Meaning Effects: An Interview With Author Nathan Hill

Sean Kitching talks to the author of The Nix and Wellness about placebos, conspiracies, swingers clubs, and getting blurbed by John Irving

Nathan Hill photo by Michael Lionstar

When Nathan Hill’s debut novel, The Nix, appeared in August 2016, its contemporary take on the ‘Great American Novel’ received some heavyweight endorsements. The Guardian described it as “a deeply engaging American epic”, while other reviews suggested kinship with popular authors such as John Irving, Tom Wolfe, Michael Chabon and Donna Tartt. Perhaps the most substantial endorsement of the book came from Irving himself, whose quote naming Hill as “the best new writer of fiction in America” appeared on its front cover.

According to Hill, Irving was a big deal for him coming up. “As a young man living in Iowa City, wanting to be a novelist – as Irving’s novels are basically all about young men living in Iowa City wanting to be novelists – as the lingo goes these days, I felt seen.” The recommendation from Irving came about accidentally, however.

Hill and his wife were vacationing in Norway after selling the translation rights to The Nix. The book had not yet come out and Hill emailed his publisher, telling her they were going to be in Oslo and asking if she’d like to meet for coffee. They were also the Norwegian publishers of John Irving, and Irving was going to be in town the same day. Hill continues: “My wife and I went to dinner with my Norwegian publisher and John Irving. I was so intimidated by the whole thing that I didn’t even mention that I was a writer. Mostly we just talked about Iowa City and I demanded that he told me stories about Kurt Vonnegut. It was a great dinner and that was that, I thought. Little did I know that my Norwegian publisher had slipped him my novel. Then, maybe two months later, my American editor and I got an email from John, completely unasked for, where he gave me this stunning blurb, the first I had gotten for The Nix”.

The Nix concerns Samuel Andresen-Anderson, a one-time successful writer teaching at a local college, whilst avoiding writing the follow-up he’s already been paid for by obsessively playing the online RPG, Elfquest. He hasn’t seen his mother since he was a child, but when she reappears in his life, ubiquitous in the news after throwing rocks at a Republican presidential candidate, he decides to capitalise on her newfound infamy by writing a tell-all biography.

The story moves from the rural Midwest of the 1960s to New York City during the Great Recession and Occupy Wall Street to the riots at the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, and finally to Norway and the meaning of the mysterious Nix. Despite its physical weightiness (640 pages), The Nix managed its philosophical themes with a rare lightness of touch and a generous sense of humour. It became a best-seller, published worldwide in over two-dozen languages, and was slated for production as a TV series by JJ Abrams’ Bad Robot Productions, with Meryl Streep set to play Samuel’s mother (and also produce).

Published in the US towards the end of 2023 (and the end of January in the UK), its follow-up Wellness builds on the successes of Hill’s debut, dispelling any doubts as to whether The Nix was a one-off. If anything, Wellness is funnier, more insightful, and more relevant to the times we are currently living through.

Ostensibly this is a Chicago-set love story between Jack, a photographer and adjunct art professor, and Elizabeth, the soon-to-be proprietor of Wellness, a company once concerned with debunking dubious fads but now in the business of using the placebo effect to ‘trick people’ into living happier lives. Yet the book contains a wealth of speculation on many subjects: the nature of marriage, how the stories we come to believe define our reality, and how the underlying processes which we are usually only dimly aware of – from psychological forces to Facebook algorithms – define one’s sense of self.

Wellness articulates questions concerning the nature of the rituals we use to define our daily reality. It also considers the psychological motivation behind its characters actions, letting them glimpse a little of the reasons behind who they are, but never enough to fully extricate themselves from the problematic elements of their lives. This aspect of the novel is also cleverly mirrored in ‘The Needy Users’, a section of the book which explains at length the effects upon Jack’s father, Lawrence Baker, of the Facebook algorithm. The algorithm is another unperceived program manipulating Lawrence’s sense of self, whilst allowing him the illusory freedom that he is (in a favoured phrase of conspiracy theorists) ‘doing his own research’. That Hill manages all of this with his customary lightness of touch, never appearing judgemental and offering so many laugh-out-loud moments, is one of the primary reasons why the book presents itself to the reader as an accessible and potentially joyous event. Which is why, along with Mathias Énard’s incredible The Annual Banquet of the Gravedigger’s Guild, it was my favourite new novel of 2023.

The book also made an impression on Oprah Winfrey, who made Wellness her 102nd Book Club selection in September 2023, and said of it: “This brilliant novel will leave you thinking about the truth of your own life and the stories we tell ourselves and each other”. Hill says: “The Oprah thing has mostly been really positive, but there are certain readers that have been ‘ah, no. It’s too popular for me’”. Another reviewer, in The Atlantic, compared Hill’s writing to Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. While there are similarities in terms of the wealth of information Hill’s work contains, such comparisons are also somewhat misleading, given that Hill’s work is far more accessible.

