AUSTIN – We ask Noah Hawley first, “How are you feeling?”
“It’s a tough question to answer,” says Austin-based author, filmmaker, and TV showrunner Hawley, whose sweeping new novel anthem, came out on January 4th.
He asks if we can skip to the next question.
We say sure, but mention that the book lends itself to inner exploration. He keeps brooding.
“The book is how I feel is probably the simplest answer,” says Hawley, 54. “It’s a complicated subject. How are any of us doing right now? We worry about our children and our communities. We worry that the world doesn’t make sense and a lot of people are very angry.”
Have read anthem, a dark and dystopian fiction that resembles our modern day more than it does Beautiful new world, we can say that Hawley’s answer is as clear as day.
In the novel, America is in a turmoil. Ideologies have never been so polarized.
Cult devotion to a demagogue has encouraged dangerous mobs.
An untouchable man of great wealth steals young women and imprisons them for his own perverse gratification.
Perhaps most troubling, the world’s young people are falling into a suicide pandemic, somehow fueled by the internet, which is only inexplicable if you don’t consider an obvious explanation.
The truth is broken and so is hope.
“Whenever you start a story, you have to answer the question, ‘When is it set?'” says Hawley. “I always try to think, ‘When is the book going to be read?’ On television, we can mostly interact with the culture in real time.”
It takes him three to five years to write a book. Hawley got to work anthem in 2018.
“We had an America that was changing,” he says. “Kind of a roller coaster ride of monthly, if not weekly, if not daily, changes to the reality of how we lived and perceptions of what this country was and what it was destined to become.”
You know what happened next in the story.
success on many fronts
Born in New York, Hawley began writing fiction as a young man. After moving to San Francisco early in his career, he met his wife Kyle, a native Texan, and they decided to raise their family in Austin.
his first book A conspiracy of great men, was released in 1998. Since then he has been writing other people’s weddings, The punch, The good father and before the fall.
His screen work garnered acclaim and popularity. He created, wrote, directed and produced the series for TV network FX Fargo and legion. Hawley made his feature film directorial debut in 2019 with the astronaut flick starring Natalie Portman Lucy in heaven. He will soon be directing an untitled heist film for Netflix with the lead role Bridgeton Actor Rege-Jean Page, and he also brings sci-fi franchises extraterrestrial to TV, again for FX.
All in all, the world of genre fiction has been good for Hawley. The disturbingly plausible anthem he now finds himself exploring an unknown new world through the trappings of a literary fantasy.
At the heart of the story, an unlikely trio of teens embark on a quest: Simon, a poor little rich boy, devastated by the death of his sister; Louise, a sarcastic, obsessive-compulsive girl on the fringes who anticipates trauma; and the Prophet, a quiet figure who seems to speak directly of God in riddles. They break out of a psychiatric facility on a divine mission to find the Wizard, a man of untold wealth and evil.
They encounter ancient archetypes that are reinterpreted for modernity. A goblin, so to speak. A witch, maybe more than one kind.
Subplots follow characters living in a decaying American dream, from a doomed Supreme Court nominee whose daughter goes missing in Austin to a young man pulled off the grid by a “sovereign citizen” father . These threads converge in a tightly woven thriller that never stops readers from reminding themselves that their off-page reality, when reinvented and set just like that, is tragically unreal.
The story began as an act of realism, says Hawley. The character of the justice candidate named Margot Nadir came first. Hawley imagined a mystery about a lost adult daughter. The young man who grew up on the net and was eventually named Felix was the daughter’s boyfriend who grew up in a far-right cult without a birth certificate or social security number.
Choosing to set the novel in the very near future led Hawley to extrapolate what might happen in those times. An unstoppable wave of youth suicides as the world burns crossed my mind. He also focused on the feeling that the country had reached a tipping point between the Wall Street kingdom and the Main Street kingdom, he says.
Hawley reframes: Science and urbanity vs. intuition, emotion and nostalgia.
“Thinking about it that way, the fundamental conflicts between fantasy and reality led to the idea that maybe this is a fantasy novel about a real world or a realistic novel about the fantasy world we live in,” he says.
Hawley’s neighbors will have a few “oh, hey” moments while reading. Among other things anthem spends a lot of time in the Marfa enclave of west Texas where climate actions are taking place on the Wizard’s compound.
“I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Marfa, and it has this fascinating quality of being both an extremely isolated part of Texas and a very affluent, cosmopolitan place,” says Hawley. “There are art galleries and a modern hotel. Obviously there is an airfield and people come and go. It felt like if you were a wealthy person from New York, San Francisco or LA looking for a secluded place where you could also get a bagel and feel cultured, then Marfa felt like a great choice .”
anthem also makes a pit stop in Austin where the judge’s daughter is missing. “Austin is a relatively liberal place, but you have access to all kinds of people and ideologies,” says Hawley.
Even if Austin isn’t a main location anthem, this core – how people with different views may or may not share a space – enlivens the novel.
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anthem does much to deconstruct the idea of polarization, and yet it creates a world like our own. It’s us against you, no matter who you see yourself as.
“The only way to write a character is to put yourself in their shoes,” says Hawley.
The words “Republican” and “Democrat” are loaded, he says, and he’s taken great pains not to mention them in the book, though the reader will inevitably map actions and beliefs to real-world analogies.
Writing across ideological divides could pose a challenge to creativity. Hawley just sees it as part of the process. He tried to think about the perceptions of different groups, and he says he avoided writing adult characters as mouthpieces for the way he thinks about the world.
anthems approach to the concept of conspiracy is one of the most provocative. Threats of Q-Anon analogues and violent doomsday prepper crackpots loom. anthem describes how imaginary threats often mobilize very real forces.
But in the story there are true conspiratorial forces at play. The magician and his accomplice — it’s not hard to draw a line from their portrayal to convicted sex offenders Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell — traffic in young girls with impunity. Simon’s father, a pharmaceutical magnate, aptly monologues his newly radicalized son about how the rules for the rich are different, even non-existent.
“I was hoping that the book would appeal to as many Americans as possible, not in a commercial way, but in an appealing way,” says Hawley. “If I take the hat off of my own political leanings and just look at the elements of the world, it’s very messy.”
“I’m just a dad living in Austin trying to figure out what it all means and keep my family safe, thriving and my community healthy,” he says at the end of our conversation. He wants people to know, “We all go through our days with some level of worry. And I suppose the point of the book was to say, “I hear you. I’m with you.’
“We can find out together.”