Nathan Hill Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Nathan Hill
Photo: Michael Lionstar

Nathan Hill

An interview with Nathan Hill

Nathan Hill discusses his debut book, The Nix, and how video games influence the book - and his life.

What is the story of The Nix and how does it inform this novel?

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. 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.

At the heart of The Nix are a mother and son who have not seen each other in decades reunited by some very strange twists of fate. What made you want to explore this particular mother/son relationship?

I didn't set out to write a story about an estranged mother—it's more like that was the result of many small choices made over a period of years. I started with a basic premise that had a nice symmetry to it: a mother who attends the '68 DNC protest, and her son who attends the '04 RNC protest. That's all I really had at the beginning. Then I started asking questions: Why did they both attend their respective protests? What happened to them there? What if something happened that the mother needed to keep secret? How would that affect her later in life? And so on. The writing I did during this time could probably best be described as exploratory. Almost none of it survived into the novel, but I don't think I could have come up with the plot any other way.

As events push Samuel to try and uncover the secrets of his mother's life it seems you are exploring the idea that we can't really ever know who our parents were before they were our parents. Is that an accurate assessment?

Knowing who our parents really are, like way deep down, presents a unique challenge because parents often feel obliged to hide that part of themselves they don't want their children to see—that more selfish, indecent, irresponsible, unseemly version of themselves that parents maybe tuck away after becoming parents. And kids often don't see their parents accurately, since they are so busy idolizing them, at first, then later resenting them, then later doing that whole push-pull ambivalent thing that's common between adult children and their moms and dads. So a lot of the time it's like two ships passing in the night, which by the way isn't radically different from most relationships. Think about how much people know you, the real deep down you, compared with how vast you feel inside. I think David Foster Wallace compared it to trying to see an entire universe through a tiny keyhole. That seems about right to me.

Faye is an amazing character. Deeply unsympathetic at first meeting and then full of surprises and complexities. Was she hard to write?

She was actually really fun to write—it's always a pleasure when you find a character who so obviously contains multitudes. Faye's basic problem is that she's haunted by choices she made in her past, obsessed with mistakes she made along the way. She essentially lives two lives: her real life, and the fantasy life in her mind. This is an extreme case of something that I think is actually pretty common: that just about everyone has two lives going on roughly simultaneously. We have the life that's actually happening to us each day, but then next to that we have all these other versions of our lives that exist in our imaginations, the lives we wish we had, or the lives we thought we'd have by now, or the lives we could have had, or the lives we someday want to have in the future, or the very different lives that we'll have just as soon as we accomplish certain important career things, or lose a certain number of pounds, or make a certain amount of money, or whatever. Each time our life forks there's the ghost of the choice not taken: What would have happened if I'd quit that job? or followed my passion instead of playing it safe? or had a family? or didn't have a family? studied this instead of that? dated this person instead of that person? and so on. Some people—the most sane and well-adjusted among us—are more or less satisfied with their choices and these questions don't linger very heavily upon them. Others, though, feel the weight of these unlived lives pressingly and urgently. Faye is one of these people, who's haunted by fantasies of what could have been.

One of your main characters, Bethany Fall is a classical musician (as is your wife, it's worth noting!). Can you talk about how music informs this novel?

One of the great things about being married to a musician is that I have access to this whole other vocabulary to describe sound. Like, for example, what it means if a note is "chipped," or if a note comes out "gronky," the difference between a "rigid" sound and a "splatty" one. My wife is under instructions to write down any clever thing said by the conductors she works with. The most recent quote was a conductor trying to explain the certain kind of loudness he wanted. He said: "It's forte, but not forte at the beginning of its career. More like forte after it retires and moves to Florida. It's forte relaxing." How amazing is that? In order to describe something as abstract as music in something as concrete as language, you're almost forced to work in metaphor, which makes it endlessly interesting to me.

Tell us a little about Pwnage? He's just such a fascinating guy!

