A novel journey
Taylor Antrim learns no publicity is bad publicity for a debut writer.
Photo by Michael Nagle of the New York Observer.
This past summer, Taylor Antrim bought an apartment in Brooklyn, planned to marry his longtime girlfriend and published his first novel.
But one of the biggest moments for Antrim (MFA Creative Writing ’04) may have been when he got skewered on Gawker, the popular website that offers deliciously snarky commentary on the New York City media world.
The media item in question: a June New York Observer profile of Antrim that described him as “painfully — ridiculously — attractive” and even “Gatsby-like.”
The Gawker crowd had a field day, rechristening the article as “Taylor Antrim is Totally Hot and Stuff.”
Antrim, 33, got a kick out of it. Although some comments were biting, he laughed right along with some of the other remarks that questioned why the article paid more attention to his looks than to his debut novel, “The Headmaster Ritual.”
“That was my first thought. This is not really about the book,” he says. “It’s silly and it’s about my looks, but honestly, that’s a gift to a writer.”
“The Headmaster Ritual,” a coming-of-age boarding school tale set in a time of tense relations between the United States and North Korea, came out soon after the New York Observer profile was published. It was the middle of the summer, in the same week the latest “Harry Potter” hit the shelves. Because it was Antrim’s first novel, he figured all publicity — even snarky — was pretty much good publicity.
As it turns out, Antrim didn’t end up hurting for press; “The Headmaster Ritual” received positive reviews. Booklist called it “bitingly funny”; the Washington Post said it had “real emotional depth” and Antrim’s hometown paper, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, called it “superb.” Some critics gave it average reviews, but to Antrim, that was OK, too.
“It’s been lauded, it’s been criticized, but it hasn’t been overlooked and that has made this summer feel particularly special to me,” Antrim says.
Antrim spent his undergraduate years at Stanford and received his master’s degree in literature at Oxford. In 2002, he entered the University’s creative writing Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program. That’s where he got the inspiration to write “The Headmaster Ritual.”
In March 2003, while at the University, he pitched a story to the New York Times about high school students attending model United Nations conferences, but specifically about the students who get stuck representing the “Axis of Evil” states. While reporting, Antrim was particularly struck by the student who represented North Korea.
“My heart sort of went out to him,” he says. “That got me thinking.”
The piece never ran. It was the same month that the United States invaded Iraq and news priorities changed.
But all those notes and observations were a goldmine when it came time to write the novel, which centers around the boarding school’s model U.N. team.
Through in-class workshops and writing on his own, he got about half the manuscript finished before graduating from the University.
After graduation, he moved to New Haven, Conn., and started working at Martha Stewart Living magazine in New York. His twice-daily, nearly two-hour-long train ride between Connecticut and Manhattan provided fertile, albeit cramped, space to finish the other half. “I can remember sitting on the Metro North going through Bridgeport, knocking it out,” he says. “I wrote a lot.”
Antrim is now an associate editor at ForbesLife, a lifestyle supplement magazine for Forbes. He is working on another novel. He looks back fondly at his time at U.Va. “For me, U.Va. was about me getting there and suddenly being surrounded by writers, my peers. That was incredibly inspiring. It was like, ‘Geez, well, if this person can write a novel, then I should try it,’” he says.
Read an excerpt of Antrim’s novel.