If you think you have too much going on at work, you might be right. But it might help if you pause to think about Noah Hawley, the Austin novelist and screenwriter.
If you were Hawley, you’d probably be feeling good, having just written what’s expected to be one of this year’s biggest summer thrillers, “Before the Fall,” even though you’d be on a book tour. What’s more, you’d probably be happy — but feeling challenged — that you’d sold the film rights to Sony Pictures and that the company is paying you to adapt the novel into a screenplay.
And you’d also be mulling the third season of the critically acclaimed FX series “Fargo,” which you’ll be writing, directing and producing as the showrunner. You’d also be thinking about how to work your new star — Ewan McGregor — into the show.
And then you’d have several other projects in the works: You’d be working on a TV show for FX based on the X-Men comic book character Legion, who has multiple personalities and a special superpower to go with each one. You’d have a deal to adapt a screenplay from Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle.” You’d be executive producer of “Hellhound on His Trail,” a TV show based on the 2010 Hampton Sides book about Martin Luther King Jr. assassin James Earl Ray. You’d have a deal to executive produce “The Hot Rock,” a robbery/caper drama for FX. And you’d be preparing to make your feature film directorial debut for Fox with “Man Alive,” from a sci-fi script by screenwriter Joe Greenberg.
Hawley, 49, says he doesn’t want to make anyone feel like an underachiever. But there’s no doubt that he’s driven.
“I think I have a freelance mentality, where I do a little bit of everything, and things are going well,” Hawley says. “There’s this moment where you succeed beyond your wildest dreams, and all these opportunities come your way. It’s like you’re still eating, but you don’t realize you’re full yet.”
But can he pull off all these projects? “There are all these things I want to do, and then I think, ‘Oh, I can do one more thing.’ I’ll look at the calendar and say, ‘I can do this in two months and that in four months,’ and then of course, it’s all dependent on getting everything right the first time, and if there’s any going back or second-guessing or reshoots, it throws everything out of whack,” he says. “Right now, there’s a balance, where it feels stressful but doable.”
He has dropped one project he was keen to do — writing a script based on one of Universal’s classic films from the 1930s to the 1950s: “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” “The Mummy,” “The Invisible Man,” “The Wolf Man.” The studio is planning to relaunch its monster franchises in the coming years, and Hawley was on board for an unspecified character. “But I couldn’t crack the Universal monster film in time,” he says, “because they wanted a script at a certain point.” He thought he’d be able to do it, but then a few deal-making issues involving his new “Legion” show were resolved, and “suddenly it was a go, and I was directing.”
In fact, he finished directing the first two hours of the new show, which stars Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey,” about a month ago. And on May 31, Variety reported that the network approved making “Legion” a full series that will debut in early 2017. “So I had to pull out of the Universal movie,” he says. “I do have a self-preservation instinct. I told them that the worst I would do is give them something that was not my best work, but then I knew people would say, ‘He’s kind of overrated,’ and I don’t want that at all.”
Overrated, of course, isn’t something that comes to mind when talking about Hawley. His work on “Fargo” has recently brought him an Emmy, a Golden Globe, a PEN Award, the Peabody, the Critics’ Choice Award and the Producers Guild of America Award.
For a couple of weeks, however, he’s going to compartmentalize and focus on his new book, “Before the Fall.” He participate in the upcoming ATX Television Festival, and he and BookPeople will promote “Before the Fall” at one of the festival’s events — at 10 a.m. June 10 at the Google Fiber Space at 201 Colorado St.
About the book
It’s important that “Before the Fall” not get lost in the hubbub around someone who has become the quintessential Austin Renaissance man.
It’s remarkably fun to read, filled with suspense, memorable characters and incredibly visual scenes. Janet Maslin of the New York Times calls the book “ingeniously nerve-racking” and “one of the year’s best suspense novels, a mesmerizing, surprise-jammed mystery that works purely on its own, character-driven terms.”
Patrick Anderson, writing for the Washington Post, says it’s “an intriguing puzzle, a tasty satire and a painful story of human loss.”
It all starts on an August evening, as a private plane waits to take off from Martha’s Vineyard. On board are TV mogul David Bateman, the founder of a successful right-wing cable news network; his wife, Maggie; their two young children, Rachel and JJ; a Bateman bodyguard; another wealthy couple, Wall Street powerhouse Ben Kipling and his wife, Sarah; a pilot, a co-pilot, a flight attendant and a last-minute guest and friend of Maggie Bateman, down-on-his-luck artist Scott Burroughs, who might be about to get a big break in New York.
Within the first few pages, the plane crashes into the waters west of Martha’s Vineyard, with only Burroughs and JJ surviving. And although Burroughs is miles from shore and faces incredible odds in a choppy sea, he manages to make his way to safety, with a dislocated shoulder and with JJ in tow. It turns out that he was once a champion swimmer and a devotee of exercise guru Jack LaLanne.
The rest of the book unfolds as a mystery: Why did the plane crash? Was someone at fault? Was it terrorism? At first, Burroughs is hailed as a hero for saving JJ. But a blowhard TV personality and friend of Bateman suspects terrorism in the crash and thinks Burroughs might have had something to do with it.
Hawley also takes us back in time to give us the details on the dead. Bateman was incredibly wealthy, having built an empire by shaping the news to fit his agenda. Fellow passenger Kipling was under investigation by the Securities Exchange Commission. The Bateman bodyguard was a shady Israeli-born guy. And what about the crew?
At first, Burroughs isn’t able to answer questions about the crash to anyone’s satisfaction, partly because he’s shell-shocked. But Hawley keeps us guessing about what actually happened on board until the very end, when Burroughs goes face-to-face on national TV with the blowhard commentator.
