A conversation with the author of “I Am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Class President.”
Question: Is the book autobiographical in any way?
Josh Lieb: I’d say, in my book, the mother character is lovable, but a complete dimwit. My mother is also lovable, but something of a genius. So, I want to put that right out there. And also makes a mean grilled cheese sandwich. My father is much more likeable, much, much, more likeable than the father in the book. It’s not autobiographical. And I don’t know, this is probably one of the most annoying things any writer gets asked. Is it autobiographical? Or, I see where that came from. And it really doesn’t come from anywhere. We’re good a making stuff up. Very few things I think that actually end up getting produced are in any way autobiographical. You might pick up a line here or there, I had an uncle I heard him at the dinner table once say, “Bettin the girls get on me for pickin my nose, but I gotta breathe.” Now, I couldn’t write that. Like that’s beautiful, that’s not only funny; it’s poetry. It’s just perfect. That could be a title of a book, that could be a chapter in a book, that’s just fantastic. But generally, when someone comes up to you and says, “I’ve got a great sketch for your show. A person who sells cemetery plots.” It’s not that interesting. And also, you’re not – generally, as a writer you’re not interested in stuff unless you think of it yourself. We’re selfish that way, and we’re narcissists that way. It’s like, if I think of it, it’s a good idea. And if someone else suggests it, I’m probably not going to like it as much.
Question: Were you ever class president?
Josh Lieb: I was never Class President. I was Secretary Treasurer which is the most useless of all useless Student Council positions. It means nothing. We didn’t have any money, there was nothing to transcribe, and it’s just that you are supposed to have a Secretary/Treasurer so you did it. And I got that position by insulting the two people who were running against me, in my speech. The next year I tried to run a serious campaign for Vice President, and that didn’t work at all.
Question: How does your 12-year-old billionaire protagonist reflect today’s society?
Josh Lieb: Today’s society—I can’t say that we’re more money obsessed now than ever, but we probably are. I mean, I haven’t been around forever, but it certainly seems like our culture is fixated on cash more than ever especially in the current economic climate people want money. People always want money, but people really want money now. I also, you know, it’s a standard child’s power fantasy of, ‘I’m powerless, I’m weak, but actually I have this superpower.’ But the superpower of this day and age seems to be a billion dollars.
Question: Why did you have a problem with children’s laughter?
Josh Lieb: Here again, it makes me sound like a horrible person. I do very much enjoy the laughter of children now, but when I was a kid, I remember being very annoyed, not at the laughter of children, but at the fact that they would laugh at anything. There was no discrimination. You could have a very funny joke and everyone would laugh, or somebody would drop a pencil in class, or fart, or drool on himself and everyone would laugh, and it really annoyed me because it wasn’t funny. And I’m not a lot like my lead character in the book, but that’s something we share in common.
Question: What else do you have in common with him?
Josh Lieb: We both like peanut butter, we both have dogs named lollipop, we both love our mothers, and actually we’re good boys. That’s about it. He’s from Omaha; I used to spend my summers working there at a grocery store. So we’re both familiar with Omaha, Nebraska.
Question: What made you decide to do a young adult novel?
Josh Lieb: I’ve just, I’ve always been a fan of the genre. I never stopped reading it, and when I suddenly found I had time to write a novel and I was casting about for what I would do, I landed on this one pretty quickly. I would suspect that Young Adult is the genre that casts the widest net right now actually. I think the success of Harry Potter and you’ve got your Twilight and this and that, young adult stuff doesn’t apply to young adults any more.
Question: Have kids’ reactions to your book surprised you?
Josh Lieb: No, no. I would have been devastated if they’d hated it, and they didn’t. And it's been very tough to get a read of 12-year-old sometimes, as emotional as they are, they can also be very guarded, especially a 12-year-old boy, very unexpressive. But, no.
Question: What was the process of doing this book?
Josh Lieb: I came up with the title and I said, that will make a good title, and then I figured out the book to go with it. I sat down and started writing. I wrote four chapters and I called up my TV agent and I said, “Listen, I’m writing a book. Can you help me out?” And they said, “You have a literary agent that you didn’t know about, a book agent. A guy named Richard Abate.” And so I went over and met with him and I left him my chapters and my plan for the book and he read it over the weekend and he said, yeah, let’s go do this. And I started meeting with them and different publishing houses. It was much too easy. It was great. To get that far was terrific and the first four chapters came to me very easily. And after that, I just had to sit down and start working.
