Pagan Kennedy

Contributing writer, New York Times Opinion
Author, Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change The World

Exploring human imagination

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Award-winning writer Pagan Kennedy explores the science of human imagination as it pertains to innovation and creativity. She unearths commonalities that predict the success of inventors, and theorizes that the skills required for "inventology" can be taught and learned.

Some inventions are the result of purposeful problem solving — like sippy cups to prevent toddlers from spilling juice; or rolling luggage to make travel easier. Some are accidental, discoveries made by people working on something else entirely — for example, while testing heart medications, scientists noted side effects of one in particular and the drug Viagra was born.

In her latest book, Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change The World — "a delightful account of how inventors do what they do" (Kirkus Reviews) — Kennedy reveals the imaginative and practical processes behind groundbreaking innovations across numerous disciplines. From in-depth research and exhaustive interviews, she shows why successful inventors tend to be passionate, polymathic amateurs versus focused professionals working inside their fields. She explores whether serendipitous inspiration can be coaxed, suggests how to raise kids to be resourceful and inventive, and describes what factors beyond the "Aha!" moment are required for successful product development.

It's so much easier for today's inventors to get ideas to market — new technologies such as 3-D printers make products easier and cheaper to prototype. Crowd-sourcing mechanisms provide near-instantaneous market feedback; crowd-funding mechanisms simplify raising capital. Yet, in an age where people "have more inventive tools on their phones than a Bell Labs engineer would have had in the 1960s," there are still persistent barriers to innovation — including gender bias — and Kennedy shines a light on these, as well.

Kennedy's years of science reporting inform her take-aways on innovation, creativity, iconoclasts, and self-invention. Her eleven books include The First Man-Made Man, a study of early 20th Century transsexual Laura (formerly Michael) Dillon, whose desire to feel comfortable in her own skin drove experimentation and led to breakthrough medical technologies. Kennedy's journalism has appeared in dozens of publications including The New York Times Magazine, where she wrote the "Innovation / Who Made That?" column. Pagan's Head, her early 'zine, anticipated today's highly personal, self-produced creative culture. She is a contributing writer for the New York Times Opinion section.

As a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, Kennedy studied microbiology and neuroengineering, and has won numerous other awards including an NEA fellowship, a Smithsonian fellowship, and two Massachusetts Cultural Council fellowships. She has taught widely, including at Dartmouth College, Boston College, and Johns Hopkins University.



How We Dream Up Things That Change the World

Pagan Kennedy

Find out where great ideas come from.

A father cleans up after his toddler and imagines a cup that won't spill. An engineer watches people using walkie-talkies and has an idea. A doctor figures out how to deliver patients to the operating room before they die.

By studying inventions like these — the sippy cup, the cell phone, and an ingenious hospital bed — we can learn how people imagine their way around "impossible" problems to discover groundbreaking answers. Pagan Kennedy reports on how these enduring methods can be adapted to the twenty-first century, as millions of us deploy tools like crowdfunding, big data, and 3-D printing to find hidden opportunities.

Inventology uses the stories of inventors and surprising research to reveal the steps that produce innovation. As Kennedy argues, recent advances in technology and communication have placed us at the cusp of a golden age; it's now more possible than ever before to transform ideas into actuality. Inventology is a must-read for designers, artists, makers — and anyone else who is curious about creativity. By identifying the steps of the invention process, Kennedy reveals the imaginative tools required to solve our most challenging problems.

Bantam Press (26 Jan. 2016)


"[Inventology] offers a new perspective into the process of invention that will inform and illuminate."
Publishers Weekly

"Inventology" may be a real science; researchers are beginning to study it, and teachers are teaching it. Some 21st-century creations (crowdfunding, 3D printing) are breaking down barriers (money, time) between new ideas and a useful product, so a golden age of innovation seems in the offing. A delightful account of how inventors do what they do."
Kirkus, Starred

Pagan Kennedy's Living

A Handbook for Maturing Hipsters

Pagan Kennedy

Zinester, author, maturing hipster, and graduate of the prestigious Wesleyan University, Pagan Kennedy first captured the hearts of America with her personal zine Pagan's Head. Drawing from this source, she presents not only the zine-world standards (an interview with the ever-beguiling Lisa Suckdog, articles on dumpster diving, and eight-track collecting), but also includes some helpful dating tips, such as "Pretend to go to the bathroom and never come back." Indeed, only Kennedy seems to have noticed the bizarre visual similarity between avant-pop neo-beatnik author Kathy Acker and hyperactive fitness guru Susan Powter. In articles and cartoons that address the difficulty of staying hip, Kennedy provides a welcome alternative to People magazine and the later works of Hegel. Cruise through this book only if you want an extremely entertaining read and the opportunity to develop an unhealthy fixation on the fabulous Queen of the Zines. Originally published in 1997, this new edition features "Where are they now" updates.

Santa Fe Writer's Project (26 Jan. 2016)


Pagan Kennedy

Back in print for the first time in a decade, this is the hilarious autobiography of a pioneer of the 1990s zine movement. A young woman named Pagan, having just graduated from a writing program at a very prestigious university, is left with a single burning question: Now what? She then takes an unusual step by deciding to invent her new self — the one the public will know — by starting her own magazine, one that will be written, created, and star none other than herself.

