I’m a little bit giddy about this one, I must confess. I met Nathan Hill at the Sanibel Island Writers Conference last November and even took his class on X-Ray writing, which was fantastic. He lives in Naples like me and I was delighted to find out we had friends in common. So I asked him on a whim if he would participate and he said yes!
Nathan Hill is kind of a big deal. His book, The Nix, was on the NYT Bestseller list and made quite a few “Best Books of the Year” lists for 2016 as well. The Nix is about a college English professor whose estranged mother is arrested for throwing rocks at a controversial conservative politician. In order to fulfill his obligation to his publisher, Samuel decides to write a tell-all about his mother and her political activist past. But in order to get the dirt he has to go see her, and he hasn’t spoken to her since she walked out on the family when he was just a kid.
This book is packed with so much – the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the riots that ensued, Norwegian urban legends, a violin prodigy love interest, gaming culture and a very special freak named Pwnage who is a master at the fictional Elfscape. Plus add in a cheating college student who turns the tables on Samuel and leads to an academic investigation, and I didn’t even mention the tangent on feminine hygiene advertising from the 60s. Sound crazy? It is, but somehow it works into an interesting dissection of the relationship between mother and son.
1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea?
I had just moved to New York City in the summer of 2004, and one of the things that happened during my first month there was that the Republicans held their presidential nominating convention at Madison Square Garden. And people were coming in from all over the country to protest it. So I went into Manhattan and watched all the hubbub. And one of the things that I kept hearing in the run-up to the 2004 convention—from the talking head cable news type people—was that it was going to be the most contentious since the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. That’s how I was originally drawn to the subject. It gave me the idea to do a book about two generations of protest: a mother who attend the one in ‘68, and her son who attended the one in ’04.
2. What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser?
Definitely a “pantser.” I began writing the book in 2004 and I didn’t make an outline until like 2011. I had no idea where the story was going. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have a plot. I had a basic situation and two characters (Samuel and Faye, who for years were named “the boy” and “the mother”), and so the writing I was doing was more like exploration. I wasn’t writing to describe things that happened. I was writing to discover them. Which is much slower. And yes, I hopped around a lot, even after I had an outline and a plot, there were whole sections of the novel that I skipped because, frankly, I didn’t think I was good enough yet to write them. I remember noting in my journal: “This will be very hard.” Then when I came back to those sections a year or so later, I realized that I’d learned how to write them. Writing the novel taught me how to write the novel, if that makes sense.
3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style?
My favorite authors are the ones who are able to burrow deep into the psychology of a character, whose prose sounds like the brain-voice of a character from the inside. David Foster Wallace does this. So does Virginia Woolf. I like to think that fiction is the best invention we have to understand what it would feel like to be somebody else, and so I especially enjoy authors who are committed to that kind of writing.
4. Do you listen to music when you write?
I do listen to music, but it can’t have words or too much dynamic range (the sudden jolts of energy in a symphony, for example, would be too distracting). I find myself most drawn to quiet pieces for piano or cello. I highly recommend “The Chopin Variations” by Chad Lawson, or the Bach cello suites performed by Yo-Yo Ma.
5. What are you reading right now?
I’m reading some nonfiction that I suppose is “research” for the next novel. Also a few editors have asked me to blurb some books that are coming out later this year, so I’m reading those. And I’ve been delighted to read my fellow Knopf debut authors: in particular, Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter and Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing were amazing books.
Nathan Hill, y’all. His book was the best adult fiction I read last year. Get your copy here: