Jennifer Malec sat down with Nathan Hill in Cape Town during the Open Book Festival recently to talk about his debut novel, The Nix.
The Nix won the Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction from the Los Angeles Times and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Leonard Award for Best Debut of the Year. Hill has been compared to John Irving, who in turn compared him to Charles Dickens. The Nix is being adapted for television by JJ Abrams’s Bad Robot production company, in a series that will star Meryl Streep.
Jennifer Malec for the JRB: As a young writer you had all your worldly possessions stolen, including most of your writing. Similarly, a friend of mine had his laptop stolen about a year and a half into his creative writing master’s. When I saw him a few months later he said it was the best thing that could have happened to him; he was so miserable afterwards that he just started writing what he wanted to write, and he realised that what he’d been writing before wasn’t really ‘him’ at all. I was wondering if you had a similar experience?
Nathan Hill: I did, though I wasn’t nearly as mature as your friend.
The JRB: Did it give you more freedom, do you think, having to start from scratch?
Nathan Hill: It did, it did. And it certainly gave me my subject, I don’t think I would have written about protests unless that happened. I was searching for a subject to write about, because I was not going to write about what I had been writing about, it was just too tied to all that sadness I was feeling, so I needed something brand new. So I started writing about the protests in 2004 in New York, because I witnessed them. But it took me a little while longer, I think, to come to the conclusion that your friend came to. Mostly because I had just moved to New York and I was determined to be a successful author in New York. I had visions of getting into the right journals and meeting editors and going to the Paris Review parties and things like that. And that was hilariously misguided, because none of that stuff ever happened and what I was writing was still for other people, it was still what I thought the New Yorker wanted to hear, what literary agents wanted to hear, and it wasn’t me at all. It took me another couple of years. It wasn’t until after I left New York and moved to Florida and started teaching that I started writing a book that was much more me, idiosyncratic and weird. That’s when it all opened up. Around the time that I thought, well, I failed at this writing thing, I’ll teach. And I like teaching, that was fine with me. But that’s what freed me to write the kind of book I really actually wanted to write.
The JRB: You said somewhere that writing such a long book was your way of combating the problem of the social media attention span, an attempt to train people how to focus again. A lot of people have commented on the book’s ‘readability’—did you focus on that aspect of the book intentionally?
Nathan Hill: I don’t know if it’s really intentional. I know when I was a writing student I had some teachers who were very heavy stylists, very lyrical, very dense, very difficult to read, and it took me a while to realise that just wasn’t me. I would try to do that and it wouldn’t quite work. And there was a part of me that really wanted, I don’t know, my family to be able to read the book and enjoy it. And I don’t come from a family of literary critics, by any means, so I guess I wanted the style of the book to be readable but at the same time not simple, not easy. That took a lot of doing, and a lot of revision, because when I first started writing the book I was still in a lyrical mode and then as I worked on the book for ten years the style became, how would you say it, plainer? More readable, more accessible.
The JRB: How did you physically do that? Cutting out sentences?
Nathan Hill: Rewriting them, yeah. Here’s the funny thing, the material that inspired the book is what I started writing in 2004, about the protests in New York, and then I put that on hold because I realised I had a bigger story and I needed to go back and figure it out. Then I wrote the rest of the book, and seven years later came back to that original material and realised it was all wrong. The tone was off, the voice was off. In those seven years I’d figured out how to write the book. So even though that material inspired the whole thing I had to throw it all away and start over and rewrite it completely. Which was interesting, it was kind of educational, to see evidence of how one’s style has changed over the course of a book. It was cool.
The JRB: You mentioned that while you were writing the novel certain scenes were too difficult to write, and so you would leave them aside for a couple of years until you felt you had improved enough as a writer to tackle them. Could you give us some examples of what scenes you found most challenging to write?
Nathan Hill: The first meeting between Samuel and Fay, in Fay’s apartment—the first time they’ve seen each other in twenty years? That scene took a long time, and I wrote it once but it was all wrong, but I didn’t know how to fix it. So I left if for a long time and eventually figured it out. You know what helped was just putting that lawyer in the room, it really helped. At first it was just this really cold meeting between Samuel and Fay and I needed the payoff.
