About The Author
Nathan Hill was born in Iowa in 1975 and lives with his wife in Naples, Florida. The Nix is his first novel, about stalled writer, bored teacher and obsessive video game player Samuel and his search to uncover the secrets of the mother who abandoned him as a child and has now reappeared in bizarre circumstances. The quest takes him from the rural Midwest of the 1960s to the 1968 riots at the Chicago Democratic National Convention and finally to Norway, home of the mysterious Nix. Hill tells an epic tale filled with larger than life characters, humour and a great deal of heart.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Nathan about how little American politics have changed since 1968, how an online game was both emotionally analgesic and artistically crippling, both soothing and debilitating, and how his experience teaching university students informed his novel.
Author photo © Michael Lionstar
Questions & Answers
What was the starting point for your book?
The inspiration for The Nix struck me the summer after I finished grad school, in 2004, when I moved from Massachusetts to New York City. It was a longstanding dream of mine, moving to New York. My first apartment was this one-month sublet in Queens. It was a home base for me while I looked for a more permanent home, just a bedroom in a house that I shared with about a dozen guys who all worked on the same road crew. Whenever they weren’t at work, they would eat hotdogs and play enormous amounts of Call of Duty, usually in their underwear. So I didn’t spend much time there. I was exploring the city, 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 (this was Bush/Cheney’s second term, the height of the Iraq War, etc.). So I went into Manhattan and watched all the hubbub.
Fast-forward to the end of the month: I’d found a new apartment, but there was this awkward day where I had to be out of my sublet in the morning but couldn’t move into my new place until the evening. So I piled all my stuff into my car and went to work. Then I came home that day all ready to move into my new place, and found that the car was empty. Everything had been stolen. Including the computer that held everything I’d written in grad school. So three years of writing just vanished. I spent a long time feeling sad about this, then finally decided I needed to write something new. And I began writing about the most interesting thing that I’d recently seen: the protests of the Republican National Convention. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was the starting point for The Nix.
Faye is profoundly affected by her grandfather’s retelling of the myth of the nix, an evil water spirit of German legend, while Samuel is similarly terrified by Norwegian ghost stories which Faye passed on to him. In their cases, the delicious thrill of fear has a profound and lifelong impact on them, especially Faye. Do you think in telling our children such stories, we dismiss the lasting negative effect they can have on them?
I don’t think those stories are the cause of their sadness — more like the effect. Faye is much more damaged by her father’s neglect than she is about that story, and Samuel too is more debilitated by his mother’s disappearance than the folktales she told him. It’s just that the stories provide a way for the two of them to organize and contain their sadness, a way to transfer their emotions. I imagine that another child growing up in a more nurturing environment could get a delicious thrill from the same stories, with no lasting injuries.
Did you find your view of the 1968 riots in Chicago, and indeed elsewhere at that time, change in the course of writing your book?
I did a lot of research on the ’68 riots: I read all the books I could find, watched some documentaries, and spent long afternoons at the Chicago History Museum. And yes, my thinking about the time period did change. I realized that I’d been looking at the ’60s with a kind of nostalgia and sentimentality that didn’t accurately reflect what was really happening at the time. I had assumed that, in contrast to today’s media-savvy progressive movement, the folks in the ‘60s were much more 'authentic'. Whereas contemporary protests seemed to me to be aimed at, say, swing voters in Ohio, the protests of the ‘60s were (I thought) more sincere, less marketed. But not only was I wrong about that, but also I realized that 'authenticity' is a pretty bad metric to judge a protest movement.
I also realized that not much had changed in American politics between then and now. In 1968 you had all these cultural forces meeting in a few square blocks, two sides of America grinding against each other 'like tectonic plates,' as one journalist described it. You had the protestors, who just thought every cop and politician was a fascist. And you had the cops and politicians, who just thought every protestor was a stinking hippie. Everyone was reduced to their most unendearing stereotype. It was like the culture war’s debutante ball, its coming out party. A lot of the faultlines revealed in Chicago in ’68 are, obviously, with us still. They were especially visible in our recent election.
Do you agree with Faye that ‘every moment has a life like this, a trauma that breaks you into brand-new pieces.’ Is it an essential rite of passage?
I think that Faye wants to believe this is true — she is a person of big gestures, of dramatic moments — but I don’t think she’s altogether right. I do think our lives are constantly broken into new pieces, which is just another way of saying that we’re always changing. And yes, that can happen after a trauma, but it also happens just by the slow creep of time. We fall into certain habits, fall out of others. We meet new friends, and abandon others. We are constantly reinvented, but sometimes I think our perception of ourselves is slow to catch up with our actual selves. Does that make sense? We think of ourselves one way but live our lives on a day-to-day basis in a completely different way. And when we finally realize this, it can feel traumatic, but it’s actually been building slowly and quietly beneath the surface, reinforced by a million tiny little everyday decisions.
