Noah Hawley’s Near-Future Thriller Is an Epic Dystopian Fable That Hits Close to Home
Known for his keen sense of dark realism, the Emmy- and Edgar-winning creator blends fairy tale elements and Vonnegut-esque humor in his action-packed “Anthem.”
January 12, 2022
Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.
Kat Johnson: Hi, this is Audible Editor Kat Johnson and today I'm talking to author, director, producer, and screenwriter Noah Hawley, whose new novel, Anthem, the eagerly awaited follow-up to his Edgar-winning mystery Before the Fall, is one of the most anticipated audiobooks of 2022, and it's finally here. Welcome, Noah.
Noah Hawley: Yes, both 2022 and the book are finally here.
KJ: We couldn't wait. And, actually, the day that we're talking is the day the book comes out, so congratulations, because this is a big, ambitious thriller, and it's very finely calibrated to our present moment. Uncomfortably so, you might say. This is your sixth novel, but you're just as well known for your work in TV and film. You're the Emmy-winning creator and writer of the FX television series Fargo and Legion and the upcoming series Alien. You've also directed the 2019 film Lucy in the Sky. So my question to you is: How did you know Anthem was a book and not a show or a movie or anything else you're involved in?
NH: It's a good question. I have the luxury when I have an idea of deciding whether it's a book or a film or a show. When you write for television, you interact with the culture, mostly in real time. A book, on the other hand, I don't know if it's three years from now or five years from now that the book is going to come out, so on some level I'm forced to think, what's the world going to be like in three years or five years? Under what circumstances are people going to be reading this story and in this moment in time—say, starting in 2018—the question of what America is going to be like in 2022 or 2023? That led to much of the content of the book, the setting as a fantasy novel about our real America or a realistic novel about our fantasy America that we seem to be living in.
KJ: And to that point, the novel is a near-future thriller. It feels so close to our present moment. It follows this sort of post-COVID-19 America in which a global plague of teenage suicides and mounting environmental calamity feels like kind of a worst case but also scarily logical imagining of how our current present might shake out. But you actually did start writing this, like, five years ago. Is that right?
NH: I did. You know, one of the gifts of COVID has been the collapse of time, so it's hard to know exactly when without going back. Let's say it was 2018 into 2019 that I started writing, with the caveat that I have to go and make TV shows and movies in the interim, so I tend to write 50 pages here and then come back six months later or a year later and write 100 pages. So it takes a while.
And this book especially, because it is so structurally complex, it's a very difficult subject to tackle. How can I keep it from being a dire book? And so I thought about Kurt Vonnegut and the writing of Slaughterhouse Five and the fact that Kurt Vonnegut is the voice of the book telling you that he had this actual World War II experience, but also it's the fictionalized version of his World War II experience. It's also a science fiction novel in which the main characters got stuck in time and they end up on another planet at some point. And somehow all of those pieces can come together to make a really clear moral document that was in the book.
KJ: There's multiple threads I want to follow up on with those comments. I think one thing that's super interesting and distinctive about the novel is the purposeful intrusion of your authorial voice when you break the fourth wall and address the listener directly, and I think this is something that makes the audiobook so special, because you actually narrate those sections yourself. I’d love to know how that came about and how you found that experience.
NH: I liked it. We had the conversation about my doing it. I was game to do it because it felt the most authentic. And then the question was, well, what am I reading? Because there's three or four sections that are clearly me, the author, speaking to you, and then there's also a narrator who is not me but also not a character in the book, a kind of nameless parent who talks about the experience of parents. I ended up reading those as well.
The kind of fascinating thing about the book is it has these levels of voice to it, one of which is clearly me. The reason that I put myself in the book was because I want the reader to understand that I'm worried too. I have kids. They're having a hard time. It's been a hard couple years, and the book is really this question of, what world are they going to inherit and how are they going to not just survive but prosper in that world?
KJ: Yeah. Absolutely. I'm just excited by all the things you're saying. The rest of the novel is performed by Shiromi Arserio, who's a fantastic narrator, super talented. Were you involved in the casting or the narration process at all with that or have you heard her performance?
