Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, is a sprawling, darkly humorous book of rather epic proportions. It exploded onto the literary scene to rave reviews, with John Irving hailing Hill as “The best new writer of fiction in America.”
The Nix follows Samuel Andreson-Anderson—college professor, stalled author— whose mother left him as a child, and whose search to uncover the secrets of her life leads him to reclaim his own. Along the way, Hill manages to touch on everything from the 1968 Chicago riots to video games to fad diets to today’s political engine.
In this Q&A, Hill reveals more about his writing process—it took him ten years to complete The Nix—shares some tips for aspiring authors, and reveals his literary influences. His incredibly thoughtful responses are sure to add a new dimension to your reading experience and give you plenty of fodder for group discussion!
Reading Group Center: How would you describe The Nix in twenty-five words or fewer?
Nathan Hill: It depends who’s asking. I typically have three different answers, each of them less than twenty-five words:
One answer: “It’s a family mystery about a mother who disappears and a son who tries to figure out why.”
Another: “It’s a work of historical fiction that centers on the 1968 riots and protests in Chicago.”
And yet another answer: “It’s a dark comedy that satirizes contemporary society, politics, and academia.”
RGC: It took you ten years to complete The Nix. Can you tell us a little about your research and writing process?
NH: I began writing the book in 2004 and I didn’t make an outline until like 2011. I had no idea where the story was going. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have a plot. I had a basic situation and two characters (Samuel and Faye, who for years were named “the boy” and “the mother”), and so the writing I was doing was more like exploration. I wasn’t writing to describe things that happened. I was writing to discover them. Which is much slower. And I hopped around a lot, even after I had an outline and a plot, there were whole sections of the novel that I skipped because, frankly, I didn’t think I was good enough yet to write them. I remember noting in my journal: “This will be very hard.” Then when I came back to those sections a year or so later, I realized that I’d learned how to write them. Writing the novel taught me how to write the novel, if that makes sense.
As for research, between 2006 and 2010, I read a lot of books about 1968 and the protests of the Democratic National Convention, and talked to people who were there. I spent many long days at the Chicago History Museum, going through their archives of photographs and broadsides and pamphlets and newspapers. (This process is made inordinately more difficult and time-consuming by the white cotton gloves they make you wear to touch this stuff, gloves that are allegedly one-size-fits-all but are really so tiny that your hands feel like little frictionless claws and you have to pick and pick and pick just to successfully separate photographs or turn a newspaper page or whatever.) Anyway, yes, I spent a long time researching this period before I felt comfortable writing about it. Musicians have a phrase that I like, one they use to describe practicing a piece: “Getting it under my fingers.” It means that they’re practicing it so that the notes are almost in the body, so that they can play the part without thinking about the part too much. That’s sort of what I was doing. I wanted to do research until the research was under my fingers. When I felt like I could render a scene with authority without having to consult all manner of outside texts, that’s when I started really writing.
RGC: One of your main characters, Samuel, is a writer as well as a university English professor, which is a position you once held as well. To what extent, if any, did you base Samuel’s character on your own experiences?
NH: Like a lot of writers, I spent many years in the academic trenches of Composition 101, teaching university freshmen how to read critically and write argumentative essays. A fair number of my friends also did this, and whenever we’d get together we all seemed to have the same horror stories: students who wouldn’t do the assigned readings, who always assumed there’d be some extra credit available to bail them out, who couldn’t pay attention to anything in class besides their phones, who plagiarized their papers consistently and shamelessly, and whose parents seemed to blame the teacher for the student’s failure. Not every student was like this, mind you, but enough were that it made me and my friends think there was something really wrong. Like, generationally wrong. (Do a Google search for “plagiarism” and “epidemic” and you’ll see what I mean.) So a lot of the academic satire in The Nix comes out of this experience.
RGC: Norwegian folklore plays a recurring role throughout the novel and, of course, informed the book’s title. Why did you choose to feature it so prominently in the story?
