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Interview: The Nix Author Nathan Hill on Writing, Students and the US

Olivia Snaije By Olivia Snaije Published on June 27, 2017
This article was updated on July 3, 2017
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photo Michael Lionstar

Nathan Hill had been quietly chipping away at his debut novel, The Nix, for nine years before it was published in 2016 to great acclaim. It was called a Great American Novel, and has been compared to John Irving’s writing—while John Irving compared Hill’s writing to Dickens’. At 600-plus pages, The Nix could also fit into the category journalist Boris Kachka coined a few years ago, the Very Long Novel.

Hill has been interviewed at length about his journey as a writer, from his move to New York (where his computer was stolen with all his work in it), to having specific ideas about what kind of author he would be, then moving out of New York and becoming a university professor for years while working on his novel the way one might tend a secret garden. The result is an examination of the socio-political climate in the US during the 20th and early 21st century, focusing on a mother-son (Faye-Samuel) relationship and abandonment. The present (2011) flashes back and forth to two war protests—1968 in Chicago during the Vietnam War, and 2004 in New York during the US invasion of Iraq—with a bit of Occupy Wall Street in between. Hill, moreover, brilliantly tracks and describes the evolution of social phenomena, from gaming, to social media, to the media circus.

When he began writing his book in 2004, Hill has said he was “insane with anger” that Bush and Cheney had been elected for a second term. Their victory made him “reevaluate” himself. In a conversation with John Irving that could have easily applied to the post-Donald Trump election period, Hill said: “I was living in, we didn’t have a name for it at the time, a kind of social media bubble. Everybody I knew agreed, we all agreed with each other. We were just echo chambers for each other. And I hope what I tried to do both in my life and with this novel was try to get out of that echo chamber and try to see a larger diversity of opinion, especially those opinions I tend to disagree with…what I tried to do in the book is to examine what it felt like to bump up against politics…in a kind of human emotional way, to bump up against historical moments.”

Hill, whose novel will be translated into at least 30 languages, was recently in Paris where The Nix will launch in French this August. He kindly answered a few questions for Bookwitty:

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There are several predominant themes in your book, among which online role-playing gaming, social media, the media, and, of course, politics — all of which have evolved tremendously and at breakneck speed since you began your novel. Did you write and re-write? How did you manage this?

For the gaming I invented my own technology; World of Elfscape is based on World of Warcraft. The media landscape I wrote about in 2004, well, there are things that are the same ten years later. TV news doesn’t seem in danger of becoming quieter any time soon. When Faye throws rocks [at a right-wing presidential candidate] I’m pretty safe about that being current. It really seemed to illustrate the media culture that we find ourselves in. For social media it’s a combination of Facebook and Twitter, I didn’t want to use a specific technology so I invented my own as well: iFeel. We often forget that what we display on social media is not ourselves; people rewrite their lives so that it’s more accessible, more displayable. I wanted to literalize something with iFeel. It only allows you to display yourself in certain ways. There’s an invisible etiquette, you find people bowing to community rules because there are only 50 emotions allowed on iFeel. It boxes you in and I wanted to make that phenomenon more present.

There seem to be a lot of angry people in your novel, and people want to find someone to blame. The story begins with an act of rage, when Faye throws rocks at a politician. She is also angry about consumerism. Samuel’s student, Laura Pottsdam is angry and blames him for her the fact that she’s failing his class. Does this echo the current climate in the US?

There’s a sense of grievance [in the US] and I’m not sure why. I don’t know if it comes from politics or if politics are a result of it. There’s a fascinating study that was done in the 1960s—people were asked if they would be disturbed if their child married someone from the opposite party and across the political parties only 5% said they would be. Today 33% of Democrats and 40 % of Republicans would feel disturbed. Partisan politics are now a kind of demarcation line and we care about it much more deeply than in the recent past. Republicans feel Democrats are bad for the country, and Democrats feel like Republicans are bad for the country, and this polarization is ruinous for America. That’s no place to build a feeling of togetherness. It’s a challenging time in the US right now.

You’ve lived in three very different places in the US: you’re from Iowa, you’ve lived in New York and now you live in Florida. How much is your book a reflection of American society today, and where do you see the US going?

I don’t know, I wouldn’t have predicted this eight years ago. I thought Occupy [Wall Street] would have more of an effect than it did. Fortunately I’m not a political scientist, I’m responding to the situation and writing what it feels like to live in the US, what I feel like in my belly. Despite what we’ve been talking about, I find there’s a kindness and goodness in every place I’ve lived. It’s very tribal behavior; it’s nothing new. People within their own communities are kind to each other but the problem is that the bonds between different communities are stretching thinner and thinner. In the last ten years we haven’t been very good at taking care of our own. We could do better but we’re not quite sure why we can’t do better.

