Author prefers to let his tale unfold naturally on the page

Kelly Colvard of Northern Trust Events and Marketing, author Nathan Hill, Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society President Candace Humber
(McKenzie Images)

Nathan Hill spent about 10 years working on his first novel, "The Nix," and most of the time he wasn't exactly sure where the story was headed.

Hill, who attended college at the University of Iowa and earned a graduate degree in fiction writing from the University of Massachusetts, prefers not to work with an outline, which he finds too constricting and even boring.

"I like the process of discovery, when you're in the chair (at his writing desk) and you're not sure what's going to happen," said Hill, the featured author at the Jan. 25 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, held at the Fairmont Grand Del Mar hotel. "You learn to live with uncertainty and stress."

"The Nix," which takes place over several decades and on two continents, tells the story of a disaffected university professor who suffers from a monumental case of writer's block, and his mother, who abandoned her family when the professor was a boy. It is set against the backdrop of political protests in the 1960s and early 2000s. The book was published in 2016 by Alfred A. Knopf.

Hill's novel did well enough that he has traveled around the world giving talks about it, meaning that he had to give up his position as a university English professor in South Florida, where he lives with his wife, Jenni.

Although Hill is a product of the age of technology, and spent three years as a young adult playing the video game "World of Warcraft," (several of the characters in the novel are obsessed with gaming), Hill is old-fashioned when it comes to writing - he scribbled out the first draft of his novel long-hand.

"I like to slow way down (while writing) because I need a lot of time to imagine myself into a scene," said Hill in an interview before his talk.

By the time he was done, Hill said, he had trimmed some 400 pages from his original draft, a process he likened to a sculptor carefully hewing away the excess from a block of marble, until the finished piece emerges.

While the novel is not autobiographical, he took many details from his own life, and that of his family. For example, the character of the fictional mother, Faye, grows up in Iowa, as did Hill's own mother. And Hill's extended family is from Norway, which is where the character of Samuel, the writer/professor, learns some secrets about his own family.

"It's a book of fiction but all of it is inspired by real life in some way," Hill said.

Through much of the novel, Samuel wrestles with big questions, such as why his mother left him and his father, and what happened to her. The heartache faced by the young boy over his mother's departure is plain from the novel's opening sentences:

"If Samuel had known his mother was leaving, he might have paid more attention. He might have listened more carefully to her, observed her more closely, written certain crucial things down. Maybe he could have acted differently, spoken differently, been a different person. Maybe he could have been a child worth sticking around for," Hill wrote.

Hill dedicated the book to his wife, a classical musician, who became his sounding board while he wrote. Each night, he would read his latest pages aloud to his wife, eventually reading the entire book, albeit out of order.

Throughout the book, characters exhibit behavior that ends up being self-destructive, as they grapple with their personal issues.

"It's sort of a story about being honest with yourself, or introspective," he said.

Hill said his literary influences include the novelists John Irving, known for such books as "The World According to Garp" and "Cider House Rules," and Virginia Woolf, who wrote "To the Lighthouse" and "Mrs. Dalloway."

Hill, one of the first in his family to go to college, at first studied biomedical engineering, before switching majors to creative writing. Hill also worked as a reporter at a newspaper in Iowa before going on to teaching and publishing his novel.

While he hasn't written poetry, he said, in his fiction writing he strives for the "lyricism, rhythm and cadence" that poets use.

According to Hill’s website, The Nix was named the number one book of the year by Audible and Entertainment Weekly, as well as one of the year’s best books by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, Slate, Amazon, and others. The Nix was the winner of the L.A. Times Book Prize for First Fiction. The Nix is available at

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