Naples resident Nathan Hill, an acclaimed short-story writer and English professor, just released his first novel, The Nix (Knopf, 2016).
Its protagonist, Samuel Andresen-Anderson, is a professor and struggling writer. His mother, who abandoned him when he was a child, appears decades later in the news for committing a seemingly politically motivated crime—pelting the ultra-right-wing governor of Wyoming with a fistful of stones. The plot revolves around Samuel’s mission to uncover secrets of the past to find out who his mother really is and help her out of trouble. It’s an epic tale crisscrossing many decades.
Even before its release, the book raked in glittering accolades from the likes of Kirkus and Publishers Weekly. It even elicited praise from the great author John Irving, who said it’s “a mother-son psychodrama with ghosts and politics, but it’s also a tragicomedy about anger and sanctimony in America.”
Hill’s wife, Jenni, plays bassoon with the Naples Philharmonic.
Meet Nathan Hill at the Naples Barnes & Noble September 19.
NI: The book’s early buzz has been great…
Hill: It’s been pretty amazing so far. We just got our first couple of reviews coming out in the last few weeks. A lot of publishers and editors around the world have liked it, but they are insider folks. It’s nice to see actual readers taking to the book as well.
What’s your Naples story?
I moved to Naples in 2006. I’d been in New York before that. I moved because of a girl, my now wife, Jenni. She plays bassoon with the Naples Philharmonic. She’d just gotten the job in Naples and we’d been going back and forth between New York and Florida for a few years. Then I got a teaching job at FGCU, so I came for that in 2006. I left in 2012 to take a different teaching job in the Twin Cities. I did that until 2015 when the book deal happened, and I decided take time off from teaching and devote myself to writing full time. We moved back to Naples when that happened. It was partly because my wife loves playing with the Naples Philharmonic, but frankly, after living in Naples for six years, it’s hard to leave, especially for a place as cold as Minnesota. We’ve got an incredible group of friends, but in terms of the town, there’s obviously the beaches and the weather and almost frighteningly beautiful landscaping. But I think my favorite thing is probably the pace and vibe of the city. It’s cosmopolitan without being too pretentious. We go to Miami every once in a while to enjoy a weekend, and that’s exciting, but we feel like we can breathe easier when we’re back in Naples.
How did you come to pen a 640-page tome?
It began in 2004 with the first words I put on a page that ended up being a part of The Nix. My first impulse was a short story, but it kept growing and growing, and I came to a point where I would just allow myself to go where the story wanted to go.
Do you and Samuel share any traits?
Some. He’s a university English professor, which I was for 10 years, and he feels very anxious about his lack of success, which I was feeling pointedly while I was composing the book. There comes a time when you tell all your friends and family that you want to be a writer, and you go to school for it; you come out of school, and everyone expects, okay, it’s time for you to be a writer now. And 10 years later you have very little to show for yourself, writing-wise. So I poured that anxiety into Samuel’s character. Where he diverges is, he is much more cynical about the whole thing. He doesn’t like teaching, he doesn’t like his students, and he hates himself for his lack of success. I’m more forgiving of myself and I genuinely liked teaching and my students.
John Irving called The Nix a “tragicomedy.” Do you agree?
That was a great way to talk about it. The book is talking about pretty serious issues, like failure and success, parental abandonment, protests, rioting, politics, advertising, video-game addiction, and so on. I couldn’t just dump all this heavy stuff on a reader. There have to be moments of lightness, too. A lot of the book is, I hope, funny.
Do you consider yourself a funny guy?
I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s a lose-lose for me. If I say no I seem boring, but if I say yes, I seem like I’m really full of myself. I asked my wife, and her answer was yes, but more witty-funny, not life-of-the-party funny.
The Nix refers to a Norwegian myth. Do you have a Norway connection?
My mother’s side of the family emigrated from there 80 years ago, first to Minnesota, ultimately to Iowa. They were a farm family. The Norwegian connection has been severed and we don’t know anyone there. My great-grandfather didn’t talk about it too much. My mom remembers her mom saying he was from Hammerfest, the northernmost city in the world. There’s a mystery about it; we don’t know why he left. His silence on the matter was just delicious for me. I kind of filled it in in The Nix. I kind of gave myself a family history, albeit a fictional one. There’s a character who emigrates from Norway to Iowa under shadowy circumstances.
Who are your favorite novelists and what books have blown you away?
Oh gosh. My favorite writers tend to be those who write in what I call a brain voice. You read them and you get a sense of what it must feel like to be inside their skull, that close to the surface way they see the world. Those stylists who could really pull it off would be Virginia Woolf, a book like Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse. I love David Foster Wallace, his book The Pale King and Infinite Jest are really big deals for me. Someone like Donald Barthelme, his short stories capture his voice and humor really well. Those three authors are my personal favorites.
Do you have other talents?
I play a whole lot of tennis in Naples. My friend and I just won a doubles championship at the Clay in May tournament in Cambier Park. It’s not like I’m turning professional or anything, but in my division we did quite well. I play a good five days a week.
How else do you like to spend your leisure time in Naples?
My wife and I love the combination of “indoors-outdoors” adventures Naples provides. Indoors, we love going to Mercato or Fifth Avenue South for a drink and enjoying restaurants. Outdoors, we go kayaking in the Ten Thousand Islands, and to Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary. Getting into the swamp, how can you not come to love Florida’s environment? It’s unique, prehistoric, and scraggly. I also play a lot of tennis. My friend and I just won a doubles championship at the Clay in May tournament in Cambier Park. It’s not like I’m turning professional or anything, but in my division we did quite well.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a novel now. I think it’s about marriage, but it’s in its infancy right now.