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Transcript

Episode 11: It's More Fun to Have Fun, with Nathan Hill

Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Paul Kix: 

Hello, and welcome to another episode of Now That's A Great Story, the podcast where we tell a single story from a single artist in the hopes of revealing an artistic worldview. I'm your host, Paul Kix. Today, Nathan Hill joins the show, the author of The Nix, a novel that's honestly one of the funniest, fastest-paced and emotionally satisfying books I've read in a really long time. Whenever people ask for book recommendations, a lot of times I bring usually The Nix. Today, we'll be dealing with a absolutely hilarious chapter, in large part because Nathan feels it's a big part of what he's trying to accomplish as a writer.Nathan, first and foremost, it's great to have you on. Thanks for joining me.

Nathan Hill:
Of course. Thanks for having me.

Paul Kix:
All right. We're going to talk about a particular excerpt of the book, but let's first set this up. What is, broadly speaking, The Nix about?

Nathan Hill:
Oh, goodness. That's a harder question than you'd imagine. My hometown newspaper called it the book about everything, which seems kind of accurate. There's a lot of stuff going on. I guess the emotional center of the story, the sort of spine, is a mother-son story where the mother, Faye, leaves her family when her son, Samuel, is 11 years old. She disappears one day and then he finds her again 20 years later, committing his absurd crime that has gone viral on the internet, and on television. He resolves to figure out, first, why she did this absurd thing. Then, also to try to figure out where she's been these last 20 years and why she left the family. Through that, we get into story telling about academia, video game addiction, Norwegian mythology and on, and on, and on. There's a lot of things that the books deals with. For me, at its heart, it's really that mother-son story.

Paul Kix:
It's, like I said just a minute, it is so much fun to read through. It a 600-plus page book, but it's one of those where I just felt like I just wanted it to keep going, and going. I don't know you feel about this, but if you take something like Bonfire of the Vanities, that was another really long, really funny, really a book with a big cast and trying to get at something that's happening in society. This book moves as well, and I had as much fun reading it as that one, or other books of this ilk.

Nathan Hill:
Thanks. I really appreciate that. I know that at some point I realized I was writing a large book. I didn't set out to write a door stopper, or in England they called it a burglar thumper, which I liked a lot. I didn't set out to write something that big. Once it became clear that the story was taking me in that direction, I didn't want to be punishing. I didn't want it to be a huge bummer the entire way through. I wanted to make sure that the reader had a little fun if they're going to stick with me for 600 pages.

Paul Kix:
Let's move on to the guy in particular we'll be talking about. You said this just before we went on air, but I've already forgotten how I'm supposed to pronounce his name. Pwnage?

Nathan Hill:
Pwnage, right. That's right. For people not familiar with that word, it's pronounced, or it's spelled P-W-N-A-G-E. It's based on this word pwn, P-W-N. Do you know the history of this word?

Paul Kix:
If it was in the book, then I'm forgetting it, so what is the history of the word?

Nathan Hill:
No, no. It's outside the book. I didn't explain it in the book at all. The pwn, P-W-N-, this word comes from, at least the mythology around this word, is that it comes from the early days of online gaming. If one player would defeat another player really badly, they might type something like, "You just got owned," but the P key is right next to O key on all standard keyboards Occasionally, there would be typo, "You just got pwned," P-W-N-E-D. The Internet being weird, the typo sort of stuck among gamer culture, and so now to pwn someone, anybody who spends any time online gaming will know this word. To pwn someone means to defeat them utterly at a video game.
I thought it would be hilarious that this character, you never figure out his real name. You only know his gamer name, his avatar handle, which is Pwnage. I like the idea that maybe a quarter of my readership would know what that word meant, and everybody else would be mispronouncing it in their heads the entire time. It just made me laugh.

Paul Kix:
What's funny is, I'm a big Audible guy, and... shout out to Audible. I read this that way, and I don't think that the narrator... You'd have to check. I don't think the narrator pronounced it Pwnage. I think it came off like Poonage or something like that.

Nathan Hill:
Is that right? I'd have to go back and listen to it. I thought the narrator of the audio book, Ari Beaca, did an extraordinary job, but I can't recall now how he pronounced this word. I'd have to go back and listen. 

Paul Kix:
Okay, so that's who he is. We're going to be picking up about half way through the novel. Can you give us a brief sense of who he is, and where we are meeting him in this point in time in the book?

Nathan Hill:
Sure. My main character, Samuel, he's a 30-something college professor who's sort of stuck. He is unsatisfied with his job. He's been trying to write a book unsuccessfully. Most of the time he spends every night playing this online video game called the World of Elfscape. Pwnage is Samuel's guild leader. He's the guy who, when all the gamers get together to go on a raid where they take all their avatars and try to defeat some monster somewhere, Pwnage is the guy who conducts the whole thing. They have met in real life for the first time, because Samuel needed someone to talk to, and he's realized that all his other friendships have sort of dried up because he's been spending so much time with this video game. He asks to meet Samuel, or Samuel asks to meet Pwnage in real life, and so they meet. Samuel tells him all about this mystery surrounding his mother, so that's basically where we are. Samuel knows that there's some mystery about his mom's past that he doesn't know about. Pwnage is aware of that mystery, and they're trying to figure out-

Paul Kix:
One of the great joys of this book is that the story switches perspectives. You do a great job when it's Samuel's story, having it be from Samuel's POV. Faye's story, it's from her perspective. That's actually some of the most heart-wrenching stuff, when she's a young woman in Iowa. I found that just incredibly affecting.