Question: How do you fit writing around a day job?
Josh Lieb: Right. Yeah, I wish I had that discipline. In the beginning, I didn’t have the conflict because we were on strike. I work for the Daily Show with John Stewart, and we were on strike for about three months a years and a-half ago. And I sold the book while we were on strike. So, initially I had all the time in the world, and then I was back at work getting my gears back together. I worked at night, I worked weekends, and I worked every holiday. I attempted a few times to be that guy, that Larry McMurtry, who gets up at 4:30 and writes for three hours and then can spend the rest of his day doing whatever, but I couldn’t do it.
Question: What was the hardest part of writing the book?
Josh Lieb: Boy, It was nothing too difficult. I hesitate to say that, I mean, I’m a professional writer, so I’m used to writing, I didn’t get stumped anywhere. It was more interesting – I thought it would be a little bit harder than it was because I had never written a book before, but I was certainly familiar with the format. I kind of knew the book that I wanted to write. The toughest part really, because I had never written anything quite this – all by myself before. Something this big with no collaboration whatsoever was giving it to my editors and saying, “What do you think?”
Question: How did the Daily Show adapt to the transition from Obama to Bush?
Josh Lieb: Political comedy is just as easy now as it was during the Bush years. It is still – it’s a different cast of characters, but they’ve got all the same foibles. Personally, speaking for myself, I certainly like and trust our President now more than I did our previous one, but he makes plenty of goofs. I certainly don’t approve of everything he does and there’s a cast of characters in Washington right now that are absolutely as hilarious as anyone who was there during the Bush years.
Question: How do you keep the show fresh?
Josh Lieb: We’re always looking to keep it fresh. And that’s not so much because we are scared we’re going to lose the audience, it’s more we don’t want to lose our own interest. You can do the show four days a week, however many weeks a year; you can get bored by doing it. So, we have to keep making it exciting for ourselves. So, there’s absolutely, there is that and then its like, let’s try something new even though it might hard, and there’s also – it’s a group of very competitive funny people and we like to make each other laugh. So, we know what a standard show could be and we are always trying to break out of that just so we can impress each other.
Question: Did you miss the collaborative process of TV writing while doing your book?
Josh Lieb: Absolutely not. No. The hardest part for me in a work environment is collaboration. That is just a struggle that I’ve always had. And I love my coworkers and I love bouncing ideas around with them, but I really enjoyed pure writing. Just sitting and writing by myself. And every show is different. This is the most collaborative environment I’ve ever been in. I used to write another TV show called News Radio where it was very different. We didn’t have any sort of big table or anything where ideas were bounced around. You’d come with a script idea and you’d go off and write it and you’d hand it to the next guy up the food chain and he would re-write it. It was as pure a writing experience as you can get in the TV world.
Question: What is the difference between writing for the Simpsons and The Daily Show?
Josh Lieb: The main difference between the two is just the immediacy. The Daily Show, the New Hits, and we get to take care of it that night. The Simpson’s is such a strange animal, and a wonderful animal, but a strange one. You would be writing for something that wouldn’t air for nine months to a year. And still people would go, wow, how did you get that reference so quickly and frequently it would seem like the show was fresh. I enjoyed the Simpson’s, but I like the immediacy of the Daily Show more. It’s frustrating to write something and then not see the finished product for a year. With the Daily Show, it’s like you are really putting on a show. You know, I’m Mickey Rooney, I’m writing a script, and that night it goes live. And if it’s terrible, we’ll do another show tomorrow night.
Question: How do you manage comedy writers?
Josh Lieb: Oh absolutely. We’re not so different from everybody else. It’s not that I’m particularly funny in this interview anyway; we don’t always have to be funny. How’s that. I think we can be just as adequate at managing people as others can. And it’s all management skills that go into our wheelhouse. It’s okay, I read a script, and this isn’t funny. This is what you need to do. Boop, boop, boop. If I were an accountant I would be able to point out where the number didn’t add up. If I’m watching a montage and this doesn’t go together quite right, as someone who is a comedy professional, I can point out what is going to work better.
Question: Are there other challenges in managing creative people?