To understand Pwnage you have to understand a basic psychological phenomenon about how we relate to our future selves: essentially, we believe that our future selves are very different and usually much better people than our present selves are right now. For example, my present self might go ahead and indulge with that donut this morning, and maybe skip working out today, and maybe won't floss tonight, but if someone asked me "Do you want to be a person in the future who eats donuts and doesn't work out and forgets to floss?" I would say absolutely not. We believe that our future selves have a kind of discipline and rigor we often don't feel capable of in the present. This is why we saddle our future selves with a gym membership we find it difficult to use, or why we load up our Netflix queue with deep and heavy Oscar winners but find ourselves, on a day-to-day basis, watching Iron Man again. (Interestingly, a 2008 UCLA study using neuroimaging found that we imagine our future selves in the same way we do celebrities. When our brains think about what we'll be like in the future, it's basically the same as when we imagine what it would be like to be Matt Damon.) So Pwnage's problems are a very amplified version of this phenomenon: he really wants to start a new diet and renovate his house and write a thriller and win back his ex-wife, but at any given moment, on any given day, what he actually finds himself doing is playing video games, meanwhile promising himself that someday soon he will totally do all those other things.

Samuel and Pwnage are both devotees of the gaming world. You really bring their elfscape adventure to glorious life! What made you decide to incorporate this into your novel?

I moved to New York City in the summer of 2004, to a temporary one-month sublet in Queens. I was renting a single room in a house that I shared with about a dozen construction workers recently immigrated from Lithuania and now totally committed to playing Call of Duty all day in their underwear whenever they weren't at work. At the end of the sublet, on the day I was supposed to move my stuff to a more permanent apartment, all my belongings were stolen, including the computer on which I'd saved everything I'd ever written. And I was, of course, crushed about this. After I replaced the computer, a good friend told me to buy this certain video game that he and I could play together (I think he just wanted to give me something to take my mind off the loss, and also he could keep tabs on me by chatting through the game). The game was called World of Warcraft, a very immersive and time-consuming MMORPG (which, if you don't know, stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game). It's not an easy game, and it takes a whole lot of time to master, but I really threw myself into it. And I was surprised how effective this was at helping me through a pretty tough time: My writing wasn't going very well and my career was sort of stagnant and I was way too poor to live in NYC, but at least I had this game, I had this one thing that I could master. Even after I left the city, I kept on playing, and became sort of a badass elite player, until I realized that my ostensible reason for playing the game—that I needed to take my mind off the real world—was now a reason I absolutely had to quit the game. Because I found that my mind, more often than not, was stuck in the virtual world instead of the real one. It took me a long while to reach a very basic epiphany: that I was devoting way more time to Warcraft than I was to writing, and in fact I was using Warcraft to avoid writing because I was deeply afraid of failing at writing and so it was easier, mentally, to spend my time with something I knew I couldn't fail at. Once I realized this, I quit the game. But I felt compelled to fold this experience into the novel, this paradoxical love/hate feeling I'd developed for the game, how the game was both emotionally analgesic and artistically crippling, both soothing and debilitating.

Pwnage has a philosophy based on video games as he puts it: "Any problem you face in a video game or in life is one of four things: An enemy, obstacle, puzzle, or trap. That's it . . . so you just have to figure out which kind of challenge you're dealing with." Oddly sage or totally depressing?

Probably both! I think it's very easy and very seductive to see people—especially people with whom we disagree—as enemies. We've become a very snap-judgment kind of culture. It's like we're walking around with this cosmic 'Like' button (or, more often, 'Dislike') and giving everything roughly fifteen seconds before we render a verdict. One of the basic arguments of the book is that people contain complexities that you will never know if you allow yourself to think in such a reflexive manner. It reminds me of the story of the blind men and the elephant, which I use as an epigraph for THE NIX. A group of blind men are each shown a part of an elephant, and then asked to describe what an elephant is like. Predictably, they each describe an elephant in terms of what their very small part of it feels like. Then, when they all disagree about what an elephant is like, they start arguing and fistfighting. They immediately assume the people who disagree with them are their enemies. Had they instead thought of the whole thing as a puzzle, they might have eventually understood the larger truth, and with far fewer bruises.