Nathan Hill:
Thanks.

Paul Kix:
Then, it's also from Pwnage's perspective here in this part of the story, which is a chapter that I absolutely love, and I'm glad you chose this one, too. If I could, the chapter opens and Pwnage opens the refrigerator door.

Nathan Hill:
He opened the refrigerator and looked at every item in the fridge hoping one of them would serve as a kind of trigger for the things he was supposed to remember about the kitchen. He saw the jars of pickles, and plastic squeeze bottles of ketchups, and mayonnaise and a bag of flax seed he once bought in a moment of diet optimism, but had not yet opened. There were five eggplants on the bottom shelf, clearly mushening from the inside. Slowly collapsing in on themselves. Five little purple pillows with small pools of biscuit-colored juice gathering under them. In the produce drawer his various greens were brown, and wilted. So were the cobs of corn in the top shelf, which were a sickly ecru. Every kernel having lost its ripe, yellow puffiness, and shriveled into roughly the shape of a diseased human molar. He closed the refrigerator door.

Paul Kix:
A diseased human molar. There is some specificity to the grossness, but there's also some humor to it. One of the first things I want to do as we move through this is sort of stop in a couple of spots, and ask a couple questions. This is actually right away. This is one of the first ones that popped up. I'm wondering, Nathan, if someone like, say, David Foster Wallace influenced you when you started to get serious about writing books. Foster Wallace had this great ability to be super specific, but then also have a way to enlighten you, and to make you laugh as you were reading it.

Nathan Hill:
Yeah, I enjoy his work a great deal. I came to him rather late. I always knew he existed, he was out there, and a lot of people really liked his work. I remember trying to get into Infinite Jest quite a long time ago, and failing my first several times trying to get into it. I didn't pay attention to his work until after he died, and The Pale King came out. It was his last novel, it was unfinished at the time of his death. His editor sort of put it together from the scraps that he left behind. That book, I thought, was stunning, and made me go back and sort of read the rest of his work.
You're right, there is a quality to his specificity of the tale. The guy is like a noticing machine, for sure. Also, the way he's able to use humor in a story that is ultimately very sad was also a sort of guiding light for me.


Paul Kix:
I didn't necessarily mean that to be a leading question. If not him, were there others that sort of led you to this style of writing?

Nathan Hill:
I think my North Star really is probably Virginia Woolf.


Paul Kix:
Oh, wow.

Nathan Hill:
Yeah. Not necessarily for humor, but for the quality of, I guess, the voice that's on the page. I remember the big epiphany I had as a very young writer, when I was 22, 23 is finally reading Mrs. Dalloway.

Paul Kix:
Yup.

Nathan Hill:
Yeah, and at the beginning, of course, Clarissa goes to fetch the flowers herself. Which seems all very, very simple. Then, we get this narration of, while her body is on a journey through Bond Street, looking at all the shops and going to places, her mind is also on a journey. Sometimes, she is reminded by something she sees right in front of her on Bond Street, and sometimes she's lost in though, and sometimes the tolling of Big Ben brings her back into a moment. There's all these kind of private dramas happening just right there as she walks down the street. She enters a book store, and she wants to buy a book for a woman that she knows who's in the hospital. Then, she realizes that she's not really thinking about which book the friend will sincerely like. Instead, she's thinking about which book will make Clarissa look the best, so she mentally criticizes herself for being so vein. Then, she goes into the flower store, and she's convinced herself that she's getting the flowers herself because she's so in love with London in June and she just wants to walk around on this fine morning. Then, we realize that there's also some kind of cold war happening back home between her, and the maid about who really wears the pants in the house, and so she's buying the flowers herself to avoid the struggle. There's all these layers happening, and it's all sort of happening in real time. This quality of being a psychic fly on the interior wall of somebody's skull. I think that's really what I'm trying to do most in this chapter, and the rest of the book, is really try to capture that quality of what it's like to be inside somebody else's brain to listen to those private thoughts as they occur.

Paul Kix:
Yeah. Life, London, this moment in June. That comes from Mrs. Dalloway, doesn't it?

Nathan Hill:
Yeah. That's the one.

Paul Kix:
Yeah. For me, I had the same sort of thing. About 15 or so years ago, I read A Room Of One's Own, and it was the first book where I ever finished it. Then, I immediately started on it again, because I'm like, "I must absorb this language." She is so beautiful here. Her lyricism is like, this is exactly... I think a lot of writers, they come to appreciate sentences before they come to appreciate scenes, or sequence, or structure. I don't know, was that the case for you?