Josh Lieb: No. I’ll tell you what; everyone at the show is so nice and so shockingly competent that it’s not a real problem. I’ve been in situations where there have been people who were difficult, or just people you didn’t want to be around and people you had to manage more heavily. There’s nothing like that there. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it’s such a fast-moving machine. Anyone who acts as any sort of sand in the gears gets spit out pretty quickly.
Question: What excites you most these days?
Josh Lieb: My son. I have a little boy, a little baby. I find him very exciting. He's teething now and, you know it's all very boring and predictable but it's pretty exciting for me. I can't say I'm excited about anything in particular on the TV show, or books, or any political development. I'm fascinated by what's going on out there, but nothing is exciting me quite like having a little boy so I am definitely a mammal.
Question: What are you most concerned about for the next generation of kids?
Josh Lieb: It’s still strictly education. One of the reasons I would also write for a young audience is I don’t think there is anything better a child can do is read. If we can get our children to read, we’re set. And I probably think that because I am a reader, but I do think that is necessary for an intelligent child and for a flourishing democracy. Again, it was several years ago when I as last interviewed by Big Think, nothing has changed in our educational system. I don’t even remember what we talked about, but it’s the same problem that we talked about then. Everyone talks about fixing our schools, and nobody does anything. There is actually an exciting charter school – I really don’t know much about it – out in one of the boroughs here where they are paying every teacher $100,000, which was actually an idea I had several years ago. And I am very curious to hear how that goes over because I think the number one thing we can do is to put – look, Oliver, in the book, probably the main reason he hates school besides the fact that he is smarter than everybody is that he has no respect for his teachers. Some of these teachers are petty tyrants. Most teachers are great people, but anyone who has been to school, which all of us knows, you’ve got your petty tyrant, you’ve got your dim bulbs, you’ve got your narcissus. I just know too many really smart, interesting people in college who would have loved to have gone into teaching because they love going to school. If they thought they could have supported their families doing it.
Question: What is a big mistake you’ve made in your career?
Josh Lieb: Yeah. No, I’ve made any number of mistakes. In my career, I think one thing you don't realize – I had success early on, I obtained some rather exalted positions pretty quickly and entertainment, and I don't know if this is true in other fields but there's a quantity called heat and if people think you're the hot thing, then they are very eager to work with you but that she does dissipate and it dissipates quickly. Because I sort of jumped into the game with a great deal of heat, I thought I would have it eternally. Then I spent about five years with a show called News Radio and really burned myself out. There was no more exhausting show in the history of television and when I was done with it I said I was going to take a year off from TV and I'm going to – I have some script ideas I want to write but I'm going to just keep away from that. Which was great psychologically but I did not realize how quickly Josh Lieb, young man on the rise could be ‘oh yeah, that guy.’ So I had to learn to strike while the iron is hot. And it's a lot tougher to get your name out there once you've let the heat dissipate.
Question: What advice would you give to someone who wants to succeed as a TV writer?
Josh Lieb: You just have to write. I mean if – yes, you just have to write. That is, if you want to be a writer. If you want to go into another aspect of entertainment, then do whatever that is. If you want to be a director, direct, or collaborate with someone on something. If you want to be me, you just write. You write, you write, you keep writing, you keep submitting and you get better and better at it. There's no other way at it and you keep pushing ahead and eventually someone will read your stuff. And also, my other advice would be for someone who wants to go into this business is, don’t do it if there’s anything else you can do. And I sincerely mean that. If there is anything else you can do, don’t do it because this is really only a job for people who are kind of stuck in it. It seems exciting, but its also, it can be – it’s aggravating and wearying and I don’t – I think you're probably very good at it – we don’t get a lot of renaissance men, we get people who are very good at writing anthem have some interesting hobbies, but we’re all a bit of idiot savants. Like this is the one thing we are good at. So, we just keep at it.
Question: Why avoid it?
