The adventure you choose
AN INTERVIEW WITH NATHAN HILL
Nathan Hill is the author of The New York Times-bestselling novel, The Nix, which was named #1 Book of the Year by Audible and Entertainment Weekly. His fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Agni, The Gettysburg Review, The Denver Quarterly, and Fiction. You can keep up with him on Twitter at @nathanreads and through his website, nathanhill.net.
|| Q: How have you liked being on tour for the first time?
NH: Tour was great. The meeting readers, booksellers, librarians, book lovers of all kinds, that part is really fantastic. Writing is sort of a lonely business, so being able to meet all these other folks, who value the same things that I value, has been awesome. Of course, the traveling is exhausting. A lot of plane rides and hotel food, but meeting all of these people has been totally worth it.
|| Q: Has it been overwhelming, the success following your debut novel, The Nix? How have you coped?
NH: Yeah, it's funny. It's all really unexpected. My wife was excited about the book coming out and I totally forbid optimism in the house for like a year before the book came out. Because, I'm really aware that a lot of good books are published, and that a lot of those books don't find their audiences right away. So I didn't want to have any big expectations, but the response so far has been pleasantly surprising. It's been really great.
When I was twenty I had certain fantasies about myself and what I thought I wanted, and I'm much older and I realize how many of those fantasies had their basis in what other people would think if I did them.
But I don't know. I can't claim to be overwhelmed on the same level as like a rock star might feel. Like literary fame, in comparison to actual fame, is quite, quite small. I can walk down any street and not really worry about being recognized or anything. I had this one experience on tour, where one woman was looking at an advertisement for my reading, and she was staring at this poster that had my face on it, and then she turned around, and there I was, and she did not recognize me. It's not overwhelming in that way. It's all very nicely cordoned off. I go to a reading, people expect me there, and they're all really happy that I'm there, and then I leave the reading, and nobody recognizes me in the world. So it's kind of great.
|| Q: Why do you think people have connected so well with The Nix?
NH: I don't know. I can only tell you what they've told me, which is that a lot of readers enjoy the ride. In places, they said that it's a funny book, that it's poignant, relevant. I don't know. All I can say is that while I was writing it, I was just doing something because I enjoyed doing it. I had no idea if it was going to be published or not, and I kind of expected that it would either never get published or that it would get published in a very small way. So when I was writing it, I just sort of let loose and let myself do anything I wanted. And as it turns out, a lot of people seem to pick different parts of the book to be engaged with, which is really cool.
|| Q: You had a Q&A with HuffPost, where you mention the days following grad school. You talk about writing bad prose, and how you felt your writing didn't have a personal human truth. Do you feel that The Nix contains these truths?
NH: I hope so. The writing I was doing back then... It's really tempting. You get into a workshop and you feel sort of competitive with everybody else. You don't want to, that's an ungenerous part of you, but you do. You want to prove yourself. And that kind of writing, if that becomes the mode in which you write all your work, is not being done for the right reasons. I did that for a long time. I was writing not only in competition with other people from my program, but also with this idea I had of myself, that "I'm going to move to New York City and become this hotshot writer and win a Young Lions Award and blah blah blah." And you get so involved in that kind of vision of yourself, that you forget that you're actually making art; that you didn't get into this to win awards or become famous: You got into this because you like the actual thing. And I lost sight of that for a while. It took a lot of rejection and a lot of writing really shitty stories before I figured that out. But I talk about this a lot because I'm hoping to shave a lot of years of rejection off of young writers' careers, so that they don't make the same mistakes that I did.
|| Q: How did you deal with rejection? Did it empower you, or discourage you?
NH: I know that for a while, it's empowering, because it's evidence that you're getting your work out into the world. A rejection is still a contact. It's still communication. It's still the way that you're interacting with somebody else, beyond yourself. And so the rejection letters would pile up, and I would feel -- at the very beginning of my writing career, when I was still a grad student -- good about it, because it was evidence that I was trying. And then it took a little bit of a shift. It shifted a little on me after grad school that I was trying to be a "writer" for the first time, and then the rejections stung a bit more. The rejections were coming from agents, then. I wanted to get representation to publish a book finally, and I think it was something like thirty agents in a row said no, and that became really discouraging. And so, I don't know. For a while, the rejections were empowering, and then, suddenly, they pivoted and it became evidence that I was just doing something wrong.
|| Q: What was wrong?
NH: The stories had no life to them. They were formally interesting and the sentences were constructed with great care, but there was no heart. The characters just weren't alive, and so I kind of stopped querying for a long time. I stopped sending stories out, I stopped querying agents, I stopped doing the whole thing.
I try to write without any sort of judgement. I just kind of put it all down and then trust that I'll figure it out later.
When you're writing a book, there's no guarantee that it's gonna get published. Even if you write a book for ten years, there's no guarantee that it's going to get published. So, I ultimately decided, once it became clear that I was writing this long novel, that I couldn't put all of my hopes into publishing this book, because if it didn't happen then I would just be shattered. I realized that the writing of the book better be worth it on its own terms, that it should be implicitly, inherently beneficial. I should like it in some way. And so that's when everything really changed for me, when I decided that I better like the process. And so the process became very interesting.
