Noah Hawley is a screenwriter, novelist, and producer with a political science degree from Sarah Lawrence College. His three novels: A Conspiracy of Tall Men, Other People’s Weddings, and The Punch were all widely acclaimed, and soon led to a career in writing and producing television. He was a writer on “Bones” for two-and-a-half seasons, and he created and served as executive producer on the ABC dramas, “The Unusuals” and the recent, experimental “My Generation,” which the LA Times called “fresh, vivid, and touching…the first mockumentary dramedy of the digital revolution.”
In this interview, Hawley dispenses some valuable information about perseverance, commitment, and the lessons he quickly learned about how best to deal with the Hollywood system.
So you started out as a musician?
When I was at Sarah Lawrence I was in a band. And I guess if you asked my career goal at 16, it was being a rock star. I played music all through college and moved to New York and our band was driving around, touring, going to play all kinds of places. We were called Bass Nation – everyone thought it was a fish [reference] or something. But yeah I turned 26 and realized that a) I wasn’t really a night person, which was a real handicap, and b) I guess I felt a little over-educated to be living in bars. When you’re part of a band you’re tied to these other guys in a way that you can’t make your own decisions.
Were you also writing on your own during this time?
When I was 23, I started writing fiction on the side. And what I liked about that was it was just me, I had control over it. Music is such an amorphous thing. When you’re out playing, its hard to measure your progress. So I moved to San Francisco, and I made the switch from music to fiction.
What was that transition like – from concentrating on music to focusing entirely on your writing?
I think when you’re young you have this vision – its kind of a chronic problem for the young where you have this dream – and you imagine that there’s a moment where you’ll achieve the dream and you’ll suddenly be happy. Like someone hands you a key and it’s called success. But the reality is that it’s always a work in progress. I loved music and playing music and that whole experience, but I didn’t love the business of it. And this was the nineties – pre Napster, pre Mp3 – the “old days,” I guess. I really began to reconsider success. A lot of successful bands – these guys are on tour 300 days a year, you know, success is a grind… But also, as a storyteller, I wanted to tell more mature stories than you really can in a pop song.
Why move to San Francisco instead of staying in NYC?
I’d grown up in NYC, so that was definitely a major factor. When you’re in your 20s you want to leave home to differentiate yourself from your past and start fresh. And it felt like it would be easier to reinvent myself some place else. You’re not surrounded by all these people who know you.
I’d never really been [to San Francisco], but there was this pull of the west coast. I had friends in Seattle and that seemed too sleepy for me, and Portland, too, but San Francisco was just this great European-style city. Sometimes it feels like New York and San Francisco just trade [populations] every five years. But I moved there and ended up selling my first novel within the year.
What kind of day-jobs did you have in San Francisco?
In NYC I’d actually ended up – through a complete act of nepotism – with a paralegal job at the Legal Aid Society dealing with child abuse cases and juvenile delinquency. I did that for four years and I wanted to look for similar work in California. So I got this corporate paralegal job and – classic scenario – I’d just go home and write at night and on weekends. During workdays [I’d say]: “How quickly can I do this task so I can focus on my own stuff?” There’s this weird sub-culture in offices where the large percentage of people are trying to be something else, but they’re all keeping it secret. I went out with a couple work friends one night and finally revealed that I was a writer and I’d sold a book and one of them was like, ‘”That’s what I’m doing.”
Was it easy to balance your day job with your burgeoning writing career?
You really have to commit to spending your nights and weekends writing – you have to choose that over going out drinking and being 26 and going out with your friends. But the alternative is you’re 40 and you’re still the paralegal. I just didn’t want to be in that place.
After you sold your first book, were you able to live off that income?
I ended up doing a two-book deal for a small amount of money – don’t go into fiction for the money. I actually would have kept the day job, but I got laid off – the firm downsized. So I was sort of kicked to the curb with this book coming out and a finite amount of money in the bank, but then I got lucky and the novel was optioned for a feature [film]. Patrick Stewart was the producer on it. He’d found the book and brought it to the studio. And about the same amount of money I’d gotten from the publisher, I got from Hollywood. But then my editor left the publishing house and the second book never got published, so I went through a good [chunk of] months playing chicken with my bank account.
