Noah Hawley: ‘Anthem’

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Writer, Noah Hawley. Photo by Carolyn Fong.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes back Noah Hawley, author of the novel “Anthem” and showrunner for the FX series “Fargo.” His other novels include “Before the Fall” and “The Good Father.” Hawley also wrote and directed the 2019 film “Lucy in The Sky.” Hawley tells The Treatment one of the tragedies of both the film “Fargo” and the series is the characters’ inability to communicate with each other. He says he sees fiction writing as an “empathy delivery device” that can help readers understand someone who isn’t like him or her. And he says one of the challenges of our time is how many people care about what feels true even more than what actually is true.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. My guest is Noah Hawley, whose newest book is "Anthem." He was last here for the terrific last season of "Fargo." I can't talk to you about the book and not ask how much is influenced by the era in which we live in now. 

Noah Hawley: Yeah, I just honestly set out to tell a story about people who do things, and I thought, well, when is it set? And then in deciding that it was set in our contemporary America, or in our near future, I was forced to ask, well, what does our near future look like? And then that became this huge dive into where we are and how we got here. 

We talk about polarization, but really what we have is two Americas: what's described in the book as the kingdom of Wall Street and the kingdom of Main Street, and one sort of worships the god of reason, and the other lives more emotionally and instinctually. And so the book became a kind of epic fantasy quest, what I describe as a fantasy novel about the real world or a realistic novel about the fantasy world that we're living in, but it's both at the same time.

KCRW: Faith is really kind of the foundational aspect of the book, isn't it? 

Hawley: The protagonist, Simon, is a rich kid who's been in a private psychiatric hospital to treat his anxiety, and he thinks about this kingdom of Wall Street and the kingdom of Main Street. And he says, No, clearly one of these kingdoms is living a sort of delusional life. But what if it's us? What if it's the people who believe that we should trust the science? Maybe Einstein or Galileo, that was the beginning of a kind of break from the emotionally instinctive worlds of faith that everyone else lives in. 

We have this delusion on the left, that if everybody else just understood the facts, then they would see the world the way we see the world, but I think we're learning that people see the world differently, and they always will. But we still have to figure out a way to talk to each other and govern together and create a community together.

KCRW: The book has this thing that I associate with you as a creator, which is characters looking for tribes.

Hawley: We're a tribal animal. We're a community based, family based animal, very social. The worst thing that you can really do to people is isolate them. I think we're seeing that over the last couple of years that it's only making things worse, when we lock down and we keep apart from each other. But it's also becoming increasingly heated and confrontational in our public spaces, and so people are starting to opt out of community because it's starting to feel so dangerous. And, of course, that in and of itself is dangerous, because we’ve got to get out there and mix it up and hear other people and walk in their shoes in order to be able to care about them.

KCRW: More so than anything you've done, this is really a book about people choosing not to listen to each other. So often, you have a couple of people who are sort of nose to nose, who can't hear each other.

Hawley: For me on some level that goes back to "Fargo." Joel and Ethan's movie is a tragedy. It's that sort of tension between comedy and tragedy. And the tragedy is really about the inability of these characters to communicate with each other. Jerry Lundegaard, played by Bill Macy: if he could just say out loud the truth to somebody, he could have averted the whole tragedy, but he can't even finish the sentence. He's so afraid of his own thoughts. A lot of what "Fargo" is is that tragedy of miscommunication. And certainly, it feels now like we're seeing an inability to communicate, either to fully understand each other or even to listen, playing itself out in a way that's increasingly dangerous. I live in Austin. I made a conscious choice to live in the middle of the country, because I do want to tell stories to everybody. 

KCRW: You remind me of that line from the book when Louise thinks this is her first time in what people on NPR call “America.”

Hawley: Yeah, that's the question: what is that real America? It's interesting to me, starting to think about maybe a final season of "Fargo." I pitched "Fargo" originally as it's the people we long to be: simple and kind and honest versus the people we fear the most: vicious and unfeeling. And so our protagonists always in "Fargo" embody this traditional folksiness, the simplicity of Patrick Wilson saying "I own two pairs of shoes. One for winter, one for summer. I'm not a complicated guy." And yet now you look at the school board meetings and who is it that are threatening to kill the educators on some level, except these simple, kind and honest folk who would describe themselves as such? 