Josh Lieb: Because of the numbers and because not just the aggravation of actually getting the process – not just the aggravation in the process, not just the frustration of actually getting something made, but also the fact that so many people are trying to do it. The competition is so fierce and you really are one of a billion sperm going at that egg and that is a job. And it’s too competitive. And I’m sure there are tons of very talented writers out there, and actors, and singers, and everything else who won’t get their break, who are having a tough time in their 20’s and watching less talented people rise above them. I think that if they keep pushing at it, eventually they’ll find their niche. It might not be the one they wanted, but it is a very frustrating career path. Even in success there’s frustration. It’s just so hard. Because of the collaborative part of it and because of the money and the effort that goes into it, it’s so hard to get – here’s my vision and actually get that made. Unless you’re Bill Gates and you own your own studio, it’s not going to happen like you think it is.
Question: Is this true even if you have exceptional talent?
Josh Lieb: I don’t know quite the answer to that. I think merit is enough if you keep pushing, and pushing, and pushing. You might not get the break you wanted. I think the breaks eventually come and I think the largest break you have is perseverance; if you have that quality, eventually you will break through. But it can be very rough, especially now in the field of comedy writing, jobs are drying up. There is less and less scripted comedy out there right now, and scripted television in general. The business is in a bit of a crisis. If you can be a lawyer, and you can be happy being a lawyer, be a lawyer, please. You’ll do yourself a favor.
Question: Why is scripted television dying out?
Josh Lieb: It’s cheaper to make reality shows, which are very entertaining and I think they are coming back, everything is on a pendulum, you can only entertain people with the standard reality format so much, and people like stories. They really do. People like sitcoms, people like Friends. So, I think the pendulum is swinging back. But it is tremendously expensive to hire a staff of writers, to hire a bunch of actors and a top rate crew and make something that looks like it should be on television for television. It’s real easy to get a video camera and video tape someone eating bugs.
Question: Who are your heroes?
Josh Lieb: Boy. I don’t know if I ever thought of that before. My heroes – I like, as far as writers go, I like Charles Dickens, and Danny Pinkwater. I like Casey Jones, although he was only kind of real, but I like that perseverance. I like the person who goes down with the ship in an attempt to save every one else. I like Brooks Robinson, even though I never got to see him play except on video tapes. I was a big Orioles fan growing up. I can list a lot of authors I like and people I admire, but I don’t know if I would call them heroes. I just don’t know anything about them. I don’t know if Ellen Raskin is a hero of mine, I know I like her books, but she could be an awful person for all I know. I think she’s probably dead now. I like Louise Fitzhugh. I like someone who lives that sort of – who dares to live that unconventional life and write that well. So, I’ll put her down as a hero. I don’t know; who’s your hero?
Question: What is love?
Josh Lieb: What is love? I think you’re gonna – I’m not sure what answer you’re going to get today and I think that answer is going to change whatever day you ask me. I’m feeling – I’ve got a new baby, I’ve got a wife I love, so I’m going to be fairly non-cynical today. I could say it was some weird narcissistic reflection of the qualities we see in ourselves in the other person. I might love my baby because he looks like me. But I don’t – I don’t know, I’m not sure if there is actually a think called ‘love.’ I am not necessarily a doubter in the spiritual realm, but I don’t think there is a particular quantifiable thing called love and I don’t even think there is necessarily a brain chemical called love. I think its attachment. It’s a need. Love is needing someone in order to feel complete. Yeah, it’s attachment. Say it’s an addiction in a way, but your life would not be your life without that person in it. And when you lose that person, you have to make a tremendous adjustment. Yeah, it’s a form of addiction, but there’s no dividing line necessarily between love and life, or love and straight affection, but I would call it an emotional addiction.
Question: Were you funny as a kid?
Josh Lieb: I was definitely the wise guy. I was definitely full of beans, piss and vinegar, all of that. I was always making jokes, you know, a complete jack ass. And I was always a short kid too. I think some of that, I feel like a lot of times, the short kid, the kid who waits a while to grow overcompensates with jokes. But separately I also knew I was going to be a writer, but I didn’t know I was going to be a comic writer. They are two separate things. I always loved reading and I always had a talent for writing. I knew this is what I can do. I was never really excited by any other career option. I never thought how cool it would be to be a lawyer, or a cowboy, or an – what do people think of career options, I don’t even know.
Question: A Fireman?