Hill says: “I feel like if I’m going to write a very long novel, I have a couple of things I need to do for the reader. One is to make it entertaining along the way. Have some humour, have some wit, some occasional zaniness. The second thing is to break my own patterns every once in a while. Sometimes you enter a [part of a] book that just feels very different.

“In Wellness, I do this, for example, with the algorithm section. It’s a sudden intrusion that is very different than the rest of the book. I feel the need to break my patterns every once in a while, so you’re not having a monotone experience. The third thing is I feel like I need to end on a hopeful note. If I ask you to read 600 pages and the book is a bummer at the end, it just seems pretty rude. [Other than that] I just try to write the books that I would want to read, that feel right for me, and however it lands it how it’s gonna’ land, people can make up their own minds about that.”

Hill continues: “The book is an argument against feeling too certain about anything. I wanted to try to make the reader feel embodied in that argument. In order to avoid being completely hypocritical, I needed to leave a large space for the characters and therefore the reader to fill in for themselves. Any time you feel like you’ve got too comfortable with any kind of knowledge, I wanted to upend that knowledge. Part of it is just a technique that’s fun for me and one that keeps the reader interested, but it’s also just thematically embedded into the dramatic argument of the book, which is to always believe anything with a certain amount of curiosity and humility because you never know quite which story is true.”

Hill was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1975. His grandparents had been soybean and cattle farmers and, due to his father being regularly transferred in his job at Kmart, Hill lived in various locations in the Midwest – mirroring to some extent Wellness character Jack Baker’s background. When he was in college and grad school, the internet was brand new and the notion of gatekeeper-free access to information still seemed potentially revolutionary.

“I was definitely one of those internet utopians,” Hill recalls. “So, imagine my horror, starting in roughly 2015–2016, when I started noticing people on Facebook saying some very strange things. It was horrifying that when presented with all of the information that the internet has to offer, that some people chose to believe just total garbage. I guess that’s their choice but what’s really been a struggle for me is how people can believe it with so much certainty. I think that’s emotionally where this book is coming from. Looking around at people whose losses [to social media rabbit holes] I mourned.

“What I’ve come to decide is that it’s kind of useless debating the ins-and-outs of any particular conspiracy theory – or, for that matter, wellness product. What’s more important is analysing the underlying need that is being met by the conspiracy or product or whatever. Those needs can be pretty plain and obvious. People are hurting. They are feeling like they are irrelevant. Like they’re one medical emergency away from bankruptcy, that they’re one business reshuffle away from losing their jobs. I think it’s a deeply precarious moment. And it’s a powerful message when you’re talking to people who feel themselves to be hurting: not only is it not your fault but others are out to get you and, further, you’re the real Americans. That’s a very seductive message.”

Central to the book’s many themes is the notion of ‘wellness’ itself, whether viewed as placebo effect or ‘meaning effect’. In 2002, American anthropologist Dan Moerman proposed replacing the term “placebo effect / response” with the term “meaning response”. Moerman argued that people are not responding to placebos, since there is nothing to respond to, they are instead responding to meanings. Or as Elizabeth puts it during a moment of revelation that results in her attempting to use the effect for the good of her patients: “It’s all about the ritual”. Homeopathy, ritual magick, positive affirmations – I suggest to Hill that all of these processes are primarily about operator intent and to some extent this is an area in which humans can act as the authors of their own stories.

Hill agrees but with an important caveat. “I think it’s absolutely true that if you are purposeful, you have goals in mind and think about steps to reach that, you will be more successful at achieving those things than someone who is not. I think where that idea slides into error is the absolute certainty that that’s all happening because, for instance, the universe is a gigantic hologram that responds to positive or negative energy, and when you believe it that rigidly, it has all sorts of consequences that I find really upsetting. I’m aware of people who, because they believe this so strongly, refuse to get any health insurance or life insurance because this will attract the bad things because it makes me think about the bad things. I find that type of thinking really unhelpful at community building. I think it makes one feel pretty good about oneself, but it’s very bad for the nation.”

Hill adds: “The next logical step should be that there is no reality and I’m not sure that’s somewhere I would want to go. I think more it’s about being mindful about the stories that we believe in. One of the foundational moments of this book was: I had this friend who I thought was spending way too much on wellness practices that I thought were deeply suspicious. I looked at all these things that he was doing, these $30 shots of turmeric juice or whatever, and I was deeply convinced that he should not be paying such money for things that were fake. Finally, kind of angry at me, he said, ‘what does it matter if they’re fake, if they make me feel better?’ And that question sort of haunted me. I felt very strongly that he should not be paying for things that are fake, but then on the other hand, if they are making him feel better, who am I to judge?

