After 'Fargo' Noah Hawley Writes 'Before The Fall'
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
I'm not sure if you've seen the TV series "Fargo" or not, but it's known for its dark turns. This moment was especially chilling, though. An earnest police officer pulls over the absolute wrong guy, played by Billy Bob Thornton.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FARGO")
BILLY BOB THORNTON: (As Lorne Malvo) Let me tell you what's going to happen, Officer Grimly. I'm going to roll my window up, and then I'm going to drive away. And you're going to go home to your daughter. And every few years, you're going to look at her face and know that you're alive because you chose not to go down a certain road on a certain night, that you chose to walk into the light instead of into the darkness.
GREENE: Yikes. OK, with tense scenes like that, Noah Hawley, "Fargo's" writer and showrunner, has made a name for himself well beyond the Coen Brothers movie that inspired this series. And that same sense of peril - well, it pervades Hawley's new novel about a plane crash. Here is Hawley reading from it.
NOAH HAWLEY: (Reading) Everyone has their path, the choices they've made. How any two people end up in the same place at the same time is a mystery. You get on an elevator with a dozen strangers. You ride a bus, wait in line for the bathroom. It happens every day. To try to predict the places we'll go and the people we'll meet would be pointless.
GREENE: So the book is called "Before The Fall." And Noah Hawley uses this work of fiction to address a very real human impulse - wanting to understand why certain people and not others get caught up in tragedies like 9/11.
HAWLEY: There is a randomness, especially once these bigger, dramatic world events occur, of who is actually going to end up in that moment in that place, whether it's the guy I knew who was supposed to return his rental car to the Trade Center on the day of the attack and just, for whatever reason, didn't make it there. And that randomness, I think, makes it really hard for some people to accept that accidents actually happen.
GREENE: Noah Hawley begins his book on Martha's Vineyard, a foggy night. Eleven passengers, including the CEO of a 24-hour news channel board a private jet. Minutes later, the plane crashes into the sea. Noah Hawley then pieces together who these people were, almost like he's confronting a passenger manifest from a real crash.
HAWLEY: Usually, what we see is a list. We see a list of names, and maybe you'll get a story about one or two of them. But the other people just sort of remain names. And by telling the stories of the other people on the plane, I could solve the mystery of why the plane went down. I mean, all these people have a very legitimate reason for potentially being the target of something that would have brought down the plane. And yet, there also is that randomizing factor in the fact that this random painter was invited at the last minute on by the CEO's wife and found himself as one of the two survivors. So there's that sense of, like, history is made in those moments, and some people miss them. And some people just tend to show up.
GREENE: The guy you're talking about showing up, Scott Burroughs, the painter, he's a man whose life has really been defined by disaster. Even before the crash, he's a painter obsessed with portraying catastrophes, like train derailments and tornadoes. I mean, what got you thinking about a character like that?
HAWLEY: Well, you know, on many levels, he's a man who's failed. As a young man, he had the hubris to think he was going to be a great artist, and he went to a lot of parties downtown. And, you know, at a certain point he realized that the art that he was making was not really getting noticed, and the parties were getting a little more desperate, and he was drinking a little more than he should have. And he basically bottomed out. And he saw his life as a disaster, and so he was attracted to painting these disaster scenes - a train derailment or a tornado bearing down - and then found himself in the right place at the right time to do something redeeming and heroic.
GREENE: Some of the lines that really stood out to me in the book - you had reporters who were looking for faces in the clouds. They were trying to find something that wasn't really there. You also wrote, in the absence of facts, we tell ourselves stories. Are you saying something about the 24-hour cycle of speculation, as you call it - I mean, making a comment on the news media of today's society?
HAWLEY: Well, I think we're pattern-seeking animals. And obviously, we want it all to mean something. And, you know, if you go all the way back to the JFK assassination and the Zapruder film, it's like, we have it on film, and we still don't know what happened. You know, there's still speculation - two gunmen or three gunmen or did the shots come from the back or the front? We have this cycle now where we have a lot of information coming at us at all times. And I think the audience wants to - not just understand what the facts are, but understand what they mean, which, of course, is subjective. And therefore, it's hard to know what the objective story is anymore because all we're getting, really, is a filtered version of details.
GREENE: One of your characters is an anchor on an all-news channel that felt very much like you were taking us into a version of cable news as you saw it. His name's Bill Cunningham, and you wrote about a moment when he was speculating on the air about what might have caused this crash. Do you mind reading...
GREENE: ...Some of what he was saying? Planes just don't crash.
HAWLEY: Yeah, he says, (reading) planes don't just crash, people; this was sabotage. There was a shoulder-fired rocket from a speedboat. This was a jihadi in a suicide vest onboard the aircraft, possibly one of the crew - murder, my friends, by the enemies of freedom.
So, you know, he is saying little things don't happen to big people. It seems like an accident. It can't have been an accident, so now that's the story - is that it's not an accident. And the more you repeat things and the more people start to adopt that language, the more that the actual facts become skewed.
GREENE: As you're writing about a plane and writing about kind of the rush to find a narrative, I mean, I couldn't stop thinking about real incidents - I mean, Egypt Air recently and sort of the rush to speculate about terrorism. I think back to the Germanwings fight, where there was a lot of speculation about what caused that plane to go down. It turned out to be a co-pilot who, you know, was suffering from some mental illness.
GREENE: Were you trying to draw these connections?
HAWLEY: No, not deliberately. I mean, the Malaysian Air flight was also a big one while I was writing this. You know, I think, as we started out with that reading about we can't predict where any of us are going to end up, I think a plane crash is the very definition of that, which is, you know, there's only one person in control on an airplane, and that's the pilot of the plane. And the rest of us are there putting our lives in that person's hand. So I think there is this fascination with these crashes because we see ourselves. We've all taken those flights, and we all know how powerless we are. And so we want to understand why those things happen because we're all flying to Chicago next Thursday. You know what I mean?
GREENE: Are you afraid of flying?
HAWLEY: No, I fly all the time. And I've written about a couple of plane crashes in books, and I think it's my way of hoping that the universe is not ironic.
GREENE: (Laughter) If you write about it, it won't happen to you.
GREENE: Noah, thanks a lot.
HAWLEY: Thank you.
GREENE: That's writer Noah Hawley. His new novel is called "Before The Fall." And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
And I'm Ailsa Chang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.