Rarely do you read a novel that makes you want to get up and finish that essay you’ve let sit idle in your word document for months. Even more rarely do you read a novel that reminds you why you became a writer in the first place. Nathan Hill’s debut, The Nix, took the literary scene by storm in 2016, but I quickly realized while reading his sophomore soon-to-be-bestseller, Wellness, that he’d produced an equally gripping, humorous, and profound epic the second time around.
Wellness is a book that leaves no topic untouched. Centered around the love story of Elizabeth and Jack, the novel spans decades, moving between character perspectives, Chicago suburbs, and more, all the while tackling the intricacies of marriage, love, health, and wellness. As the world transitions from the rebellious and free-spirited society of the 90s, Jack and Elizabeth simultaneously enter a new phase of life– one complete with the dissolution of friend groups, the advancement of technology, a rise of life hacks, and a somewhat reluctant acceptance of domesticity. Thus, the couple are forced to face the cracks that threaten to destroy their self-titled “Romeo and Juliet” relationship.
With a 600-page epic as our subject, Wellness author Nathan Hill and I sat down for a chat.
You published The Nix in 2016 after 10 years of writing but mentioned in a few other interviews that you had already been plotting Wellness at the time. When did you start working on Wellness and what inspired the novel?
There are a couple of different answers to that. The first words that appear in Wellness I wrote when I was in my mid-20s. I had written a short story about two people who had windows facing each other across an alley and were secretly watching each other, slowly falling in love with the person they saw on the other side of the glass. I was maybe 25 when I wrote it and I thought it was fabulously romantic, but I put it away for a very long time. I had forgotten about it until 2014 when I was on a summer vacation with a group of friends. There was one summer that it just felt like, all of a sudden, we all were in our 30s and we all suddenly were doing these things that none of us had ever done before. For some reason, everybody had life hacks. People were spiralizing pasta out of zucchini, doing hot yoga, intermittently fasting, interval training, counting their macros, or scooping out the insides of bagels to avoid the carbs. I just felt like, a year or two ago, we were all really happy and now, we think we’re living wrong. It annoyed me that the gravitational center of our conversations was strictly health and wellness.
Then what really did it for me was the end of that trip. In 2014, there was a story where an American doctor who had been treating Ebola patients in Liberia caught Ebola, so they rushed him back to the US and took him to a hospital in Atlanta. We were on a ferry and everybody on the boat was riveted by CNN on the TV screen showing this ambulance racing to the hospital. All the people around me were saying things like, “We shouldn’t have let him back into the country– he’s too big of a risk for the rest of us,” but I was appalled by that. In relation to our week of talking about life hacks and wellness, it felt very weird to listen to these people on the boat and think, “Okay, well, it’s like this rise in self-care has met this decrease in our concern for other people.” So, it came from this idea of feeling weird that it felt right to look out for your own wellness by kicking the wellness of somebody else to the curb.
Wellness is a tapestry of intricately woven moments throughout Jack and Elizabeth’s 20-year love story, their childhoods, and their traumas. Yet, each chapter has a distinct reason for its placement in the overarching narrative. How difficult was it to create this complex timeline?
I wanted to tell a love story that has three main characters—a husband, a wife, and time. I wanted the reader to have the experience of knowing these people forwards and backwards simultaneously. I feel like that’s the way we get to know the important people in our lives whether they’re friends, partners, or spouses. We get to know them forwards by spending time with them and then backwards by meeting their parents or seeing where they grew up, and we have to fill in who they were before we found them. The idea was that the more you got to know these characters, the more secrets would be revealed. In practice, it was a real headache producer!
What was the research process like for Wellness? You have the largest bibliography I think I’ve ever seen and you had in-text citations in Elizabeth’s “Unravelling” section. I’ve never seen a fiction book with in-text citations. I loved it!
(Laughs) People were making fun of the bibliography of The Nix, and I was like, “Just you wait!”
With the “Unravelling” section, I wanted to dramatize the fact that people can be misled by bad information and good information when the information is overwhelming and lacking context. Jack is a victim of misinformation because he’s trusting these fitness bros on the internet who don’t know what they’re talking about. Lawrence is a victim of disinformation because he’s believing stories on the Internet that are actively out to harm him. But Elizabeth is the victim of what you might call information overwhelm. Parents now have access to all the ways that they might be screwing up their kids. A lot of my friends became parents at the same time, so I was watching them go through this panic. These are thoughtful, good parents who every day thought they were failures because they might have done one thing wrong, and this relentless need to be perfect felt like it was just eating up their souls.
In terms of larger research methods, that’s part of the fun for me, honestly. Writing is a total leap of faith. There’s no guarantee that anybody’s gonna buy your book and there’s no guarantee anybody’s gonna read your book. So, I made an agreement with myself when I was writing The Nix to have fun while I’m doing it and learn some new things. With this one, I got super into neurobiology and psychology because I’m charmed by the ways the human mind can delude itself. It’s interesting how much a person can change and never feel like they’ve changed at all.