Laura Pottsdam is a very strong character. How did you get inside her head? How much did your own students inspire you?

I taught university for nine or ten years. I taught composition—first-year writing classes. I would get students from all sorts of disciplines. I would have to try to teach this class all about writing, literature, and poetry to these students who were just not having it. What surprised me was how many students were plagiarizing and cheating on tests. It’s an epidemic. I couldn’t figure out why they were doing this until I asked them. They had different expectations about college than I did. They grew up in a recession; their parents told them “jobs are scarce, just get that degree”. The learning is secondary to the paper that will give you an entrance to the middle class. We were two ships passing in the night—I’m for a well-rounded education—until I understood where they were coming from. Laura is one of my favorite characters. She’s a combination of my 15 most challenging students. When I first began writing I was frustrated with my own students. I didn’t like her [Laura] so I had to ask myself certain questions: How can she think she’s the good guy, how does she think she’s the David to the world’s Goliath. I felt very worried about the future of the country when students couldn’t read a paper without stopping and texting in the middle of it. But actually, I discovered, they’re fair-minded, wonderful, generous people.

What about the theme of abandonment, is this something you’re particularly interested in?

It came as a natural part of the process. I wanted to write about 1968 and 2004 and the political process that informed other decisions. Protest is a result of disconnection and discord, people not being able to communicate. You make other choices that amplify the theme. A protest comes at the end of dialogue. Samuel and his mother are a variation on the theme. I also drew on loneliness that I felt when I was growing up: because of my dad’s job we would move to a new city every two years.

You were a journalist, a profession in which you constantly have to streamline. Now you have this great big book. Can you talk about your relationship to editing, cutting; the process for a novel versus the process in journalism?

I worked for daily newspapers for three years. Journalism was a bad fit for me because I’d always write way too long. I’d go to cover a house fire and I would know the story was so much bigger and I’d only have a 9-inch column. My impulse was to expand, expand, expand! I went into creative writing after that. What journalism did for me, though, was to teach me to write when I was tired, or uninspired, because I had a deadline. I wrote over 1000 news stories in a couple of years. I’m not a writer who waits for inspiration; it’s just something I do every day. The first draft of my book was 1002 pages long. I took so long to write the book and because I don’t plot the novel beforehand I don’t know where I’m going. I have lots of surprises along the way. 200 pages could be cut right away; it was a wrong turn that I didn’t see. Then I cut back 200 more pages here and there.

Your attention to detail is amazing; it’s like a camera zooming in. Have you always been observant like that?

Reading novels taught me to have that kind of eye. My training to be a writer taught me. I would carry notebooks around and would write down any observations. Literature taught me to pay more attention. I was listening to an interview with David Foster Wallace on the occasion of a collection of his essays. He said writing was like a service industry. People are too busy to spend quality time observing. Writers can be reasonably bright or reasonably average people but can observe for them. I loved that description.

You traveled to Germany, the Netherlands and now you’ve been in France for a week. Are people’s remarks and questions about your book different from what you get in the US?

There are lots of questions about Trump, people ask me about our political situation, but otherwise the questions are pretty similar, about video games or college students. We’re living in a period where there’s a reactionary political movement all over the world. It’s a discussion that feels important because it’s a global phenomenon.

I listened to an interview in which you said the success of your book was surreal and that you’d know better in a year how you felt. It’s been almost a year now…

There are parts of it that I really like. Other editors and writers have been sending me their galleys to see if I’ll blurb them. I love being able to help out. The people who blurbed my book, well, it was 600 pages and I thought they should be nominated for sainthood. One author reached out to me and I could offer advice. I spent two decades being completely obscure so it will take quite a bit longer to feel that this is not going to go away in two seconds. I’ve gotten more comfortable but not in such a way that I feel that I can take it for granted.

The obligatory question—which authors have inspired you? And what new writers would you recommend?

Like certain songs that hit you at the right time at the right moment: John Irving with The World According to Garp. I encountered him in college in Iowa. I had been studying science for a while and there was a moment when I decided to go ahead and study literature. I was reading novels I found ponderous and then I discovered Donald Barthelme. He was an avant-garde author who wrote absurdist post-modern fiction. I loved how smart and funny he was, the playfulness. In graduate school I encountered Virginia Woolf, way too late, I loved how she really got inside her characters. Reading them is the closest you can actually get to being another person.

For books right now, many of them are about to come out or are debut authors: There’s Live from Cairo by Ian Bassingthwaigthe, A Piece of the World, by Christina Baker Kline, Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, Sweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler, and The Mothers, by Brit Bennett. 

Olivia is a Paris-based journalist and editor.