Sitting down with the next Charles Dickens: Nathan Hill

Wednesday, September 14, 2016 - 5:42pm

Nathan Hill was in Ann Arbor this Tuesday, reading from his debut novel, “The Nix,” at a beloved spot of every book enthusiast — Literati. In case you haven’t heard that name or title, Hill’s “The Nix” became available in books stores across the world in late August and received a warm welcome in the literary community. Actually, “warm welcome” may well be an understatement. Before it was even published, “The Nix” had been compared to works by several groundbreaking novelists, including but not limited to, John Irving and Charles Dickens. And, just to reiterate: “The Nix” is Hill’s first novel.

“The Nix” is 600 pages filled with what Hill refers to as a magical bag Hermione Granger could pull anything out of. It’s a story of many characters and several plots, but centers around a videogame-addicted English professor (Samuel) and an estranged relationship with his mother, Faye.  The novel covers the Chicago riots of 1968, a mother trapped in a suburban lifestyle in the 1980s, as well as the lives of the modern college student and professor.

Hill’s warmer-than-warm welcome transcended the reviews he’s received for “The Nix” at Literati. Those who were fortunate enough to attend his reading couldn’t get enough of both Hill and his book. Before he began reading from “The Nix,” Hill quoted an e-mail from a fan that he described as a reason being a writer is so rewarding, which included the lines “I am old. I have read many books. Yours is among my favorites. Please do not take 10 years to write the next one. I am 82.”

The Daily had the chance to sit down and talk to Hill about the novel, his sudden rise to fame, and what we can expect next.

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TMD: “The Nix” took you about 12 years to write, which is about a quarter of your life. In a previous interview, you said you poured all of your good ideas into this book, your first book. Why write one book? Was it difficult to make all of those ideas cohesive?

NH: Yeah, it was. To the first point, about why writing one book, I guess I put all of these ideas into the book and chopped stuff out where they didn’t belong. The first draft was 1,002 pages long, and the final draft is 620, so a lot of stuff got cut out. Maybe that stuff might find another appearance in a book somewhere down the line. But really I was just trying to find something out in the world that would be confusing, or interesting, or would make me mad, or I wouldn’t know how I felt about it, and I would think, “Could I use that in ‘The Nix’?” It became sort of like the filter that you see the world through. Anytime I had a really good idea, I felt like I could use it, and I didn’t censor myself. I just put it in there. For better or worse. It took a long time to write the book because of it. But at the same time I feel really happy, because I feel like it’s just packed with things that hopefully make people think.

Of course. And I’ve seen some fan tweets to you, one that said there is a true sentence on every page of “The Nix.” I’m sure that felt good to hear.

That was a cool one. I don’t know, it was mostly like I was trying to write a book that I would really like to read. And those are the kinds of books I like to read; the ones that have interesting characters and are also full of ideas.

That kind of brings me to my next question. Presumably you read a couple of books while you were writing “The Nix.” Which ones would you say were most influential to writing it?

In terms of content, the books I list in my acknowledgments page. I did a lot of research, especially about the 1968 section, because of course I did not live through that, so those books were really important to me. Especially Norman Mailer’s book, “Miami and the Siege of Chicago.” It was interesting, because most books about Chicago in 1968 are histories told by history professors. They’re really useful and helpful, but to see Normal Mailer do it, I mean he’s a literary writer, and to see someone approach it from that direction with the purpose of telling a story, rather than the purpose of telling a history, was really helpful to me. I read those books until I felt like I knew enough about the period to write about it myself.

I assume it takes a lot of confidence in your knowledge base to feel comfortable writing about something you didn’t experience first hand.

So, my wife is a classical musician. And classical musicians have this phrase where they rehearse something until they have it “under their fingers.” You know, which is kind of like, in the body. You work and work on a certain run until you just kind of have it, and don’t have to think about it too much. For me, I did research until I had it under my fingers, until I could write about the time period without having to consult all the time. I just felt like I could do it.

How did you tap into womanhood in an era you didn’t live through?

Again, a lot of research helped me out. There was a book called “Young, White, and Miserable” that I liked a lot, about young women in the ’50s. That gave me a lot of good ideas. And, (“The Nix”) is Samuel’s retelling of the whole thing. It was almost like I was writing Faye through Samuel’s eyes. Kind of like what he would think. And he’s, of course, looking at it through a great distance in the future. Really it was just looking around, too. I found websites that had old advertisements for woman’s beauty products, and they were just so transparently sexist. And you’re like, “I cannot believe this was normal.” So to have Faye working against that, and Samuel writing it with our eyes today felt like a really nice tension.