When you think about that battle between the vicious and unfeeling and the honest and generous, you think, maybe we've lost the vicious and unfeeling. People have taken advantage of those people who just want to feel safe; they want their kids to grow up right. Because ultimately, when you look at the world, what you see is the victory of cynicism, in which you have a lot of well vaccinated people telling other people not to get vaccinated. And that feels like a very cynical act.

KCRW: I think about a section at the end of the book, where it's mentioned in the ‘80s, professional wrestling coined the phrase "kayfabe," which was defined as the thing we all know is fake, and the follow up line is it's all “kayfabe” now.

Hawley: I remember watching wrestling in the '80s, the Superfly Snuka era and the performative soap opera nature of it, and of course everyone knew that it was fake. But, there was this collective agreement that the dramas that they invented in wrestling were real, and we could invest in them. And then, of course, who became a staple of the World Wrestling Federation, but Donald Trump? He became a character in this drama that pretended to be real, but wasn't.

I'm certainly not saying that the root of all our problems is wrestling. But it is a kind of collective investment in artifice as reality. The birth of "reality television," which, none of that was real, either. It's a fascinating thing that happens when you replace reality with the simulation of reality that appeals to people's instinctive nature for good versus evil. 

KCRW: "Anthem" is so expansive, not only in terms of narrative, but in terms of philosophical offering, and it also does this thing you like to do, which is creating a sense of community. You do it at the very opening with characters whom we get immediately invested in. 

Hawley: The story, as I would lay it out briefly, is two tracks. One is this conservative judge, this woman who's on her second marriage, who is nominated for the Supreme Court by a president of the opposite party. She finds out when she goes to visit her grown daughter in Austin, but what she discovers is a kind of Mary Celeste mystery in which there's a meal uneaten on the table, their bags packed, but not taken, and her daughter and her daughter's boyfriend had vanished. On a parallel track, you have a group of young people who've been in this private psychiatric hospital, who break out in order to go on a quest to save a princess in a tower, basically. And you realize that those stories are connected. In order to go on that quest, they have to go out into the American landscape as it exists today.

KCRW: What you do so often is create a sense of community, and you set them in the real world, or a world that feels incredibly real to us. And so almost paragraph by paragraph, we're watching that world disintegrate, but also even as these fantastical elements are being introduced, we feel these real world tensions: her husband being a man of color and being in the streets of Brooklyn.

Hawley: Never in the book do I use the word Democrat or Republican. But I do spend a lot of time kind of trying to figure out other ways to describe the political parties, one of which is to say that there's the party of truth and the party of lies. But each party believes that they're in the party of truth. So in other words, the party of truth is in power now, and before that it was the party of truth, but it was the other party. There are other sorts of attempts to look at it from these characters’ points of view. 

As the judge says, everyone has a theory. And the internet has allowed us all to be right. So we all go through life thinking, Well, I have this theory, and I can go online and I can find enough proof and enough people who feel the same that I can create my own community.

KCRW: There's a chapter in the book "Cliffs," which, in big part, is about how faith can be perverted by zealots. And that feels like almost this summation of a lot of your thoughts in that chapter.

Hawley: There is this idea at the heart of the book about the contagiousness of ideas. And one idea in particular, which is suicide, an idea that kind of spreads among young people, this collective surrender. Our protagonist Simon falls in with a character called the Prophet, who is a 15-year old boy, but who claims that God is speaking to him, and that they have to go on this quest together. There's a moment where the prophet is explaining that 33% of Americans believe that angels walk among us, and that angels and demons are real, and Simon says, Well, what do you believe? And the Prophet says, Well, I believe the more that we believe in them, the realer they become, and Simon, of course, says that's not how it works. But maybe it is how it works. 

