Nathan Hillís debut novel digs deep into a mother-son relationship

September 12, 2016

If you were in the sixth grade, and your mother left your family and you never heard from her again, where might that leave you?

Although itís unclear exactly how much his motherís abandonment has affected Samuel Andresen-Anderson, 23 years later thereís no doubt that the English professor has gotten himself in a bit of a mess. Heís stuck. While once he was hailed as one of the countryís best new writers in an influential magazine that ran one of his stories, heís been unable to write a contracted novel, and heís spent the entire advance his publisher gave him.

Heís upside-down on his mortgage. Heís lost the love of his life. Heís spending way too much time playing the addictive computer game "World of Elfquest," and then, one day, when he confronts one of the sophomores in his Introduction to Literature class who has turned in a plagiarized paper, he kind of loses his cool and ends up saying some inappropriate things.

And thatís when he gets a call from a lawyer about his mother, who turns out to be not only alive but also in Chicago, just down the highway from the small suburban university where he teaches.

She has also just thrown handfuls of stones at Wyomingís Gov. Packer, a gun-toting presidential candidate with a "preacher-slash-cowboy pathos and an anti-elitist populism," and she is under arrest.

So begins Nathan Hillís brilliant debut novel, "The Nix," a big, ambitious, deliciously sprawling novel that centers on a complicated mother-son relationship rooted in Samuelís childhood but also in his mother Fayeís own mysterious past.

With a tight rein on a complex plot, Hill takes readers from Samuelís present-day conundrum back to the summer of 1998, when his mother left, and then further back to 1968, the year his mother left her dysfunctional family on their farm in Iowa and enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, just in time for the protests-turned-riots at the Republican National Convention.

Each step of the way, Hill dives deep into the details of his charactersí daily lives, taking readers into the charactersí thoughts and feelings through gorgeously written, precise language. The narrative whips delightedly from funny to profound on a ride that covers the broad landscapes of popular culture, politics, social conflict, traditional legends and family dynamics.

Hillís vivid imagination creates worlds within worlds, seamlessly mixing in enough historical fact to ground the story in realism. The novel beautifully explores a wide range of ideas and situations, from the relatively mundane (video games, Choose Your Own Adventure books, senior proms, young love and the power of advertising) to the seriously heartbreaking (vengeance and anger, betrayal, childhood trauma, abandonment, child abuse and broken spirits) to the sublime (the possibilities of understanding, healing and positive change).

One of the central ideas is, of course, that of a "nix," something Faye learns about from her Norwegian father and then Samuel learns from Faye.

The nix is a water spirit who appears to children as an irresistible white horse. Riding the horse gives children the thrill of a lifetime, filling them with happiness. But the horse keeps running when it approaches a cliff, pulling the children down to a horrifying death.

The moral according to Faye: "The things you love the most will one day hurt you the worst." Itís a rich conceit that Hill uses deftly throughout the work to poke, prod and portray the intricacies of love.

We asked Hill, a native Iowan who is an English professor, to tell us more about himself and the story behind "The Nix."

Q: This novel is deliciously abundant with ideas, themes and characters. What was the starting point? Where did the first spark come from?

A: The inspiration 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 more permanent digs, just a bedroom in a house that I shared with guys who all worked on the same road crew. Whenever they werenít at work, they would eat hot dogs and play enormous amounts of "Call of Duty," usually in their underwear. So I didnít 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/Cheneyís 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: Iíd found a new apartment, but there was this awkward day where I had to be out of my sublet in the morning but couldnít 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 Iíd 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 Iíd recently seen: the protests of the Republican National Convention.

I didnít know it at the time, but that was the starting point for "The Nix."

And one of the things that I kept hearing in the run-up to the 2004 convention ó from the talking-head cable news type people ó was that it was going to be the most contentious since the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where there were protests and riots and violence in the streets.

And this gave me a very basic premise for a story: a mother who attended the í68 protest, her son who attended the í04 protest. That was all I began with.

Q: Where did the concept of a "nix" come from ó is it something you discovered, or something you developed?

A: The nix is a character from Scandinavian folklore ó my motherís family emigrated here from Norway, so Iíve always had a soft spot for these stories.

A nix is a spirit of the water that is variously known as a nixie, neck, nÝkken 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, itíll 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.

This resonated with me for a couple reasons. First, because I was writing this during a recession that was brought on, in part, because of our trust in things we thought were safe ó things like mortgage-backed securities, unstoppable housing growth, sovereign debt, the retirement fund youíve been building for years.