Nathan Hill:
Yeah, definitely. I remember reading Virginia Woolf. I remember re-reading the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway several times, trying to learn different lessons. Sometimes, about the skips in what Clarissa is noticing, and going from the very large to the very small, sometimes just between sentences. Then, sometimes I would read it to try to learn about sentence structure. Sometimes, I would read it just to figure out how she used a fricking semicolon, because Virginia Woolf could use a semicolon with some really agility. The semicolon tends to be a sticky, syrupy sort of punctuation mark for me. It feels like it slows down sentences too much. Yeah, she can do it, and still feel very alive, and very quick. There's a lot to learn from here, and so I remember reading... I think I was in grad school at the time, re-reading the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway, the first 10 pages over, and over and over, trying to figure out how she did it.

Paul Kix:
That's a neat story. All right, so let's return to your own. Pwnage, he's waiting for the World of Elfscape servers to come back online, right?

Nathan Hill:
Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Paul Kix:
In particular, he's waiting out something called Patch Days. For the people who haven't read this book, can you briefly describe what a Patch Day is?

Nathan Hill:
Sure, Patch Day in the World of Elfscape. World of Elfscape is the massively multiplayer online video game that Samuel and Pwnage play together. It is transparently a ripoff of a real video game called World of Warcraft. If you don't know World of Warcraft, it's basically a kind of high fantasy of elves, and orcs and dragons and that kind of stuff. It's like Lord of the Rings. This is true in Warcraft, and also true in Elfscape. Every Tuesday the servers have to be restarted, and sometimes that's only a 10-minute bump in the road where everybody has to stop playing for 10 minutes as the servers restart. Like anybody knows, you restart a computer once a week just to keep it running at optimal levels. Sometimes, it's more ambitious than a restart. Sometimes, it's called a Patch Day, and that is when the game engineers, and designers are patching the game. Meaning, they're adding new content. It's a more involved process than a normal restart. It can last hours, and so that's what's happening on this day. Pwnage is waiting out a patch that is being uploaded to the game servers. While it's being uploaded, he cannot play the game, which is tricky for him because, at this point, he's lost his job, he doesn't have any friends. Playing the game is basically all he does all day, so this is uniquely bad.

Paul Kix:
Yeah. Nice little segue there. I'd actually like you to read, let's see, the second full paragraph on page 350.

Nathan Hill:
Not knowing exactly when the servers would come back online made Pwnage feel stressed out, which was a bit of a paradox because the ostensible reason he played Elfscape was because it so effectively relieved his stress. It was where he turned when he felt too encumbered by the wearying details of his life. It all began about a year ago, just after [Elisa 00:16:08] left. One day, when he felt the stress coming on particularly strong, and none of the DVDs seemed very good. Nothing was on TV. Nothing in his online movie queue seemed interesting. All the console games he owned had been beaten and discarded. He felt this weird panicky sensation like when you're at a good restaurant but nothing seems appetizing. Like when you're first starting to come down with a cold, or flu and not even a water tastes good. That kind of all-encompassing negative darkness where the whole world seems boring, and tedious, and you feel this global wariness. He was sitting in his living room in the gathering darkness of an evening just after Daylight Savings time ended, so it was unusually gray at a depressingly early time of day. He was sitting there realizing he was about to have a direct, frontal, head-on collision with the stress. That it he did not find a diversion quickly, he was definitely going to get worked up to a degree that would spell certain trouble for his blood pressure, and general circulatory system health. Now, what he usually did when this happened was to go to the electronics store and buy something. This time, about a dozen video games. One of which was World of Elfscape.

Paul Kix:
I fucking love that, right? The whole thing is three sentences, so first off there's that. For those that aren't reading along, it encompasses a page. It's beautiful. I've got one sort of crafty question, and then we can have another one. When you're putting together something like that little exchange right there, are you tortured as you're writing it, or is this a great deal of fun once you settle on an idea that you want to explore the way that you just explored that one? Are you tortured that you want to get it right, or are you thinking, "Fuck it, let's just rip?"


Nathan Hill:
In the first draft I'm definitely saying, "Fuck it." The first draft is really a kind of fun-having draft for me. When I was writing this book, I was writing it in sort of privacy and isolation. The only person who knew anything about it was my wife. I worked on it for 10 years, so it's a long time to be with a project. There's something I learned along the way. I think when I was a really young writer, I would sit down and try to create some conscious act of literature, and it was no fun at all. I realized that I was using writing as a kind of widget for me to get things I wanted from life. I wanted to prove to my parents that I didn't make a horrible choice getting an MFA in fiction writing. I wanted to prove to my friends that I was just as successful as all my friends who went into real jobs, and had real careers. I realized somewhere along the way that if I'm doing that, if I was writing to try to be successful and to try to impress other people, then the writing was deeply unimpressive. It was all really, really bad. That's a shitty reason to write. I know this is a long way to answer this question, but what I realized sometime writing The Nix was that if there was no guaranty that anybody would ever actually read the book, there was no guaranty that a publisher would ever want it, then it might as well be fun to do along the way. It might as well be worth it just inherently, just the process might as well be a good time. The book got much funnier, and much lighter was when I made that turn, and that discovery and realized, I really want to enjoy myself when I'm in the chair for those couple hours every morning. A passage like that, that I just read, is a good example of that where I'm ripping, I'm brainstorming, I'm list-making. I'm trying to make myself laugh. For this section with Pwnage, I remember thinking all of the little moments in life where I might feel kind of shitty. That feeling when you flip through everything on Netflix and can't find anything you want to watch, which seems crazy, but it happens. That feeling of just coming down with a cold or a flu, when water tastes bad. That feeling on the first day after Daylight Savings time ended, and you're like, "It's dark already," and it's getting colder. I wanted to brainstorm all of those little things that make you feel a little sad, and what if they all happened all at exactly the same moment? Those little sadnesses add up to sort of both tragedy and comedy simultaneously.

