you were in the sixth grade, and your mother left your
family and you never heard from her again, where might
that leave you?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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).
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.
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
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.
asked Hill, a native Iowan who is an English professor,
to tell us more about himself and the story behind
This novel is deliciously abundant with ideas, themes
and characters. What was the starting point? Where did
the first spark come from?
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
didnít know it at the time, but that was the starting
point for "The Nix."
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.
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.
Where did the concept of a "nix" come from ó
is it something you discovered, or something you
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.
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.
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.
moral of the story seemed to me something like: The best
things can sometimes hurt you the worst.
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.
that everyone thought were so safe they were essentially
risk-free. But as it turned out, the best things hurt us
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Not really, not anymore. Though there was one I played a
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
And now could you tell us about the writing of that
chapter, which includes one stupendously long (11 or so
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
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.
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.
why I did it as one sentence. I wanted it to feel
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?
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
this election unfold, though, itís a serious case of
the truth being stranger than fiction.