Josh Lieb: Fireman. Yeah, I never got too excited by that. I always wanted to be a writer, and my heroes were writers. There’s heroes there with me. My heroes were Walker Percy and Hemmingway, and Fitzgerald. These were people I wanted to be. This was the life I wanted to emulate. But I never thought I’d be a comic writer. I thought I would be a serious writer, I thought I was a poet. I was always writing as a teenager, which is funny because I think there’s nothing that annoys me now more than children who write or precocity as a writer. I feel like, leave it be, you’ll get to it eventually. But at the time, I knew I wanted to write and I was constantly writing for myself. The two, the wisenheimer side, and the literary side came together when I went to Harvard and I joined the Lampoon, which is the comic magazine there. I still, I had no real plan going in there, just that I was a funny guy and I liked to write, it seemed like the right place to go. And it was also a time where, when I as 16, I thought I’m [literary], I’m going to write poetry, and then when I’m 19, I’m like, “oh, I need to make a living. I need a job.” And several Lampoon graduates had already gone into the world of television and movies and – Doug Kenny, there’s a hero, fantastic writer. And so, I said, “oh well, okay I can do this.” I knew I could write and I knew I could write funny. I certainly knew television, I was like, this is the job for me. And then that’s when that happened.
Question: Did you ever pull pranks as a kid?
Josh Lieb: Nothing elaborate. I was more the insult comic, and not witty insulting. A lot of your mother jokes, and that’s still my stock in trade because they are really funny. Pranks – no, I remember one time I coated my sister’s room, I mean everything with talcum powder. But that wasn’t a prank that was just kind of this is an experiment. Let’s see what her room would look like if talcum powder was inside every single crevice of the room. And I got in a lot of trouble for that. But the pranks I do tend to be a little more theoretical. I remember one time, I was back in college, after graduation for one reason of another, and a friend of mine from college was going to be there. And the sandwich down the street from where we lived had closed, and I knew they turned it into a sunglass hut, which, what could be worse. It was one of the last places a kit at Harvard could afford to buy a sandwich, and now it was just a place for tourists to buy sunglasses.
Josh Lieb: Yeah, it was Elsie’s, exactly. So, you’ve been there. And it’s gone now. So, I said to my friend Scott, I said you know, let’s grab lunch. I was like, let’s got to Elsie’s. He said, “Sure.” Because I thought maybe if we walked there and he thought it was still there, it would still be there, but it wasn’t still there. So, he got mad at me.
Question: Do you agree with Bob Mankoff that coming up with cartoon idea is hard?
Josh Lieb: Well first, let me address Bob Mankoff. I could write that every day. And so you tell bob Mankoff, no big deal. I have lots of cartoon ideas and I don’t see what he’s bitching about. Actually, not the New Yorker cartoonist, what they write one like once every three years or something, right?
Question: Mankoff has published 900 New Yorker cartoons over 30 years.
Josh Lieb: Big deal. That’s like; they’re one sentence apiece. Give me a break. Well, for one, I can’t draw at all, but I was trying to teach myself how to draw. I got a book. Because I was going to draw my own cartoons, but then I got lazy and then I really can’t draw. So, I have a friend, Tom Gamble out in LA who is a wonderful cartoonist and I sometimes send him suggestions for cartoons, which he never makes. But, I just had a great one. You tell Bob Mankoff there’s a man with a stomachache, he’s very unhappy, and his wife walks in with Al Capone, and he says, “You idiot, I told you to bring home Alka Seltzer.” That’s a prize-winning cartoon right there. I just thought of that one the other day. Similarly though, and in all seriousness, yeah, it’s that ability to do it everyday and it’s that ability to – it’s not just perseverance, it’s talent and it’s treating it like a job. Anytime you have a writer who says he’s waiting for inspiration and I say that’s not a writer. It is absolutely – it’s a job, it’s a career. You can not feel like writing, you can be dry as a bone and you have to sit down and start writing. You can’t tolerate something like writer’s block, especially in TV, but I suppose when you are writing a book at home you can give yourself a couple of days like that, but its being able to dredge it up every day and produce. It’s not just this romantic pure creation. It’s a job.
Question: Is there a relationship between alcohol and creativity?