The JRB: You needed the foil.
Nathan Hill: Yeah, right. Then Bishop’s scene in Iraq was a very, very tricky one. I needed to do a lot of research to get that right, I wanted to get that right, you know?
The JRB: So the former was getting the emotional tone right, the latter was getting the research behind you?
Nathan Hill: That was research. But also, that’s when the specific relationship he had with the headmaster is revealed, which I was just dreading writing about. So almost for my own emotional sanity I was putting it off.
The JRB: Something that ties into ‘readability’ is that The Nix reminded me a little bit of something like Cloud Atlas; you’ll start a new chapter with a new character, but the previous chapter is so gripping that for a couple of sentences, as a reader, you’re disappointed. Did you anticipate this feeling at all, and work on making the opening paragraphs of new chapters particularly attention grabbing, to placate future readers?
Nathan Hill: I like that, I haven’t heard that comparison before. I like the nesting dolls aspect of Cloud Atlas, that’s great. It was definitely something I was thinking about, for example, the crime that Fay commits in chapter one of the book needed to be strange enough that you would remember it for two hundred pages, because I don’t get back to it for a long time. And I recognise that often readers want to stay with one character for a long time, so I wanted to have what were almost like cliffhangers at the ends of sections that would seduce them enough, and then hopefully the beginning of the next section is also seductive enough that you’re okay with it. So I was thinking about the reader experience quite a lot. One of the reasons why the book shifts so much in terms of tone and even structure—it’s in second person sometimes, past tense sometimes, present tense sometimes—is that I recognised that I was asking a reader to read a very, very long book, and I wanted that experience to be interesting for them, I wanted it to be jagged, I wanted it to change, I wanted there to be a lot of variety, so it felt like you were reading many different things at once.
The JRB: It switches tenses and tone, but as a reader, even as a careful reader, you don’t really notice when that happens; it’s quite seamless.
Nathan Hill: It’s funny, when you’re a writing student all your teachers are like, ‘stay in the same verb tense’, it’s this rule. And I realised when I was giving some pages to my wife to read that she wouldn’t notice either. So I got to thinking, I’ve never heard readers online complaining about switches in verb tenses—nobody cares, you know?
The JRB: There’s a danger that it could become messy though.
Nathan Hill: I would stay in the same tense for an entire section, and then the next section might change. So I would be consistent within a section, but then I felt free to do whatever. Some sections have a nostalgic, looking-back-at-the-past kind of feeling to them, so they would be in past tense. But other sections I wanted a very visceral, very immediate feel to them, like during the riots, so those would be in present tense. So whatever feeling I wanted to capture for that section I just went ahead and used all the tricks I could.
The JRB: In a similar vein—and, although I’m sure you’re probably sick of hearing comparisons, Jonathan Franzen is the master of this—your book makes the reader switch between liking and disliking characters multiple times. How did you manage that, how did you make sure you didn’t go too far either way?
Nathan Hill: I think Fay was a limit test on that. You first find out about Fay that she abandoned Samuel when he was very, very young and he grew up without a mother, and she’s on the news throwing rocks at this guy; my hope was that people would dislike her at first. And she’s quite cold the first time Samuel meets her again as an adult. And then the work of the second half of the book is unravelling that. I love how Franzen does that too, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking about him when I was writing, I was more thinking about that phenomenon that happens online, for example, when you see a headline on Facebook or Twitter, some link, and we have a tendency to give that thing ten seconds of our attention before rendering a verdict. It’s that kind of snap judgement. I know when I was a journalist—I used to be a newspaper journalist—I would research a story and I would know everything there was about this story, and then I would hear people talking about it out in the world, my story, and they would know the headline, and they would have rendered some kind of very flimsy judgement about that headline that I knew lacked all subtlety and depth. When news shifted to online I started seeing that more and more and more, and that’s really what I’m reacting too, our tendency to not give people the benefit of the doubt, not give people very much of our attention before we judge them.