NH: I was involved, and initially the performers they sent me were all male and I thought the idea of having two male voices might get confusing to the ear. There's just a different tone to a voice that's read by a woman than a man, and especially with a book that has this level of action or violence in it. It felt less judgmental, in a way. One of the main protagonists is a teenage boy and it just felt right to my ear. And I think she did a terrific job.
KJ: I just want to give you both credit because you kept me listening the whole way through in spite of the fact that this book contains math. There are a lot of statistics and figures in the book. That makes me glaze over most of the time. What was the deal with the math? Why did you choose to put that in there?
NH: It's interesting because the first line that I wrote in writing the book was that "this book contains math," which means it's the oldest line in the book, so going back to figure out where that instinct came from is not at the front of my mind. In retrospect I feel like we're talking about a book that posits much like, let's say Lord of the Rings, that we have these two kingdoms, this kingdom of Main Street and the kingdom of Wall Street, one is a very literal science-based kingdom and the other is a kingdom in which people operate instinctually and emotionally and on some level—it's the two sides of the American coin.
I figured if I was going to have this conversation between the science-based America and emotion-based America, the facts were kind of critical in representing the one side. And there's a moment in the book in which Simon, who is this teenage protagonist, he talked about the kingdom of Wall Street and the kingdom of Main Street, and he says one of those kingdoms is delusional, but I'm beginning to believe that it's our kingdom, that it's the kingdom of Wall Street, where people think that if we just gave them all the facts, they would see the world the way we see the world, when the reality is that's not true at all. But I thought it was important to have those numbers and those facts and figures even though to some of the readership, they won't make a difference at all.
KJ: Right. I appreciated how you kept bringing in these big statistics to remind us that this is huge. You had another line in the book which I thought was interesting, where you said that in times of turmoil, some people turn to magic, others to math.
So we talked about the math. We talked about how plausible this novel feels, but it also feels like a fable and it's very whimsical and there's magical realism in it. There's a witch and a wizard and a teenage prophet who talks to God. You've got characters named Randall Flagg and Tyler Durden. You're balancing a little bit of the darkness with some of the fantastical, but can you tell us a little bit about how that came about?
NH: There's a moment in the book where Simon meets this 20-year-old man who introduces himself as Randall Flagg, and Simon says, "Isn't that a character in a Stephen King novel?" And Randall says, “It's a fictional world. Why can't I be a fictional character?” You know, this idea that so much of what we saw on January 6 was a kind of cosplay, where first, pick your avatar and then go out for justice. There's something really fascinating about how the recycling of this fiction that's been fed to us, whether it's Fight Club or Mad Max or any of these really iconic Joker, vigilante characters which have been absorbed by a certain section of the country, almost like a justification for actions in the real world where the line between reality and fantasy breaks down.
KJ: I'm curious about how you got into the heads of these characters, and especially young people, because this really feels like their story.
NH: The challenge, whenever you're writing someone who's not you, it's always an act of projection and imagination, and of course no two people are alike, so on some level, it's easier because I get to make it up. Do you know what I mean? There has to be some kind of internal logic to each character that doesn't necessarily have to be logical, especially with characters who are driven by anxiety or fear.
So much of Simon's journey as a rich kid whose older sister killed herself, whose parents cleaned out her room and they don't talk about her to the point where he feels like he's crazy because this hugely meaningful person in his life existed but no one's willing to say that she existed. And then of course what you have with kids. My son is nine now, and last year, he asked me, “Why do grown-ups get to decide everything?” And I said, "Honestly, I don't know. We're not very good at it." I was like, you have to listen to me but in reality, for kids who are trying to figure out the logic of the world, where fairness is so important to them, and all they hear are their parents telling them, well, it's complicated. Why do I have to do active shooter drills at school? Well, it's complicated.