Josh Lieb: I like to drink. I like to tipple, but I also like to stay away from it too. I’ve had too many wonderful friends who really hurt themselves with alcohol, and I’d warn against that. No, I don’t think – I think that creative people think that their creativity and their bohemian lifestyle gives them license to be dysfunctional people. It gives them the freedom to drink too much and to be bad about paying their bills and to shave irregularly. And paying your bills and shaving irregularly can have their downside, but alcohol can have a real downside. It doesn’t give you that license, and it doesn’t make you more creative. I know people who have been absolutely paralyzed by drink, and by other drugs. You do get that romantic, like – I want to be Fitzgerald, I want to be insane, and I want to be miserable. When you’re young and you’re a writer, you want to be miserable, you want to be that tragic figure, you know, the genius taken too soon. You want to be the alcoholic, the suicide; these are the real heroes, the people who grind it out everyday and live to be 100. I mean, who wants to be E.L. Doctorow. He was a wonderful writer, but there is no romance there. But, you want to be Hunter Thompson. But I don’t think – I think E.L. Doctorow would have probably been a better writer longer than Hunter Thompson was a good writer because he had more normal habits. I’m not even like a bit E.L. Doctorow fan; I just picked him as a long-lived writer.
But Hunter Thompson who, boy, there’s not a better political book than Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Train ’72, and there’s not a funnier book than Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but anything he wrote in the past 30 years I would say is probably largely unreadable. I guess you could get through it, but the spark isn’t there anymore and then it kind of got killed in him and I think he probably realized that too. But for 20 years there, from the early 60’s to 1980 or so, he was great. I don’t know if the drugs spurred that creativity. I think it was all of a piece. He was a crazy man and he wrote like a crazy man, and he lived like a crazy man. But I don’t think the drugs made him the crazy writer that he was. Drugs can certainly give you a new perspective, but generally they’re stultifying. Marijuana, stultifying. LSD, I guess fascinating when you’re 18 years old, kind of a brain killer. I think you have to – we all have our adolescent fantasies and I’m going to be this guy, I’m gonna Rambo and blah, blah, blah. But, it’s not the way to happiness in life certainly, but it’s also not the way to great writing. It generally just gets in the way. You know what? I’m a bit more lyrical when I’m hung over. My poetry is a little fleeter, but if I take a sip of alcohol, I can’t write. It kills the spark in me.
Question: Have you ever had ‘writer’s block’?
Josh Lieb: Sure. I’ve had difficulty – you know what? It’s less ‘writer’s block’ I think where I just can’t think of something, and more intimidation. It’s not even facing the blank page because often hen I am revising something, its laziness. It’s I’m looking at it and I just don’t want to do it. It just seems insurmountable. And a journey of thousand miles begins with a sing step, blah, blah, blah. But it’s really hard to take that single step. So, yeah, I wouldn’t call it a block, I call it inertia. If you know the magnitude of what you’re running at, it can be very tough to get up that mountain. You just have to sort of forget about it for a little while and get started.
And then you feel like you’re noble. Then you feel like, damn, I did it. Screw that idea. I know it’s impossible. You know, I’m a goddamn man; I’m going up the fucking hill, big deal. I think my favorite movie about television writing is North Dallas Forty, which is about a football team. And there’s a – and I wish I remember it better now, but there is this wonderful soliloquy by John Metuzak who is an ex-football player who was playing a football player in a movie. At the end where he is just giving it to one of the coaches and he says, you know, it’s beautiful. He goes, “Every time we say it’s a game, you tell us it’s a business, and every time we say it’s a business, you tell us it’s a game. It can’t be both ways. It’s got to be more than just a business. It’s got to be a game; it’s got to be something we love.” And that’s kind of it. You can’t do this if you are just doing it for the paycheck, and you have to love what you are doing, but you also, you can’t just love what you’re doing. You have to treat it like a business, you have to treat it like, this is my goddamned job, somebody’s paying me to be here, I’m going to sit down, and I’m going to write this.
Question: Do you agree with your protagonist that Fahrenheit 451 is overrated?
