Chicago’s own James Kennedy makes his adult fiction debut with his existential thriller, Dare to Know. Narrating this fantastical tale is a salesman burdened with regret who sells only one thing: knowledge of the precise time that his customer will die—a dead-end job in more ways than one. After a harrowing car wreck leaves him stranded one night, he breaks a rule with which all employees at his company, Dare to Know, are required to comply: never, ever calculate your own death date. He learns that he was supposed to die 23 minutes ago, which violates the laws of physics. The salesman’s quest to understand this anomaly leads him to search for answers in wild places, including within high-level mathematics, a creepy character in a video game from his childhood, and even in morbid rituals practiced in the lost, ancient North American city of Cahokia. But most challenging of all, the only person who could shed light on his failure to die at the cosmically appropriate time is an ex-lover with a great reason never to see him again.
Kennedy’s first novel was the young adult fantasy, The Order of Odd-Fish. He also co-hosts “The Secrets of Story” podcast along with author Matt Bird, and founded the 90-second Newbery Film Festival, a contest where children create short films on the stories of Newbery Award-winning books.
I spoke with James on writing, having a podcast, and what it would be like to know the verboten.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
I found Dare to Know a fascinating existential journey. What was the origin of your premise for this book?
Part of it came from my changing feelings about technology. I’ve always enjoyed computers, and when I was a kid, I made lots of quirky video games. When the internet first took off, I plunged into its weird corners with delight. I spent my twenties and thirties working as a computer programmer and I loved being in that world.
And then it started to feel sour. Computers and the internet changed for me, they made me antsy, and I wanted to explore that odd new feeling—not directly and realistically (other people have already covered that territory!) but in a more roundabout way that expresses obscure vibes that are hard to formulate otherwise. Dare To Know isn’t about the tech world per se, but it began as a reflection on how technology has changed us emotionally, in part because of the quantification of our most intimate human details. I thought, What if everything about you was so humiliatingly subject to algorithms that a company could even sell you the precise time and date of your own death? And just like so many other once-dazzling innovations—what happens when that revelation becomes just another banal data point?
As I kept writing, I found that this idea catalyzed memories, images, and ideas for me that expanded the premise into something stranger and more emotional. It led my story into unexpected paths: haunted video games, exotic physics theories, an occult alternative history of science, the dark side of startup culture, pre-Columbian America, a mystical new branch of mathematics, and conspiracy theories about Top 40 music. But as far afield as I let myself go with these ideas, they all connected to a love story about the one who got away, about how ambitions fail and get rekindled, about how relationships change from childhood to adulthood.
How did you go about creating your characters? Are you the type of writer who “discovers” characters, the kind who designs them like architects, or another type all together?
Writing characters is such a weird process. Characters must fulfill certain functions in the plot, so in that sense they are self-consciously “designed.” But it gives characters crucial juice if you lend them personalities or experiences that you’ve observed in life—so in that sense the characters are a “collage.” But once those characters are up and running in the story, you might find them behaving differently than planned, and in that sense they’re “discovered.”
In the heat of creation, though, I’m not really thinking about those categories. Usually I’m just doing whatever it takes to get to the next sentence, to the next page.
What made you cross from writing for children to writing for adults?
There are kids books I still want to write! However, when I had the idea for Dare To Know, I recognized it had to be a book for adults. So, I just followed that energy. I will return to writing for kids someday. In any case, writing for kids helps an author develop good habits. You can’t be boring. And it trains you to write as clearly as you can. There are parts of Dare to Know that had to be more complicated and experimental, but hopefully I was able to keep those sections compelling using some skills I picked up writing for kids.
I’ve enjoyed listening to “The Secrets of Story” podcast which you co-host with Matt Bird. How is that going, and how do you pick your topics for discussion?
Some background: Matt Bird is a friend who wrote a book on writing craft that’s also called The Secrets of Story. I’ve gleaned insights from it, recommended it to other writers, and used it for the writing classes I’ve taught. What I like about Matt’s advice is that it’s often counterintuitive, even iconoclastic. I admire his cussedness even if I don’t always agree with him. In fact, I often don’t.
It was Matt’s idea to start a podcast in which he gives some advice on writing craft, and then we argue about it. Matt’s more theoretical and abstract; I’m more practical and intuitive. Usually the podcast ideas come from us focusing on some piece of advice from Matt’s book or blog, but once I got comfortable with the format, I started presenting my own crackpot ideas. (My favorite episode might be Episode 25, in which I ruminate on how the structures of successful novels often mirror the steps of brainwashing and cult recruitment.)
Anyway, it’s going well! We just put out Episode 31. Which might sound like a lot of episodes, until I tell you we’ve been doing this podcast since 2016.
