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Noah Hawley's novel 'Anthem' makes the case that the apocalypse is now


The world Noah Hawley creates in his new novel is familiar, a little too familiar. There are corporate opioid pushers, billionaire sexual predators, election-denying politicians, anarchists and survivalists, forgotten children, conspiracy theories and more all woven together in a tale that crosses over on itself almost like a conspiracy theory. The book is called "Anthem," and Noah Hawley joins us now. Thanks for being with us.

NOAH HAWLEY: My pleasure.

RASCOE: There's a line from an adolescent in the book who goes by the name of Randall Flagg. He's supposed to be a character who survived the Parkland shootings, and he says he understands on a, quote, "fundamental level" that unthinkable things happen every day. And yet, this book is also sprinkled with a lot of fantasy, otherworldly creatures. There's a witch, wizard, a prophet. What should the audience take from that mix of, like, the horror of real life but also kind of this fantasy?

HAWLEY: Yeah. I mean, I describe the book as a fantasy novel about our real world or a realistic novel about the fantasy world that we're living in. And it does feel - you know, there's a character, a 15-year-old boy who calls himself the prophet who talks about how, you know, over 30% of Americans believe that angels and devils walk among us. And he's asked if he believes that, and he said, well, I believe that the more people believe it, the realer it gets. And it certainly feels like there is that level of magical thinking going on in America right now. And I just wrote to it.

RASCOE: You're a versatile storyteller. You created "Fargo" on FX and "Legion." You directed Natalie Portman in "Lucy In The Sky." When did you write this story? - because it felt so present. It felt so of the moment that it could have been written yesterday.

HAWLEY: I started the book in 2018. And I thought, well, it'd be nice when the reader reads it to feel like it's taking place when they're reading it. So let's say the book is going to come out in 2022. OK, well, what's America going to be like in 2022? And so that exercise to try to project and say what America would be like in 2022 became a much larger part of the book than I had intended originally.

RASCOE: One of the characters in this book is clearly modeled on, you know, billionaire sexual predator Jeffrey Epstein. And I wanted to ask you since you're in entertainment and have, you know, worked at high levels, did you ever come across or meet Jeffrey Epstein?

HAWLEY: Luckily, I never met him, no. I mean, I think when you really get to the heart of what evil is at this moment in America, it's cynicism. It's the exploitation of other people when you know better. There's no disguising the immorality of it, and yet it's done, certainly in Epstein's case. And, you know, I think it's important to say that this book is an adventure story, you know, and that these children are - and the adults who are in the book, you know, they're all trying to save the world in a classic kind of quest mindset. It's just the fantasy world they're moving through is actually our America.

RASCOE: Another thing that to me stood out because of it's so present day, is this book making the case that the apocalypse is now? The dystopia is here. We have a plague. We've got violence. We got discord. Like, is that the message of this book?

HAWLEY: You know, there's a big firestorm in California toward the end of the book. And, you know, there's this idea that we labor under, which is that climate change is going to have catastrophic effects on the Earth in the future. And yet what we found in the last couple of years is these wild swings of weather and flood and freezing is that the future is here already. And that's very disorienting for people because they thought we had more time.

And so I think on some level, the book is very much about what is this world that we're going to pass on to our children. I have a 14-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. And how do I explain it to them? My son asked me recently - he's like, why do grown-ups get to make all the decisions? And I said, honestly, I don't know. We're not very good at it. I'm not exactly sure. We're not always operating in our own children's best interest.

RASCOE: And, you know, that's certainly a big theme of the book. Like, not only is the future of the world lying in the hands of the children but that they have to deal with the damage that was done by past generations. And I know you worked early in your career at a legal nonprofit dealing with cases of abuse and neglect. Did that help inform your writing in this case?

HAWLEY: You know, I remember a moment - and I was a young man when I worked at the Legal Aid Society. But, you know, I remember, you know, spending time with this 10-year-old boy who was there on a neglect case. And he was sitting outside the courtroom, and he was singing, "If You're Happy And You Know It, Clap Your Hands." And I thought the resiliency of children to try to make the best of things - it's really inspiring, and they're the only ones with the energy to save us.

RASCOE: That's Noah Hawley. His new novel is called "Anthem." Thanks for speaking with us.

HAWLEY: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF WEEN'S "ICE CASTLES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.