Nathan Hill's The Nix, rightly one of this year's most heralded debut novels, revolves around mysterious events that took place during the violent, history-making Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
But the 40-year-old author says that when he first had the idea for the book more than a decade ago, he had never even heard about the mass demonstrations and police riot in Grant Park.
"I wrote the first words" of what would become The Nix, Hill says, "while I was living in New York in 2004. There were Iraq War protests during the Republican convention at Madison Square Garden, and I went over to watch all the hubbub.
"Everyone kept saying, if what happened in Chicago in 1968 happens in New York, it could be terrible. I was so naive I said, 'What happened in Chicago in 1968?' "
He knows now. Indeed, he brings that intense time to life so effectively in The Nix it's hard to believe he didn't live it.
That verisimilitude is just one element that makes The Nix a terrific novel. Its 620 pages are packed with fascinating characters, stylistic brio, sharp satire and an intricate, surprise-filled plot that moves from the present to the 1960s and further with cool assurance.
The book is already reportedly in development for a TV series, with Meryl Streep and J.J. Abrams attached. And it has earned Hill glowing reviews comparing him to a pantheon of other contemporary authors: John Irving (who blurbed the book), Michael Chabon, Donna Tartt, Tom Wolfe, David Foster Wallace.
"I love all those comparisons because I love all those writers," Hill says. "But I have to smile and shake my head. I only have one book."
Hill is speaking by phone from Cambridge, Mass., on the third day of a book tour that will take him around the United States, Canada and Western Europe and last into December. (He'll be in Tampa today.)
An Iowa native, Hill earned a bachelor's degree in English and journalism from the University of Iowa and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. He taught writing for several years at Florida Gulf Coast University in Naples. Having lived in New York, Chicago and St. Paul, Minn., he's now back in Naples, where his wife is a bassoonist for the Naples Philharmonic.
"Moving from New York to Naples involved some culture shock," Hill says. "But Florida just seeps into your skin. I didn't realize how much I'd miss it until I went away."
Going away — from places and especially people — is a recurring theme in The Nix. Its main character is Samuel Andreson-Anderson (there's an explanation about that name in the book), a thirty-something college professor whose once-promising career as a fiction writer has ground to a halt. When he's not sparring, in an uproariously hilarious chapter, with an obnoxious student who defends plagiarizing a paper by saying that she bought it, so "I own it. It's mine. It's my work," he's spending endless hours slaying virtual dragons in an online game called Elfscape.
Samuel's life has been on a downward swing since his mother, Faye, abandoned him and his father suddenly and without apparent reason when the boy was 11. But, as the book begins, she reappears — all over the news, after she flings a handful of gravel at a blowhard candidate in the Republican primary for the 2012 presidential election. Her arrest is followed by the revelation that she was a dangerous radical who was arrested back in 1968, in Chicago, during that infamous convention.
None of this fits with Samuel's memories of his quiet, suburban, Iowa-raised mother. Faye's lawyer asks Samuel to help her, leading to an uneasy reunion. All this is complicated by the fact that Samuel has a publishing contract that has paid him a handsome sum for a novel he hasn't written yet. Then his editor, Guy Periwinkle, gives him an out: Instead of a novel, he can write a scathing tell-all about his mother, quickly, while she's news. That launches the plot of The Nix to travel through time and the points of view of many characters.
Originally, Hill says, he didn't conceive of so complex a book. "I had this story of two generations of protesters, a mother and a son. I floundered for a long time."
Meanwhile, he took the job at FGCU. "I threw myself into teaching, because I wanted to be good at it. And I threw myself into playing World of Warcraft. A couple of years ticked away, and I finally thought, what was I doing?" At that point, he started to "pour that anxiety" into the book, and Samuel became its main character.
But the events of 1968 were key. "I really wanted to get that right," Hill says. "I spent a long time doing research before I started writing about it in a big way. At first all I had were the cliches, the mediated images we all have, music and bell bottoms."
He read every book he could find about the era and especially the protests. "I spent long afternoons in the Chicago History Museum, going through boxes and boxes of newspapers, photos, broadsheets, pamphlets, fliers." He watched movies and interviewed people who had been there.
"I researched until I could write a scene in '68 without consulting a text. My wife has an expression about learning a piece of music: She wants to practice until it's under her fingers. I researched until I felt 1968 was under my fingers."
As the novel took shape, Hill says, "I gave myself permission to go down any rabbit hole, as long as writing it delighted me." That resulted in a manuscript of more than 1,000 pages, "a lot of it self-indulgent," that he shaped into The Nix. Its title comes from a story told by Faye's father, who emigrated from Norway, where the nix is a household ghost that can haunt a person forever; it also can take the shape of a beautiful white horse that coaxes a child to ride it — then runs over a cliff. The nix, Faye tells her son, teaches us that the thing we love most can hurt us most.
After more than 10 years, Hill is seeing the story of Samuel and Faye go out into the world. He's already "in the exploratory phase" on his next book, he says, about "marriage, authenticity, gentrification, the '90s," an era that presumably will call for less research.
He's enjoying the success but counting on friends and family to keep him grounded. "There was a story about me in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. It had a photo of me in Grant Park, wearing a black shirt." Immediately, he says, his friends started a caption contest on social media: "There was 'Peter Pan goes goth,' 'Emo elf spotted in park.' I have good friends."
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.