Paul Kix:
You said something a minute ago that I want to followup on. I think I'd read this somewhere else. This thing took you 10 years to write?

Nathan Hill:
Yeah, it did. It did. I wish I could say it was because I was dutifully working away for a long time. There were patches in there where I only made maybe 20 pages worth of headway in a years because I didn't know what I was doing, and I abandoned it for a time. There was a time when I thought-

Paul Kix:
Nathan, are you working other jobs? Maybe this is actually the better place to start. When do you start to write this, and what are you doing? Are you in grad school when you start to write this? Can you just walk us through?

Nathan Hill:
Sure, yeah. I started it right after grad school. I finished grad school in, this was 2004, moved to New York. I started soon after moving to New York. While I was in New York I was working at a poetry nonprofit called The Academy of American Poets. I was doing their website, poets.org, for a couple of years. I started it there, and then I got a teaching job down in Florida. This was a big shock to me. I had become a teacher in grad school simply so that I could get the tuition waiver, because it was the only way I could afford grad school. Then, a couple years out of the classroom, I realized I really missed it. I really liked it. I got this job in Florida as a teacher, so I moved to Florida. That's what I was doing most of the time when I was writing this book. Other than those first two confused years in New York, I was teaching. As you know, a lot of that material bled into the book. Samuel is a teacher, and he is very sour about it. I actually, I like teaching very much but that doesn't make for very good drama, so Samuel is quite sour about it and has a really, really horrific experience with one of his students.

Paul Kix:
Yes, he does. You would write what? You mentioned here a minute ago. Early in the morning? Is that still sort of your schedule? You write in the morning, and then you go to teach?

Nathan Hill:
Yeah, I do, although I'm not teaching anymore. I took a leave of absence from teaching. I'm just trying to be a full time writer now.

Paul Kix:
Congratulations.

Nathan Hill:
Thank you. Yeah, I plan to go back to it someday. Like I said, I do like it. Yeah, so that's my process. I wake up, have some coffee and read whatever novel I'm reading just to get into language. The, I write, and I write longhand. I write with a pen, and a journal. I do that for a couple hours. I want to be able to do it before I check the news, before I check my phone, before I check email. I find myself the freshest, most creative those first couple hours of the day. When I'm the best, I want to devote that to the writing. I'm not too ambitious about it. I stole this technique from, I think it was Jennifer Egan who gave an interview many years ago where she said that she wrote five to seven pages a day. I started doing that a long time ago. Just five to seven handwritten pages. I usually find that, even if it's going badly on a given day, I can usually excrete five pages of prose. If it's going very well, then I'll stop myself at seven, because then tomorrow I know exactly where I'll begin. I find that it's better to get into a daily habit than to binge on those days that it's happening to go well.

Paul Kix:
Yeah, I'm the same way. For me, this is a Graham Greene trick. It's 500 words a day. 500 new words typed on the page a day. I don't go longhand, but yeah, when I'm writing it's just get the words down, even if they're bad. Then, the times that they're good, it's all the better.

Nathan Hill:
Yeah. I really had to learn that, even if they're bad today, just to push through. I found that, on the other side of that fear there's often a lot of really good ideas. It's just a matter of pushing through like, "Okay, this prose right now is really shitty, but I'll just trust myself to fix it in revisions," and just move past it, and move forward.

Paul Kix:
Okay, so there's one other thing I want to focus on before we get back to our hero here. That is, you got into gaming hardcore too, didn't you?

Nathan Hill:
I did. Yeah, for a little while there. Yeah. I moved to, like I said, New York in 2004. My first apartment there was this sublet in Queens. It was a one-month sublet. I was renting this place while I was looking for a more permanent apartment. At the end of the month I had found a new apartment, but there was this awkward day where I had to move out of my sublet in the morning, and I couldn't move into my new apartment until the evening. I packed up all my stuff in my car and went to work, and then came back at the end of the day to move into my new apartment and found my car was empty. While I was at work, everything had been stolen. This was everything I owned; all of my clothes, all of my books.

Paul Kix:
Holy shit.

Nathan Hill:
Yeah, and my computer, on which I had saved everything I'd written in grad school, so all of my writing, and a book in progress, which is gone.

Paul Kix:
Oh, man.


