How writer Noah Hawley wrote himself out of struggle

When writer Noah Hawley was charged with reimagining the Coen brothers’ hit movie “Fargo” for television, everyone held their breath. After all, the Coen brothers’ point of view is quirky, to say the least. 

But four years later, FX’s anthology version of “Fargo” has piled up 32 awards. And Hawley is not only writing but running another show for FX, “Legion,” which just started its second season.

No one is more surprised than Hawley, who spent 10 months on unemployment and eight years working in what he calls “day jobs.”

“I started out as a musician, so writing music and songs at a certain point I thought, ‘If you’re going to write popular music, then your target audience is 14 or 15 years old.’ And I wanted to tell more adult stories. But you gotta pay the bills as well. So I was fortunate enough to have a job out of college that was very meaningful.”

That job was with the Legal Aid Society in New York in family court. “I was a paralegal with the lawyers who represented the children in abuse and neglect cases, also juvenile delinquent cases, and I was there for four years,” he says.

“And you’re working with a lot of really tireless people who are arguably a Band-Aid society. But there’s a sense of nobility to that. And I was lucky to be able to contribute to that,” he says.

Finally Hawley left New York for San Francisco, where he joined a writing group that supported and encouraged fellow members. “There wasn’t a similar job that I could get (in San Francisco), so I started doing some law firm work to pay the bills and ultimately I sold a novel, and then stopped having a day job. And now I had to earn it because that money runs out pretty fast.”

That novel was “A Conspiracy of Tall Men,” but what followed wasn’t exactly writer’s bliss. “There was a period in my 30s where I was going through a divorce, had published my first novel and had a deal for a second novel. But they didn’t like the book that I delivered. And my parents were both going through illnesses that would ultimately take them away. It was a tough period there where it felt I was going to have to find some grace to get through it all,” he says as he shakes his head.

“Then this moment where you’re looking at the small numbers in your bank account trying to figure out, ‘Well I’m going to have to go back to work unless I figure out something.’ So the Hollywood work came at a moment where it really felt like life-saving.”

The “Hollywood work” was the sale of his first screenplay, “Lies and Alibis,” which starred Steve Coogan and earned Hawley a passport to Hollywood.

“I ended up selling a pitch, and Paramount hired me to adapt my book, because now I seemed to be a screenwriter. And then ‘Lies and Alibis’ sold — all within a six-month period. So I went from being a struggling novelist to having three projects very quickly. It changed my life, really,” says Hawley.

Today he finds himself in charge of “Legion,” and swatting offers faster than Roger Federer. “On some level I’d been able to … create my own future,” he says. “As a writer, you can always write something that changes your life. That next thing could do it. So the power of it was I was on my heels from life, but instead of giving up, I leaned into it and ultimately it paid off.”

Married and the father of two children, 10 and 5, he says the grace he found during that down period rose from a sense of moral imperative.

“I feel like I’m a humanist,” he says, “in the great tradition of Kurt Vonnegut. I really feel like I may not be a firm believer in an organized religion, but I am a believer in that we should all strive for a moral and ethical grace and treat each other with respect and try to make the world a better place. I try to balance my work around my life to be a good husband and father and to take care of people and make people feel like the work they do matters. Because it does matter to me. I don’t ascribe to the ‘tortured artist’ persona. I think that’s a crock. We can all do our best work and go home to our kids.”

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