When the reality is, it doesn't seem very complicated to them. When Greta Thunberg gets up and she says it's not complicated. Either the temperature on the planet goes up or it doesn't go up. Either we stop burning fossil fuels or we don't. It's not complicated. So that was part of what I wanted to reflect, was the way the world looks to younger people is much clearer than it can look to us, who have been trained with this both-sides-ism.
KJ: Right. Do you feel hopeful that young people can be more empowered to enact change and resist this kind of corruption that happens as we age?
NH: I am hopeful. I was thinking the other day that every Fortune 500 company should have to have at least one teenager on the board of directors, you know? Given that they're the ones who are inheriting this planet, let's get them involved in the decision-making process early. Not that my 14-year-old makes the best decisions all the time.
"I never want to write something that you see coming. I always want to write something that feels unexpected in the moment but inevitable in the end."
But I think there is that energy to the book and the playfulness that comes through. The challenge in writing this book is this collision of tone between very real stakes of what our world is and the violence that's coming with it, and also it's an adventure story that on some level involves younger people who are still playful, who are still solving problems in a very inventive way. I think that's what's exciting about it to me.
I never want to write something that you see coming. I always want to write something that feels unexpected in the moment but inevitable in the end, but in the moment, I think there's a real playfulness to it. I mean, if you think you're on a mission from God and you steal an Amazon truck to get there, don't you assume that everything in the truck is going to be useful on your mission? Because of course God put the truck in your way.
KJ: I was going to say that that was my favorite scene, when Louise intercepts the Amazon truck and she has to choose, like, four boxes to pick out her torture device.
NH: I think one of the reasons to go back to Kurt Vonnegut is because his tone of voice resonated with a young audience. He hit in the 1960s right when America was changing, and he was writing books that college kids thought were great and hysterical and inventive and that broke all the rules.
KJ: The novel is so influenced by reality and the news cycle. Were you tempted to revisit things as the news cycle continued or did you just trust your creative vision at some point?
NH: I definitely asked the publisher, "What's the last day that I can write in this book?" Because you never know what's going to happen in the real world. When I wrote a book called The Good Father, which was about a man whose son from his first marriage was accused of shooting a presidential candidate, as we were shopping the book, the Gabby Giffords shooting happened, and so I went back and I had to incorporate that into the book. So you always want to make sure that you're at least up to date with the reality that people are reading.
But I didn't set out to write a book that was as much about contemporary America as it was a story of these characters. As I said, I'm starting three or four years ago, and I have to think, all right, when is the book set? Let's say the book is set when the book comes out. That's four years from now. What's America going to be like? And I had to decide as I was writing, what's going to happen in the 2020 election? Because I delivered the book before the election, and if I chose wrong, I was going to have to go back and rewrite it and readjust it, and of course our America would be very different if the outcome had been different. The book has to be about this moment in time and how we got here.
KJ: You talked about Kurt Vonnegut a little bit. Besides current events, can you talk about any of the other influences on Anthem that people who enjoy the novel might like to know about?
NH: You know, there was something that made me think about One Hundred Years of Solitude and Márquez; it felt like this critical realization that of course if I'm writing a fantasy novel about the real world, it should have this magic realism element to it, because the book posits we're at this moment where fiction and reality are breaking down the barrier. You think about how much tragedy is in One Hundred Years of Solitude and how beautiful it is because of the magic realism. So, I felt like that was kind of critical to making something potentially ugly into something beautiful. That was a real inspiration to me.
"Can dialogue be action? Can ideas be action?"
I found myself attracted in the last three books to mixing fiction and nonfiction, whether it's in The Good Father, these sort of case studies of presidential assassinations in Before the Fall, I had these sections about Jack LaLanne, the exercise guru. The combination of fiction writing with these nonfiction or historical interludes really challenge the idea of what action is, right? Can dialogue be action? Can ideas be action? Can you create something that moves back and forth between literal action and ideas and themes and characters that is still a page-turner, even though it's intellectually stimulating at the same time?
So my goal was to kind of push those boundaries and see if I could create this seamless dance between action and ideas and dialogue and character where at the end of it, maybe you read something you hadn't read before.