Our narrator mentions how “Physics felt clean and definite. A series of well-defined problems with well-defined solutions. Complicated phenomena could be simplified and modeled until they were tractable. When I solved a physics problem, I could draw a box around the answer and feel satisfied.” You majored in physics yourself. Did physics appeal to you for the same reason it does to your protagonist?
Bingo—that’s one of the aspects of the narrator that I took from my own life. I wasn’t as good at physics as he is, though!
A lot of fiction is written by folks who majored in the humanities. I loved my humanities classes in college, but I’m glad I majored in physics, because it gave me a different perspective that weirdly rubs against my writing sensibilities, and throws off productive sparks. I don’t think the main character of Dare to Know can quite be characterized as a “tech bro,” but he shares some aspects with them. He doesn’t understand himself as well as he should. Sometimes he’s emotionally astute, sometimes infuriatingly blind to his own jerkishness, sometimes self-pitying, sometimes not cutting himself enough slack. He wants the world to make sense, and he transfers this need for order from his personal life (where he’ll never find it) to technical problems (where he at least has a chance.) Even if you’ve never felt this way yourself about math, hopefully it’s a recognizable impulse.
I liked how the physics calculations in the story–the calculations that predicted when a person will die–circled back to the occult origins of science. You wrote, “…Maybe the occult is always necessary to midwife science into a paradigm shift. Maybe whenever the universe chooses someone through whom to reveal its secrets, the gates of the chthonic crack open too, and a lot of the supernatural noise comes with it. And once that paradigm shift is accomplished, the occult can go away again.” What made you want to bridge the gap between what we consider science today and the supernatural?
A few years ago, I read an article about the rocket scientist Jack Parsons, who was one of the founders of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory—as well as a dedicated occultist. As a boy, he did rocketry experiments in his backyard and got kicked out of school for exploding the toilets. At the same age he also was doing satanic rituals in his bedroom, trying to conjure up the devil.
Parsons went on to become a big figure in the history of the U.S. space program. And yet he was also a member of Aleister Crowley’s cult, and he did a series of sex-magic rituals called “Babalon Working” that were supposed to manifest their goddess. Parsons ended up blowing himself up in his lab when he was only 37 years old.
I bring up Jack Parsons because he’s one of many scientists who were also fascinated by the occult. You wouldn’t expect that, but there it is. A surprisingly large portion of Isaac Newton’s writings weren’t about gravitation or calculus, but alchemy and magic geometry. Johannes Kepler made money casting horoscopes and his mother was imprisoned for witchcraft. The examples go on. In Dare To Know I use this surprising openness that certain pivotal scientists had to the occult as a narrative opportunity for an alternative history of science.
By the way, Jack Parsons also befriended L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. Hubbard went on to steal Jack Parsons’ girlfriend and his life savings, which is a baller move and almost makes me like L. Ron Hubbard.
Throughout the novel, the salesman’s ex-girlfriend Julia, and his old friend Renard, seem to play with the narrator to test his limits. Renard forces him to decapitate a dead rat. Julia loves to make him uncomfortable, and shut down any show of his emotions (other than discomfort). The narrator says, “What does it say about me–that I found this playful malice attractive?” What were you exploring in these characters? Why do you think we sometimes keep problematic people in our lives?
I think our narrator wants “problematic” people in his life. I am kind of the same way! I have some friends whom others find ludicrous, exasperating, or even mean. But I love them.
When I was in my twenties, I came up with this idea that I called “Elf Theory.” I don’t know if I totally buy into it now, but the general idea was, in life you meet Humans and you meet Elves. When you meet a fellow Human, you are entitled to hold them up to a certain standard of behavior. But there are also Elves. You can’t make as many moral demands on Elves. They might be flighty, or selfish, or always late, or lowkey back-stabby, or tone-deaf to your emotions, or only wanting to talk about their own hard-to-share passions. Some people see an Elf, say “deal-breaker” and cut these folks out of their lives. But life is quite boring without Elves! Even if they inconvenience me—they bring an unruly and spiky energy to life. I need Elves. But I know I can’t hold them to Human standards.
Are Julia and Renard Elves? I don’t know. But I definitely have even more tolerance for bad, unlikable, or “problematic” characters in fiction. When I hear someone complain, “I didn’t like that story, the characters were too unlikable, that one character was an asshole,” I can’t help but think to myself: “Um, do you really think you’re that likable? Are you sure you aren’t a bit of an asshole too?”
What are you working on now?
I have a few projects going. I took a long time between the publishing of my first book (The Order of Odd-Fish) and Dare To Know. I’ve written a lot of other stuff in the meantime, manuscripts just sitting in my drawer. So I’m sorting through those projects to see what makes for a good follow-up—something weird for adults, maybe a little challenging, that would appeal to the same folks who are digging Dare To Know. I also have brand-new stuff I’m working on. So there are a few candidates. It won’t be as long of a wait this time!
Dare to Know
By James Kennedy
Published September 14, 2021