Nathan Hill sits at a table in front of the Anderson Student Center in a black T-shirt and sunglasses. It’s just after noon in early September on a sunny Sunday, and Hill is struggling to find the right way to describe the last couple weeks of his life.
It’s an understandable difficulty for several reasons: In those weeks, he has hit the first few East Coast stops of what will be a months-long global book tour launching his debut novel, The Nix, which already has been on The New York Times Best Sellers list since its release at the end of August. Even before it hit bookstores the story was met with widespread national acclaim: The New York Times' review compared Hill to author John Irving, who in turn compared Hill to Charles Dickens.
“I’ll admit to some child-like giggling about that,” Hill said.
The book also has already been purchased for translation into 16 different languages, and was picked up by Warner Bros Television to become a show produced by “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams. The most decorated film actress alive, Meryl Streep, is co-producing and is slated to star as the protagonist’s mother, according to Deadline.
So, yes, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise these couple of weeks are tough to describe.
“It has been very strange,” Hill said. “Give me a year and I’ll know how to answer that.”
A backyard garden of a novel
Hill’s journey to this point has dotted the U.S. and involved plenty of writing adversity along the way. A native Iowan, Hill graduated from the University of Iowa and earned his master’s of fine arts at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. From there he went to New York City in 2004 to stake his claim as a writer, but a little more than a month into living there, his car was broken into and all his work – three years’ worth of stories and all their backups – were stolen. Needless to say, it was a devastating blow and somewhat set the tone for an unsuccessful run of writing in New York.
Life went on, though, and Hill worked as a journalist and a website editor, taught writing at Florida Gulf Coast University and came to St. Thomas in 2012. Throughout that whole time he was working on The Nix, and until 2014 no one knew about it except his wife.
“I almost thought of it like a garden you keep in the backyard. No one keeps a garden to get famous. No one thinks their garden is a failure if no one else sees it; it’s just fun to keep a garden,” Hill said. “That’s what the book was to me for a lot of years – this thing that gave me pleasure to work on an hour or two a day.”
Hill packed the book (the first draft was 1,000 pages) with “every good idea I had” over that decade-plus, he said in an interview with MPR, before finally bringing a manuscript to his agent in 2014. Those ideas range in topic from the story’s main arc – a mother-son relationship – to multiplayer video games, Norwegian mythology, the 1968 Chicago riots and choose-your-own adventure books. While Hill said some of the historical and foreign settings (including a chapter based in Iraq) required a lot of research, the vast majority of the story is derived from his own life experiences: The protagonist is an English professor and struggling writer; his love interest is a classical musician, just like Hill’s wife; and the mother character’s biography is “exactly like my own mother’s.”
“I felt like I have automatic authority over that material,” Hill said. “A lot of the details are familiar, but I tweak those pieces of my real life to serve the story. Sometimes I make them really brutal when in real life they’re not. The character in the book, for example, really hates teaching, dislikes his students and is at the end of his rope. And I really like teaching a lot. My students here were fantastic, but that doesn’t make for good drama. Someone who likes their job isn’t very good fiction.”
As the critical acclaim for the book kicked into high gear in late August it became more clear that Hill has produced very good fiction in his debut.
“It broke my heart, this book. Time after time. It made me laugh just as often. I loved it on the first page as powerfully as I did on the last,” National Public Radio’s review reads. “Nathan Hill? He’s gonna be famous. This is just the start.”
Autographs and oatmeal
For now, Hill is enjoying negotiating the everyday routines that haven’t changed (bestselling authors still clean the kitchen and make their own morning oatmeal at home) with a lot more attention than he’s experienced before.
“It has been really fun connecting with people on the tour, hearing their questions and getting to sign books,” Hill said. “Everyone who has said something nice on Facebook or Twitter – I’ve tried to respond. These are readers who bought the hardcover the first couple weeks it’s out; I want to be available and say thanks to them.”
Hill is entering his second year of leave from St. Thomas to continue focusing on the book, and there are many Tommies happy to see one of their own earn this kind of acclaim.
“The entire department is thrilled with Nate's success. It's the kind of situation that the cliche 'couldn't have happened to a nicer guy' was coined for,” English Department chair Amy Muse said. “And it's all happened so quickly! A year and a half ago Nate had just been tenured and promoted to associate professor in the English Department; I remember writing in my letter for his tenure review that I thought he would become an author not just widely published and admired, but beloved. I'd been so taken with the warmth and humanity of his writing, and clearly millions of others feel the same way.”
Hill is scheduled to return to St. Thomas on Oct. 11 for a book reading and signing at 7:30 p.m. in the O’Shaughnessy-Frey Library. The event is free and open to the public.