Sometimes, great art is born out of darkness. Nathan Hill was at a low point in 2004, having had all his possessions stolen out of his car while moving to a new apartment in the New York City borough of Queens. He witnessed the protests during the Republican National Convention, which had turned violent and ugly. For solace, he started playing the online role-playing game “World of Warcraft” and soon became addicted to it.
“Nothing else was going quite right for me,” Hill says about his New York City era. “I had just graduated from my MFA creative writing program [at the University of Massachussetts-Amherst] and had these fantasies of becoming a young writer. That turned out to be laughably wrong. I was getting rejection after rejection and was barely staying afloat. I was in my late 20s, and my life hadn’t turned out the way I had hoped. Everything felt out of control.
“But I could play ‘Warcraft’ at night and feel a sense of mastery and belonging and social acceptance — and even pride when I started getting really good at it. I was spending too much time there instead of reality, and I started to resent and dislike it.”
So the Iowa native, who had been previously published in several literary journals, pulled the plug on his gaming habit and started to work on a new piece of fiction inspired by what was happening in his life. Ten years later, what he intended to be a short story became “The Nix,” a rich and sprawling novel set over the course of five decades, about a college professor who is forced to re-establish a connection with his estranged mother after she is caught on video throwing rocks at a governor.
“The Nix” bears the ambitious sweep of a first-time novelist shooting for the moon and hitting the target. The story swoops from the riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention to the Iraq battlefield during the Gulf War. The point of view switches from a college student accused of plagiarism to a lonely man whose life is consumed by a computer game. The tone veers from satirical humor to poignant drama. One chapter is written in the style of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book. Another one is composed of a single sentence that spans 11 pages.
Hill, who lives in Naples with his wife, a classical musician, says the multitude of writing styles and characters contained in “The Nix” was a result of his experience writing short fiction.
“My first conception of ‘The Nix’ was going to be a short story, but it kept ballooning on me,” he says. “Looking back on my short-story work, I essentially had two different modes: One was what you might call domestic realism — families, boys and girls in love, sometimes children — and they were very serious and humorless. But I also wrote these other stories that were quirky and surrealist and were meant to be funny and engaging and were usually based on a very absurdist premise. I guess I figured out how to combine those two impulses, how to get to serious material without taking myself so seriously.”
With its breadth of themes and subject matter — political movements, TV news, social media, sexuality, family and parenting — “The Nix” is too big to adapt into a single film. But it has already been optioned by J.J. Abrams for a TV series, with Meryl Streep playing the role of the mom.
Big names such as Stephen King and John Irving have publicly praised Hill. He replies to almost every shout-out he gets on Twitter (“Those are awesome readers who are buying the book in hardback, so I want to say thanks to all of them”) and is in the middle of an international tour to promote the novel, which has been sold to 20 foreign markets, including Russia, Germany and Lithuania.
After the tour is over, Hill will return home to Naples to start working on a second novel. Although he had relocated from Florida to Minnesota in 2012 for a tenured teaching job, he and his wife decided to move back south after he sold the book.
“When I first moved here in 2006 — especially coming from New York City — Naples felt very quiet and homogenous,” he says. “In the years since then, the city has gotten a lot more dynamic and diverse and younger. When I moved to Minnesota, I would come back to visit occasionally, and I would get filled with nostalgia looking at the scrubby, almost Jurassic ecosystems of Florida, like its sharp, spiny plants. There’s no other place like it in the country. It’s so idiosyncratically itself. I hadn’t realized that I had gotten really attached to going out to the Everglades and canoeing and going out on the water. It’s something that I didn’t know I would miss when I left, but I missed it intensely.”