Josh Lieb’s first YA novel, I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President (Razorbill), hits the shelves this month. It’s the darkly comic story of Oliver Watson, a hugely wealthy boy business whiz whose cover is that of a schlubby seventh-grade loser living with his unbearable parents. Though the author is a rookie in the children’s book arena, he’s a seasoned pro in the world of comedy writing for television. He is part of the writing team that recently took home the 2009 Emmy for its work on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Lieb is also an executive producer for the Comedy Central program, where he has earned previous Emmys as well.
“I was an English major in college and I was always writing in high school and even before,” recalls Lieb, describing his early literary bent. “I went to Harvard and I eventually joined the humor magazine there, the Harvard Lampoon. At the time, Conan O’Brien [a past writer and editor at the Lampoon] had just landed his Late Night gig and as far as television writers go, the magazine was considered a real incubator for talent.”
Lieb cites the Lampoon atmosphere as invaluable training. “I met a lot of very funny, smart and interesting people there, and they were all really competitive,” he says. “My grades were very poor, but I learned a lot by just writing, writing, writing.”
A few “bad cable TV writing jobs” were Lieb’s post-college warm-up for his stint as head writer for TheJon Stewart Show, an early ’90s talk show. After that program was canceled, Lieb went on to write for the sitcom NewsRadio and several years later reunited with Stewart on The Daily Show.
The freshly minted author says his two writing careers couldn’t be more different, but, he believes one wouldn’t have happened without the other. “About a year and a half ago, during the writers’ strike, I had time to myself for once,” Lieb recounts. It was an unexpected opportunity for him to explore other types of writing, which he had long wanted to do. “Before, it had always felt like I was cheating on my job if I wrote anything else, but [during the strike] I actually couldn’t do my job, so I was free to try something else.”
The tough part for Lieb was figuring out what “something else” might be. “I knew I wanted to write a young adult book because I’m still such a fan of the genre,” he notes. “The variety of things out there now is so much greater than when I was a kid, but I still try to keep up as best I can.”
However, where the idea for Oliver came from is still a bit of a mystery to Lieb. “I wish I could say I saw a fat kid on the street and wondered, ‘What if he was fakin’ it?’ ” he says. “I’ve always been intrigued by ideas of secrecy,” he continues. “And I liked the idea of taking a seemingly powerless kid and giving him infinite power. So many great stories involve power fantasies, like, you’re a kid but you’re really a wizard, or you’re a kid but you find a talisman that creates a special kind of magic when you wish on it twice.”
Once Lieb had a proposal for I Am a Genius to show, the business end of things fell quickly into place. He was already represented by an agency (Endeavor) that had a book division, and agent Richard Abate (now with 3 Arts) soon sold the project to editor Jessica Rothenberg at Razorbill. “Jessica was terrific and very supportive,” says Lieb, who adds that he encountered “no unpleasant surprises” as the manuscript took shape. “When you’re not in the book world you think it’s leisurely and all about your ‘craft,’ and that editors say, ‘Take your time, Old Boy,’ ” he notes. “But they want to get good books out as soon as they can.”
Luckily Lieb was up to the task. “It went fairly quickly and was a real joy to write,” he says of the book. “TV and movies are visual; the words are a means to an end. With a book, the words are the end in themselves. It was refreshing to write that way.” According to Lieb, the experience was so positive that he has plans to try it again. “It’s a lot more satisfying writing a book than working on a TV show,” he says. “You get more time sitting on your butt to make things come out exactly the way you want them to.”
For now, Lieb will keep “lots of plates spinning in the air,” and will promote the book while trying not to disrupt his busy schedule at TheDaily Show. “Even though we’re completely fake, the pace is very much like a newsroom,” he notes. Penguin is set to launch [www.sheldrakeindustries.com] (the name of Oliver’s global enterprise) this month, a site that leads visitors through the young titans evil lair (beneath his ordinary-seeming bedroom) and which also includes information about Lieb, an audio excerpt, book trailer and an “Evil Genius Quiz.” Media highlights confirmed thus far include interviews on NPR’s Weekend Edition, ABC Radio affiliates and The Lionel Show on Air America Radio, as well as print and online coverage in Smart Money, Mediabistro and Comedy.com. As for future campaign stops for the book, Lieb says, “I’m putty in my publicists’ hands.”
It looks like Oliver will be making future appearances as well. This spring the book’s film rights were sold to McG/Warner Bros. for approximately one million dollars, with Lieb slated to write the screenplay. The author notes that he has already “broken ground” on a sequel to I Am a Genius, too. “I like the guy too much to give him up,” he says.
I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb. Razorbill, $15.99 Oct. ISBN 978-1-59514-240-5