Speaking with Novelist-Screenwriters Tom Perrotta and Noah Hawley
On Mrs. Fletcher, The Leftovers, Collaboration, and More
Tom Perrotta’s new novel Mrs. Fletcher, out last week Scribner, comes on the heels of June’s series finale of The Leftovers, the HBO adaptation of his 2011 novel which he co-created and wrote with Lost showrunner Damon Lindelof. He and fellow novelist-screenwriter Noah Hawley, author of Before the Fall and showrunner of FX’s Fargo and Legion, caught up over the phone about their literary influences, the politics of writers rooms, and how to work big ideas into television.
Noah Hawley: Where are you on the earth?
Tom Perrotta: I’m home in Boston. How about you? Are you L.A.?
NH: Yeah, in Los Angeles. My kids are on summer break, so we get to be in L.A., otherwise we are in Austin. I travel back and forth.
TP: That’s one thing you and I have in common. I was a commuter from Boston to L.A.
NH: There’s no value in living here any more than you have to, I’ve found.
TP: Last year I was staying on the Venice canals, and I really got to love it there. I kind of miss it, but I don’t miss commuting.
NH: I’m sure they’d buy another show from you if you’d want to come back.
TP: I know. In fact, I was wondering what you were working on now because you have so much on your plate.
NH: We are gearing up to do a second year of the show Legion, which is on FX. It’s my crazy comic book, surreal, extravaganza. So, we are writing on that right now. I’ve got another book to write, and I’m trying to figure out when to do all that.
TP: I was wondering how you do it. I was only kind of half time on [The Leftovers] and was able to keep my book inching along, but I’m very curious because so much of fiction writing feels like I’m sitting in my room looking out the window.
NH: It’s true. Someone once said you know you write for Hollywood when the phone rings every day and people tell you that they love you, and when you write a novel the phone never rings. I think I could do with a little less phone ringing these days. As my wife says, it’s nobody’s fault but your own. I’m sort of in the idea stage of the next book—the note taking and the research binders and the thinking-things-through. Just yesterday I managed to get the first page written, which always feels like a victory. And I’ll just work on it over the next year or so I would imagine.
TP: Speaking of openings, the opening of your last book, Before the Fall, was just extraordinary. I can’t remember the last time I read an opening chapter of a book that felt so epic and intense and just really remarkable. I loved the book as a whole too. It feels very prothetic looking back from this vantage point, everything that you were talking about—Fox News and these blowhards colluding at the highest level. I don’t know how you got your finger on all that but it turned out you were right on it.
NH: You can’t forget the zeitgeist, but when you hit it, man, it’s an adrenaline rush on some level. I just was thinking about the modern hero and how it used to be a one act play: you know, if you were a hero, you were a hero. Now, with our 24-hour news cycle, we build people up to break them down. How does one turn a man who rescues a child into a villain? And yet this stuff is where the book kind of came from.
TP: We just saw it with John McCain; like how do you take a guy who spent years in a Vietnamese prison camp and then suddenly have somebody like Trump who spent the 70s in clubs doing coke deciding that McCain wasn’t a hero because he got caught.
NH: I know. But, I also liked that the book is centering around an artist who has probably never watched an episode of Law and Order in his life and just doesn’t really understand the mentality, the sort of suspicious ugliness of that level of living. You know—the true pessimism, always expecting the worst mentality—and it is sort of fun to write someone who just doesn’t have that. We all naturally fall into the clichés of detective fiction and solving mysteries; to write someone who’s just kind of wandering through it was fun.
TP: Those characters are getting more and more obsolete. Anyone who grows up with a phone in their hands is just not going to understand the kind of solitude that is at the bottom of a character like that. I was just thinking about it because Sam Shepard died today, and he seemed like a guy who managed to keep his distance from the culture in a really interesting way. I just don’t know that that distance exists anymore.
NH: I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with Don DeLillo and he lives in his own world. We want him in that world. The last thing we want is Don DeLillo with a cell phone or Twitter.
TP: Are you working with him on something?
NH: We optioned Zero K. He was going on a tour for that book and asked me to do a couple on stage interviews with him, which I did: one in Austin and one in Portland. Now we’re friendly. It’s one of the highlights of my career; I think just getting to spend time with that man is very exciting. We’re both New Yorkers, and what I always respond to in his work is it’s New York-ness. Despite the kind of erudite, big ideas and the loftiness of the language, at the end of the day you’ve got a bunch of guys talking about pissing in sinks. and that really sounds like where I grew up. There’s that sense of the local which is still in there. I assume you’ve met some of your literary heroes over the years.
