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Luke Cunningham has always had a passion for history. In fact, even before working as a late-night writer on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, he earned a history degree from Brown University, where he developed a passion for the Renaissance. After working on the late-night show for three years — Cunningham earned an Emmy nomination for writing on the late-night series — Cunningham hoped to explore his passion for history when writing his first novel and inspire young readers.
In his debut novel, LEO, Inventor Extraordinaire (Zonderkidz), out Tuesday, Cunningham takes readers on a mystery adventure to the Academy of Florence, a school for incredibly gifted orphans. Readers are introduced to Leo, a loner yet genius who spends his time creating new inventions. Soon Leo discovers a series of secret passages beneath the school that not only call for Leo to use his knowledge but lead him to learn more about who he is and the parents he never knew. Described by Zonderkidz as “Part The Da Vinci Code for kids, part Renaissance-influenced action-adventure,” Cunningham not only tells a narrative but offers fun puzzles for young readers ages 8-12 to solve. The book even has a complimentary Instagram page where Cunningham explains the historical painting inspirations behind the book’s illustrations.
“When I started writing this, I wanted to write a book where the nerd version of me at 13 years old reads it and is like, ‘Oh, I had fun reading this,’ ” Cunningham tells The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the book’s release. Inspired by the life of Leonardo Da Vinci, who Cunningham notes was abandoned by his family until his father returned to him when he was 13, the writer hopes the story will inspire kids and allow them to see how the main character is an “ethical hero who pursues truth” and “leverages the scientific method to make things better for himself and more importantly, better for his community and the world around them.”
Ahead of the book’s release, Cunningham chatted with THR about his time writing on a late-night show, the process of writing his debut book and what he hopes young readers take away from the story and character.
This marks your debut novel. When did you decide you wanted to write a book, then tackling what exactly you wanted to write?
I had been reading this book about Da Vinci — not the Da Vinci Code — and I just found it so interesting that he was abandoned until he was 13 years old. It all kind of crashed together with this idea of a kid being left in a mysterious boarding school until he was 13 and he’s this wildly talented polymath who is exceptional at everything he tries but he seems to get like 99 percent of the way to doing something impossible. There’s [also] always just one key detail that he never quite completes. Da Vinci’s last words were, “I’m sorry, I didn’t get around to finishing everything that I wanted to finish” — I’m paraphrasing and obviously, it was in Italian — but I found that so interesting and it just kind of came to me in a flash, where I was like, “Oh, it should be a kid.” I wanted to set it in the near future because I imagined looking for new Da Vincis and just winning lottery ticket brains, kids.
When exactly did you start writing the book and then how long did it take you to write it?
I started in the fall of 2012. We had a 30-page treatment that got some interest and there was a publisher who was like, “this is cool.” And then for whatever reason [I felt], there wasn’t enough of the connection to the art and the art history. So I just kept working on it and kept refining it. The tough part was when the rejections started after that. I think everybody has stories about their book getting rejected. I mean, J.K. Rowling got rejected at a hundred places. What I appreciate is that the people who wrote those rejections would give feedback. There was one woman who said, “13 years of working in YA literature, this is the most commercial idea that has ever crossed my desk. However, I can’t get past this and this and this.” These were all things where I was like, “Thank you so much for saying this!” So that was really how the intervening seven years was until my agent and then the book agent and the editor at Harper Collins Zondervan was just like, “Oh, I love this idea.” And God bless them for really coaching me hard on the writing process. That’s the other thing that happens with late-night is so much of your writing gets trashed. If I wrote 60 jokes a day and two of them made the show, [I’m] out of my mind, happy about it. I’m not precious about it. I’m very coachable.
I know you earned a history degree from Brown University. Did that play a part in influencing your inspiration for writing this story?
It really did! I always loved history and in grade school and high school, I would cruise through history all the time. Our whole family has a bizarre trivia gene. My aunt and uncle, when they came out and visited and I was working on TV shows at the CBS lot, I was like, “Do you want to see Corden? Do you want to see Kimmel?” “No. We want to see a Jeopardy! taping.” (laughs) It was like I took them to the Oscars, because for our entire life that has been Cunningham family MMA. Let’s watch Jeopardy! and keep score.
I know you performed stand-up then eventually wrote for The Tonight Show but was there always an interest in writing a book eventually?