Right. And I’ve heard you say you have felt connected to the character Samuel, because you played a lot of “World of Warcraft” in a period of time where you felt in limbo as a writer. What was that like for you?

That was a time when I just finished grad school and moved to New York. My first month there, all of my (writing I had done in grad school) was stolen. I was really sad about that, like really, really sad, and a buddy of mine suggested that we play this videogame together. He just wanted to keep an eye on me I think. You know, you can chat through the game. And I guess it was just a couple years where I was trying to write what eventually became this book but in a very different form, and it wasn’t going very well. And I wasn’t making any money in New York. I was there working at a poetry nonprofit, so you can imagine how much the salary was.

So I was just barely treading water in New York, and the writing wasn’t going very well, and I was getting rejected all over the place. But, I was playing this game, and I could be really good at this game, right? So I felt like in the rest of my life I was failing, but I was not failing at this game. So it made me play it a lot, for a little while, until I finally realized I was spending way too much time doing it. I gave it up cold turkey one day and really launched myself into the book. That feeling of the videogame replacing, I don’t want to say replacing real life, but the videogame becomes a place where you find meaning where you lack meaning elsewhere. That idea stuck with me, and it’s in both of the characters Samuel and Pwnage.

Well, this is your first novel. Before it came out, you were compared to John Irving and he compared you to Charles Dickens. Countries bid on publication rights, which is rare for a first book. How are you taking all of this positive reception and recognition?

A lot of people have asked me that question, and I still don’t know how to answer because it still feels so strange, you know? For the time that I was writing the book — for the years and years it took — the only person who knew anything about what I was doing was my wife. I would read her pages. At first she requested me to read pages; I was always very shy about my first drafts. But, eventually, I read her a few pages and she said she really liked them and wanted to hear a couple more, and that just became our routine. For 10 years you’re working on a book, and one person in the world knows about it, so there’s this fear that you’ll send it out into the world and it’s not going to make any sense to anybody. That’s not happening. That people are saying nice things about it is really gratifying. And kind of a big relief, too. The 10 years would’ve been well-spent no matter what, but I’m glad that the 10 years is meaningful to other people, too.

You clearly view writing as something internally beneficial as opposed to just rewarding because of external praise.

You can’t work on something for this long and have all of your hopes pinned on it being published. It will just drive you crazy and you won’t do very good work. What I discovered, sometime around the time that I quit “Warcraft” and really started getting into a routine with the writing, is that there needs to be something (in) the writing itself that is intrinsically valuable to you. And for me, writing became the place where I would go to try to figure out my emotions and things I was confused about. The way I’ve been comparing it to lately is to someone who keeps a garden. Nobody thinks their garden is a failure if a bunch of other people don’t see it. Nobody keeps a garden to get famous. It felt like that. Part of the prerequisite for writing all the scenes I wrote in the book was that I had to find joy in it. I had to enjoy it, I had to like it. There needed to be something about writing that scene that was pleasurable to me, or interesting to me in some way. That’s how it became worth it intrinsically. Beyond any of the praise, it was a good project to undergo in a cheesy personal growth kind of way.

I’ve read that you have considered yourself a writer since second grade, when you were writing “Choose your own adventure” novels yourself. But is there a book that really convinced you to become a writer?

I’ll tell you two books that are radically different from each other that made me feel like “I want to do that.” The first one is called “Sixty Stories.” It’s a collection of short stories by Donald Barthelme. He’s an absurdist, avant-garde writer. He’s just hilarious. And goofy. He’s a weird combination of high-intellect and high-absurdity crashing into each other. And you’ll finish a story and be like “What in the world was that?!” I found him in college, and at the time I had become an English major and was reading a lot of really ponderous prose in some of my other classes, and I found him and just found him delightful. That sense of humor, I just love. The second one is Virginia Woolf, “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse.” I didn’t read her until grad school. Oh my god. I love the way she dives into her characters’ brains. The tone of the novel is the voice of the character from the inside. I love that so much. You know how you have certain bands that you listen to that hit you in the right time of your life? Those two for me were the bands that hit me at the right time.

Can we expect another magic bag of ideas and stories from you in another 10 years?

Yeah, I don’t know if it’s going to be … No, it totally will be that. I’ve started working on another thing, and I’m only about 50 pages into some exploratory material. But, the things I’m stuffing into the bag right now are marriage, authenticity, gentrification and the ’90s. That’s in the stew right now. We’ll see, we’ll see.