NH: A Nix is a spirit of the water that appears in Scandinavian folklore and is variously known as a nixie, neck, nikker, nøkk, and so on. It’s one of many Norwegian folktales I use in the novel. I love those old ghost stories, where spirits appear incognito and cause all sorts of trouble. My family on my mother’s side emigrated to the U.S. from Norway, and so these old stories just have a special place in my heart. But sometime during the writing process I began to realize that the story of the Nix would be a useful organizing metaphor for the book. In the Norwegian version, a Nix is usually described as a horrible, ugly ogre-type thing that sometimes appears to young children as a beautiful white horse. It will attempt to lure the children onto its back, and if they climb aboard, it’ll gallop into the water and drown them. And I imagined that, for the kids, suddenly taking possession of their very own horse would have been the coolest thing that ever happened to them. They must have loved it, until they realized what was really happening, by which time it was too late. The moral of the story seemed to me something like: the things you love the most can sometimes hurt you worst. Which is a lesson also learned by the characters in the novel, who are undermined by the things that mean the most to them: a son abandoned by his mother; a sister disowned by her twin brother; a workaholic swindled by his company; a gamer betrayed by the very video game he’s obsessed with, and so on.
RGC: As a debut novelist whose first full-length book met such wide acclaim, do you have any tips for other aspiring writers?
NH: I’d say that aspiring writers should think much more about writing than about publishing. That was certainly my mistake when I was younger—I came out of my MFA program thinking: How do I get published? I moved to New York City with a bunch of other aspiring writers, and we were just so very careerist and ravenous, keeping track of who was publishing in what journal and who was getting lunches with editors and so on. The pressure we felt to do well was crippling.
One of the things that I realized while writing the novel was that I couldn’t treat it like this thing that needed to get done in order to advance my career, because publishing a book is hard and there’s no guarantee it would happen. So I couldn’t pin all of my hopes on publishing—it would be shattering if it never happened—and instead I started thinking about writing almost the way a lot of people think about gardening. Nobody keeps a garden because they want to get famous. Nobody thinks their garden is a failure if a lot of other people don’t see it. It’s just, you like to garden. So that’s what the book taught me. Writing the book taught me that there’s some kind of everyday joy in just getting the writing done.
RGC: You’ve been compared to Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, and Charles Dickens, among others. Who would you identify as your main literary influences?
NH: You know how certain bands or certain songs just hit you at the right time in your life? Like, how there’s just something about the timing that allowed the music to penetrate you deeply and significantly? I have authors who’ve done that to me. So the effects on other people might be different, but for me, I’d say I found John Irving at a time in my life when I was thinking of becoming a writer. I was a young man living in Iowa City thinking he might be a writer, and I found these John Irving novels about young men in Iowa City being writers, and it just felt so proximate. Then in college I discovered Donald Barthelme at a time when I was getting frustrated with the ponderous prose I was being made to read in other classes. His humor and absurdity was just delightful. Then in grad school it was Virginia Woolf—I loved her ability to get so incredibly interior, to inhabit her characters in extreme close-up, so that the tone of her books is like hearing someone’s “brain voice” from the inside. Much later, I began reading David Foster Wallace. I didn’t discover him until his last novel, The Pale King, which I found extraordinary. After finishing it, I went back and read everything he’d written.
RGC: Imagine you’re part of a book club discussing The Nix. What is one question you would pose to the group and why?
NH: The first question you gave me was about describing my book in twenty-five or fewer words. This is a request I’ve often received, and critics have made some hay about not being able to do it. One reviewer said: “If any novel defied an elevator pitch in 2016, it was The Nix.” It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot these days, as I begin writing the next book, and I find myself wondering: How will I describe it? While I was writing The Nix, I didn’t think about this at all. I wasn’t even aware that I needed to write a book that was easily pitchable, that was easily summed up in twenty-five words. So I guess my question would be: How does the ease or difficulty of summarizing a book affect our experience of reading that book? What is the benefit of being told what a book is “about,” and what is the benefit of not knowing, of figuring it out along the way?