For the writing of the book, a prerequisite for writing any scene had to be that I found some kind of joy in writing it. And usually that joy came from humor, or came from some funny observation of the world. My writing switched from the kind of heavy, dark, taking yourself way too fucking seriously -- the stuff I was doing beforehand -- to this new mode, where it was really about the process. It was about writing a story because I loved writing it. That was a big change for me, when I started focusing on the process of it, and enjoying the process of it. The writing lightened a great deal, and became much more "Me."
|| Q: A New York Times article mentions how, after grad school in 2004, your car was broken into and you lost all of your "possessions, including [your] computer and [your] backup drive. All of [your] work in progress vanished." You say that you "sulked for a while and played lots of World of Warcraft." Now you've got a smash-hit book. Will you give us a timeline? Did you stop writing for a while?
NH: It took a while. Thereafter, I didn't immediately start writing, partly because I didn't have a computer on which to write, and I kind of had to save up for it, but eventually I got a computer again and started writing.
It's hard to remember. I know that pretty quickly, maybe a few months after it happened, I was writing again. Only because I felt like if I didn't, I would just wallow forever. And so I think I did it almost out of a sense of a middle finger at the people who stole my stuff. "You're not gonna stop me" kind of a feeling.
Honestly, New York was hard. I had sort of always wanted to move to New York City. I grew up in the Midwest and I had certain dreams about living there all my life. And so I did, and then it turned out it was way different from the fantasy, unsurprisingly.
The thing I hear a lot is, "I've always wanted to write a book but I've never been able to find the time." It is possible, I think, to have the itch and just never do anything about it. I tell them what I tell everybody: it's never too late to start writing your book. Just go do it.
So the car got broken into and I was barely afloat financially. I was working part time at a nonprofit poetry organization, if you can imagine what my salary was. And it was dark and cold and it was not a great time for me. I turned to playing video games a lot to kind of cope. So yeah, I don't know how long it took to come out of it. Probably after I left New York to move to Florida, to take a teaching job there, my spirit started to lift again. This fantasy I had of being a writer in New York, I just kind of abandoned it. I thought: "Okay, but what's the more authentic life I should be leading?" And that lead me into all sorts of different changes. New York -- and this came as a huge shock to me -- wasn't actually what I wanted.
There's a line in The Nix that goes, "Half of what you believe about yourself when you're twenty turns out to be untrue, but the problem is figuring out which half that is." When I was twenty I had certain fantasies about myself and what I thought I wanted, and I'm much older and I realize how many of those fantasies had their basis in what other people would think if I did them. Moving to New York City is something that a small-town Iowa kid just doesn't do. I'd have these fantasies about everybody back home going, "Oh wow, Nate, he's really making something of himself." That was a really big part of the fantasy, what other people would think if I did it, which is really a shitty way to lead your life.
I don't mean to sound like I'm some zen master who has completely stopped worrying about peer pressure and what other people think of me -- of course I haven't. But, in certain ways, certain epiphanies you have along the way make you realize, "Oh, that's not authentic at all." Those moments are really revealing.
|| Q: Who was your favorite writer growing up? Did they make you want to be a writer?
NH: My favorite writer changed as I grew up. You know how certain bands or songs hit you at the right time in your life? If you heard that song or that band maybe at an earlier or later part of your life, it wouldn't have penetrated as much, but it just gets you at the right time; there's something really subjective about that.
The first of the authors that "got" me at exactly the right time was John Irving. I was just beginning college, undergrad at the University of Iowa, and I was thinking, Maybe I might become a writer." And John Irving has these amazing novels that often featured young men who are writers living in Iowa City. It just felt very proximate to me.
Eventually, I became an English major, and I was being made to read a bunch of prose in my various English classes that I, frankly, found ponderous and tedious. At that moment I discovered an author named Barthelme, who just killed me how both extraordinarily smart and funny and weird he was. It was this moment I realized that literature can be really funny and still be smart. And that was a big deal.
And then I didn't discover Virginia Woolf until I was in graduate school, but Woolf hit me in my first year of grad school. I just loved Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. I love how close she was to her characters, how the voice of the novel was like the brain voice of her characters from the inside. I'd never felt that close to another consciousness before. And then I felt the same way with David Foster Wallace, whom I didn't even start reading until after he passed away. After his death, I picked up some of his work and just couldn't believe that I had been missing out for all those years.
|| Q: It's neat that you were such a fan of Irving, because there's a NYT article that compares you to Irving, who compares you to Dickens. How did that feel, one of your heroes giving such praise?
NH: We met earlier that year, coincidentally. My wife and I were taking a vacation in January to Oslo, Norway, weirdly enough, after we found some really really cheap tickets. By then I had sold the Norwegian translation [of The Nix], and so I emailed my publisher and said, "I would love to meet you, I'm gonna be in Oslo. Let's have lunch," and she said that, as it turned out, John Irving would be in town, and they publish him in Norwegian too, so she invited all three of us to get together.