TP: I have. I actually had a very interesting experience because my first creative writing teacher in college was the writer Thomas Berger, who wrote Little Big Man. He’s sort of forgotten now, but he was one of the real giants of the second half of 20th century American literature and just a brilliant writer. He was probably the single funniest person I’ve ever met. He couldn’t tell you about parking his car without turning it into a funny story.
You learn different things from different people. I worked with Tobias Wolff in graduate school, and he was an amazing teacher. There was just some decency about him in the way that he conducted his life that was very instructive. A ton of us are taught to think that genius requires you to be sort of an asshole and it was very useful to be in my twenties and see that somebody was a brilliant writer who treated people around him with real decency and compassion and respect. And again, that all comes through in the work as well.
NH: Yeah, there’s no excuse for it. It’s like reading Kurt Vonnegut’s biography and realizing he was not a great family man and was very self-absorbed—as many of the big macho writers of that era were. Working in Hollywood, I definitely try to avoid that behavior as much as possible. I don’t really tolerate it from the actors or directors or crew. Everyone has to just treat everyone else with respect. Let’s do our best work and then go home to our families. There are those showrunners who roll into the writers room with a bottle of wine and say, so what do we got. But I want to get the work done and get home. I love my kids, I love my wife. It’s more about balance for me.
TP: I was very curious about how you guys run your room. I was lucky enough to work with Damon Lindelof [on The Leftovers], and that was such an interesting room. We really broke everything there. Every line of dialogue would be tested. I know there are some showrunners who will do things very broadly and then let the writer color in a lot of the script, but we definitely didn’t do it that way. We really did the bulk of the work in the room.
NH: The first year on Fargo, I was in the room 100% of the time. I’d already written the first script, and we generated a 115 page outline of the remaining nine episodes. Then I went off and wrote them all myself. I’m not a big room writer. Sometimes there’s a line or something that will come out in the process that you want to make sure works it’s way in there but, I tend to rewrite things pretty heavily, especially with the Coen Brothers. There’s such a specific voice, such a specific ear, that you have to have for it. There are a lot of times that I’ll read something that just feels too precious or too small towny. It’s my voice, so, ultimately I kind of have to massage it in that direction.
Legion was a crazy surreal experiment. Again, it’s hard to kick it to another writer. It’s hard to say, Hey, I’m writing this show that exists only in my head, why don’t you take a swing at it? Going into this second year, I really reduced the room to me and one other writer, who has a good brain for this level of play. We spend some time kicking it around broadly, then he’ll write, and I’ll write after him. I wanted to make it a more playful show with this sense of whimsy and discovery within the writing. Writers rooms, in my experience, bring together a lot of writers with very different sensibilities and voices. There’s the common language, the only common language, of plot. So, you end up as an outline delivery device, which is fine if you’re trying to plot something intricately but, if you’re trying to make something experimental, it becomes a much more subjective matter.
TP: On the first season of The Leftovers, we were really just searching for the tone of the show. It wasn’t like any other apocalyptic show that we could think of, and we erred on the side of maybe being too dark. Then, slowly, we discovered that there was a certain kind of comedy and a certain kind of movement between very grounded writing and very wild writing. By the third season the room really understood what a Leftovers story was, what a Leftovers scene was; the room really started to hum. It’s a little bit like what you’re talking about with the Coen brothers—knowing what the tone is and being able to spot it when you have it. Also, understanding what kind of scenes don’t mesh with that tone. By the third season, it was a much more well-defined show and more collaborative throughout.
NH: This is your only TV experience right, the adaptation of your book?
TP: Yeah. But you had been on a show before?
NH: I staffed on a show called Bones in the first couple seasons. I had two other shows, short-lived shows, before Fargo. So, I sort of learned the ropes to how to do things and how not to do things. I felt like I brought all of that to Fargo. When I first came into TV, I’d already published two novels and done some feature work. I looked around at the TV staff that I was working with and realized that I was having a career while they had jobs. In TV, writing can be a great job. But, at the end of the day, you go in, you sit in the room, you’re part of this collective brain, and you write your episodes. Because there’s a certain degree to which the work is being done collectively, you sort of wonder, individually, if people can really break and write an episode themselves. You learn to recognize who hides in the room and who the real stars are—and there are plenty of them. It must have been strange for you to be part of that collective with the authority that you had [as the author of the original text], but still on some level seeing the show become something the book wasn’t, and having to decide whether you liked that and whether you were going to participate going forward.
