Luke X. Cunningham is an Emmy-nominated writer from Philadelphia. Previously, he spent three years as a writer for "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon." He developed a passion for the Renaissance while earning a history degree from Brown University. He currently lives in Los Angeles, Calif., with his wife and their son, Finn. LEO: Inventor Extraordinaire is his first novel.
In this post, Cunningham explains how he came to write a middle-grade mystery novel, what he hopes for the kids who read his book, and more!
Name: Luke Cunningham
Literary agent: Adriann Ranta Zurhellen
Title: Leo: Inventor Extraordinaire
Release date: April 6, 2021
Genre: Middle-Grade Mystery
Elevator pitch for the book: Diary Of A Wimpy Kid crossed with a Dan Brown novel.
What prompted you to write this book?
In 2011, I saw an art exhibit about Leonardo Da Vinci. It mentioned that he did not know his father until he was 13 years old. The same exhibit displayed a mock-up of a 500-pound wooden robot lion that Da Vinci made for the King of France in the 1500s. That blew my mind. The guy built working robots with the materials and tools available 500 years ago. What would he do with his magnificent brain if he was born today? That was the jumping-off point for starting a narrative.
How long did it take to go from idea to publication?
10 years. So much changed. It went from a light-hearted comedy to a full hero’s journey. In the meantime, I was hired as a late-night writer on a few shows. The process of creating late-night comedy is very labor-intensive. I went from a guy with a day job who was kind of writing a book at night to a guy who was writing jokes for a living and trying to get the book done at night. But working for television taught me how I needed to manage my time to write. Does that make sense? Like, before I wrote for TV, I had a quaint idea that writers sat down when they were inspired and wrote where their imagination took them. That was so naïve. In late-night, you sit down and you produce four pages of the best jokes you can or they will replace you. There are so many other people who are just waiting to take your job. It kicks you into gear. Scales fell from my eyes, and I saw how hard I needed to work if I was going to survive, much less succeed. And all of those repetitions writing jokes helped when it came time to construct a longer story. Don’t wait to be inspired, write a draft and make that draft better. Build your own foundation.
Were there any surprises or learning moments in the publishing process for this title?
So many learning moments. This book was rejected multiple times. But each time it was rejected, the editor who rejected it was kind enough to explain why it was not right for them. One of the lessons I’ve learned is that feedback is a gift—use it to get better, not bitter. Almost every note that editors provided about the rejected manuscript was incorporated into the final book. I’m so thankful for the time and energy they spent telling me what didn’t work in their professional opinion.
I’m also surprised by how many people reach out when you write a book. Like, people I’ve not heard from in years have sent me encouraging texts. There’s something about the tangibility of a book that gets people more excited than any TV show I’ve worked on.
My favorite surprising thing I learned about Leonardo Da Vinci was that his stepfather, the man he lived with for his first 13 years, was a wild dude. He was good to Leo and Leo’s mother, Caterina, but he was known around town as Attaccabriga which is an Italian term that loosely translates as “troublemaker.” He taught Leonardo how to wrestle. I think people conceptualize artists as effete dreamers but Leonardo Da Vinci was a real one. He was a local wrestling champion. The Vitruvian Man was a self-portrait. He could go beast mode on you, hit you with a suplex, then paint you with breathtaking nuance. What a guy!
Were there any surprises in the writing process for this book?
I had to completely remap my brain to work on a novel after years as a late-night writer. Jokes are little word machines: two or three sentences with a surprise at the end. I learned how to produce a huge volume of those machines and spent years training my brain to make them in bulk. But a novel is one huge machine that must have surprises sprinkled all the way through.
Part of remapping my brain was learning a new way to work if I was going to build a fun story. I started doing Pomodoro sessions. I’d take my phone, set a timer for 25 minutes, then throw the phone somewhere I couldn’t see it. I had to remove distractions for a set period in order to focus on building the machine. When you tinker with a joke, it’s immediate, and you can see the whole thing. When you tinker with parts of a novel, you effect dozens of scenes and chapters farther along in the story, messing with your machine.
What do you hope readers will get out of your book?
One of the lines from the story is paraphrased from a Carl Sagan quote, “There’s no magic here. Because magic is just science that we don’t understand yet.” I hope that readers understand that they can come up with ideas like Leonardo Da Vinci and they can test those ideas to see if they succeed. My hero, Leo, is constantly adapting his ideas—moving forward with the parts that work and letting go of the parts that fail. Leo makes some amazing inventions over the course of our story, but none of them are magic. Every invention in this story is theoretically possible.
The best-case scenario for this book is that 20 years from now, a kid who read it perfects nuclear fusion. They read my book and thought, “This dummy and his imaginary diagrams are wrong, but I have a better idea.” I’m hoping that kids read Leo and realize that they can build beautiful things if they are willing to imagine new ideas and rigorously test those ideas to determine if they work. Just like Leonardo Da Vinci did. Because, to me, our culture is at a really dangerous inflection point. A whole lot of people would rather indulge their own nonsense than allow their ideas to be rigorously tested in the pursuit of truth.
That being said, there’s a counterpoint that I try to address in the story and it’s the reason that our hero is in a predicament when the story begins. Science and the pursuit of truth serve humanity best when they go hand-in-hand with ethics. At the beginning of our story, Leo’s father is missing and Wynn Toys is in trouble because of unethical decisions. I think a lot of problems could be solved if we held people to higher ethical standards. Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks were filled with reminders of sapere vedere which means “know how to see.” I feel like a whole lot of people know how to see the ethical way forward. The question is whether they will have the courage to build according to the toughest ethical standard. Or will they look for shortcuts?
I hope a kid with one of those brains like Leonardo Da Vinci, a mind that’s a winning lottery ticket, reads this book and knows how to see. That kid finds ways to build within their own community, to employ thousands of people with meaningful work. Allowing the children of the people they employed to grow up with better schools, better healthcare, and the freedom to pursue more opportunities. The cycle repeats and the most popular aspiration is no longer, “How can I get rich?” Or “How can I get the most followers?” Instead, the aspiration is “How can I build the most innovative thing that betters the lives of the most people?” Or “How can I employ the most people with meaningful work that helps them live dignified lives?”
If you could share one piece of advice with other authors, what would it be?
Do the work. 99 percent of people who say they are writers do not write. Not because they are lazy but because it is so hard to overcome the inertia of not writing. Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid. Do the work.