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Dan Kennedy: Fishing For A Tale

May 29, 2013
Originally published on January 2, 2014 2:34 pm

Dan Kennedy is a writer at heart, but if you ask him what he's versed in, you're bound to get myriad answers. The author and host of The Moth Podcast spent some time fighting fires, so he knows a thing or two about wildland fire-suppression tools. He's also held a marketing gig at a major record label, which inspired his best-selling memoir, Rock On: An Office Power Ballad. So when we asked Kennedy what he'd like to be quizzed on, he didn't respond with something broad like TV or movies — try "terrestrial and aquatic insects that trout eat to survive."

Kennedy sat down with Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg to chat about his numerous interests, as well as his new novel, American Spirit. The book is about an ad sales guy at a big magazine company whose life starts to crumble after a doctor's visit. After reading his own X-rays, Matthew determines he has four to six months to live and decides that he's now living the first day of the rest of his life.

"The things he does the next day get him fired before lunch," Kennedy says. In order to fill his days, "he basically just gets on the thruway in Westport, Conn., and three exits toward Manhattan, gets off at the fourth exit, comes back into town, gets wasted in his leased BMW in grocery store parking lots all day." In case you're wondering whether he wrote about any events in his own life, Kennedy admits to masking the lines between fact and fiction.

Given the list of marine life topics Kennedy felt comfortable talking about, we tried to create an interesting game about freshwater bass and trout. Turns out that was impossible. So in an Ask Me Another challenge called "Questions Not Really About Fish," Kennedy had to answer questions from Eisenberg and house musician Jonathan Coulton about types of fish referenced in pop culture. Think of that classic song by Heart or one of the pledge's nicknames in the quintessential frat movie Animal House.

About Dan Kennedy

Dan Kennedy lives in New York and is the author of the new novel American Spirit, and the memoirs Loser Goes First and Rock On: An Office Power Ballad. He is host of The Moth storytelling podcast and a contributor to GQ and McSweeney's. His stories have been featured on the Peabody Award-winning Moth Radio Hour.

Kennedy performs at The Moth in 2010 in the video below. The theme of the night was "Stiffs: Stories of the Nearly and Dearly Departed."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Welcome back to ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of trivia, puzzles and word games. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and joining me is author and host of The Moth Podcast, Dan Kennedy.


EISENBERG: I referenced this incredible list that you gave us of subject matter that you were familiar with.


EISENBERG: I have to ask you, how are you versed in wild land fire-suppression tools?

KENNEDY: Well, here's the thing about that list, I really panicked after I clicked send.


KENNEDY: Which I do on most emails that I write. But on the way over here, I was running a little late, and on the way out of my apartment, I was like, oh, Google that thing, "terrestrial insect trout." And then, I started thinking about the whole email, and I was like, how much of that stuff do you really have any experience in?

EISENBERG: And the answer is?

KENNEDY: Well I think I have a lot.

EISENBERG: Because we built the entire show around this.


KENNEDY: You know, I mean I think I have a good amount of experience in all those things.

EISENBERG: Have you fought a fire?

KENNEDY: Yeah, I've fought fires. Yeah, I've been on...


KENNEDY: I've been on, you know, lightning strikes and pretty big complexes and stuff like that. You know, wildfire, you know, canyons and stuff like that.


KENNEDY: Set big canyons on fire, too.


KENNEDY: I mean, no, as part of the - not just something to do, you guys.


KENNEDY: Not just - yeah, you know, I've been so bored, occasionally, I just set a canyon on fire. Like it's part of the fighting the fire. You have to burn out a certain area of a fire so it doesn't...

EISENBERG: So you were a firefighter?

KENNEDY: Yeah, I guess that's what I'm getting at. I mean I...


EISENBERG: Okay, so your book, "Rock On: An Office Power Ballad," is about you working in promotions in the music industry.


EISENBERG: And you were a firefighter.

KENNEDY: Have I had a plan? This all sounds just terribly random. So you were a firefighter and then you got in the record business.


KENNEDY: Are you still a dancer? You know, like...


KENNEDY: Tell me about your orthodontist practice. Like, when did you get the urge to - well, I had become a pro racquetball player. You know, like, where did I...

EISENBERG: Right, and then there's trout fishing involved and insects.

KENNEDY: Trout fishing involved. You know, that was the reason I panicked about the email, actually. I was like well what really do you know about? Like not when you were 24, not when you were 25, today, present day. And I was like, I don't think I can give them a list that says like, you know, Twitter, candy, sleeping in.


KENNEDY: Self doubt.


KENNEDY: You know, and really bad combinations of food while I'm standing in my kitchen at 3 a.m. You know because I - I mean, that would be the honest answer but...

EISENBERG: I like that you had, you know, the self doubt marries very well with the food mixing, by the way, I have noticed.


EISENBERG: So you have now written a novel called "American Spirit."


EISENBERG: The premise of this book is it's an executive guy who works in marketing and he...

KENNEDY: It's a stretch so far.

EISENBERG: He decides to abandon his life because things aren't going, it's sort of crumbling.

KENNEDY: Yeah, he has a situation. He works at this big magazine company. And he goes to the doctor for a checkup and while the doctor is out of the room, he attempts to read his own x-rays.

And he's not qualified to read his own x-rays, he's like an ad sales guy. And sort of determines he doesn't like what he sees. He's like, oh, my God, look at that right there. And then he's like, I give myself - like I know what's up, that's like four months to six months, that's the big one.

And the doctor came back and he's like, so, you know, what do you think, what do you see or whatever? And the doctor's like, well, you know, I want to see you again like in a week, after I do this and do that and I need you to take these x-rays over to this other place where you'll get a CAT scan.