Nathan Hill:
I had backed up my writing on discs that I'd stupidly packed right next to the computer, so they had been stolen too. Yeah, it was a really, really dark time for me. Like I said, I was working on a poetry nonprofit, so you can imagine what my salary was. Making rent was a monthly adventure.

Paul Kix:
Yeah.

Nathan Hill:
Eventually, I saved up enough money to buy this used computer, and a friend of mine who was living on the other coast at the time, he's told me, "I want you to buy this video game." I said, "What's it called?" He said, "It's called World of Warcraft." I was like, "What's that?" Like, "Don't worry about it, just buy it. We're going to play it together," so we did. I installed it on my computer, and we started playing Warcraft together. Now, he has since told me that the only reason he did that was because you can chat with each other while you're playing, and he wanted to keep an eye on me because he knew things were not going well. He's a very good friend.
This lasted for six months, and then he got sick of it and I just did not get sick of it. I just kept playing. He quit, and I kept going. Yeah, and became a sort of bad ass, elite player. I got into a high level raiding guild, and I was raiding three or four nights a week. If you know anything about this game, you know that it takes a lot of... The learning curve is such that it's possible to be an expert level raider, and expert level player where you're maxing out every step for the appropriate fight, if that makes sense. I guess I should say it's possible to really go down the rabbit hole, and I did there for a while. The way I think about it now is, things were not going very well for me in New York, and the writing was stolen, and the new writing was really bad. I wasn't getting any of the lunches, or attention from agents and editors that I was hoping. At the end of the day, I could fire up this video game, and I showed up. The way I think about it now, it's like those episodes of Cheers, you know? Sometimes, you want to go where everybody knows your screen name. I would show up, and my guildies would be happy I was there. I would be happy to talk to them, and we were friends. We never met in real life, but we were friends. We were a community. We supported each other. That was really valuable in an otherwise very dark time.


Paul Kix:
That actually segues fairly well into what I'd like you to read next, which is just how bad ass of a player Pwnage is.

Nathan Hill:
Since beginning with an elf warrior named Pwnage, he had advanced to play a whole stable of alternate characters with names like Pwnopoly, and Pwnalicious, and Pwner, and Edgar Allan Pwn. He made a name for himself as a fearsome gladiatorial opponent, and a very strong, and capable raid leader, directing a large group of players in a fight against a computer-controlled anime in what he came to regard as being a conductor in a battle symphony ballet type of thing. He rather quickly got extraordinarily good at this, since being good required all manner of research, watching online videos of relevant battles, and reading the forums, and sifting through the numbers of the theory crafting website to see which stat was most useful during certain fights.
Some said he had slightly different gear and weapon combos for every fight in the game. Each of them designed to mathematically maximize his death-dealing ability for that particular engagement, because he believed if he was going to do something, he was going to do it right. He would give 110%. A work ethic he liked to think would soon help him with his kitchen renovation, and novel writing, and new diet plan for which so far seemed to apply only in the area of video games.


Paul Kix:
Yeah, this is very much you then, right?

Nathan Hill:
Yeah. Yeah, it is. That was me for a little while. Reading over the theory crafting forums to figure out which gear and move combo would be most effective during certain difficult fights. Yeah, absolutely. This was something everyone was just sort of expected to do.

Paul Kix:
What led you away from it in the end?

Nathan Hill:
You know what? In the end, it was the fact that I sort of needed this video game as an escape from the real world. Then, fast forward two or three years and I realized that same reasoning was exactly why I had to quit. I was escaping from the real world too often.

Paul Kix:
yeah.

Nathan Hill:
It just became sort of embarrassing to say no to real world social engagement, because I had to go raid with my guild. It's just something that you were a little ashamed of admitting. At least I was.

Paul Kix:
Is Pwnage the extension of the man you could have been? The worst case scenario?

Nathan Hill:
Well, in some ways, yeah. Pwnage is the end point, the limit test of Samuel. Samuel is sort of looking down the road, and Pwnage is who he can become if he doesn't do something about it. Yeah, I don't know if I would have ever gone as far as Pwnage, but I understand the impulse. I definitely do. Eventually, I had this sort of love-hate relationship with the video game. I really did love playing it. I loved how it got me through a dark time, but also I hated that I was sort of embarrassed about playing it. I hated how much time it was taking away from my real life. I hated the mechanisms in the game that are designed to be sort of addictive. I tend to want to write about subjects I'm confused about, or I haven't made up my mind about, or I have a love-hate relationship with, that my feelings are ambivalent about. If I already know exactly how I feel about a subject, I tend not to write about it because it doesn't have that kind of pop, the kind of energy or crackle that I want it to have.

Paul Kix:
Yeah.

Nathan Hill:
It's exactly because I was confused about this video game that I thought it was a good subject for fiction.

Paul Kix:
Ah, perfect. All right, so with the server still down, Pwnage, he remembers what he needs to do and he moves on to his To Do List. On that To Do List is number one. There's three things. Number one, buy health food. Number two, help Dodger. Number three, discover great literature. Let's briefly deal with these latter two. First and foremost, can you just explain to the listeners why he wants to discover great literature?

