The following is Fargo creator Noah Hawley‘s new foreword to A Conspiracy of Tall Men, his debut novel, originally published in 1999. The book has just been reissued by Grand Central Publishing and is available for purchase now.
It started with a question. Or, rather, it started with a series of moments that built up to a question. An independent study at Sarah Lawrence about the history of paranoia in American politics; news footage of a siege at Ruby Ridge and then a second in Waco, Texas. Or maybe it started with The X-Files. It was the mid-nineties after all. Somewhere in the mixture of all these elements, the question was born: What are we so afraid of? And by we I meant Americans. The history of this country is a history of fear—fear of government, fear of a loss of individuality, fear of each other.
The fear waxes and wanes, but it never fully disappears. We were born with it, it seems, and it follow us from generation to generation.
For those of you who don’t remember, the nineties was a decade rich with conspiracy theories about a New World Order and black helicopters hovering in secret, of a government hellbent on seizing our guns, of enslaving us at the direction of a secret global elite. Just as the seventies was a time of intense paranoia, in which a White House conspiracy had been proven to go all the way to the top, so was the nineties a time of rampant distrust and rumor. And so, in 1993, a question was asked by a young man in a cramped studio apartment in New York City, a question that became an idea about a professor of conspiracy theories whose wife is killed in a plane crash. An idea soon packed with my clothes and moved to San Francisco, where pageswere written on weekends and long bus rides to work.
Behold the young novelist struggling to arrive.
The question was a broad one, but I quickly realized that the ideas that drove the novel had to be specific. In the end, you see, a question is not enough to fuel a novel. It needs characters. The questions that drive the book have to become their questions, the ethereal nature of themes grounded in human identity. And so the question what are we so afraid of becomes instead what is he so afraid of, Linus Owen, our hero. A man who teaches classes about paranoia, but has managed to remain one step removed, until an actual conspiracy consumes his life. Why is it easier for him to assign blame for the world’s (and his own) problems to the actions of unknown global powers? Than to admit that people have flaws, that we’re our own worst enemies, that the father who died from a two-pack-a-day habit wasn’t a victim of Philip Morris, but, in fact, a suicide? A weak man who smoked each cigarette knowing full well that it would kill him.
The nineties passed. X-Files culture shifted. American paranoia waned, but only for a moment. For here we are, twenty years later, and the pendulum has swung again—the names have changed; the New World Order has become Pizzagate, militias have become sovereign citizens. But the fear remains. It is our fear, the burden we carry. We thought the Internet would save us, shining a light into the dark corners of uninformed paranoia, but it has only made the fear stronger. Rumors fly now in real time, igniting the embers of uncertainty.
And meanwhile the question remains.