Reading the book is a compulsive experience, with short chapters that tease all sorts of possibilities, especially as you get to know more about those aboard the plane.
“It’s all about how the characters on the plane are tied to the plane crash and the possible reasons for the crash,” Hawley says. “It’s moving in two directions, getting people on the plane and what happened before, then dealing with the aftermath that Scott Burroughs is facing and how he’s going to be able to go on with his life.”
Hawley is in the midst of such a creative burst that Vanity Fair recently featured a profile, titled “Why Everyone Wants a Piece of Noah Hawley.” It wasn’t always so, of course.
Born in New York, Hawley started a band in his teens, but says he didn’t “really have anything to show for it.” He says his band would get gigs in New Jersey, and it would take three hours to get there and set up and three hours to get back. So he decided to start writing fiction on the side.
He also attended Sarah Lawrence College and received his degree in political science in 1989. After that, he worked for the Legal Aid Society in New York, then moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a paralegal and did computer programming work.
That’s where he met his Texas-born wife, Kyle, and he and she decided that Austin would be a good place to raise a family. They have two children.
All the while, he continued to write fiction, and his first book, “A Conspiracy of Tall Men,” was published in 1998. It was followed by 2004’s “Other People’s Weddings,” 2008’s “The Punch” and 2012’s “The Good Father.”
“This is my fifth book, but the previous four didn’t generate too much fanfare,” he says, “so it’s not like that’s been huge money earner.”
He also got two shows on the air before “Fargo” — a comedy/drama about New York detectives titled “The Unusuals” in 2009, and the Austin-based ABC mockumentary series “My Generation” in 2010. But Hawley notes that “neither got more than a season, so I was on that rollercoaster to write, all or nothing, feast or famine.”
It’s definitely feast time for Hawley, in part because of the huge acclaim for FX’s “Fargo.” The offbeat crime drama, which is based on the 1996 Coen Brothers film, premiered in 2014 and went on to win the Emmy for outstanding miniseries. The first season starred Billy Bob Thornton, Allison Tolman and Colin Hanks. The second season was similarly acclaimed and starred Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons.
The third season won’t begin filming until later this year, and it won’t be on television until 2017.
Hawley says he considers “Fargo” to be artisanal. “It’s handmade, and that’s me there every second and basically writing all the episodes and doing the editing,” he says. “When you take on a lot, the trick becomes how to continue to make things without sacrificing quality or your investment of time. That becomes the struggle — how you have to work it out with corporations, who want your undivided attention. You have to be able to manage that process. I tell them you’ll have my undivided attention on Tuesday, when I’m working on the project, and you’ll have it again Thursday. It’s about navigating.”
Lately, while Hawley is happily pursuing multiple passions, he admits that he wish he had more of a routine.
“When I have a routine, it’s to be here in Austin, drop the kids at school on Monday morning, go to the airport, fly to L.A., stay there the rest of Monday through Thursday and come back on Friday. … If I could commute for a week and then have a week off, I would do that. But there’s no routine right now. I was up in Vancouver for a couple of months directing the pilot for ‘Legion,’ ” he says. He adds that he wants “Legion” to be distinctive because TV is such a crowded field, so he’s bringing “a 1960s Britannia vibe to the design of it, like the Terrence Stamp and Michael Caine movies. That’s what called out to me aesthetically.”
Currently, he’s straying from his preferred routine again, doing the tour for “Before the Fall,” which will end in Austin at the ATX Television Festival.
Hawley says he started his new novel before the first season of “Fargo,” but “I had to put it aside, and finally finished it while making the second season.”
He says his agent sent out the first part of the book early, and there was big demand for it. “My agent was doing the right thing,” Hawley says, “but there was definitely the dynamic on my part of being careful what you wish for.”
Being careful doesn’t usually get artists very far. So Hawley is diving in and seeing what happens. This time, his hopes of having a breakout novel appear to be coming true.
HAWLEY AT ATX
Noah Hawley has several events at the upcoming ATX Television Festival. Here’s his agenda:
- 10 a.m. June 10: A Conversation with Hawley and Beau Willimon, the creator of “House of Cards.” At Google Fiber Space, 201 Colorado St. This will also feature a book-selling event for “Before the Fall.”
- 2 p.m. June 10: Pulp Page to Small Screen: A Look at Comic Adaptations. With panelists Hawley (“Legion”), Javier Grillo-Marxuach (“The Middleman”), Brian Michael Bendis (“Powers”) and Rosemary Rodriguez (“Jessica Jones”). In the ballroom of the Intercontinental Stephen F. Austin Hotel, 701 Congress Ave.
- 10 a.m. June 11: To Adapt Is to Evolve: A Conversation Between Noah Hawley, Bryan Fuller and Graham Yost. At Google Fiber Space.
- 11:30 a.m. June 12: Viewer Discretion Advised. A panel discussion about pushing boundaries on TV, with Kurt Sutter (“Sons of Anarchy”), Jack Amiel (“The Knick”), Brian Michael Bendis (“Powers), Stacey Silverman (Universal TV) and Hawley (“Fargo”). In the ballroom of the Stephen F. Austin.
- 1 p.m. June 12: Fargo: The Music Team. A discussion among the show’s creator (Hawley), the music supervisor (Maggie Phillips) and the composer (Jeff Russo). In the ballroom at the Stephen F. Austin.
BEFORE THE FALL
Grand Central Publishing, $26
About this series
Austin is home to a multitude of acclaimed writers. American-Statesman books editor Charles Ealy writes about them in a series called Literary Austin.