Things that everyone thought were so safe they were essentially risk-free. But as it turned out, the best things hurt us the worst.

And second, the more emotional reason: 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.

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 whose retirement is ruined by the very company heís been working for, a gamer betrayed by the video game heís obsessed with, a college student undermined by the electronic devices that give her life meaning. And so on.

Q: This book is so expansive it makes me wonder about how you put it all together. Did you start with a big picture and gradually fill in the details, or did the plot develop as you were writing?

A: The book came very slowly, very gradually. After I had finished grad school and began thinking of myself as a quote-unquote "writer" for the first time, the writing I did then was very bad, very career-oriented.

I was writing because I felt in competition with the other writers I went to school with, or because I needed to fatten up my CV to get access to jobs and grants, or because if I published in a certain tier of journal then maybe agents and editors would begin paying attention to me, or because I wanted to convince my parents I hadnít made a huge mistake, doing this whole writing thing.

And during this time I did a lot of writing, and a lot of it was mediocre, but it lacked a fundamental warmth and truth, I think. It lacked heart and intimacy.

Paradoxically, trying to impress people with my writing guaranteed that my writing was pretty unimpressive. I wrote about 150 pages of material on Faye, then abandoned the whole thing for a couple of years.

And I felt a lot of anxiety about failing to become this successful writer, and so eventually I channeled that anxiety into the novel. And it turned out, that was the spark the novel needed.

It was a paradox: I only began writing well once I thought I was a failure at writing. It wasnít until I thought my opportunity had passed me by that I could write something true. Thereís probably something very Zen in that: The only way to achieve enlightenment is to no longer pursue it.

Anyway, when I finally came back to writing The Nix, I decided to drop out of the whole competitive querying-and-publishing thing. I just wrote, and I didnít tell anyone about it. For years, nobody had any idea what I was doing.

Q: One of your characters, "Pwnage," is completely obsessed with a video game and one of your chapters is devoted to the day he decides to quit. I have two questions about this amazing chapter. First, do you play video games?

A: Not really, not anymore. Though there was one I played a lot.

After all my stuff was stolen in New York, and after I replaced my 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 MMORPG (which, if you donít know, stands for massively multiplayer online role-playing game).

Itís not an easy game, and it takes a whole lot of time to master, but I really threw myself into it. And I was surprised how effective this was at helping me through a pretty tough time: My writing wasnít going very well and my career was sort of stagnant and I wasnít making nearly enough money to live in NYC, but at least I had this game, I had this one thing that I could master.

Even after I left the city, I kept on playing, and became sort of a bad-aó elite player, until I realized that my ostensible reason for playing the game ó that I needed to take my mind off the real world ó 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 couldnít 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 Iíd developed for the game, how the game was both emotionally analgesic and artistically crippling, both soothing and debilitating.

Q: And now could you tell us about the writing of that chapter, which includes one stupendously long (11 or so pages) sentence.

A: I started with a simple sentence ó "Today was the day he would quit playing video games" ó and then I proceeded to list all the reasons I could think of that he couldnít possibly quit playing video games. And I was reading it to my wife and she asked if it was all one sentence. And it was true that, out loud, it sounded like one sentence, and then I became convinced that writing all his excuses as one sentence was actually the right way to capture what was going on with this character.

Because Pwnage has a basic problem negotiating what he wants his life to be like versus how he actually lives his life on a day-to-day basis. He really wants to start a new diet and renovate his house and write a mystery novel and win back his ex-wife, but at any given moment, on any given day, what he actually finds himself doing is playing video games, meanwhile promising himself that someday soon he will totally do all those other things.

So I wanted it to feel like between his real life and the life he actually wants is this enormous wall of excuses and terrors and neurobiological blocks.

Thatís why I did it as one sentence. I wanted it to feel overwhelming.

Q: The novel takes place during an election year and features a "normal, nonelite" presidential candidate from Wyoming who is popular especially among blue-collar white conservatives. Heís a candidate who would seem right at home in our current election season. Was this just lucky timing on the bookís release?

A: Lucky timing ó I wrote that material three or four years ago. I wish I could say that I was really prescient about the current political season, but actually I was just trying to come up with something properly absurd.

Watching this election unfold, though, itís a serious case of the truth being stranger than fiction.




McClatchy-Tribune Information Services