You tackle so many difficult themes within Wellness. The novel explores familial trauma, the commodification of love and technology, the complexities of intimacy, authenticity, and marriage, as well as the pressures of parenthood, motherhood, and femininity. Amidst this long list, Wellness perfectly balances such with incredibly well-developed characters. I was interested in how you built such complex characters while also leaving room to explore each of these very intricate topics?
Thank you for that question. My own philosophy of writing is that a story or a character begins as a very malformed thing—like a gooey idea. I don’t know if you played with this toy when you were a kid, but when I was, I used to play with this thing called slime. It’s like this gooey green substance that’s just gross, but also really fun to play with. I think any character or any story that I’m interested in starts its life as this piece of slime. The neat thing about slime is that the more you play with it, the more it kind of picks up the stuff of the world. With a character or a story, when it’s got all this stuff attached to it– that’s what really brings it alive. That’s when you can start really kind of chiseling out a beautiful statue that began its life as this gross piece of slime.
So, it’s a sort of iterative process where you start with a basic idea. My basic idea for Jack was just that I knew that he was very similar to me– he was a rural Midwestern kid who goes to the big city. With Elizabeth, I knew that she was running away from a privileged upbringing and trying to become someone else in a different part of the country, but that’s basically all I had. Then, you just start going to work and those characters become the lens through which you see the world, hear someone’s story, see something on the news, or listen to a podcast. It’s really just in the process. You start with something very vague and then you sharpen it and sharpen it over years.
In all honesty, I had trouble with Elizabeth at first. She’s trying to fit in by molding herself into what she thinks others want in order to not feel ostracized, but her choices sometimes are questionable. As soon as I read “Unravelling,” I saw Elizabeth in a different light though. Who was the hardest character to write?
Elizabeth was for sure. You’re right—she is malleable and she’s very smart because she can look at a room and understand exactly the dynamics going on to fit into them really well. I feel like I have a similar skill because I gave Elizabeth an upbringing similar to my own, which is that I also moved around a lot when I was a kid. I was always the new kid in school, so I got very good at understanding the hierarchies and the cliques and personalities. When you’re the new kid, you kind of sit back and watch a lot and I think that’s why I became a writer because I was just always watching people, always trying to figure them out because I was always the stranger. Eventually, though, you have to boil her down and she’s got to be a person with this true thing inside of her, so getting to that—especially given that I gave her a privileged background that is not like my own—was a little tricky. I’m so happy where she ended up though.
Jack and Elizabeth state a few times that they have a “Romeo and Juliet love story,” but they have to reinterpret that romance later on through revelations and challenges.
The fun thing about writing their relationship was that they’ve settled into patterns that make them antagonistic to each other. The very things that attracted them to each other are the things that they’re antagonistic about now. So, it was really fun to write a beginning that tries to be as romantic as possible and then reinterpret that romance 20 years later. Of course, I’m doing that all over the book to make you think you know one thing and then a story comes in and upends that knowledge. It’s great fun for me to mess with readers (laughs).
If there’s one thing this book asks you to do over and over, it is to never settle on anything with too much certainty. If there’s a moral of the story, it’s the one I gave to Elizabeth’s teacher when they’re sitting at the Bean and he says something along the lines of, “Believe what you’re going to believe, but believe it with humility. Believe with curiosity.” I would add now, “Believe without sanctimony and be as passionate about how you might be wrong as about how you might be right.” I think one of the errors that a lot of the characters in Wellness make is falling into a false sense of certainty about something—whether that’s, “This is who I am,” “This is who I am not,” “This is what my marriage is,” or “This is what the world is.” What the book tries to do is always prevent you from landing on something with too much certainty, even up until that last image in the last chapter.
I think that’s what makes Wellness so easy to read and so palatable as an epic. You’re constantly changing your mind about each character, about what’s ethical and what’s not. It transitions really well from what seems to be a traditional love story to this complex game of push and pull.
You stole my segue! I was going to say that the conversation at the Bean was my favorite set of lines from the book. I also laughed out loud when Jack was writing his review of the bar and he said, “Two stars. Good drinks, but the waiters are pricks.” I wanted to ask you: Do you have a favorite line from the book?
There’s one my wife and I have been using a lot. Ever since she read the very first draft we’ve been making the joke, “Call me Brad.” You know, at the beginning of the book, Elizabeth is on a date with the music snob Brad at The Empty Bottle Bar. That’s just become our shorthand for just any kind of douchebag (laughs). Just, “Oh, that guy’s a call me Brad.”
What are you looking forward to in the coming weeks?
I’m so looking forward to getting back out and engaging with readers. After having endured a very lonely lock down and pandemic, I’m bursting to be in rooms with readers again!
By Nathan Hill
Alfred A. Knopf
September 19, 2023
Angie Raney is a recent graduate of DePaul University where she studied creative writing, anthropology, and Spanish. Her poetry and creative nonfiction has been published in publications such as Crook and Folly, Silver Birch Press, Fleas on the Dog and more. Currently, she work as the Fundraising and Events Assistant for StoryStudio Chicago.