University of Iowa graduate Nathan Hill, author of “The Nix,” credits his undergraduate newsroom experience with making him a more thorough and disciplined writer.

When Nathan Hill told his parents that he was going to switch his major at the University of Iowa from biomedical engineering to English and become a writer, he felt a lot of pressure to be successful.

“I was one of the first in my family to go to college, and my parents worried that I’d be wasting a good academic opportunity if I pursued writing,” says Hill, who earned a degree in English and journalism and mass communication from Iowa in 1999. “But when I found out you could take classes in creative writing, I quit biomedical engineering and picked up English.”

Though his chief interest was in writing fiction, Hill applied for a reporting position at The Daily Iowan and found that he loved the work. He spent three years working for the student paper, including one as a metro editor.

“I came to the newsroom to practice writing,” he says, “but I stayed because I fell in love with the news business.”

Practice makes perfect. Hill won accolades for his debut novel, The Nix, about a man whose estranged mother commits a bizarre act of protest in a politically divided country. It was published in 2016 and named one of the best books of the year by The New York Times, NPR, The Washington Post, and The Guardian, among others. Hill has been compared with John Irving, one of his favorite writers and a fellow UI graduate. 

“Working at The Daily Iowan showed me how to write and make it interesting even when I wasn’t feeling my best. That’s an incredibly valuable ethic to have as a novelist. You need to get good work on the page every day—even when you don’t feel like it.”

Nathan Hill
Best-selling novelist

Hill says his newsroom experience taught him valuable lessons on how to be a writer.

“As a student reporter, I learned how to write on deadline, which is a big deal for writers. People have this idea that writers write whenever they feel like it, like Jack Kerouac sitting down and writing On the Road in one long scroll. That’s not how it works. Writing is not done in binges. It happens slowly when you put in the work,” says Hill, who writes at least five pages a day. “Working at The Daily Iowan showed me how to write and make it interesting even when I wasn’t feeling my best. That’s an incredibly valuable ethic to have as a novelist. You need to get good work on the page every day—even when you don’t feel like it.”

Hill says there also was a social benefit to his job at The Daily Iowan.

“I was always a shy kid,” he says. “One of the reasons I was drawn to writing was because it is a solitary endeavor. But you can’t be shy as a reporter. You need to ask people questions and power through any embarrassment or awkwardness. Being a reporter helped me come out of my shell.”

It also prepared him to do research, which he says was particularly helpful as he was writing The Nix.

“When you get a story assignment as a reporter and you don’t know much about the subject, you have to get background information,” says Hill, who spent two years reporting for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before pursing an MFA in creative writing at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst. “For my novel, I had decided to write about the 1968 political protests in Chicago, but I wasn’t alive then so I had to do research. I visited the Chicago History Museum and contacted people who had been at the protests. I filled notebooks with raw material and then turned it into a narrative. I think there are a lot of parallels between reporters and novelists.”

“The Nix”

Read reviews and learn more about Hill’s debut novel.

The Nix

Hill is working on a second novel and periodically writes journalistic pieces, including assignments for ESPN, The New York Times Book Review, and Wired. He says he loves his work.

“As a novelist, I have permission to become an expert in whatever subject captures my attention,” he says. “For The Nix, that was politics and video games.”

Hill was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and moved around the Midwest throughout his childhood. He discovered at a young age that he loved writing and was thrilled when he wrote a “choose your own adventure” story in elementary school and his teacher read it aloud during class, allowing his classmates to make selections as the story was told. 

“I sat in the back of the class and was beside myself,” he says. “I thought it was a coolest thing ever.”

A few decades later, Hill travels frequently from his home base in Florida, where his wife is a bassoonist with the Naples Philharmonic, to promote The Nix. The book has been published in more than 30 languages and has been optioned for a TV miniseries. His parents are happy—“They are big fans of the book,” he says—and he even met John Irving. 

“I got to meet him while I was on a book tour,” Hill says. “We had dinner, and we mostly talked about Iowa City.”

Hill is grateful for his time on the UI campus and in the Daily Iowan newsroom. He says his work as a metro editor was as relevant to his career as his writing experience.

“To articulate something to someone else, you have to really know it. You have to think critically,” he says. “Being an editor was an incredibly valuable experience.”

Produced by the UI Office of Strategic Communication
Sara Epstein Moninger
Courtesy of Nathan Hill

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