The Nix, Nathan Hill’s 2016 debut novel that’s been published in thirty languages and was a New York Times bestseller, is about many things, which is what one expects from a six-hundred-page tome.
The story revolves around three generations of a family in different locations and in different metal states. The novel opens with a two-page prologue about Samuel, the main character, and his relationship to his mother, Fey, who, in 1988, has just left with a single suitcase.
At the heart of this novel is Samuel’s attempt to find a place for himself in this world and make sense of why his mother left, through many different avenues, threading the needle and then having the thread ripped out just as abruptly. Hill explores the age-old question: Why did this thing that I love suddenly disappear, and what goes in that space in your heart that is now missing?
Recently, I spoke with Hill, then on tour for the paperback, over email about the highlights of the hardback tour, his writing space, and getting feedback from his wife.
The Rumpus: Your early work has been lost, like Hemingway’s suitcase. In previous interviews, you’ve said that those stories were written “to impress,” and thus came off as “unimpressive.” How do you regard that experience, of losing those stories and only being left with the impressions of them? You went down a WoW-hole, but as the years have gone by, how has this initial experience shaped your thinking about writing?
Nathan Hill: I moved to New York City after I finished grad school in 2004, and one month after moving there my computer was stolen, and with it most of the writing I had ever done. Eventually I bought a new computer and started a novel, but I know that one of the big mistakes I was making at the time was thinking more about publishing than about writing. I had just come out of my MFA program and moved to the city where I met 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 agents and so on. The pressure we felt to do well was crippling. I remember one friend saying something like: “We have two years to become successful or else we’re just another washed-up MFAer.”
So 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 that 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.
Then two years came and went, and I felt like a washed-up MFAer, and I remember thinking I was this giant failure and imagining my family and friends—all these people I’d told that I was going to be a writer—all rolling their collective eyes and thinking: yeah right. It was an anxiety I felt pressingly, and so eventually I channeled it into the novel. And it turned out, that was the spark the novel needed; I began writing well once I thought I was a failure at writing. There’s probably something sort of Zen in that: the only way to satisfy your desire for a thing is to stop desiring it.
Rumpus: After your reading in Lawrence, you told me that one thing that helped you get through writing The Nix was the idea that a story is not written with “and then” connecting events, but rather with “because” inserted between scenes. Reading your novel, I couldn’t help but be constantly reminded of this. Aside from the concise sentences, there was clearly a lot of attention to the plotting of the novel. Coming from a background of writing short stories and, as you told Slate, the initial short story “blew up” on you, which is fortunate for all of us. This, along with the fact that the novel was made up of “three years of writing, six years of research and floundering,” was an idea that needed to be corralled. How were you able to corral those thousand or so pages into the six-hundred-twenty we hold in our hands currently? And how did you come to hone those organizing principles of your novel?
Hill: I can’t claim that particular bit of wisdom. That’s something the South Park guys taught me, that a plot should avoid having a series of events linked by the words “and then.” Rather, the events should be linked by the word “therefore” or the word “but.” It’s another way of getting at what E.M. Forster said in Aspects of the Novel, that the difference between a story and a plot is causality.
This idea actually fits pretty snugly into my own writing process: I don’t usually plan out my story ahead of time, but instead figure it out along the way. After every sentence, and after every scene, I ask myself what would come next—logically, emotionally, thematically—and the story tends to grow in an organic way out of those hundreds of tiny decisions. Sometimes this leads me to unexpected and delightful places, and sometimes to dead-ends, which is why cutting hundreds of pages from the first draft was a whole lot easier than it maybe sounds. I had several subplots that ultimately went nowhere, and characters who turned out to be unnecessary. It’s a sloppy and probably inefficient way to write, but it keeps me feeling continually surprised along the way, and I figure if I’m feeling surprised, then maybe the reader will, too.
Rumpus: A question that is familiar in spirit, but regarding a physical space—I was reading about how the literary interview started (in the 1880s), about how Henry James didn’t see the point in it and neither did the person interviewing him, and how even a few decades before that people wanted to know how famous writers lived. A sort of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous before television existed. Workstations aren’t static environments; they are places for creation and getting things done. Without divulging any deeply seeded neurosis, could you briefly describe your work environments?
Hill: Primarily, my workspace has to be quiet and private. I’ve seen people writing in coffee shops, and I just don’t know how they do it. For me, if there’s someone else in the room, even if they’re being quiet, it’s as if they’re playing kettle drums. I need to be alone. But beyond that, I guess I don’t have too much of a requirement. I wrote The Nix in like nine different places: a tiny studio apartment in New York City; a barely furnished summer sublet in downtown Chicago; a spare bedroom in Florida that got way too hot in the late-afternoon; a beautiful home office in St. Paul belonging to a colleague who was on sabbatical and out of the country. In each place, I’ve discovered that developing the habit of writing is way more important than getting the physical space just so. And often, trying to achieve the perfectly ideal writing set-up is, I’ve found, just a delaying tactic, just another way to procrastinate.