We went to this event and then had dinner with John Irving, and that's how he and I met. And it was just because we happened to be in Oslo, of all places, at the same time, and because we happened to have the same publisher there. So we met and really hit it off. Mostly I was just trying to be cool and not be a total fanboy. We exchanged information, and after we both returned home, he read an advanced copy of the book and he really liked it. And he's just been a champion ever since -- he's been really amazing. And given he was so important in my own development as a writer has been, obviously, super cool.
|| Q: How did it feel to cut down the 1,000+ page manuscript?
NH: It felt good. I knew that the book didn't need to be that long, and it was. Mostly, the book was that long because I allowed myself to go down any rabbit hole I wanted to go down. If anything seemed interesting, I would pursue it. The result was a lot of really self-indulgent stuff that needed to be cut back later.
I think it's very seductive to treat the world or other people as enemies or obstacles or traps. But what writing does for me is convinces me that everybody's really a puzzle.
For example, there's a chapter very early in the book, where Samuel is playing his video game with his guild, and they're trying to kill a dragon. In the first draft of the novel, the guild has something like twenty people, and instead of focusing just on Samuel, Samuel was one of twenty people, and any time I mentioned another member of the guild, I would race through their ethernet connection and pop out in their living room or their den or whatever, and then tell a couple pages of their story, and why they're playing the game. So it was like twenty tiny short stories in one chapter, which was completely abusive, and it was a terrible idea. However, one of those twenty characters was Pwnage, the guild leader, and I realized that this character really spoke to me. So I cut out the other nineteen characters, and kept Pwnage.
One of the things that I needed to do to cut back the thousand pages was get rid of all of that writing that I did that was, essentially, almost like spinning my wheels until I figured out the good stuff. Often, I would write fifteen pages and then realize what I should be writing about. And then I'd write fifteen pages more and then cut the first fifteen. And I never felt bad about that, because the writing did its job. It helped me find the good stuff. It was actually easier than you'd think, to cut 300, 400 pages from a novel, because a lot of it was that kind of stuff: the writing you do before you figure out the actual writing.
For me, I never know what's good. It takes a while. It takes me letting it sit around and be in my notebook for a long time before I come back to it and figure out whether it's any good. I try to write without any sort of judgement. I put it all down and then trust that I'll figure it out later.
|| Q: You wrote an essay for Powell's where you discuss playing Dungeons & Dragons by yourself. You said that these were the first stories you created. Do you remember the first story you wrote, and what role playing D&D alone may have played in that?
NH: The stories that I created playing D&D by myself, I never wrote them down; they existed in my head. But it was the act of creation, like I said in the essay. I had some adventures and I had a world, but I didn't know when I started playing what would happen. Suddenly, from somewhere, these stories would happen. They emerged from the playing of the game. I thought that was really, really cool. Sometimes, I liked that more than playing with the Dungeon Master's Guide.
I always find within myself much more empathy, much more willingness to encounter another perspective, when I'm writing.
The first story I remember writing, and I only remember it because we still have evidence of it, was a choose your own adventure" book that I wrote in the third grade, called "The Castle of No Return" that I actually describe pretty faithfully in The Nix. I wrote it, illustrated it, and the teacher in my third grade class read it aloud to the students, which I just thought was the best thing ever. Unlike actual choose your own adventure books -- where every choice leads to a different narrative, and any way you go it's sort of a narrative hole -- with this one, the choices were more, "Would you like to take the door on the left or the door on the right?" And if you took the door on the left, you would die. Really not a great plot, but it was the best I could do in third grade. That was obviously inspired by choose your own adventure more than D&D specifically, but I know that I was, at that time, really into all those kind of immersive and interactive reading experiences, choose your own adventure or roleplaying books or D&D.
|| Q: Would you say that you wanted to be a writer at a young age? Or was it a hobby for you?
NH: I really did want to be a writer. I remember writing stories on my mom's typewriter when I was growing up, it was just something that I did. My parents were completely terrified that I wanted to do this thing. They come from farm families, where there hasn't been an artist on either side of the family for generations. So they had no idea how I'd ever make a living as a writer, and they very much encouraged me to do it as a hobby on the side, and then go to college for something that would make me money. They were very much like, "Why don't you do that as a hobby on the side, and then go to college for something that will make you money?" And that was persuasive to me for a couple years. So when I started college, I was a Biomedical Engineering major for a couple years, and that lasted for a little while until I realized that I was way way way more passionate about creative writing than I was about differential equations. And so I changed my major.
|| Q: Lastly, who is your favorite character in literature, and why?
NH: I guess I might say Mrs. Dalloway, from Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf's novel. Not because of anything in particular that she does, but because reading her was really one of the first times when I felt like I was in someone else's brain. I felt: "Yes, this is what it's like to be human." So it's less about the character and who she is and what she does. It’s much more about how she's rendered on the page. That was so amazing to me, that these little marks in ink could invoke the kind of telepathy we're actually incapable of. That seemed like a miracle to me.