Young Samuel is a big fan of the 'Choose your Own Adventure Book' format and you actually nod to that format in a few chapters of The Nix. Did you read those books as a kid?

I read a lot of them, and not only the CYOA sort but also the role playing sort where you'd read with dice in hand and some scrap paper and the whole experience was somewhere in between a book and a board game. I'd wear out whole erasers doing that stuff . The first book I ever wrote was a Choose Your Own Adventure I composed in the second grade called The Castle of No Return. (It's described pretty faithfully in The Nix.) I wrote it for a class project. I remember writing a lot of endings in which the main character was killed in some violent gruesome way, and my mother made me alter these endings because she thought they were too morbid and, like, disturbing. I remember she made me change "You are dead" to "You are gone," which was not a revision I supported.

The Nix moves back and forth in time and diff erent historical events. What sort of research went into this novel?

Between 2006 and 2010, I read a lot of books about 1968 and the protests of the DNC, 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 diffi cult 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.

Some of the pivotal events of the novel revolves around the riots at the 1968 Convention in Chicago. What about that moment in time and that event captured your imagination?

When I was a kid, we lived for a time in the suburbs of Chicago. Chicago was the big city we went to for special occasions. So I think the place has always held a little magic for me. During the 2004 RNC protests in New York, all the pundits were wondering if what happened in '68 in Chicago would happen again. And I was like: "What happened in '68 in Chicago?" And the more I looked into it, the more amazing it seemed. You had all these cultural forces meeting in a few square blocks. Journalist Lance Morrow described it like this: "In front of the Hilton, on Michigan Avenue, two sides of America ground against each other like tectonic plates." You had the protestors, who just thought every cop and politician was a fascist. And you had the cops and politicians, who just thought every protestor was a stinking hippie. Everyone was reduced to their most unendearing stereotype. It was like the culture war's debutante ball, its coming out party. A lot of the faultlines revealed in Chicago in '68 are, obviously, with us still.

There is some wicked academic satire here. Student Laura Pottsdam is just genius. Where did she come from?

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 Laura comes out of this experience. And at first I was writing her simply as biting satire. But then, like most characters I spend a lot of time with, I began to feel sympathy for her, began to try to understand what compelled her to act the way she does. Now I think she's probably the smartest character in the book.

When Samuel reflects on his youthful ambitions to write the great American novel he says "You believe that becoming a writer is the life-equivalent of wearing the most creative and interesting Halloween costume at the party." What do you, about to have your first novel published, think of that assessment?

I think he's pretty misguided. Samuel's primary motivation for becoming a writer is that he thinks it will impress certain important people, that it will legitimate him socially. He sees writing as a tool that will help him get what he wants. The problem of course is that this is a formula for generating some pretty bad writing. I learned this earlier in my career. After I had finished grad school and began thinking of myself as a quote-unquote "writer" for the first time, I wrote for all sorts of terrible reasons: because I felt in competition with the other writers I went to school with, or because I needed to fatten up my CV to get access to jobs and grants, or because if I published in a certain tier of journal then maybe agents and editors would begin paying attention to me, or because I wanted to convince my parents I hadn't made a huge mistake, doing this whole writing thing. And during this time I did a lot of writing, and a lot of it was okay, but it lacked a fundamental warmth and truth, I think. It lacked heart and intimacy. Paradoxically, trying to impress people with my writing guaranteed that my writing was pretty unimpressive. When I began writing The Nix in earnest, I decided to drop out of the whole competitive querying-and-publishing thing. I just wrote, and I didn't tell anyone about it. For years, nobody had any idea what I was doing. Sometimes you just have to block those voices out; it's the only way you'll do anything that's idiosyncratically you.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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The Nix jacket
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All the books below are recommended as read-alikes for Nathan Hill but some maybe more relevant to you than others depending on which books by the author you have read and enjoyed. So look for the suggested read-alikes by title linked on the right.
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  • Marilynne Robinson

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    Marilynne Robinson is the recipient of a 2012 National Humanities Medal, awarded by President Barack Obama, for "her grace and intelligence in writing." She is the author of Gilead, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for ... (more)

    If you enjoyed:
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