The JRB: So it’s another reaction against social media. A very human, very long book.
Nathan Hill: Right, right [laughs]. People have asked me, ‘People’s attention spans are going down, everybody’s used to scanning things and browsing things online, why are you writing a big book?’ And I feel like the answer to that isn’t necessarily to write shorter books, maybe the answer to that is to write longer books. Books can be our practice at deep focus and sustaining attention.
The JRB: The vignette in the book where the television news presenter is operating a big television on television is hilariously absurd, and reminded me of David Foster Wallace’s famous essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and US Fiction’, which is basically a long diatribe about the seductive powers of television and the hegemony of self-conscious irony, and the effect of that on the United States psyche. And obviously the idea that came out of that essay was the ‘New Sincerity’, a return to tenderness and earnestness. The ending of your novel, where you briefly wrap up all the characters’ stories in turn as if to reassure us, seemed like a nod to this idea.
Nathan Hill: Not exactly in those terms, though I’m a big fan of Wallace and I like that essay a lot. I know that I didn’t want an ending that was as cynical and full of satire as the beginning. Because if we did that then where have we travelled? I had this impulse when I was writing the ending that I really wanted to wear my heart on my sleeve in those few pages. I figured that the reader would forgive me my sentimentality, because they’ve gone on a long journey with me, and indeed it was a long journey for myself. A lot of the stuff that I write about in that ending was just stuff I’d figured about my life along the way. I wanted to be transparent about that. So I wasn’t thinking about the ‘New Sincerity’ in those terms, but certainly the impulse is probably the same. When people talk about sentimentality sometimes they think that means any kind of real emotion; I tend to think of it as when you ask the reader to feel an emotion that you haven’t generated in them. So you ask for sadness but you haven’t really written a scene that makes the reader sad. I was hoping that by the ending the reader would actually feel enough for these characters that it wouldn’t feel sentimental, that the feeling of hope but also trepidation and fear that they all had finally putting their lives back together would feel real, so that the emotion at the end, that big emotion, wouldn’t feel off, it would feel earned. That was my hope anyway.
The JRB: So you’re kind of rewarding your readers for staying with you.
Nathan Hill: Exactly. I wanted to finish up everybody’s story. I wanted to give people endings because I know that readers hate it when they don’t find out what happens to the characters.
The JRB: Have you found that people have picked out the ending as something that they really liked?
Nathan Hill: Yeah. People seem to really like the ending. I mean, not everybody. There’s always going to be jerks on Twitter and Amazon, but for the most part I’ve had a lot of fans of the ending.
The JRB: Another David Foster Wallace thing: the infamous one sentence chapter, where the character Pwnage tries to quit an online roleplaying game he’s obsessed with at the same time as he’s having a pulmonary embolism—was that your nod to hysterical realism? It’s what James Wood would call ‘overblown, manic prose’—being an eleven-page sentence—but at the same time Wood’s criticism of Foster Wallace and Zadie Smith and the rest was that the books lacked ‘human depth’, whereas watching a painfully slow corporeal cataclysm happening to a character you’ve become extremely fond of is almost the epitome of human depth, it’s almost a rebuttal that idea.
Nathan Hill: Thank you, that means a lot. I think the way I hoped to get around that kind of criticism, and I’m sensitive to it to because I’ve read books—and I wouldn’t put Smith or Wallace in this category—but I have read books where I felt like the style was for style’s sake, and it wasn’t justified by what was happening in the story. Anything that’s structurally or stylistically weird in this book, I wanted to make sure that there was an emotional reason for it, that it was grounded in character. So the one sentence chapter came to me not because I wanted to show the reader what I can do, it was much more that Pwnage in that moment would be feeling that his world was coming apart, and that quitting this game should feel monolithic, should feel enormous to him, and one way of capturing that syntactically was the one sentence, the monolithic-ness of one giant sentence, and the anxiety that the reader would feel as the sentence kept barrelling forward. So because I felt like there was a good character reason for it I felt comfortable displaying some heavy-handed fireworks in that section.