At The Tonight Show, when working on the NBA roast or working with Robert Smigel on Night of Too Many Stars, when you sit there and they just put you in a room and they’re like, “you’re not coming out until you have 20 jokes and we’re going to come back in 40 minutes,” your brain just starts doing math really quickly. Honestly, the first year I knew I wanted to do this [write a book] after I left The Tonight Show and the first year was spent just trying to retrain my brain to do this very long-form writing. I showed the draft of this book about a year after I left [The Tonight Show] to my wife and God bless her for being honest. She was like, “This is terrible!” and she wasn’t wrong because I was like, “Look at this bunch of ideas that I clicked down onto a page, and here are some fun sentences!” That is a vastly different thing than “Here’s a narrative that is going to slowly unravel and then it’s just going to reveal itself in the last, however many chapters.” You’re just kind of chasing the way your brain works. You’re like, “This makes my brain excited. I’m gonna pursue that.”
What was the transition like of going from writing for late-night to writing a long-form fiction novel?
I would write a lot of jokes on the show that would be like big swing jokes. Sometimes they would be about as mean as Jimmy Fallon would ever get or they would be political and things like that. If I had any of them in this book, a 12-year-old kid would be like “What?” I wrote it [the book] because I’m imagining when I was a kid… You get handed books by teachers and most of them would be like, “This isn’t fun.” I read but I didn’t have fun reading them because they assigned it to me. So when I started writing this, I wanted to write a book where the nerd version of me at 13 years old reads it and is like, “Oh, I had fun reading this.” And also, “I have a new, real-life hero. I didn’t know that this guy really existed and did all this cool shit.”
Were there any young adult books that you enjoyed growing up or have seen currently that you were a fan of and inspired you when writing this?
Yeah, I remember the first time I read a Harry Potter book and I was like, “Oh, this is just right in the vein.” [I also love] the Rick Riordan Percy Jackson series. Honestly, the book that drove this more than any other is A History of Knowledge by Charles Vandoren. I’ve given it as gifts like a dozen times. That book is part of my family. It is my fifth uncle.
I’d imagine that late-night has a very structured schedule on how to operate. Was there anything that you applied from your time in writing for late-night to your writing process with this?
Absolutely. So for late-night writing, every day at 11:00 a.m., there were four pages of jokes due and it’s all new every day and you would get your premises at night. What I realized very quickly is you have to outwork your lazy self. So, for me, the only way I could get that done is I would start doing Pomodoro sessions, which is where I would set a timer for 25 minutes and literally take my phone and throw it somewhere and for 25 minutes, all I’m doing is concentrating on this. You would just feel your brain burn. The main thing I learned at that show is how to work and how hard you have to work to make something that people want to engage with. if I hadn’t worked at late-night, this book wouldn’t have gotten done.
On late-night you would have to direct jokes to an older audience but what were the challenges of writing this book to appeal to a younger audience?
So my first job out of college, I was a teacher for a few years, and you recognize quite quickly that there’s nothing worse when a bunch of teenagers are near you and whispering to each other. You’re like, “Oh my God, I’m definitely getting made fun of so hard right now.” So it’s just finding a way to kind of grab their attention and hold it. It was written a little bit like dad fiction, where every chapter is supposed to end on… makes dramatic music noise. I’m trying to write for 13-year-old me and my friends who would be doing the summer reading and trying to write something that those kids would be like, “Oh, did I just have fun reading?”
Are you going to write a second book?
This book ends on a cliffhanger and there’s one of the puzzles that they don’t solve. Something that stuck with me that they say in the book is, “Art is how we decorate space, but music is how we decorate time.” That would be a theme to the second book. I definitely have a bunch of it beaten out.
What do you hope that young readers take away from this book?
The reason it connects with the Renaissance is I feel like the past few years have shown us that what we have won since the Renaissance is at risk. [With] the Renaissance leading into the Enlightenment and the pursuit of truth, the idea that there are an agreed-upon set of facts. That’s what I’m hoping kids take away, is that this guy is a hero. He is an ethical hero who pursues truth and he leverages the scientific method to make things better for himself and more importantly, better for his community and the world around them. That’s what I’m hoping for, that a bunch of 13-year-old boys are reading this and they’re like, “Holy shit, this kid, who’s like me, makes these beautiful things and he does it by testing truth.” I’m hoping that they do that rather than become Proud Boys. (laughs)
Interview edited for length and clarity
LEO, Inventor Extraordinaire is available now.
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