Notre Dame Grad Gets ‘Odd’ in First Novel
Eric Prister | Monday, October 5, 2009
A member of the Notre Dame Class of 2000, young adult fantasy writer James Kennedy, in his first novel “The Order of Odd-Fish,” tries to create an ‘urban Narnia’ which brings the norms of fantasy writing in contact with an entirely new fantasy setting.
“One of the other things was that I wanted a fantasy with a girl protagonist, and I also wanted something urban,” Kennedy said. “I had this idea that I wanted an ‘urban Narnia.’ Narnia very much valorizes country life, and I like city life. So I wanted something that was in a city. In Narnia, you have talking animals, so I had talking cockroaches.”
Kennedy is referring to Sefino, a talking cockroach butler, who is just one of the many outrageous creatures featured in “The Order of Odd-Fish.” Another of these characters, Colonel Korsakov, a Russian colonel who makes decisions based on his intestines, is inspired by a pre-existing fantasy character, something Kennedy did often during the writing of his first novel.
“I love young adult literature,” Kennedy said. “It’s something that I’m obsessed with. I wanted to have a character who was guided by some intuition, but I wanted it to be funny and I wanted it to be something that I hadn’t seen before. In [“Confederacy of Dunces,” by John Kennedy Toole], the main character, Ignatius Riley, he’s kind of a prude, but secretly enjoys the depravity of New Orleans. He’s always complaining about his valve. It’s his excuse for everything. I wanted to have something that was like that, but positive.”
“The Order of Odd-Fish” traces the journey of Jo Larouche, the adopted daughter of a former actress who disappeared for 40 years, only to reappear and go back to her old partying lifestyle. At one of these parties, Jo is whisked away by Colonel Korsakov and Sefino to the Order of Odd-Fish, a group of knights who seek to study only the most crackpot and unusual. The Odd-Fish represent acceptance according to Kennedy, a message he thinks shines through in his work.
“The premise of the Order of Odd-Fish as an order is kind of this messy, rambunctious place that is very tolerant and forgiving in a way,” Kennedy said. “There are members of the Order of Odd-Fish who have broken the law and they seem to always be drunk, but they tolerate each other’s eccentricities and even encourage each other’s eccentricities.”
In opposition to the Order of Odd-Fish is one of the villains of the work, the Silent Sisters, who Kennedy likes as a villain due to their respectability. “[The Silent Sisters] have a positive program and they want to bring about peace,” Kennedy said. “But it’s a program of forced innocence. It shuts down all further growth. I think it’s always good in the villains of the book to have something that you can conceive of and conceive of fighting for – it’s not just evil. The Silent Sisters have a very positive program, but are just going about it in a very destructive way.”
Beyond this message, humor was also a goal for Kennedy in writing “The Order of Odd-Fish,” and his combination of sarcasm and slapstick humor succeeds.
“I kind of took my cue from Douglas Adams,” Kennedy said. “I wanted it to be from page to page entertaining.”
Though difficult to follow at some points, “The Order of Odd-Fish” succeeds in keeping the reader on his or her toes, since nothing about the characters or the plotline can be considered normal.
“I wanted the work to start in one wonderland and move to another wonderland,” Kennedy said. “Every time I would finish a chapter, the plot would change, and I would have to go back and revise everything I did before. A certain kind of personality can have it all tied-in and figured out from the very beginning, but that’s kind of alien to my spirit and alien to the spirit of the book, which is more free-wheeling.”
Overall, “The Order of Odd-Fish” is somewhat typical in structure, but is so off-the-wall in content and writing that it appeals to those who enjoy stories well outside of the ordinary, but still succeeds in providing a message to its readers.
“I also wanted to write a fantasy that used the freedom of fantasy but didn’t want to use the trappings of it,” Kennedy said. “I wanted to use the freedom that fantasy affords and use to it illuminate ordinary experiences like moving to a new big city, finding your feet, making friends, having a secret. Using fantasy takes that and heightens it and makes it more vivid and universal.”