The JRB: How long did it take you to write that one sentence?
Nathan Hill: That one came rather quickly and didn’t have too much revision or editing. I think my editor said it was his favourite chapter in the book. He compared it to the guitar solo from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ [laughs]. The version that ended up in the final manuscript is very close to my first draft. So that one came pretty easily. What was hard was making it grammatically correct; I have clauses nested within other clauses and phrases nested in other phrases. I have an Excel spreadsheet that I did it on to be able to visualise how all the pieces were fitting together. So that took a while, the architecture of it. But the actual writing, creating all the excuses for why he couldn’t possibly quit this game, that was pretty easy. I kind of lived that, playing World of Warcraft after I had all my writing stolen.
The JRB: Your editor said The Nix is ‘four novels in one’. When in the writing process did you realise it was one novel? Did you ever doubt it would be?
Nathan Hill: There was a time when I couldn’t figure out why Pwnage belonged in the book, and I thought if he doesn’t belong maybe my next book will just be called ‘Pwnage’ and I’ll just write a novel about him.
The JRB: Well he recovered, right? Maybe you could write a sequel where he does Crossfit or something.
Nathan Hill: [laughs] But except for that little bit it was all supposed to be one book. But because I didn’t really plan the book out ahead of time it just kept growing and growing, and I didn’t know it was going to be four books in one, I didn’t know it was going to be this long. It was just the shape the story took. I have these friends that I vacation with every summer, friends from school, and every year they would ask me how the novel’s going and I’d say, it’s comin’ along. So by year seven or eight my friend said, how long is this novel? And very embarrassed I said, uh, it’s eight hundred pages now. And she said, Nathan, nobody’s ever going to want to read that. And I was like … I know. So it was kind of embarrassing to me how big the book got.
The JRB: Did you go on holiday with them last year and rub it in their faces?
Nathan Hill: I did, a little bit. [laughs] But they’re very proud of me.
The JRB: I can just about believe that you invented the gun-toting, anti-immigrant, anti-elitist presidential candidate Governor Sheldon Packer five years before the onset of Trump, although the resemblance is uncanny—but when the word ‘bigly’ jumped out at me on page 126, and it’s italicised … I had to wonder if it was an inside joke.
Nathan Hill: People have asked me about that on Twitter—I swear, I used it first.
The JRB: I thought maybe you inserted in the book just before it was published, and then italicised it just so we’d definitely notice.
Nathan Hill: We could find my notebook from many years ago. He’s a big man, and so I thought, he sat bigly. You know, like those guys on the subway?
The JRB: Manspreading.
Nathan Hill: Right! So I was imagining him doing that. Scout’s honour.
The JRB: It’s a weird coincidence. But then at over six hundred pages I guess you probably used just about every word there is, including the made-up ones. You mention that you write longhand, did you always write longhand?
Nathan Hill: No, not always, I started doing that with this book, and I did it because before this I’d always written short stories, and I’d have a pretty good idea of the shape of the whole story when I started writing. With a novel this big it’s hard to have that whole idea in your head before you start. I’m sure some geniuses do, that’s not me. I tend to have to figure it out as I go. So I realised while I was writing that I had to slow way down, that when I was at a computer I’d type too fast, and I just went too quickly, I didn’t give my brain the time it needed to associate and surprise itself and come up with these various manoeuvres that ended up showing up in the book. It’s mostly just a function of the fact that I don’t really outline, I don’t really plan out my plots, so I need to write slowly so I give myself a lot of time to think. I think better, I think more clearly, I’m more capable of surprise—and there’s no delete key, which is a really big deal, for a first draft especially. I sometimes scratch things out but if I can’t come up with the perfect sentence in the moment, if I’m on a computer I will type until that sentence is perfect, if I’m writing longhand I’ll just trust myself to fix it in revision and I’ll keep going. Especially in a first draft that rolling progress is so important, that you don’t get too stuck on perfection and stop your forward momentum.
The JRB: You use a writing technique that you credit Jennifer Egan with, in that you stop writing for the day when it’s going particularly well, to make it easier to pick up the next day. Can you speak a little about your writing process?
