Five Questions – Nathan Hill

The Nix by Nathan Hill

The Nix by Nathan Hill

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

Nathan Hill

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.

FIVE QUESTIONS

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:

Amazon                    Barnes and Noble

Five Questions: Lawrence Tabak

in-real-lifeWelcome to my weekly author interview. This week I talked to Lawrence Tabak who wrote the great gaming novel In Real Life.

Fifteen-year-old math prodigy Seth Gordon knows exactly what he wants to do with his life—play video games. Every spare minute is devoted to honing his skills at Starfare, the world’s most popular computer game. His goal: South Korea, where the top pros are rich and famous. But the best players train all day, while Seth has school and a job and divorced parents who agree on only one thing: “Get off that damn computer.” Plus there’s a new distraction named Hannah, an aspiring photographer who actually seems to understand his obsession.

While Seth mopes about his tournament results and mixed signals from Hannah, Team Anaconda, one of the leading Korean pro squads, sees something special. Before he knows it, it’s goodbye Kansas, goodbye Hannah, and hello to the strange new world of Korea. But the reality is more complicated than the fantasy, as he faces cultural shock, disgruntled teammates, and giant pots of sour-smelling kimchi.

What happens next surprises Seth. Slowly, he comes to make new friends, and discovers what might be a breakthrough, mathematical solution to the challenges of Starcraft. Delving deeper into the formulas takes him in an unexpected direction, one that might just give him a new focus—and reunite him with Hannah.

THE FIVE QUESTIONS:

1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea?

When my second son was in middle school he rather suddenly decided that there were no longer any books of interest. Keep in mind this is within the confines of a house where bookshelves are everywhere and space on shelves is short. His main interest at the time was video gaming so after some back and forth he reluctantly agreed he’d give a book about a video gamer a shot. We tried the local bookstores without much luck — while there were a few very good science fiction type books that centered on gaming (Ender’s Game, for example) we couldn’t find a contemporary novel about kids obsessed with console controllers or mouse clicking. I was surprised, since in my experience, gaming was central to the lives of young boys. We could find any number of books about young basketball players, young football players, young hockey and tennis players. But not one about gamers. This was at a time when professional gaming was beginning to emerge domestically, and was already well established in South Korea. So I decided to write that book.

2. What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

I don’t work with a written outline, but do spend considerable mental energy laying out the general course of a book before I start. I once read a profile of best-seller thriller writer Harlan Corben in which he describes spending months lying around, dreaming up his intricate plots, which he finally pens in a frenzy of writing. I haven’t achieved this sort of mental discipline, but do tend to write fast once I get into a project. That said, I find that my storylines tend to twist and turn in composition as events fall into place in a way which seem more true to satisfying fiction than life.

3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style?

I’ve been drawn to writing about younger protagonists more than writing for younger readers. As such, I’ve been most impressed with YA writers whose seem to be seeking to write the best possible books about young adults without tempering their composition for accessibility — what is sometimes called literary YA writing. The best of these writers are producing fine novels — not just fine novels that are geared for younger readers. Examples include A.S. King, Gayle Forman, and John Green. I’m also been knocked out by some modern writers when they delve into the lives and minds of younger protagonists. I’m thinking of the teenage Theodore and his dissolute friend Boris living as virtual orphans in the ruins of suburban Las Vegas in Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. Or the story Victory Lap which opens George Saunders’ collection Tenth of December. In a book I’m reading currently, Nathan Hill does an amazing job of capturing the passion and intensity of the emotional lives of eleven-year-olds in The Nix.

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

I often write with music on my headset, particularly since I like to work in semi-public places (coffee shops, libraries, student unions). I will usually just leave my song list on random, since once I get into the writing I’m not consciously aware of what songs are playing.

5. What are you reading right now?

I often have a couple books going at once. I’ve currently set everything aside to finish The Nix, a riveting 2016 novel by Nathan Hill. As I’ve mentioned, the sections devoted to his characters’ younger years are particularly stunning, as well as harrowing. It’s also a novel rich in political relevance, as it bounces back and forth between naive anti-war protestors in 1968 to a contemporary crisis involving a modern demogogic politician. I’ve got a bookmark in a just-translated volume of stories by Israeli Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon, A City in Its Fullness, all set in the small Ukrainian city where he had spent his youth. And another bookmark in The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt’s story of how a 15th century book hunter found the last extant manuscript of a Roman poem by Lucretius, On The Nature of Things, and in doing so, helped trigger the Renaissance.

 

lawrence-tabakLawrence Tabak started out on Candy Land but soon hit the harder stuff (Pong, Tron, SimAnt). His first job was playing knock hockey with ten-year-olds as a playground supervisor in Dubuque, Iowa. He graduated to jobs in pizza assembly and door-to-door solicitation before settling into a series of tennis jobs in Iowa, California, New Jersey and Kansas. Most recently he’s worked in the marketing communications side of finance in Kansas City and Madison, Wis. His freelance writing has appeared in numerous national magazines and journals including Fast Company, Salon.com and The Atlantic Monthly. He and his wife have raised two game-obsessed boys, mostly in Wisconsin. Among their accomplishments are stints on the pro-gaming squads of SK Gaming and Fnatic and helping launch the live-streaming gaming site, Twitch.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me, Lawrence! If you have a teen who is obsessed with video games this is the perfect read. Watch for great new things to come from this author.

Get In Real Life here:     Barnes and Noble               Amazon

Sanibel Island Writers Conference – The Authors

I was so lucky that I got the opportunity to attend the conference this year. I signed up to volunteer so I could attend for free, and that was the most amazing thing. It was four days packed with creative energy, great speakers and teachers, and a lot of really cool people.

nathan-hillOver the course of the four days I got three books signed and met some wonderful authors. Nathan Hill, who wrote The Nix, taught a workshop called “X-Ray Writing,” which was genius. He was also funny, and nice and very personable when I approached him to sign my book. He lives in Naples and used to teach at FGCU, but now he’s a full time writer. He says it took him ten years to write The Nix, but what a book! You really need to read it.

rob-wilderThe second book I had signed was Nickel by Robert Wilder.  He’s from Santa Fe and the poor guy spent most of Thursday sitting on the tarmac at various airports. When I picked him up at around 6:30 that evening he’d been awake for hours and hours and probably wanted nothing more than to get some sleep. But he was great to talk to and really funny. Plus he presented an amazing workshop on YA Crossover fiction. I hope he had a better trip home. His book, Nickel, is a novel so funny I snorted coffee out of my nose. It also was honest, and real, and a great read.

steve-almondFinally, my last book I got signed at practically the last minute on Sunday. Some of my Boston librarian friends first made me aware of Steve Almond. They dragged me to a reading of his once in Cambridge, and the guy was so funny and such a good writer I’ve bought everything he’s written since. Three years ago I bought his book Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life but I didn’t get to track him down to sign it. Since he comes to SIWC every year I knew I could corner him this time, and I did. He’s so sweet and a genuinely nice person.

But those were the books I got signed. I also got to meet Liza Wieland, Stephen Elliott, Joyce Maynard, Lynne Barrett, Jeff Thomson, Jim Daniels, Gina Frangello, and Thomas Swick. Everyone I met was gracious, warm, and interested in having a conversation about writing and creativity. I wish I could bask in the conference’s glow for weeks instead of just four short days.

I’ll write some more soon about the classes I attended. They were all really great and I learned so much from them. I am anxious to finish my first draft so I can go back and start editing with some of these ideas in mind.