KJ: You live in Austin, Texas, which, of course you do so much work in Hollywood and LA, is it helpful for you to have a little separation from Hollywood?
NH: I want to tell stories to everybody and, you know, the bubble is real, right? I think it's important to live here in the middle of the country in order to not be part of a sort of echo chamber. Hollywood is mostly in the recycling business. And I certainly have made a show called Fargo based on a movie called Fargo. But it is good to get out of that echo chamber as well where, you know, if everything is Marvel and Star Wars, your cycles tend to link up on that level. I just want to live a life and have a family and be a person, and the experience that I have in LA is quite enjoyable on a limited basis.
KJ: I love that you made Marfa one of the key settings of the book, too, because that's such a special place.
NH: I was there a few months ago over the summer, and it remains this very strange invention by a conceptual artist as West Texas town that's literally hundreds of miles from the nearest city, where it's a kind of modern art enclave. It's both beautiful and a joke at the same time is what's interesting about it.
KJ: When you're writing a novel, do you have any eye on, like, if I write it this way, it'll make a great adaptation? Or do you think it's more liberating to just be free with your imagination and not worry about budgets and shooting and all that stuff?
NH: The great thing about a book is to let it be a book. I have the luxury of making film and television, and so I haven't adapted any of the books yet. On some level, I guess I like them existing in that medium, which is a very different medium from film or television, but it's never just a way to get an idea that I can then sell to Hollywood to then make a movie out of. I like to push the boundaries as much as I can in film and television, in playing with structure and ideas, etcetera. But you certainly can do much more on the page than you can on the screen on that level.
KJ: It's hard for me not to picture it being adapted for the screen. I think it would be fantastic, but it also stands on its own as a wonderful piece and it works really well in audio as well.
NH: The brilliant thing about fiction is that you, the reader, are doing half the work, right? I've written all the words, but when you read it, your imagination is engaged and there are pictures in your head that are your pictures, and I think that's why adaptations are so tough, because that's not how you saw it when you read it. With the reader, there's going to be this level of engagement that's very active versus film, which can be a more passive engagement.
I watched a horror movie recently and I was like, why isn't this working? It's not that it's not well executed, it's just, you know, how many times have I seen this moment, whereas in a novel, where you weren't expecting that moment to come and you don't know what's going to happen next or where the book's going to go, it is scarier because you can't predict it. And of course everything is scarier in your imagination than it is watching it on the screen. That's why 2:00 in the morning is so frightening, when you have a bad dream and you wake up and you have to turn the lights on.
KJ: Before we wrap up, is there anything else you'd like to tell listeners about Anthem?
NH: It's been interesting, given how complex the structure of the book is, to see what people focus on, what they take away from it. So, I'm always pleasantly surprised when someone goes, "The whole thing worked for me and I loved that you shifted tone and, at certain moments, you talked about where the history of denialism came from but also you had an action sequence."
KJ: Well, I'm a maximalist, so I like it all. Before we go I know you have Alien coming up and hopefully another season of Fargo. Do you have any details you can share with us about that?
NH: I'm just getting started. We're finishing writing the first season of Alien, so probably we'll be filming at the end of the year, if not the beginning of next year . And I'm just starting to put together a writers room for what I'm calling a final season of Fargo. It's a question of which one we'll film first. It just depends on how long Alien's going to take to get on its feet.
I have a film that I wrote that's at Netflix that I'm also trying to figure out. I can only make one thing at a time. I can write two things at a time, but I can only make one thing at a time, so isn't that enough? That sounds like enough. Like, can't I just celebrate that I made a book?
KJ: And it's an epic sprawling, amazing, ambitious book. Congratulations.
NH: Thank you so much. You gotta challenge yourself each time. Otherwise, why are you doing it?
KJ: Well, we appreciate it and thank you again for speaking with us today. Anthem by Noah Hawley, performed by Shiromi Arserio and Noah Hawley, is available on Audible now. Thanks, Noah.
NH: Thank you so much.