You seem very intimate with the world of online gaming! Has this been a passion of yours?
There was a time in my life where I played a whole lot of video games. It was shortly after I moved to New York — a dark time for me, that period after all of my things were stolen. After I replaced the computer, a good friend told me to buy this certain video game that he and I could play together (I think he just wanted to give me something to take my mind off the loss, and also he could keep tabs on me by chatting through the game.) The game was called World of Warcraft, a very immersive and time-consuming game. And I was surprised how effective this was at helping me through a pretty tough time. Even after I left the city, I kept on playing, and became sort of a badass elite player, until I realized that my ostensible reason for playing the game — that I needed to take my mind off the real world — was now a reason I absolutely had to quit the game. Because I found that my mind, more often than not, was stuck in the virtual world instead of the real one. It took me a long while to reach a very basic epiphany: that I was devoting way more time to Warcraft than I was to writing, and in fact I was using Warcraft to avoid writing because I was deeply afraid of failing at writing and so it was easier, mentally, to spend my time with something I knew I couldn’t fail at. Once I realized this, I quit the game. But I felt compelled to fold this experience into the novel, this paradoxical love/hate feeling I’d developed for the game, how the game was both emotionally analgesic and artistically crippling, both soothing and debilitating.
Do you think the current passion for such games will burn itself out or are you concerned that more and more people are becoming addicted to both games and, like Laura, social media?
I’m very concerned about distraction, especially in the classroom. I taught university students for a decade, and during that time I learned that having an electronic device handy while reading a book or taking notes or listening to a lecture is a great way to torpedo your education. But I’m hoping that we’ve reached peak distraction, and now that we’ve become more aware of the dangers of these devices, we’ll begin using them more appropriately. After all, smartphones are only ten years old. It’s going to take us a little while to figure out how to integrate them properly.
Both gamer Pwnage and Student from Hell, master shirker Laura Pottsdam are people we can probably all recognise to some extent. How did you decide how extreme to make them without their becoming only caricatures?
Both characters definitely bordered on pure satire, which is not what I wanted. I didn’t want to make fun of these people — that just felt cruel. I wanted the reader to understand how their respective lives would lead them to these places, and to feel some empathy for them. But to do this, of course, I would have to feel some empathy, too. This was especially difficult for Laura.
Like a lot of writers, I spent many years in the academic trenches of Composition 101, teaching university freshmen how to read critically and write argumentative essays. A fair number of my friends also did this, and whenever we’d get together we all seemed to have the same horror stories: students who wouldn’t do the assigned readings, who always assumed there’d be some extra credit available to bail them out, who couldn’t pay attention to anything in class besides their phones, who plagiarized their papers consistently and shamelessly, and whose parents seemed to blame the teacher for the student’s failure. Not every student was like this, mind you, but enough were that it made me and my friends think there was something really wrong. Like, generationally wrong. (Do a Google search for 'plagiarism' and 'epidemic' and you’ll see what I mean.) So Laura comes out of this experience. And at first I was writing her simply as revenge. But then I began asking myself certain questions: Why does she think she’s correct? What has happened in her life to bring her here? I mean, everyone thinks they’re the good guy in the story of their lives, and everyone feels like David against the Goliath that is the world. So I tried to figure out how Laura could see herself this way, and thus I began to understand what compelled her to act the way she does.
Samuel is at the receiving end of many philosophies, including Pwnage’s sorting of people into enemies, obstacles, puzzles or traps, to Periwinkle’s perhaps more self-serving assertion that he should abandon idealism, and Samuel’s own realisation of the dangers of playing the blame game. Do you have a favourite one or one that you aspire to live by?
I think it’s very easy and very seductive to see people — especially people with whom we disagree — as enemies. We’ve become a very snap-judgment kind of culture. It’s like we’re walking around with this cosmic ‘Like’ button (or, more often, ‘Dislike’) and giving everything roughly fifteen seconds before we render a verdict. One of the basic arguments of the book is that people contain complexities that you will never know if you allow yourself to think in such a reflexive manner. It reminds me of the story of the blind men and the elephant, which I use as an epigraph for The Nix. A group of blind men are each shown a part of an elephant, and then asked to describe what an elephant is like. Predictably, they each describe an elephant in terms of what their very small part of it feels like. Then, when they all disagree about what an elephant is like, they start arguing and fistfighting. They immediately assume the people who disagree with them are their enemies. Had they instead thought of the whole thing as a puzzle, they might have eventually understood the larger truth, and with far fewer bruises.