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Q&A with Nathan Hill

Published in the Sunday Times

The NixThe Nix
Nathan Hill, Pan Macmillan

If you could require our world leaders to read one book, what would it be?
For my own country’s leader, I would recommend Trump read Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, not only because of its lessons in introspection and self-knowledge, but also because, as one of the longest books in history, it might keep him occupied and away from Twitter for like a year or two.

Which books are on your bedside table?
After the success of The Nix, I’m being asked by editors and writers to “blurb” their books, which has been a great pleasure – it’s the first time in my life I’ve been able to read books before they come out! And for free! So my bedside table is filled with advance copies of novels that will be published next year.

What do you snack on when you write?
If the writing is going really well, I usually just completely detach from the world of physical things: I won’t hear the music playing, I won’t notice how long I’ve been sitting, and I won’t realise that I haven’t eaten anything in many hours. Which means that when I finish writing for the day I suddenly feel famished and cranky with hunger, which is pretty frustrating for my wife.

What is the strangest thing you’ve done when researching a book?
I did a lot of research for The Nix, but I’m not sure any of it would qualify as “strange”. I visited all the places where the riots of 1968 happened in Chicago. I read as many studies as I could find about the neurobiology of video game addiction. I watched YouTube video of American soldiers in Iraq traveling inside Bradley Fighting Vehicles. I found a certain Atari game from the ’80s so I could describe the noises it makes while you play it. I figured out the bureaucratic process by which the government places a person on the “no-fly list”. I walked around the campus of the University of Chicago for a whole day just to be able to accurately describe how terrible its architecture is. Things like that.

Has a book ever changed your mind about something?
This happens to me all the time, and I hope it happens to a lot of other readers too. I think it’s a requirement for being a good reader, that you have a mind that’s open enough for change. Otherwise, you’re just reading things you pre-agree with, which would be pretty boring.

You’re hosting a literary dinner with three writers. Who’s invited?
I like to laugh over dinner, so I’d probably invite my favorite funny writers: Zadie Smith, whose White Teeth is not only brilliant but also hilarious; BJ Novak, who wrote a hysterical story collection called One More Thing, and also wrote a pretty funny TV show called The Office; and David Sedaris, who’s just as fun to listen to as to read.

What novel would you give a child to introduce them to literature?
When I was young, my parents found this set of books at a garage sale, which included reprints of books like 20 000 Leagues Under the Sea, Huckleberry Finn, Treasure Island, The Call of the Wild, Lord of the Flies, even Moby Dick. I wouldn’t say that reading any one of those books in particular made me want to be a writer. Instead, it was the thrill of reading all of them – all the adventures I had, all the friends I made, in my head, in those pages – that made me want to write.

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
Once on Christmas I received John Irving’s A Widow for One Year, and I finished it before New Year’s.

What is the last thing that you read that made you laugh out loud?
Touch by Courtney Maum, which came out in the States this summer. It’s a novel about a trend forecaster, and it has some hilarious things to say about technology.

What keeps you awake at night?
Binge-watching Game of Thrones. If I see an episode or two right before bed, I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ll start obsessing about what Cersei’s up to, or start imagining assassins in the room.

What are you working on now?
I’ve been on tour for The Nix for more than a year now, and all this time the next novel has been marinating in my head. So when the tour is finished this fall, I’ll be able to get to work on this new story.

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