Santa Fe Writer's Project 2014

The First Man-Made Man

The Story of Two Sex Changes, One Love Affair, and a Twentieth-Century Medical Revolution

Pagan Kennedy

In the 1920s, when Laura Dillon felt like a man trapped in a woman's body, there were no words to describe her condition; transsexual had yet to enter common usage. And there was no known solution to being stuck between the sexes. In a desperate bid to feel comfortable in her own skin, she experimented with breakthrough technologies that ultimately transformed the human body and revolutionized medicine. Michael Dillon's incredible story, from upper-class orphan girl to Buddhist monk, reveals the struggles of early transsexuals and challenges conventional notions of what gender really means.

Bloomsbury USA; 1 edition (11 Dec. 2008)

The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories

Pagan Kennedy

Nonfiction is the new black comedy in this hilarious collection of award-winning literary essays written by the infamous Pagan Kennedy. In the title piece, Alex Comfort, author of The Joy of Sex, reinvents himself as a sex guru in California and hatches a plan to destroy monogamy forever. In the stories that follow, a retired chemist finds a way to turn a wasteland into paradise, an aspiring tyrant tries to become the emperor of America, and an artist rigs himself up to a "brain machine" made from parts he bought at Radio Shack. All of the essays — most of which have appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Boston Globe Magazine — document the stories of visionaries bent on remaking the world, for better or for worse.

Santa Fe Writers Project (1 Sept. 2008)


"Kennedy prowls the shadowy, creepy, eye-popping limits of the culture where other writers fear to tread."
— John Sedgwick, author, The Dark House and The Education of Mrs. Bemis

"A dangerous joy of literary pleasure—a compelling, spellbinding reading experience. In this book, Pagan Kennedy writes with clarity, honesty and impeccable grace."
— Lee Gutkind, author, Almost Human: Making Robots Think

"Complicated, cool, and vulnerable at the same time . . . you can't help falling for Pagan Kennedy's characters."
The New York Times

Confessions of a Memory Eater

Pagan Kennedy

"Complicated, cool and vulnerable at the same can't help falling for Pagan Kennedy's characters."
— Stephen Dubner, The New York Times

Once a brilliant historian with a promising academic future, Win Duncan is at a crossroads in his career when he is mysteriously summoned by Litminov, a wild but brilliant chemist from his college days. Litminov has made millions since, and has bought a pharmaceutical company solely to develop MEM, an experimental drug that gives one the ability to recall life’s best memories with crystal clarity. Duncan becomes a beta tester and loses himself to the most delicious moments of his past — those precious few years with his mother who died tragically when he was just a child; ecstatic sex with his wife when they first fell in love — until he discovers the dark side effects of a drug that turns the past into pornography and renders the present useless.

A proven master of underground lit, beat fiction and narrative non-fiction, Pagan Kennedy takes on America’s obsession with the idealized past with freshness, wit, and an uncanny ability to measure the pulse of post-modern culture.

Leapfrog Press; First Printing edition (9 Jun. 2006)

Black Livingstone

A True Tale of Adventure in the Nineteenth-Century Congo

Pagan Kennedy

Black Livingstone is the first book to chronicle the remarkable life of William Henry Sheppard. As a twenty-four-year-old African American missionary in 1890, Sheppard departed for what was then the Belgian Congo, accompanied by Samuel Lapsley, a white man who had grown up on a plantation and was the son of a prominent Alabama judge. Lapsley died of fever barely a year later, but Sheppard thrived in Africa for three more years before returning to America. Back home, Sheppard was billed as the "Black Livingstone" as he traveled the country, lecturing to packed auditoriums. Black and white, rich and poor alike came to hear his true tales of African adventure. One year later he returned to the Congo, where he witnessed and gathered testimony on the genocide being perpetrated by the Belgian government and the rubber companies, eventually helping to break their hold on the region.

Pagan Kennedy unfolds Sheppard's life and times with a novelist's narrative skill and penetrates the complexity of her subject-a man who found power in the Congo but not in the Church to which he dedicated his life, who fought the persecution of Africans but never of blacks in his own country. Beautifully illustrated with archival photographs, Black Livingstone will appeal widely to readers of books on African history.

Santa Fe Writer's Project (US); Anniversary ed. edition (1 Sept. 2013)

The Exes

A Novel

Pagan Kennedy

In one of the most critically acclaimed novels of recent years, Pagan Kennedy takes readers on a hip and hilarious tour of today's rock 'n' roll world. The Exes, an up-and-coming indie band, is made up of people who used to be lovers. Progressing from jam sessions in a basement to second-rate clubs to a cross-country tour that requires them to share seedy hotel rooms — with their exes — the four band members reveal their quirks, their problems, and their fantasies in alternating narratives. Wickedly funny, realistic, and poignant, The Exes sheds a knowing light on the compromises and connections we all make in avid pursuit of our ambitions and dreams.

Scribner; First Paperback Edition edition (2 July 1999)