Nathan Hill, author of the highly anticipated and critically-acclaimed debut novel, The Nix, talks to Oxford Exchange about success and failure, expectations and reality, and blind men and elephants. The Nix has already become a New York Times Bestseller and will be made into a television series starring Meryl Streep. He will speaking at Oxford Exchange on Sunday September 18 at 1:30pm.RSVP Now
Oxford Exchange: The New York Times ran a profile on you that spoke about your early work and how, in 2004, your car got broken into and you lost everything you’d written. It makes for a great story now, of course, but can you talk about what that felt like at the time—to lose everything? You’ve said that you wanted to be a writer since you were a little kid, what happens when those dreams and desires crash into something so brutal?
Nathan Hill: For years I’d been telling everyone that I was going to be a writer in New York City, and then to have disaster strike within the first month, well, it was both depressing and humiliating. But this is also where I discovered one of the central themes of the book, that of the “nix.” A nix is a character from Scandinavian folklore—my mother’s family emigrated here from Norway, so I’ve always had a soft spot for these stories. A Nix is a spirit of the water that is variously known as a nixie, neck, nøkken, and so on. In the Norwegian version, a Nix is usually described as a horrible ugly ogre-type thing that sometimes appears to young children as a beautiful white horse. It will attempt to lure the children onto its back, and if they climb aboard, it’ll gallop into the water and drown them.
And I imagined that, for the kids, suddenly taking possession of their very own horse would have been the coolest thing that ever happened to them. They must have loved it, until they realized what was really happening, by which time it was too late. The moral of the story seemed to me something like: the best things can sometimes hurt you the worst.
And this resonated with me because moving to New York City had been a lifelong dream of mine, but I was only there for a month when I lost everything. And this cut so much more deeply because I had wanted it so badly.
So this became a guiding principle for me as I developed my characters, who are undermined by the very things that mean the most to them: a son abandoned by his mother; a sister disowned by her twin brother; a workaholic swindled by his company; a gamer betrayed by the video game he’s obsessed with.
OE: The Nix is — rightfully so — one of the most anticipated fiction debuts in the last few years. And inseparable from the praise of the novel itself has been the praise for you. You get these comparisons to John Irving and then Irving likens you to Charles Dickens — all of this to sound the alarms and say, hey, our next great novelist has arrived.
You’ve got to be thrilled to be in position to get and keep a big audience. It has to be exciting and surreal. But is there, maybe, a scary side to the surreal as well? Writing is this deeply personal, solitary thing, right, but I think the spotlight has the potential to encroach on that—so what keeps you grounded and able to continue on with what’s gotten you to this point?
NH: Fortunately, I’m sort of old for a debut writer (I’m 40). I’ve had a couple decades’ worth of rejection under my belt, which tends to keep one grounded. Also I have lots of friends who’ve known me for a long time who like to keep me humble. For example, when the New York Times profile ran, I was bombarded with text messages from good friends poking fun at the photo that ran with the story, a photo of me in Grant Park wearing black (“Peter Pan goes Goth” was a highlight, as was “Emo Elf spotted in Park”). I find that in this situation it’s helpful to be able to laugh at myself.
OE: You grew up all over the midwest, then had this period of time in these huge cities—New York, Chicago. Now you’ve settled in Naples, Florida. Does where you are play a role in your work at all?
NH: When I was growing up, I had this fantasy of living the New York life, going to the parties, being in the scene. In college I read all of E.B. White’s Talk of the Town essays from the New Yorker and thought: That’s gonna be me. But after having lived in big cities, I’ve found that they’re maybe too crowded for me. And I don’t mean actual real crowds; more like that abstract feeling of being pressed in from all sides and overwhelmed. Too much going on, too noisy, mentally. It turns out I’m sort of an easily overstimulated person, and so I try to keep my day-to-day life at a low decibel level. In this way, I’m probably more like the E.B. White who retired to Maine than the one who lived in Manhattan. Anyway, Naples suits me—it’s quiet and beautiful.
OE: Growing up and then during some difficult times in your life, you turned to fantasy. To roleplaying board and video games and to adventure novels. In a recent essay for Powell’s, you give this great take on how that’s not unlike the impulse that leads you to writing. You said you write not to describe or witness. You write to discover and encounter. Is this why we read, too? Is there something specific or deep-seated you think we’re trying to discover? How is it that fiction and fantasy has this knack of connecting to us and feeling so true?
NH: I feel like reading really good fiction is about as close as we can get to actually inhabiting someone else’s mind. That’s probably the reason I love the writers that I do—authors like Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace—for their ability to get so incredibly interior, to inhabit their characters in extreme close-up, so that the tone of their books is like hearing someone’s “brain voice” from the inside. When I read really great fiction, it makes me feel closer to people, makes me feel like maybe I understand them better, which is an amazing gift. And there’s actually some pretty good neurobiological research supporting this. I remember a New York Times headline from 2013 that said “For Better Social Skills, Scientists Recommend a Little Chekhov.” The story was about a study that showed how reading literature helped people with what scientists call “theory of mind,” or the ability to understand perspectives different from your own. I used to tell my college lit students about this—especially the business majors who complained “When am I ever going to need this in real life?” I tried to convince them that the best way to get ready for a job interview was to develop a healthy reading habit.
OE: To invoke Irving again, he has this killer, extended riff on critics and reviews in his Paris Review interview from 1986. One of the things he gets at is the silliness of it all, how too often they don’t positively or constructively service the artists or speak truly to their work. David Foster Wallace expressed this in an interview, too: “Even if they like it, they’ll like it for the wrong reasons”. You spent ten years on this novel. What were those “right reasons” as you wrote, what were you hoping to communicate with this novel?
NH: I’m still so new at this that I’m totally thrilled at every nice review, and I feel like I want to rip them all out of their newspapers and build a nest for myself under my desk and sleep there. Actually, there are some reviews that have just nailed the book, that have described the book better than I describe it myself. I’m grateful for that. As for what I was hoping to communicate with the novel, I guess I’d find it difficult to boil it down to any one thing, but I know something I was thinking about a lot was what I might call the “selfishness of my own opinions.” When I first began writing The Nix, I had in mind a really heavy-handed political novel about polarization in America. I was a younger guy then: late-twenties, politically aggressive. Then over the years my thinking changed and evolved and the book took on a new tone; it became a sort of argument against that type of thinking. I began wondering: Given my extraordinarily narrow point of view (white guy who grew up in the Midwest suburbs), what were the odds that I actually knew the capital-T Truth about American politics? Probably zero, I decided. So instead the book became about resisting snap judgments, about taking a step back, about considering other truths. The story that emerged as a helpful metaphor for this was the tale of the blind men and the elephant, which I use as an epigraph: a king asks a bunch of blind men to touch one part of an elephant, then describe what an elephant is like. They all have different opinions, of course, and begin fighting each other. It seemed like a nice way to capture what so often happens during the political silly season: people can’t believe how incredibly wrong everyone else is. I began thinking that maybe they weren’t wrong. Maybe they were just touching a different part of the elephant.