Nathan Hill: Five to seven pages a day is my rule, and that’s her rule too. If it’s going really poorly, if I get to five, great. If it’s going really well I’ll stop myself at seven, and when the book was really rolling I was just doing seven pages a day every day and I’d sit down the next day and know exactly what I was going to write because I’d been thinking about it for twenty-four hours.
The JRB: So you’re anti-technology, writing longhand when you’re doing the first draft, but then you also mention using Scrivener, which is a very hi-tech tool that’s kind of like a digital version of Nabokov’s index card system.
Nathan Hill: After I write something longhand, I immediately put it onto the computer. After I’m done with my five to seven pages I’ll transcribe it onto the computer, and that’s my first quick edit. I fix any spelling errors, grammar errors, and anything that I need to Google. When I’m writing longhand I never get onto the computer because I can go down one of those internet holes, where you forget why you went there in the first place. So I always avoid that. Scrivener’s great, it allowed me to visualise connections across many, many pages easily.
The JRB: So you sound like you’ve got a pretty good process figured out.
Nathan Hill: Well it took ten years, right? But the funny thing is that I’m beginning the next book now, and the next book has a structure that’s very different and I’m finding myself unable to use exactly the same process. So for the next book I’ve constructed this large actual physical corkboard in my office, because I needed to be able to visualise it in a way that Scrivener was unable to do. So probably every book will have it’s own unique requirements. Like raising kids. It’s funny, I’m still not quite sure how the next book is going to be structured. It’s … I probably shouldn’t say anything other than ‘it’s weird’.
The JRB: I saw on Twitter you mentioned an article you were reading about neurobiology, was that research?
Nathan Hill: I have sort of a hobbyist’s interest in neurobiology, so I encountered this article about seven to eleven dimensional thought structures that happen in the brain and it just captured my attention, I thought it was really beautiful. And trying to imagine an eleven dimensional structure … they’re only theoretical, they can’t really exist. Imagine a pair of dice, six sided dice, and you put the ones together so they’re facing each other, and so the sixes are on the outside. Now imagine that the sixes are also touching. It can only exist mathematically, but if it’s only mathematically then that’s unproblematic. So you start getting into structures like that, impossible structures, that only math can describe. I don’t understand this kind of math, my math education stopped at differential equations and matrix algebra, but it’s just fun to think about. I know scientists hate it when artists do this, but it’s really fun to use as a metaphor.
The JRB: You’re already working on your next novel, you clearly aren’t suffering from writer’s block or impostor syndrome, so I feel I can ask this. The title of your book comes from the Norwegian legend of the Nix, a spirit that, as Faye says, presents you with the thing you want the most but which ends up hurting you the worst. Having such a wildly successful first novel, do feel in any danger of your book becoming a kind of Nix in your own life? Do you feel you may be drowned by the pressure of first novel success?
Nathan Hill: I have thought about that. But the thing that I wanted most was not necessarily to have a book that was published, the thing that I wanted was to live the writer lifestyle that I imagined when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen years old: live in New York, know all the people, be in the lifestyle. That turned out to be completely wrong. As it turns out I’m a low information-per-second kind of person and I prefer a small town and a more quiet life. I am worried though about the introspective illusion. We have this sense that we act because we think a certain way, but there’s a lot of psychology research that shows that it’s possible that what we’re doing is acting, and then our mind sees us acting and invents stories to explain what we’ve already done. So we think we’ve thought about it beforehand but we’re actually explaining it after the fact. There are these great studies with people doing mindless tasks, and if they do the tasks for free they think, ‘oh that wasn’t so bad’. But if they do the task for money they think, ‘oh that was horrible’. So if you’re rewarded for something then you stop thinking that your reason for doing it came from inside you, instead you were doing it for this external reason. So now I’ve been rewarded for this book I’m really worried that the next time I try to write a book I’m going to hate it. That it won’t be as fun. This was a lot of fun, because there was no pressure. I hope I don’t take it too bigly.
- Jennifer Malec is the Editor; follow her on Twitter