In Norwegian folklore, a Nix is a spirit of the water, usually depicted as a horrible ogre, but sometimes as a beautiful white horse. “What I enjoy about certain Norwegian folktales is their insistence that the things of the world are not always what they seem,” says Nathan Hill, whose debut novel, The Nix (Knopf, Aug.), is a BEA Adult Buzz Panel pick. “They tell you not to trust your first impressions, that [life] is actually much more sinister and complicated.”
Hill’s novel tells the story of Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a college teacher and frustrated writer, whose mother, Faye, abandoned him when he was a little boy in Iowa. After decades, Faye returns as a media sensation after being caught throwing rocks at a presidential candidate. Seizing the opportunity to write something his publisher will find worthy, Samuel capitalizes on his mother’s sudden fame by writing a tell-all biography.
Writing about a mother-son relationship was a challenge for Hill, but more so for his mother. “She is warm and supportive and all-around a much better person than [Faye],” says Hill, “but whenever I’d need a particular ‘mother’ detail I’d pull it from [her] life. So the character in The Nix is an awful person who shares my real mom’s biography.” There is also something of himself in Samuel, a character unsatisfied with his life and job, regretful about missed opportunities, and addicted to video games that temporarily numb him but leave him spiritually desolate. “I can relate to that,” says Hill. “I was there too at one time. The difference is that Samuel feels helpless, floating along with the current, and then blaming the current. I hope I’m a little more self-aware than that.”
Hill compares his writing strategy to a scene in Harry Potter. “Hermione puts a charm on her tiny handbag so that it carries her whole library, yet never runs out of room. That’s what it was like with this story. I kept stuffing it with more ideas, yet it seemed able to accommodate all of them.”
Hill appears on the BEA Buzz Panel today, 4:15-5:30 p.m., in room 183. Tomorrow he is signing at Doubleday’s booth (2433), 11:30–noon.
This article appeared in the May 11, 2016 edition of PW BEA Show Daily.