Can a high-powered male lawyer write a propulsive, smart, funny novel about science, cancel culture, and #MeToo with a female protagonist? Absolutely. It’s exactly what Julius Taranto has done in his debut, How I Won a Nobel Prize, which will be released in September by Little, Brown.
In the novel, Helen is a young physicist whose work on high-temperature superconductivity has the potential to save the planet, but when her brilliant mentor, Perry Smoot, is embroiled in a sex scandal, she faces a moral and ethical dilemma: she can abandon her work with him or follow him to an institute for disgraced academics. And if she chooses the latter, she has to also convince her husband, Hew, to come with her.
“Hew explained the whole drama: We thought we had purged our moral grotesques—the harassers, racists, bigots, zealots,” Taranto writes. “The problem was these people technically had contracts. They held equity, tenure, real estate. They were hanging around the universities we thought we had shooed them from.... So there was some appeal to the idea that these people would go live on an island in the North Atlantic. This new Institute said: Give me your cancellees and deplorables, your preeminent deviants, we’ll take them! The popular vision, at the beginning, was of an academic prison colony where the worst-behaved of great minds would live out their days, closed off from the pleasures of civilized life. We had not, Hew said, expected them to have such a good time.”
The Rubin Institute Plymouth, established on a private island, “was a libertarian, libertine dream: bottomless funding, unencumbered by institutional regulations. They screwed students and eschewed trigger warnings. The enticing promise the Institute made to faculty was: No Code of Conduct, no Human Resources, only Your Work.... It was Sandals for scandals, with tax-exempt status.”
Taranto says his inspiration was his belief that “I have the same confusion as everyone else with how to fit individuality into the present culture,” which is the conundrum the book starts with. “Helen has ambitions that can be satisfied by doing something distasteful. Once I found her voice, her perspective, the goal was to wrap these issues in a novel.”
He debated about what type of person would be driven by the puzzle of a scientific problem while also questioning if the price to solve it was worth paying. He concluded that a woman would likely be the right kind of witness. “From there,” he says, “Helen developed organically and her husband became the right foil to deal with the moral unpleasantness.”
Taranto always wanted to write, but he also wanted to practice law. He got his law degree from Yale in 2016 after graduating from Pomona college. “Lately,” he says,” I’ve been committed to the writing life.” He’s contributed to the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Review of Books and finally started writing the novel in 2020.
“It was a good moment,” he says. “I had an idea and an area I wanted to write about, so it all made sense for me. No one saw it until the end, when I shared it with my wife. We discussed it; I did edits and started showing it to friends. My thought was, if this gets published, it will be a long road. It was kind of word of mouth: family, friend of the family, friend of a friend—which is how it got to Emma.”
“Emma” is Emma Parry, Taranto’s agent at Janklow & Nesbit. She tells me she had dinner on Christmas Eve 2021 with a friend who had gone to law school with Taranto. The law school friend gave her a bound manuscript along with a scarf. It’s not often a Christmas gift includes a manuscript, but when Parry started reading it, she says, she “realized it was exceptional. I thought the book was astonishing and the dialogue genius and original.”
Meanwhile, Taranto was told there was a possibility that an agent might get in touch. “I expected it would end up in the circular file,” he says. “But then Emma called on Jan. 4, 2022. I don’t remember exactly.” We laugh.
When he spoke with her, he knew she was the person to help him get the book published.
After a few passes, Parry sent the book out in March 2022 to “a decent crop of publishers”—people, she says, with a sense of humor, who would appreciate the accompanying announcement: “Here’s a new literary arrival!” It was preempted in the U.K. by Ravi Mirchandani at Picador and went to auction in the U.S. “Little, Brown prevailed,” Parry says, and senior editor Jean Garnett bought North American rights.
“It was straightforward,” Garnett recalls. “I don’t know Emma well, but we were on a Zoom catch-up chat and she mentioned the novel. I said, ‘Send it to me.’ It was kismet. There was a lot of enthusiasm from my team. We go through desert periods with submissions, so when I get something like this—provocative, mischievous—it’s terrific. The book is fun and clever; it skewers everyone, but it also has heart. The premise of the novel is outlandish yet strangely real. Here’s this ambitious woman whose work can help the planet, but she has to go to this icky place. We want to do good things, but we also want what we want. And we want to see people behaving badly.”
Taranto says he’s “very excited, most excited that people are reading it. It’s like sharing a good joke. I’m hopeful and delighted.”
Nothing like an ethical dilemma to get the blood boiling.