James Kennedy: Finding Inspiration in Death

(photo: Jill Leibhaber)

James Kennedy holds a degree in physics and philosophy, topics he examines in his first adult novel, Dare to Know, about a man who sells an algorithm that can accurately predict the date and time of a person's death. Kennedy lives in Chicago. Quirk will publish the novel on September 14, 2021.

Let's get the most obvious question out of the way: Would you want to know the date and time of your demise?

I'm going to die on December 19, 2046. A librarian told me, "Did you know there's a website that tells you when you'll die?" It's called www.deathclock.com and it's from 2005--you know, back when the Internet was still an innocent and wonderful place. So I visited and found out. I've got to make these last 25 years count!

One of the fun challenges in writing this book was thinking through the psychological consequences and philosophical implications of the premise. Because if it really was true that I was 100% guaranteed to die on December 19, 2046, then what happens if I throw myself off a bridge today?

In the end, no, I don't really want to know when I'll die. Too many details of our lives are already humiliatingly subject to algorithm. The time of one's own death is one of the few mysteries left for us. To have even that mystery become a bland datum would be dreadful.

In the novel, the company called Dare to Know offers the time and date of a person's death, and a competitor offers the same info for a cheaper rate but with less accuracy. Which one would society embrace more?

Oddly, I think the less accurate company would be more popular. People like more information, even if it's less accurate. Indeed, if we've learned anything over the past few years, it's that people often prefer information that is known to be outright false. We are perverse creatures.

At Julia's wedding, the narrator encounters an intoxicated guest who tries to explain the theory of Plato's Cave. The exchange reads almost too specific in detail to be random. What's the inspiration for this comedic moment?

Actually, that scene is invented whole cloth! I've never been to a wedding like that, and I've never had a conversation quite like that--although of course we've all had to suffer from a condescending bore holding forth on his pet topic.

I knew I had to explain the theory of Plato's Cave (and introduce the peculiar spin that Dare to Know puts on it) but I also knew that "exposition" scenes can become dull. You don't want it to sound like a canned lecture. So I worked hard to make a seemingly breezy scene that distracts you from the fact that you're reviewing a little bit of Philosophy 101 along the way. Once I got down to writing it, I realized there were a lot of comic and emotional opportunities in it, too, and now it's my favorite scene in the book.

Rereading the scene now, there is one specific detail taken from real life. My wife and I were in our late 20s, taking a taxi home from some party in the early morning, and the cab driver was telling us about his band, and in particular about his bandmate who was an incredible "scribbleboard" player. My wife and I just said, "Uh-huh, uh-huh" as though we knew what the cab driver was talking about, as if we knew what a scribbleboard was. A day or two later I googled the term, and of course there's no such musical instrument as a "scribbleboard." But I'm certain that's the term the cabbie used! That always stuck with me. So I snuck that in there.

Dare to Know posits the idea that all civilizations historically follow four distinct stages and draws parallels to the stages of love. How much stock do you place in this theory? Are these four stages inevitable to all relationships?

This idea of a "cyclic theory of history" was invented by Giambattista Vico. Joyce used a modified version of it in Finnegans Wake. There's a silly book of pop sociology called The Fourth Turning that uses a coarsened version of it to analyze American history--real historians don't think much of it.

As a novelist, I'm always on the lookout for odd ways of viewing the world, even if they're disreputable. Unfalsifiable theories like cyclical history (or astrology, or tarot, or economics) aren't about truth, they're about structuring and controlling one's emotional experience of events. And, of course, novels are all about structuring and controlling the reader's emotional experiences. So I tweaked the theory, made my own additions, and used it to inform the structure of the book.

The unnamed narrator confesses he judges people by what's on their bookshelves.

In my early 20s I might've judged people by their collections of books and music--I think the term for that is "a**hole." I don't do that anymore. But I'm still curious, and I still look. If you invite me to a party at your house, at some point I will drift over to your bookshelf, and I will look at the books. Maybe we'll have something to talk about!

The narrator has an epiphany about a long-forgotten moment with a former girlfriend that marked a turning point in their relationship. The epiphany harks back to a theory his summer camp roommate shares about what happens when we die, complete with a Looney Tunes reference. How did you come up with such a precise, in-depth idea?

Like most authors, I stole it! I live in Chicago. Lots of Chicagoans sooner or later take an improv class. I enjoyed taking improv classes because it was good for my writing. Along the way I learned about the lore of Chicago improv comedy--in particular about its great-granddaddy, Del Close. I was reading a biography of Del Close, and it described how he and his friend would get high and speculate what the death experience would be like, which Del's friend expected to be "brightly colored concentric circles close about your field of vision, and you see--written in front of you in backwards script, 'That's All Folks!' " When I read that, it unsettled me, and it stuck in my head for years. So I took that single sentence and adapted it, expanded it, and made it a bit more elaborate for the scene in Dare to Know.

But that's just one theory in Dare to Know of what happens when you die--the nightmare version. Later on in the book, Julia puts forth her own idea of what happens when you die: that you live and relive a significant moment in your life, like a record player needle caught in the locked groove at the center of an LP, and you continue reliving that moment until the needle kind of wears down, and you and the moment dissolve. --Paul Dinh-McCrillis

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