Gregory Kirschling
September 03, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Until Mormon whiz kid Ken Jennings and his still-going 38-game winning streak came along this summer, novelist Arthur Phillips was the most famous ”Jeopardy!” winner in history. Now he’s just a five-time champion from 1996 whose 2002 novel ”Prague,” about expats living in Budapest, became a surprise bestseller. Yet Phillips, 35, laughs off his dethroning: ”I keep hoping they’ll put me on ”Celebrity Jeopardy!” now, and I can go whip Pamela Anderson’s butt for charity.”

That’d be easy. What seems harder is crafting a novel like his impressive, accessible sophomore effort, ”The Egyptologist,” a historical puzzler involving an archaeologist named Trilipush, a king named Atumhadu, his hidden tomb, and a couple of murders. Not to give it away, but there’s a lot of Egyptology in it. ”I just kind of picked it up,” says Phillips, who’s spent only four days in the country?back in 1991. ”I don’t know much about Egyptology now, but I certainly didn’t know anything when I started. I just had this idea for the story, and as I went along I needed to fill some holes, and I’d find the answer to that hole, and I’d learn a little more. I can fake a lot.”

Phillips didn’t realize he wanted to write until he was 27. By then, the Harvard grad had already tried speechwriting, entrepreneurial work, and jazz?he actually picked up the tenor sax when he was 22 and practiced eight hours a day until he was making a fair living at it for a few years. Then he won $63,000 on ”Jeopardy!” and wrote a pair of brainy novels.

So let’s just ask him: Arthur Phillips, are you a genius? He explodes into laughter: ”Oh, I’m a supergenius! I passed genius years ago!” Then he sobers up. ”I’m not even gonna approach that question; we’ll just let that one fall away.” Which means yes.

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