Writer's Room: Noah Hawley on how he answers life's biggest questions through his work
Noah Hawley describes writing books as his "Christmas holiday": precious time he steals between his day job as showrunner of FX's Fargo and an upcoming Alien series, among many other film and TV projects (such as 2019's Lucy in the Sky and FX's Legion).
"I always think I'm gonna have all the time in the world for book writing, and then I get caught up in other things and deadlines I have to meet," says Hawley, 53. "I continue to be an optimist and think, 'I'll sign on to write this movie because I can do that in this period of time, and then the show will come right after it.' And then invariably, I just have to do it all at the same time again."
Still, he found time — while also parenting two kids and weathering a pandemic — to finish his sixth novel, Anthem, a blistering thriller that follows a group of teenagers on an adventure through an apocalyptic America much like our own. Here, the prolific writer shares his tips for penning books, adapting pre-existing works, bouncing between mediums, and more.
My Writing Routine
When I was a younger man, without kids, my goal was always to try to get writing before my life caught up with me — get out of bed, grab some breakfast, and get working. There is a sort of magic to that post-wake-up dream place, before you start to go, "I gotta call this guy." Now that I have kids, I don't have that luxury. But luckily, being a showrunner taught me that you can't be precious about it. If you have two hours to rewrite a script on Tuesday, that's when you're going to do the work.
What I like to do now, after school drop-off, is grab a quick second breakfast with a book or a magazine or something that makes me think. The moment that my brain is engaged and interested, it becomes its own idea-generating machine, so I don't feel like I'm just confronting a blank page. I feel like I've looked at a page full of words and been inspired to go fill up a blank page with words.
Where I Work
My kids go to a Montessori school, which is laid out in areas — geography is in one part of the classroom, spelling is in [another] part of the room. When you sit in there, for me, it's very relaxing because everything is organized. I have a sort of bungalow with a desk and a computer in it, and part of me looked at my workspace and thought, "I don't want to write a book in the same spot that I do everything else." So I have a little loft that has a desk in it, and that's the book-writing area. When you go up there, you're training yourself to work differently than you would work at the standing desk downstairs, where I do all my phone calls and Zooms and scriptwriting.
Where My Inspiration Comes From
Most of the time, I have questions that I'm trying to answer, and the story that I invent is the way that I answer them or explore them. In the case of Anthem, I was thinking about how whenever we talk to our kids about things like gun violence or racism, we invariably end up saying, "It's complicated," and our kids say, "No, it's not." You think about Greta Thunberg saying, "It's not complicated. You either heat the planet up or you don't." And I was trying to figure out: What is this world we're leaving to our kids, if you look at the polarization in our country and the culture war that is being fought and that we're asking our kids to take a side in, when the real issue is, how are we going to avoid our extinction as a species, which no adults really seem to be focused on?
How I Approach Adapting Other Works
All I can really do is think about: When I watched the movie Fargo, what did it make me feel and how did it make me feel that? When you understand the philosophical and structural underpinnings of the story, then you go, "I can make something that makes you feel those kinds of things." In Fargo, for example, you watch a crime happen, and there's a collision of comedy and tragedy, and in the end, you're left with [Frances McDormand's] Marge and her husband, and there's such dignity and simplicity to that ending. So I can tell you a story that has all those components in it but might not have them in that order. Alien is the same thing. The question is: What's the story that I could tell that would make the audience feel that range of emotions?
What Writing TV Has Taught Me About Writing Books
One of the critical parts of Hollywood is understanding that even though it's a visual medium, it's still rooted in the oral-storytelling tradition, and we call that the pitch. To get paid and get you to order the script, I have to sit with you and tell you a story. That was very important to me as a writer, to understand what pulls people into stories and how you hook them quickly: I've got to lead with character, and you've got to invest in a person. And when you hone your story down to [a pitch], it's an amazingly helpful exercise in understanding what story you're writing, and what it's about, and what it means. It's not something that book writers [usually] do.
How I Juggle Multiple Projects
When a book is big enough in my head to start writing, I try to write as much as possible as fast as possible. If I can get 100 pages down, then I'm immune to losing what the book is, so even if I go away for a year and make a show, there's enough voice, structure, and story there that it puts me back into it. When I sit down to read those 100 pages, I'm like, "Oh, right, this is what I was thinking." Versus if you had 25 pages, just the bare start of something, you might sit down with it and go, "There was a good idea here, but I don't know what it is anymore."
How My Kids Contribute to My Writing
Now that they're a little bit older, it's interesting to talk about things that I'm working on with them, because part of it is testing them as storytellers themselves, and seeing if they get stuck. But another part of it is just that role of parent: You're worried about these creatures who will have to learn how the world works and go out in it every day. [You think:] "How am I gonna raise these kids, and how can I ask them to be good and moral people when there's so much cynicism and ugliness in the world?" But you still have to. You've got to figure it out. And that worry just finds its way into the work.
Anthem (Grand Central Publishing) is available now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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