“Then the pandemic happened and then January 6 happened, and I was like, this is what happens when people just believe what makes them feel better. It can lead to some really disastrous things. So, I think there needs to be some kind of conversation, some kind of back-and-forth between a collective reality and the individual stories that you believe in. I think those things need to check each other quite a lot.”

Another trademark of Hill’s writing is his inherent generosity. Even though I felt an initial dislike of many of the book’s characters for a variety of reasons, there is always a side that emerges to them that either endears them to the reader in an unexpected way, or at the very least makes them more interesting than they appeared at first consideration. Characters that have a dark or even villainous aspect are often not what they first appear to be. Brandie, the ‘universe gives back the energy you transmit’ type, and also Jack’s father, who we first learn of as a casualty of Facebook rabbit holes before we meet him as an actual person, are both entirely believable as flawed human beings.

Hill says: “It’s my own impulse. As soon as I start writing a villain, I’m like, ‘now I’m being unfair to this person’, so what’s actually going on there is: the more I write about them, the less villainous they actually become. I’m in Florida. It’s interesting and I guess this is part of my point in the algorithm section, which is like, if you believe click-bait journalism that basically just uses Twitter fights as a way to find a news peg, you would believe that everybody in America is just at each other’s throats constantly and that is not for the most part true. I live in a deeply conservative part of Florida, and for the most part everybody gets along pretty well, and then we fight online about certain things. It’s very strange. It’s almost psychotic. Like day-to-day, it’s very pleasant but as soon as I get online and see who my neighbours are, it’s like, ‘you believe what?’ and there’s this kind of fracturing of my sense of home or safety. It’s a strange place to be right now, for sure.”

Regarding Elizabeth, Hill adds: “She was a real challenge for me to write because I would read some of these chapters to my wife, which is one of our rituals after I finish a first-draft chapter. She would hear these chapters and just shake her head and be like, ‘everybody’s going to think that this is me!’ It was hard finding the right balance for her. There are early drafts where she’s much crueller than she is in the final draft, and drafts where she’s much nicer, but I wanted to find this magic place. She has secrets and she’s got a lot of armour and so trying to depict that at the beginning was a real headache-producer, to give the reader just enough information to be interested in figuring out where this woman is coming from but not be too off-putting. When I’ve talked to readers, some have your reaction and really didn’t like her. Other readers, and I’m thinking of a reader who approached me in Washington DC and told me that she herself was polyamorous and all of her partners loved the book, and she thought Elizabeth was great and really sided with her.”

As the subject of polyamory comes up, I ask Hill if he and his wife have ever been to a swinger’s club, since that scene has a certain authenticity to it. Hill laughs: “You’re trying to get me in trouble! It seemed like an obvious thing to put in the book. I have friends who are swingers. I have friends who are polyamorous and what I appreciate about them is they’ve found a different story to tell. They think that monogamy forever is not quite right for them. It is right for plenty of other people, but I really appreciate that they’ve found a story that works for them. It just seemed to me that it would be dramatic and probably comic to introduce Jack and Elizabeth to that different story.”

I ask Hill about his formative influences, the writers (other than John Irving) who inspired him to become a writer himself. Hill describes being in college: “reading books that frankly I found a little ponderous and dull. Then in a creative writing class, the teacher assigned me the work of an avant-garde writer named Donald Barthelme. I read a couple of short stories by him and then went out and found his two big collections, Sixty Stories and Forty Stories and read the whole thing immediately.

“What struck me about Barthelme is, first of all, I was laughing so much reading him and I didn’t know that was allowed. It was maybe the first time that I had ever laughed at English homework. Then, second, he was very smart, while also being totally madcap, really zany and whimsical and I really loved that quality about him.

“Then in grad school – I came to her very late – I started reading Mrs Dalloway [by] Virginia Woolf. The way she dramatises the interiority of the mind was just stunning to me. In some ways, I feel like the project of my writing career has been to fuse these two impulses, the kind of zany humour of Barthelme with the interiority and the finding-interest-in-the-drama-of-everyday-life that Woolf has.”

I ask Hill what became of the proposed The Nix adaptation, first announced many years ago. Hill says: “We lost momentum. Things were looking pretty good and then the pandemic happened and everything stopped. Now we’re trying to resurrect it from square one. My agent remains eternally optimistic but in my head I’ve kind of moved on.

“Currently I’m putting together ideas for a new novel. I didn’t think I had an idea in me for a new book and then I saw a news story and I was like, yeah, this is something I’d like to do something with. It’s just in its infancy right now and I’m playing with it. Then, hopefully there’s going to be some kind of Wellness adaptation. We don’t know yet but I would love to be involved in that too. We’ll see.”

Wellness by Nathan Nill is published by Picador. Hill will be appearing at Oxford Literary Festival and at Foyles in London on 20 March

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