There is that sense in the book that the more that we give into a worldview in which magic is real, then the realer magic becomes. I remember in 2016, seeing Newt Gingrich on television, during the runup to the election, and he was telling the CNN correspondent, crime is up all over America. And she said, No, it's not, that it's a fact it's not up. And he said, Well, people feel like it's up, and that is also a fact. And I remember that moment really clearly where I thought, Wait, what just happened? Because there's the fact that crime is not up, it's down. But this feeling that it's up is also a fact. And, that signaled a real shift for me, because that feeling that it's up is more important to a large number of people than the reality that it's down. And I think we're seeing the repercussions of that. 

A big part of why I wrote the book, while I was in the middle of it was this question because I have a 14-year old daughter and a nine-year old son, and I thought: what skills do I need to teach my children to prevail in a world in which reality itself is polarized? What do you even teach a nine-year old about? You're going to go out in the world, and some people are going to believe that this President is really their president, and others are going to believe that he's a fake president. And somehow you have to navigate that, without necessarily picking a side. I don't think we should be forcing our children to pick a side in a culture war that we shouldn't even be fighting in the first place.

KCRW: There's an epilogue in the book where you wrestle with all these questions.

Hawley: When I thought about how to write a book with this many different elements to it, I thought about Kurt Vonnegut, and I thought about "Slaughterhouse Five." I thought, Well, here's a guy who had this tragic World War II experience that he was trying to figure out how to write about, and what he ended up doing was writing a novel in which he himself was the character, and the fictionalized version of his World War II story involved a character who had come unstuck in time and was bouncing around between different periods of his life, and at one point was kidnapped and taken to another planet. And somehow, this mixture that shouldn't work–of science fiction, fantasy and reality–and humor became one of the great modern books of our era. And so I approached it in a similar way, maybe instinctually feeling like I need to talk to the reader directly. Because this isn't abstract for me, I'm struggling with the same things you're struggling with. My children are struggling; your children are struggling, we're all trying to figure it out. So let's try to figure it out together. That was my approach to the book. 

There is an epilogue in the end, where my daughter is asking me how the book is going to end, And I say, I don't know. I worry about these characters the same way I worry about my own children. What is the world going to be like for them? What happens when the oceans rise and the planet heats up? They're okay right now. But we won't always be there to help them and what do we need to teach them in order for them to survive?

KCRW: Talk about the line in the epilogue about the way that fiction is an empathy delivery device. 

Hawley: I've always felt like the subversive part of storytelling is that you are creating empathy for characters who are not like you, so if I can create a bunch of characters who are different than you and make you care about them, that maybe you will go out into the world with an expanded sense of empathy. But part of what I'm worried about is: what if empathy isn't enough? Because empathy is a very powerful force when you feel it for one person or two people, but it's not scalable. If you see a homeless child on the street, your heart goes out to her; you feel empathy for her. But if you see a camp full of people who are homeless, the human animal isn't really capable of scaling empathy to that level. And so maybe empathy itself isn't enough to try to cross this barrier and create a system that helps as many people as possible. And yet, in my job, what other choice do I have, other than to try to say, Here is someone that I care about, then I'm going to make you care about them, with the hopes that if you meet someone in the world, who's like that, you might say, Oh, I think I understand that person a little better, and feel for them.

KCRW: The book brought to mind "Billy Pilgrim" for me in that he moves through so many worlds. And by just going across the country, you condense that idea where he in some ways, is kind of unstuck just because the country itself isn't stuck in any fixed idea as to what's real and what is not.

Hawley: He's pulled through the different realities that are around him and becomes a player in those realities. He's not an observer who manages to maintain the bubble that he started in. He goes on this journey, and eventually, he's as active a participant in the subculture as any of the people that he's with. And yet, at no point, does he feel oriented or that he's mastered the realities in which he's moving between. 

There's a big section in the book about denial and denialism, how the desire of cigarette companies to get people to smoke even though it was bad for them involved undermining the very idea of science and expertise itself. And this whole thing about denial; the power of it is that if we can deny our own deaths, if we can go through life putting the idea out of our head that we're gonna die someday, what can't we deny?



Rebecca Mooney