What kind of writing community were you finding in San Francisco?
I met these writers early on – Po Bronson, Ethan Watters, Ethan Canin, [among them] – and they had started this group called the Writers Grotto. They were writers and filmmakers and they had this great office space. I would go every day. It was 21 people working in this old, converted dog and cat hospital. And we hosted parties and big events, and Dave Eggers was around and Michael Chabon was across the bay — it was such a thriving lit community and it was great to be in the center of that. [The Grotto] still exists now – they’re in their 12th year.
So did you start to find your screenwriting “voice” around this time?
[The Grotto] was sort of the opposite of a place where writers workshop their material – it was literally just office space. You’d have lunch and talk about projects, but for me screenwriting became much different from fiction. Every scene is there for a specific reason. And rather than just sit down and write a screenplay I [would sit] down and outline the arc, the characters, each act, I would have a page for what each scene was – exactly what happened in it. I had a first draft [of my first screenplay] in 2 weeks. I really tend to be a first draft writer – I trust my instincts. My first drafts get tweaked but they don’t get overhauled in any major way. I got a film agent off of that screenplay [at ICM], and in a period of four months I had about three film projects going on.
Did you learn some valuable lessons early on about dealing with Hollywood versus dealing with publishers?
Well [the production company] would call and say, “We can’t WAIT to meet you!” I learned [quickly] that they CAN wait to meet you – you start to learn what these words really mean. And you have to be a salesman. To operate in this town everything’s got to be great all the time.
Hollywood is like high school – at the end of the day they make these [multi-million dollar] decisions based on who they want to hang out with. You walk into a room and sit in front of 6-8 people and tell a story, and based on that they decide whether to offer you money to make your movie or TV show. You have fifteen minutes in a room to convince them to buy something, and you learn very quickly what it means to invest. They have to care about a character. So you start out by saying who this person is, why they are who they are, you get them to invest in these people, and then they care where the story goes. That really ends up helping your writing.
But it’s tough. I have a friend who went in to do a pitch once, and he’s building the whole drama of his story and the guy he was pitching to just slowly bends down to lift his socks. Like he’s been thinking the whole time, “My socks are so loose right now.”
So how did you transition from film to TV?
I wrote about three pilots – two for FX, one for CBS. None of them got made, but it basically alerted me to the fact that one of them could get made eventually. When I moved down to LA I got a writing job at “Bones” and I was there for two and a half seasons. I didn’t develop anything on my own, but during the second season I sold a pilot to ABC. They didn’t make it. But then I sold a pilot that would become “The Unusuals.”
The shows you’ve created have been well-received but haven’t had the longest lives. What have you learned, creatively, through these experiences?
I think with all commercial art you run into the same issue: it’s really dangerous to do what you love for a living. You really have to detach yourself emotionally and ask, how can I turn the death of my show into an advantage? The only way to do your best work creatively is if you’re open and you make work that’s meaningful, but that also leaves you open to the callous industry responses. Sometimes you just want to reach through the phone and strangle somebody, but they’re who they are and you’re who you are. Your job as an artist has to be to figure out what their notes mean. It’s like in a comic book where Spiderman’s falling off a roof and you see a thought bubble and it says, like, “I’m falling off a roof” – that’s network television.
Any final advice for young writers trying to transition into writing for TV and film?
Find those peers who celebrate your successes. You know, I’ve never had a bestseller, a hit show, or a blockbuster movie. I’m so grateful for the progress but you still sort of go, “Well…hmm.” In Hollywood there are tons of writers out there who’ve made a great living and never had a single thing made. Ambition is a very interesting thing. I think a big part of my maturation has been about recognizing what’s ego and trying to reduce that. If I’m telling the stories I want to tell, then I’m successful. I was teaching a writing class recently and a student said, “I just want to have a story published.” Well, you have to be saying, “I want to write today.” The focus has to be on the work.
It’s a marathon. It’s not a sprint.
Interview by Lucas Kavner
Great NY Times article: “Guarded Pals in a Critical TV Rivalry”