Rumpus: I was wondering about your thoughts on the so-called Great American Novel. I won’t ask you to self-assess your own entrant into the discussion, but could you shed some light on the philosopher’s stone of American literature?
Hill: I’m pretty sure I’m more interested in your paper than my own thoughts on this question. I think that the whole concept of the G.A.N. is tied up in stuff that folks in English departments would call “problematic,” and I’m tempted to agree with Marlon James, who said there’s no such thing because no novel could capture the totality and diversity of American experience. And yet, there is such a thing, if only because people keep talking about it. The original definition, that the G.A.N. is a “picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence,” is either too broad and therefore virtually useless, or too narrow because of the assumptions built into what is “ordinary” and “American.”
I know that I’m a big fan of the novels usually lumped into this category: The Great Gatsby, Underworld, The Corrections. And when people have used the term to describe The Nix, I’ve felt inordinately grateful. But I remember the advice given to me by John Edgar Wideman when I was a student: don’t waste too much effort thinking about categories and classifications. Write what you want to write, he said, and let other people deal with taxonomies.
Rumpus: On your book tour, what were some of your favorite cities? Interesting libraries you read at? Did you try any interesting food that you would not have otherwise?
Hill: I read at the Mercantile Library in Cincinnati, a beautiful hundred-year-old building of wrought iron and old books that was described to me as “steampunk,” which is totally accurate. Before my reading in Melbourne, Australia, I took such a long and gratifying and interesting walk that I felt like a Teju Cole character. I read at Watermark Books in Wichita, Kansas, which is where I went to high school. That reading was cool because my high school English teacher was in the audience and so I got to thank her publicly for knowing I ought to be a writer before I knew it myself. I read at Prairie Lights in Iowa City, which was thrilling because as an undergrad at Iowa I saw so many readings there. (Fun fact: the first reading I ever attended was at Prairie Lights, when Colson Whitehead came for his first book, The Intuitionist.) In Perth, Australia, I got to be on a panel with Jane Smiley. At the L.A. Times Book Festival I won an award and gave my first acceptance speech for anything, ever. But the highlight of the tour was doing an event with John Irving in Toronto. He was one of my first literary heroes, and so getting to know him now (and being able to turn to him for advice) is pretty amazing.
Rumpus: You initially kept the writing of this novel a secret, divorcing yourself from the idea of trying to impress others. Having already done extensive work with the novel before handing it off to the publisher, what was the writer-editor relationship like? And whom were you allowing to read what you had written?
Hill: I had been getting so much feedback on my work for so many years—like, feedback from teachers in college, feedback from classmates in grad school, feedback from my small writing group of writing friends—but I think there’s a point at which you have to shut out the voices, however well-meaning and smart and constructive they are, and just do something that’s idiosyncratically you. So for the time that I was working on the first draft of the book, I didn’t show anybody except for my wife. She read it out of order, just a few pages at a time, as I wrote them. And when the writing was going well, she would say: “That was really great!” And when it was going poorly, she’d say: “That was really nice.” Which was helpful.
The first time I talked to Tim O’Connell, my editor at Knopf, he called me after having read the manuscript in a day, and he was full of enthusiasm and humor and excitement. I couldn’t believe, in that first phone call, how well he understood the architecture of the story, why all of these really different subjects and places and time periods and weird characters needed to be in the same book. I knew that the manuscript needed a little help (there were some motivation problems, some sagging in the middle, things I didn’t know how to correct), and I told him in our first conversation that I thought the manuscript was “as good as I can make it without an editor.” After that, the writer-editor relationship was great: really collaborative, really helpful, enjoyable, fun. Tim helped me tighten up the story, and the book is a much better book because of his influence.
Rumpus: At dinner parties, are there questions that you hate being asked, questions that will cause you to storm out of the room in a fit of rage?
Hill: After being roundly ignored and rejected for like fifteen years, I’m grateful whenever anyone is at all interested in something I’ve done. So no, I don’t rage-quit dinner parties.
But neither is there a topic that has me talking for hours on end, because as Midwesterner of Scandinavian stock, I am pretty much allergic to calling too much attention to myself. For example, I already think I’ve gone on too long in this interview, and I’m feeling a little self-conscious that if I go on longer people will think I’m this puffed-up narcissist, which is why I’m going to stop, right now.
Author photograph © Michael Lionstar.