TP: It was a very unusual situation because it was the first time that I was on a TV show. When HBO asked, Do you want to run the show?, I just knew instinctively that it was a huge thing. I felt like with no experience at all I wasn’t able to. I know some people who have done that, but I just knew that that was going to be beyond me. But I did want to be a part of it, so I had to find that ability to collaborate and surrender certain amounts of control. It was hardest the first year when we were, in some sense, adapting the book in the normal fashion. But we used up the book that year, so in season two and three there was much less of a tug of war between me and Damon. I wasn’t thinking that I had to protect my story from him. I learned to really trust him because he’s such a brilliant writer. I was just loving what the show was doing. I tell myself it’s like the difference between being a solo artist and playing in a band. There’s a kind of thrill with playing in a band—you make a bigger sound, and you get to play with other people, which is exhilarating.
But, I was also thinking about what you were saying before about jobs and careers. I do think being a novelist is actually very good training for screenwriters. You have to do it all; you have to come up with the story, you have to invent the characters, you have to write the dialogue. I do think it’s possible, as you say, for a lot of writers to just become specialists; they can write the good line but they might not be able to tell the story.
NH: Novelists are inside-out writers. So much of fiction is about internal monologues and interior states. The characters and the actions that take place in the stories are really driven by getting inside these characters. A lot of the time, screenwriting is an outside in process. When you’re really trained to think about people, the verbs are less interesting than who these people are. The actions that they take really have to be organic. Often, we’re thinking thematically on the sort of level that isn’t normally found in film or TV. There’s not a lot of TV shows that delve as deeply into philosophy and religion as much as your show did and what I try to do.
Every year at Fargo there’s reading list. I put together binders full of material and all kinds of marked up books. I’m tying to create a story of ideas that’s not obvious, but it’s all in there. That doesn’t tend to be what a lot of people do, so, I always appreciate it when I see it. It becomes hard with certain writing paths. You can put together that reading list, but I’ve found very few TV writers are going to do their homework.
TP: That’s what’s wonderful about having the room to grow into your story. In feature films, if you miss some important aspect of your story, you’ve missed it forever, but a long running show does give you a chance to understand what you’re doing. That really was what it felt like, like writing a novel. We had to burrow our way into it and find out what it was. It was sometimes uncomfortable because that would happen while we were producing episodes of the show. In the end, the people who stuck with it got to experience that sense of the show opening up and finding itself. That can be exhilarating for an audience as well.
NH: Unlike a book where you can put it aside for a few months and come back to it—with corrections throughout 90% of it—and start again, we are working without a net. Once you’re into the production grind, you have to go with your instincts. It’s very hard to steer the ship and halfway through the season and say, Oh no, we should have done something different. I always like to know how it ends before I start. We can really lay that that stuff in and build towards it, as opposed to so many traditional seasons of TV, especially longer seasons, where they don’t really figure out what the end of the season is going to be until half way through. Then you’ve lost the chance to foreshadow from early on.
Tell me about the new book [Mrs. Fletcher]: was it nice to go hide out and do that?
TP: One of the things I told Damon early on was that I always felt like my primary job is writing fiction. I wanted to participate on the show, but I didn’t want to put my writing life on hold for three years. It was definitely a challenge, and it was exactly the challenge you are dealing with right now: being able to just split your mind and say, I’m working on the show right now, but on Saturday I’m going to spend some hours working on the book. Also, it was a kind of an antidote. It’s a comic novel about a divorced woman whose son leaves for college. She’s on her own, and she gets very interested in amateur porn. She starts to have all these kind of unexpected erotic adventures while her son is off at school having a hard time. It flips the usual story, where the kid goes off and has the adventures and the parent mopes at home. It was a kind of reassertion for me of this dentity as a comic writer, somebody who writes about contemporary society rather than a speculative apocalyptic story. The Leftovers, though; it ended up taking up eight years of my life.
NH: Are you a fan of A. M. Homes? Are you a fan of her stuff?
TP: I am, she’s a terrific writer.
NH: She has a great story that she ended up expanding into a book about a married couple who send their kids to their grandparents. When the kinds are watching a documentary about crack, they look at each other, and they say, That looks awesome. They get some crack and smoke it over the weekend in this suburban community. It is everything that’s wrong: they do what you can’t do, what you know you’re not allowed to do as a suburban kid. It’s really a brilliant flipping of the story.
I like the idea of the conservative kids with the experimenting parents. It’s a really fun idea.
TP: There’s a way in which we have to become adults when we become parents. We have to behave really responsibly. Then, the kids are gone, and it’s almost like you’re offered an opportunity to possibly regress to that earlier idea that you had, or to maybe circle back to experiences you’d wished you’d had in some way, to pick up a story that got interrupted. I do think that’s part of what I’m exploring here.