Nathan Hill:
He saw a sign at a mega bookstore recently that said, "Discover Great Literature," and so he put it on the list, and he told his phone to add it to every weekly list because he's hoping that his recently departed ex wife might see on his phone that it says, "Discover Great Literature," and realize that he's really changing as a person, and want to take him back.

Paul Kix:
How many great works of literature has he discovered?

Nathan Hill:
Well, he's discovered none. This is this phenomenon where we tend to think of our future selves as better people than we actually are. This is why I tend to load up my Netflix queue with really deep, dark Oscar winning movies, or documentaries. Then, on any given night I'm like, "Maybe I'll just watch the Avengers again," you know? How it's possible to get yourself an ambitious gym membership, and then on any given day you find it difficult to go.

Paul Kix:
Yeah.

Nathan Hill:
You tend to think that you're going to be better in the future than you actually are, and so that's what's happening here. He thinks, "In the future, I will be a guy who discovers great literature," but the actual work to do that on any given night seems just too tedious for him to want to do it. He was like, "Okay, I'll do that next week."

Paul Kix:
Dodger is Samuel, right?

Nathan Hill:
Yes.

Paul Kix:
Dodger is Samuel's handle name.

Nathan Hill:
That's right.

Paul Kix:
He wants to help Dodger because of the thing that you alluded to at the beginning of this conversation, right? They've met in real life, and now he wants to help him in whatever way he can, right?

Nathan Hill:
Exactly. He wants to help his friend. Right.

Paul Kix:
Okay, so that leaves buy health food. One more question here before we get back to you just reading some passages. Why exactly does he want to buy health food?

Nathan Hill:
Oh. It's because he's been sort of slowly wasting away at his computer. He's decided he needs to go on a radical new diet. This is part of his problem. He has really ambitious plans. He wants to discover great literature. He wants to renovate his kitchen. He wants to go on this radical new diet plan. He wants to get a job. He has in mind a mystery novel that he's been trying to write since high school. It's all theses really-

Paul Kix:
That's worth a million bucks. Yeah, he's got some great ideas.

Nathan Hill:
Yeah, right. Right. He has all these really, really ambitious plans. In this sequence, he's decided, finally, finally he will go to the organic grocery store. The sort of Whole Foods, or Trader Joe's, or local co-op. You get the idea, and start shopping for this new diet he's about to go on.

Paul Kix:
Okay, so if I could, what I'd like to do is... He's going to go, and he's going to go buy the health food. This is so funny. All right, go ahead.

Nathan Hill:
Okay. Last week he had finally entered the organic grocery store after having paced it from the street for several days watching people going in and out. Quietly judging them for their yuppie, elitist, privileged lifestyle, and their skinny hipster clothes, and electric cars. It seemed necessary for him to construct an elaborate mental bulwark like this before even entering the organic grocery store, because the more he sat in his car outside the store judging the customers, the more he was convinced they were judging him too. That he wasn't hip enough, or fit enough, or rich enough to shop there. In his mind, he was the protagonist of every story, the center of everyone's appalling attention. He was on display, and out of place. The store was a panopticon of sneering, abusive judgment. He carried on long, imaginary dialogues with the idealistic cashiers who were the gatekeepers between the food, and the exit. Explaining to them that he wasn't shopping there because it was the trendy thing to do, but rather because it was coldly, absolutely medically necessary according to the rules of this radical new diet plan. Whereas, the other customers were there only out of fidelity to some hip movement like the organic movement, or the slow food movement, or the local [inaudible 00:36:45] movement or whatever. He was there because he needed to be there, making him actually a more authentic shopper than they were, even if he did not per se, fit the image of the typical customer according to the store's elaborate branding campaign. After several dozens of these practice dialogues, he felt prepared and strong willed enough to enter the grocery store where he crept around and very quietly purchased the exact organic replicas of what he usually bought at 7-eleven down the street. Canned soups, canned meat products, white bread, energy bars, frozen and re-heatable pizza and dinner things.

Paul Kix:
Then, after he purchases all this, and the cute cashier says to him, "Hey, it looks like you're stocking up for a hurricane." Pwnage gets embarrassed with all of his canned and frozen items, enough that he decides that he actually wants to come back to the store the next day.

Nathan Hill:
On his next visit, he bought only fresh things; fruits, vegetables, meats wrapped in wax paper. Only things perishable, easily spoilable. Even though he had no earthly idea how to prepare those foods, he felt healthier just buying it, just having it nearby. Having people see him with it, like being on a date with someone extraordinarily attractive. How you want to go to public places with that person, he felt the same about his cart full of shiny eggplants, and corn, and various green growing things; arugula, broccoli, Swiss chard. It was so beautiful. When he presented his food to the same cute cashier at the front of the store, he felt like a child giving his mother a card he made at school. "Did you bring a bag," she said. He stared at her, not fully comprehending the question. "A bag for what? No," he said. "Oh," she said, disappointed. "We encourage all our customers to bring reusable bags. You know, to save paper?" "Okay." "Plus, you get a rebate," she said. "For every bag you bring, you get a rebate." He nodded. He was no longer looking at her. He was instead looking at the cash register's video screen. He was pretending to very carefully analyze the price of each food item to ensure he wasn't overcharged. The cashier must have sensed his unease, and his feeling of having been scolded again, and so tried to defuse the situation with a change of subject, "What are you going to do with all this eggplant?" This did not defuse the situation at all, because the only answer he was capable of giving was the true one, "I don't know." Then, when the cashier girl seemed sort of disappointed by this answer he added, "Maybe, like, a soup?" This was so fucking unbearable. He couldn't even shop correctly.

