maybe helpful to a current revision. Always nice when inspiration comes. Also, currently reading The Order of Odd-Fish, fun to hear how it is made. Great interview!

Unknown said...

PMM - How could I confuse the two! Duh! Yes, sweet Lou was awesome. Chet Lemon: totally remember him, but can't picture him roaming center in the monstrous graveyard at the old stadium. Oh, well.

And... how can you not like Steve Balboni (Paul Bunyan) who only struckout or hit it 500 feet.

Also - my Royals and your Tigers are playing pretty well and fighting for the top spot in the AL Central. We'll see how long it lasts for both teams. Hopefully all season.