Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, which was released in August, has earned him comparisons to Charles Dickens, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace. The praise may seem hyperbolic, but the success of The Nix is certainly rare for a first offering. The 620-page epic has had its publication rights sold in 16 different countries and been optioned for a TV miniseries, according to Deadline, with Meryl Streep and J.J. Abrams attached. The Nix weaves in and out of time between 1968 and 2011, as a range of characters wade through protests (1968 Democratic National Convention, 2004 Republican National Convention, and Occupy Wall Street are all featured), video game addiction, smartphone apps, and family drama. It’s at once moving and funny, uplifting and deeply sad. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Hal Conick: Was it difficult to transition to writing a novel after writing short stories?
Nathan Hill: It was sort of accidental. The novel started as a short story; I thought I was writing a short story. The first bits I wrote were about a guy who was going to march at the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden. He was marching against the war in Iraq and Bush-Cheney, and I didn’t know what I was doing there. I had only written short stories, and I figured that would be another one. Then I had this idea of maybe bringing 1968 Chicago into it because everyone was comparing 2004 to 1968 and I was just clueless. Like, what happened in 1968 in Chicago? I looked into that, and it seemed really interesting.
It just kind of blew up on me. I came up with this mother-son story, and suddenly I was really interested in the mother and I started pursuing her. Then it became clear that it wasn’t a short story anymore, but the material was interesting enough to me that I just kept adding to it. Ultimately, I figured out how to write the novel by writing the novel.
The Nix goes from really dark to really funny, sometimes on the same page. Did you have to worry about striking a balance there?
I wanted to give the reader a varied experience, especially for a long book. You don’t want it to be all one thing. If I’m asking a reader to read a 600-page novel and the whole thing is a bummer, that just seems like bad manners. I wanted to find the humor in it. In some ways, a lot of the humor comes from the present moment—the 2011 sections—and that probably just reflects my own thinking about how contemporary America is, in some ways, totally absurd.
The medium for that absurdity in The Nix is the media, from its straightforward style in 1968 to the quick-cutting, graphic-heavy news of the 2000s.
What I wanted to write about was less about us as a big society and more as individuals relating to this kind of stuff. I know when I’m watching TV news, I have a different reaction to it than when I see YouTube clips from 1968.
[Modern news] seems so packed with information, so much information that I actually feel overwhelmed when I’m watching TV news today. Even though they cut all the time and segments last like 30 seconds and there’s a crawl at the bottom and multiple boxes, even when they’re giving you all this information, they can still talk about the same story for 24 hours straight, you know? Whatever the big story of the day is, that gets all the coverage and everything else is drowned out. So it’s this paradox where you have all this information but only about one thing.
There’s a running theme of overconsumption of media in The Nix. A couple of characters are addicted to video games, another to smartphones. Have you had personal experience with that kind of addiction?
With the video game stuff, I have. I started playing this game called World of Warcraft in 2004. I started playing at a very down time in my life. I just moved to New York City, and a month into it, all of my stuff got stolen. So my computer where I had written everything in grad school—three years of writing and all my backup discs—and books and clothes, just gone. Everything was gone.
I picked myself back up, eventually bought some new clothes, got a new computer, and a friend of mine said, “Let’s play World of Warcraft together.” I had never heard of it, but I started playing. It was a way for him to keep an eye on me, I think. He was a good friend. I was feeling really down.
I could see the game functioned as an area where I could be successful at a time in my life where everything else was just failing. All my stuff had gotten stolen, I wasn’t writing anything very good, I wasn’t getting published, I didn’t know if I was going to be a writer, I was working at at nonprofit, so I was financially barely afloat in New York. Everything else was kind of shitty, but at least I could be very good at this game. I could be really good at that thing, and when I was good at that thing, the friends I made in the game appreciated me for it. I guess I was in need of some kind of validation, and that’s where I found it.
I played pretty heavily for a few years and eventually quit when I started getting annoyed at how much time it took away from other things in my life. But that feeling, it was almost a love-hate relationship I had with the game. I hated how much it took me away form the world. Simultaneously, I loved the way it helped me through a dark time. That ambivalent relationship, I wanted to put into the novel.
Many characters in The Nix are written so that it’s clear they’re traumatized, but the trauma is never really discussed. What kind of research did you do to make the trauma seem so realistic?
A little psychology stuff, but mostly that behavior in the book was my own intuition about what can happen if people internalize bad emotions and never really deal with them. I was interested in how that can play out in the body, almost physically, as a manifestation of traumas that are buried down way deep. Samuel senses there’s something going on with his mom and he’s a crybaby because of it. He doesn’t necessarily link those two, but it’s his own anxiety playing out.
In some ways, the traumas in the book are not necessarily the things that happen but the things that happen and are not dealt with by the characters. It was less about the emotions and more about the characters resisting those emotions.
That seems like it’s such a … I don’t want to say uniquely American, but it seems very uniquely Midwestern to me.
I wouldn’t disagree with that. That kind of sweep it under the rug, don’t talk about it, maintain the nice, pleasant facade. It can be really emotionally devastating, I think. For my characters, they don’t get better until they finally have to face up to these things.
The book features scenes in which a Trump-like presidential candidate gets pelted in the eye with rocks by a protester, and then the video of it goes viral. What interests you about virality as a phenomenon?
My interest in that stems from my time as a journalist when I would go cover a story and, because I was covering it, I would know there was more to a story that I could possibly fit in the 600 words I was given. So I always find myself cutting back and knowing there was probably more. Maybe not essential stuff—I wasn’t covering huge conspiracies or anything—but I knew the story was always bigger than any newspaper account could accommodate.
So when there’s a 30-second video and you dig into it, it becomes a 620-page novel. As soon as you open the hood on someone’s life, you’re going to find a whole lot there. But there’s also this effect that I’m sure we’ve all experienced—I know I’m guilty of it—where you see something online and you give it like 15 seconds of your attention before you render some kind of verdict or judgment about it. “Dislike!” Or “Like!” You know? Or you see a headline and suddenly, you have an opinion about that thing. … I try to resist those snap judgments, and I think the book is making an argument against snap judgments.