Paul Kix:
I've got another little craft question here. When you're putting together this, you told me via email that you're trying to accomplish a couple things as a writer, and you really liked this chapter for that. I think what you're getting at here, this exchange that's back and forth, is really trying to capture something about class, and about ambition. I'm just wondering, what is the point that you're trying to make with your writing, and why does this so symbolize it?

Nathan Hill:
Yeah, it's funny. A lot of people called the book satire, and I guess at times it maybe is. Really, throughout the book, all I'm really doing is renaming things that actually exist. For example, the World of Elfscape as a video game is based off a real video game. I didn't really even change it all that much. There's a social media app that the college students use called iFeel, where she's able to broadcast her current emotion to all of her followers at any given moment. There's a diet that's very popular called the Pleisto diet, where you only eat things that people ate in the Pleistocene.
These are not very different from things that actually exist, but what I found is that, when you just sort of change the name of something, when you just sort of re-contextualize it, when you take it out of the way we normally encounter that thing and put it into a different context, suddenly, sometimes the thing can feel new, can feel different, and can feel sometimes absurd. Getting back to the theme, there are certain lifestyles a lot of us take for granted, as emblemized here by the organic grocery store. This lifestyle can also feel really threatening, and intimidating, and sanctimonious to anyone outside that lifestyle. That is invisible to the people who are within it. I wanted to place these two people, like the cashier who's completely used to this world, and comfortable in this world, and navigates this world effortlessly. And, Pwnage, who doesn't have any money, doesn't come from the background where he ate a lot of organic food, or even really cooked. Trying to enter this, and being really unsuccessful because these two are like... This cashier and Pwnage, they're just two [inaudible 00:41:41] ships passing in the night, you know? They're just from completely different backgrounds. That's invisible to them, other than the friction that's happening between them. Yeah, I like to re-contextualize things that happen in everyday life in order to sort of, I don't know, sometimes magnify the things that maybe we don't notice on first inspection. Does that make sense?


Paul Kix:
Absolutely. It's like, with Pwnage in particular, as you're satirizing him there is also, at least for me, I couldn't help but empathize with him. I did feel like, "Yeah, it is really sanctimonious, and I can see why you wouldn't be all that comfortable there. Your world does have its downsides." Was this something you were trying to do with him in particular?

Nathan Hill:
I was. It's one of those things, a character sort of emerges out of the muck eventually, once you spend enough time with them. That was certainly not my idea when I first started writing him, but that's where he went. It reminded me of moments when my family might come visit me. I've lived in the big cities, I've lived on the East Coast. I'm very comfortable in a Whole Foods, or Trader Joe's, or local co-op or whatever. I have family who were farmers. I have family who didn't go to college. In fact, I was one of the first in my family who went to college, and so I'm always very, very aware about these kind of symbols of class, these symbols of status. I'm also aware I go to my local Whole Foods when my parents are visiting. Just as I'm aware when I go back to Iowa, where my extended family lives, and go to a diver bar with my cousins, I'm sort of aware of differences, and where I've gone. I don't know. It's me sort of having fun with the sort of class divisions that are present just in my own life.

Paul Kix:
He isn't ordering his food correctly, but he figures out, "All right, if I go home and I order some reusable bags online..." Then, he has them shipped to him overnight. Like you said a minute ago, it doesn't matter that he's upside-down in his mortgage, or that he doesn't even really seem to have a job, or that he desperately wants his ex wife back and she's not at all interested. What he's hoping is that, if he can go to this shop, and if he can shop correctly at the organic store, perhaps his life what? What is it, Nathan? Can his life by salvaged if he could just go shop correctly at the store?

Nathan Hill:
I think part of it is, he wants to be accepted by this cashier. He wants to be accepted in this world. For most human beings, the feeling of being rejected by a group is very painful.

Paul Kix:
Yeah.

Nathan Hill:
I saw some story about a study in psychology, or neurobiology once that showed that the pain we feel for social rejection happens in exactly the same place in our brain as actual pain. In fact, it's sometimes weirdly easier to get over feelings of rejection if you taken an aspirin, oddly enough. Yeah, so we feel that rejection sharply, and so that's what Pwnage is experiencing. He feels like he's been rejected twice. He needs to go to the grocery store, because it is step one in a hundred-step plan to reinvent his life, but here he is in step one failing. He needs to succeed here to feel not only accepted into this world, but also he needs to succeed in order to make his life the way he wants to make it.

Paul Kix:
All right, so our hero, he's dedicated. Nathan, why don't you tell us what he does next?