And, you know, he is at home with the x-rays, drinking at his house in Connecticut and further trying to read them in the light of the kitchen. And he determines it's the first day of the rest of his life. And that sounds inspirational, but the things he does when he gets to work the next day get him fired before lunch.


KENNEDY: So then he has his whole week to kill days. Monday through Friday he has to kill his days so his wife still thinks he's employed, so the neighbor still thinks he's employed. So he basically just gets on the thruway in Westport, Connecticut, goes like three exits towards Manhattan, gets off at the fourth exit, comes back into town, gets wasted in his leased BMW in grocery story parking lots all day.

EISENBERG: Okay, so I'm going to assume that this is not at all autobiographical.

KENNEDY: Well, it's weird that you say that.


KENNEDY: Because the things that are true in this novel are not the things you would think are true. There was a lot of that stuff where I was just like "fiction."


EISENBERG: We'll hide this. It's called a novel.

KENNEDY: Yeah, it says it like nine times on the packaging, file under fiction. File under fiction.

EISENBERG: All right, Dan, I can tell you're pretty much up for anything, because you've done almost everything. So we have an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge. What do you think, are you up for that?

KENNEDY: Yes, absolutely.

EISENBERG: All right. Dan Kennedy, everybody.


EISENBERG: Of the many things you gave us to base your quiz on, we were most intrigued by your claim to know about salmon and freshwater bass, and the terrestrial and aquatic insects that trout eat to survive. So we tried to write a quiz, of course, that made freshwater bass and trout interesting. It turns out that is impossible.


EISENBERG: We couldn't do it. So your quiz is titled "Questions not really about fish."




EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton will be helping me with this game. And if you get enough questions right, Hope Owens Wilson of Jackson, Mississippi is going to win an autographed copy of your new novel, "American Spirit."


EISENBERG: Pressure is on. Dan, your book, "Rock On," is about your time working in the marketing department of Atlantic Records. One of Atlantic's biggest acts in the 1990s had the highest selling album of 1995, nearly 11 million copies that year alone. The band's name came from two childhood friends of the lead singer. One who had big eyes like an owl, the other with big puffy cheeks. What was the name of the band?

KENNEDY: Oh, Hootie and the Blowfish.

EISENBERG: That is correct.


EISENBERG: You weren't really freaking out during that were you?

KENNEDY: No, I was.

EISENBERG: You were freaking out.

KENNEDY: I was like, oh, try to remember. I think more I was just having an out of body experience where I was like you're on a game show and Hootie and the Blowfish is the answer.


KENNEDY: How did this happen?

JONATHAN COULTON: That is weird.


COULTON: That is weird.

KENNEDY: Are you drinking again?

EISENBERG: What series of mistakes have you made that led you to this moment? I understand.

COULTON: Dan, as you know, the music industry can be a cutthroat business. So name this song, written by Ann Wilson of Heart, after her record label ran advertisements implying that her sister was actually her lover.


COULTON: No right, no wrong, selling a song, a name whisper game. If the real thing don't do the trick, you better make up something quick. You're going to burn, burn, burn, burn, burn into the wind.

KENNEDY: "Barracuda."

COULTON: Yes, that's right.



EISENBERG: On the 1970s sitcom "Fish," Abe Vigoda played Phil Fish, a retired New York City police detective. The show, which only lasted two seasons, was a spin-off of what other classic television sitcom, set in the squad room of a police department in Greenwich Village?

KENNEDY: "Barney Miller."

EISENBERG: Yes, indeed.


COULTON: In the quintessential frat movie "Animal House," everyone at Delta House has a pledge name. There's Otto, D-Day and of course, John Belushi's character, Bluto. When Kent Dorfman, an overweight sad sack is accepted as a pledge because his brother was in Delta, Bluto gives him what fishy name?

KENNEDY: Oh, Flounder.



EISENBERG: You got scared but then you knew it again. You know all of these.

KENNEDY: I know. You know what I just realized, Tim and those other gentlemen that were having to answer all of those hard questions, they're just like "please."


EISENBERG: In 1997, Ben and Jerry's introduced a chocolate flavored ice cream with marshmallow, caramel and fudge. They named the flavor after a famous band from Vermont who's known for their very long songs and their very loyal fans. What's the name of the band?


EISENBERG: Yes, that's right.


EISENBERG: And the ice cream is called Fish Food. It's so adorable.

KENNEDY: I eat some, like, stuff that's supposed to be good for your brain and I think like some brain food, have sardines like the day before.

COULTON: Well, it's paying off in a big way.


KENNEDY: You saw that.

COULTON: You're nailing this quiz.

KENNEDY: I just nailed that one. What as the answer again? I'd already forgot.


COULTON: This song, written by Al Green and made famous by the Talking Heads is not about fish, but it sounds like something a fish would say. It's a bit of a stretch, but we're going with this question anyway. Tell us the title of this song.


COULTON: Don't know why I love you like I do. All the changes you put me through. Take my money, my cigarettes, I haven't seen the worst of it yet. I want to know, can you tell me, am I love to stay.

KENNEDY: "Take Me to the River."




KENNEDY: I wanted to shoot for like a Leonard Cohen thing since I blew the other one. I wanted to try and make up for it.

EISENBERG: That was like deep and dark and soulful. I like it.

KENNEDY: It was like a Leonard Cohen mash-up.

EISENBERG: A Dan Kennedy, Leonard Cohen mash-up. Guess what, Dan? You did it. You won.

KENNEDY: That's it? Oh, seriously?

EISENBERG: Yes, you did it.


EISENBERG: Hope Owens Wilson gets an autographed copy of your novel "American Spirit," and you get a Rubik's Cube, an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube just for you.


EISENBERG: One more round of applause for our VIP Dan Kennedy.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.