Josh Lieb: I do. That’s something else I share with Oliver. You know, and that’s unfair – I’d say it’s unfair, I should have reread Fahrenheit 451 before going into it, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. There’s inertia right there. Yeah, that’s a book I despise. Ray Bradbury, here’s another example of someone who has that long-lived writing career. Although, in his case, and I don’t need to be picking a fight with Ray Bradbury I guess, but I don’t know if it’s entirely admirable. Let me say this. Ray Bradbury–I certainly went through a science fiction phase, like a lot of teen boys do. And I read a lot of Ray Bradbury and I enjoyed quite a bit. His Martian Chronicles is some wonderful stuff, and The Illustrated Man, I liked a lot of those stories. Dandelion Wine, was that it? I just named some – and Ray Bradbury, a pretty lyrical fellow, but boy, yeah, Fahrenheit 451 as an authorial circle jerk. Absolutely. And maybe in the 50’s or whenever he wrote it, 1953 or something, the idea of book banning, book burning, seemed a lot more tangible in the wake of Nazi Germany and Stalinist purges, and McCarthyism, you really thought, boy they might get rid of books. And obviously banned in Boston, there were books banned. But, I mean, an author writing a book about how wonderful books are, preposterous, and books are great, books aren’t everything. Yeah, I found the dystopia in that book really unconvincing.
On a similar topic, on a similar dystopia—1984, much more plausible. And there’s a book about limiting thought, limiting language, destroying books, certainly. But it wasn’t about books. It was much broader, it actually looked at what it would mean as a society, rather than just that the one thing that was saving us from fascism were our books. So, yeah, it’s a bad book. I recommend you read it so that you don’t like it. So, you agree with me on it. But I think every kid sort of gets stuck reading it at some point.
You know what’s another Ray Bradbury book I remember hating was Something Wicked This Way Comes. I had to read that one too. And that was another one where it was these charlatans coming in – I shouldn’t have read any of him because they did make us read him in school, and I think he was supposed to be wonderful and to set our imaginations on fire and it’s that kind of setting your imagination on fire that I find pretty stultifying. Because it’s so, it makes such a religion of fantasy and of whimsy, and of you know, real fantasy, and real whimsy is a lot more grounded and less flowery, I think. And not that Lewis Carroll is grounded, but there’s a plausibility there where I think the main word you can use to describe Ray Bradbury’s aesthetic sense is when he’s reaching for something great, is artsy fartsy, and it just doesn’t do anything. Like Lewis Carroll, there’s nothing arts fartsy about Lewis Carroll. Daniel Pinkwater, in no way artsy fartsy. He can write an entire children’s story about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Private Detective. And that is pure whimsy. But there are neither arts nor farts in there. You don’t read Something Wicked This Way Comes either. Kids, if your teacher asks, say I would prefer to read The Last Guru, or Young Adult Novel, by Daniel Pinkwater.
Question: Do you want to live forever?
Josh Lieb: No. Look, it’s easier to say I don’t want to live forever when I haven’t quite come to grips with my own mortality yet. I’m in my late-30’s, maybe when I hit 40 I’ll go, “Oh, you know, I really am going to die, I still have enough youthful vigor in me to believe – to have a hard time comprehending my actual death. But I don’t think I want to live forever or, I certainly wouldn’t want to live forever as an old person. And no knock on old people, because they are wonderful, but it seems very hard.
Question: Aubrey de Grey says it may be possible in your lifetime.
Josh Lieb: I don’t want to hobble around for centuries, and it seems that all the stuff we do when we were young and we think we are going to live forever, you live with such a vengeance, you start smoking when you’re 15 because you really don’t give a damn about your mortality and you don’t think you're ever going to die, or if you do die, you’re going to die in a car wreck, you’re not going to die of emphysema. And then you’re 90 and you die of emphysema, and it’s miserable. And I mean, I don’t know. I don’t have that devotion. I think I’m sure Aubrey De Grey says you can live forever; here’s how you do it. You eat 800 calories a day, you never have a cigarette, you drink one glass of red wine twice a week, and you know, I don’t want to say it’s not a life, but it’s not my life. And I guess I still got a bit of that romantic jackass in myself who imagines myself larger than life and I do give myself license to misbehave a little, but you do have to – I do enjoy a good steak. My father’s family is from Nebraska, and my mother’s father was there. I’m tremendously Jewish; I like nothing better than Gribness, which is fried, rendered chicken fat with some onion in it. Like, it’s delicious. I can’t eat that very often; it will make me sick. But that is a delicacy and I can eat it and go wow, 250 years ago, there was a Rabbi in Poland who was my great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, who was enjoying the same meal. So, I think when you devote yourself to living forever, you probably divorce yourself from all the previous humanity before you.
Recorded on: October 9, 2009. Interviewed by Paul Hoffman.