Nathan Hill:
He went back to the store. He bought perishable fresh foods again, but only one of each kind. No overbuying one item, and drawing attention to it, ala eggplant. He got in the line of the cute cashier girls with the square black glasses. She said hi, but it was a generic greeting. She did not remember their connection. She scanned and tallied his groceries. She said, "Did you bring a bag," and he said casually, like it was no big deal and totally something he did all the time, "Oh, sure. I brought a bag." "You want to keep the rebate," she said, "or donate it?" "Do what?" "You get a rebate for bringing a bag." "I know that." "Would you like to donate it to one of our 15 approved charities?" 

 

Here, he reflexively said no. It wasn't because he was stingy, and wouldn't genuinely want the charity to have his rebate. It was because he knew he would have no idea how to choose among the 15 charities, probably never having heard of any of them. He declined, because that seemed the smoothest, least embarrassing way to proceed and be done with the social encounter that, to be honest, had eaten up a lot of his spare brain power all week. Envisioning it, preparing for it. "Oh," said the cashier, surprised. "Okay, well fine," with a kind of upturned lip, and sarcastic eyebrow flare that conveyed something along the lines of, aren't we being an asshole today?


She continued swiping his food across the counter, and weighing his fruits and vegetable in what he interpreted as a cold, and mechanical manner. Her fingers flew over the register buttons quickly, and expertly. She was so comfortable here, so at home. She did not feel one bit of anxiety about her lifestyle, or opinions. She so easily judged, and dismissed him, and he felt something inside of him sort of break. Something curdled, and sour. A fury he felt all the way to his liver.


He raised the empty cloth reusable grocery bag over his head, and he held it that way for a moment. Maybe waiting for someone to say something, but no one did. No one paid an ounce of attention to him, and this seemed like the worst insult of all. That he was standing in this theatrical pose of violence and passion, and no one cared, so he threw it, the bag. He threw it point-blank, right at the cashier's feet. As he threw it, he made a war cry of wild anger, or at least he'd meant to.


What actually came out was a garbled, and low kind of gruff animal noise. He'd grumpled. The bag struck the cashier sidelong in the hip region, and she let out a sharp, surprised cry and jumped backward as the bag crumpled, and fell loosely to the floor. She stared at him with her mouth open, and he stepped toward her and leaned over the cash register, and opened his arms wide as a condor and yelled, "You know what?" He did not know why he was opening his arms this way. He realized he didn't have anything on tap mentally with which to follow that question.


The store had suddenly gone terribly quiet. The usual register area beeping noises having stopped with the cashier's first shriek. He looked around him, he saw faces aghast. Mostly women, staring at him, scornful and outraged. He backed slowly away from the cashier. He felt he needed to say something to the crowd to explain the offense that provoked him, to justify his outburst, to communicate his innocence, and righteousness, and virtue. What came out was, "You have got represent."


He didn't know why he said that. He remembered hearing it in a pop song recently. He liked the sound of it when he heard it in that song. He thought it was edgy, and hip. As soon as he said it out loud, he realized he had no idea what it meant. He quickly left. Jammed his hands into his pockets and speed-walked out the door. He vowed never to return. That store, that cashier, he could never be good enough for them. There was no pleasing those people, so item number one, buy health food, that was a nonstarter.


Paul Kix:
This is me, audibly standing and clapping.

Nathan Hill:
Thank you. Thank you very much.

Paul Kix:
When you're doing this, when you're in this chapter in particular, do you remember if you knew, even on that first draft, "Oh, this is working. Oh, this is working very well?"

Nathan Hill:
Yeah, sometimes you can. Sometimes, it's not working and you're just trusting yourself to revise. Then, there are other times when everything's clicking. I read my pages aloud to my wife. She heard this entire novel out of order, and audibly. Every couple days I would read to her my newest 10 to 14 pages. I don't know. When I can get my wife cracking up on the first draft, I'm like, "Okay, I've got something that's going to work." She's finding it funny, so okay, good, good. Yeah, I think this was a winner right from the beginning. It's funny. I think I had the theme before I knew exactly where it was going to be. It was just one of those centerpieces of the Pwnage character. This shows you exactly who he is, and where he is in his life. I need to figure out a way to put it in. I knew I wanted it. I just didn't quite know where.

Paul Kix:
Yeah, yeah. It's great, and what happens I'm not going to give it away, because I really want people, if they haven't read The Nix, to buy it. This is oh, but a small portion of something that is much larger, and very, very satisfying. In particular, what happens to Pwnage is... I don't even want to say that. I just want to say that something happens to Pwnage, and it's worth reading. Well, thank you, Nathan, for coming on. The music for Now That's A Great Story comes from Jeff Willet, with production help from him as well. If you'd like to know more about anything we discussed today, head over to PaulKix.com, where I've posted notes from the episode. Also, on PaulKix.com is an overview of my latest book, The Saboteur, which is available wherever books are sold. If you like this podcast, please don't forget to rate, and review it on iTunes, or Stitcher, or whatever it is that you listen to this thing. I'll be back next week. See you guys then.

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