Novel Idea

St. Thomas professor Nathan Hill enjoying the success of The Nix.

To say that life has been a whirlwind for bestselling author Nathan Hill, an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas, would be an understatement. Last summer, his first novel, The Nix, was published to critical acclaim. In the words of the New York Times review, “The Nix is hugely entertaining and unfailingly smart.” The book made the NYT list of 100 Notable Books of 2016, and Hill has drawn comparisons to John Irving, Tom Wolfe and Michael Chabon.

Within a space of two weeks that Hill now describes as “stunning,” not only did he receive the glowing review, but was approached by Warner Brothers Television to sell the rights to adapt his story of the complicated lives of a mother, Faye, and her estranged son, Samuel, into a limited television series starring Meryl Streep, with J.J. Abrams serving as executive producer.

Hill, currently on a leave of absence from UST, spent more than nine years writing his novel which has as its linchpin the Chicago riots of 1968 and the 2004 protest of the Republican National Convention in New York City and the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests. The germ of the idea came to Hill in 2004, right after he had finished his M.F.A. and moved to New York City.

“The Republican National Convention was taking place and there were protests happening that some were comparing to what happened in Chicago,” says Hill. “I went down to Madison Square Garden and just spent time watching them.” He started to think about a story that would feature two generations of protestors, taking him more deeply into the idea of an estranged family, which he says “is comparable to the very nature of a protest—two sides who can’t communicate.”

As the novel progressed, the story grew to include characters integral to the lives of Samuel and Faye, who are brought together many years after Faye abandoned her son, his father Henry, and the Chicago suburbs.

“As I lived my life, parts of my life would creep into the book,” says Hill, who began his teaching career in Naples, Florida, before coming to UST in 2012 as an assistant professor of English. Like Hill, Samuel is a college professor. Early in the novel, Samuel finds himself having to defend himself after he (rightly) accuses a student of plagiarizing and she pushes back, unwilling to accept any sort of black mark on her record even though she knows she cheated. While this is a fictionalized incident, Hill says he believes that in today’s competitive academic environment, it’s the professors who are more interested in expanding students’ minds while college students are focused on the economic pressures of life post-college. “So, in some sense, we’re like ships passing in the night,” he says with a laugh.

Another character, Pwange, is almost inextricably entwined into the world of Elfscape, a fictitious video game, which he plays for literally days on end. Pwange and Samuel connect over their shared interest. In the past, Hill says he had the experience of playing a video game for 6 hours straight.

“I remember telling a friend that I would literally have the physical sensation of having my forehead feel 3 feet away from my face,” he says.

In addition to his work with the Nix series, where he will serve as a producer and creative consultant (no release date has been set yet), Hill says he has “another book waiting for me” and is already more than 50 pages into the project. He has been touring extensively for The Nix, both here and overseas. The novel’s title is based on folklore from Norway, a place Faye visits in the story. In 2017, a Norwegian edition will be released.

Of The Nix, Hill says that as a first-time novelist, he didn’t have high expectations for its success. “It’s a 620-page book and I was really aware that a lot of books don’t find their audience,” he admits. Writing his first novel was “a journey,” Hill adds, and he’s looking forward to going on another.