Medical mysteries are nothing like the mysteries of human behavior

Noah Hawley is a TV and movie producer and writer, a composer and a novelist. The Good Father is his first novel.

Paul Allen is a rheumatologist and thinks as one. And it is very well done. Do you have any particular knowledge about this profession?

I didn’t when I started. I spoke to several doctors and did a lot of reading. I knew when I started thinking about the book that I wanted the father to be a professional who was at the top of his field. A man who had finally reached a place of contentment. When I hit upon the doctor idea it quickly became clear that in making the father a doctor I was also making him a detective of sorts. Because it is a doctor’s job – and especially a rheumatologist – to solve medical mysteries. As a result, the father believes he can solve the mystery of whether or not his son killed the senator. But, of course, this is just hubris on his part, because medical mysteries are nothing like the mysteries of human behavior.

Do your readers generally think that Paul Allen is a good father?

It’s an interesting question. Men often see him that way, while women are less clear. I’ve received many emails from the fathers (and mothers) of adult children that seem to have lost their way. Some are in prison. Some are just directionless. The book strikes these men and women very personally, as it asks one of the central questions of our lives: what makes a good parent? And more frighteningly, what if you do your best, but your best just isn’t good enough?

Is it difficult to bring to life a character who runs away and another who denies the evidence?

The challenge in writing characters is always about showing vs. telling. It wasn’t hard at all to imagine the struggle the father faced in trying to prove his son innocent (especially to himself). It is, in many ways, a parent’s worst nightmare. Which made the book a kind of worst-case-scenario exercise for me as my first child was born.

The son was trickier, because it was important that I not try to explain him to the reader. Instead, I wanted to show a range of behavior. To retrace his steps, not from the inside, but from the outside. I always imagined that the whole book had been written by the father. Even the sections about the son. That meant the Daniel chapters were always somewhat speculative. We know he was in a certain place on a certain date. We know he faced a tornado in Iowa. What must that have felt like? How would that have effected him?

The son’s journal entries were the most challenging, because for the first time I had to write from the son’s perspective, and while I wanted to show his drift from reality, I didn’t want to make him a crazy person. Instead, I hoped to provide clues. In this way, the reader assembles a personal picture of Daniel that is subjective. Because, in the end, what can we really know about another person, especially one who commits such an incomprehensible act of violence.

When you read histories of the JFK assassination, or any of the (far too many) public killings committed by these young men (explored in the book as “case studies”), you are left with a maddening sense that, though you have all the details, the picture itself isn’t clear. Why did Mark David Chapman shoot John Lennon? Why did Hinckley shoot Reagan? You can tell me the story of their lives in intimate detail and I’ll still be no closer to understanding, because, ultimately, what they did isn’t understandable to a reasonable person.

You apparently gathered quite a lot of material about serial killers and particularly people who killed politicians. Is there a common denominator to all of those murders?

There is no real common denominator really. The strangest discovery, really, was that rarely in America does the assassination of a political figure have anything to do with politics. It’s usually about fame. In Hinckley’s case, it was about getting a very famous actress to notice him. In fact, before he shot the Republican President Ronald Reagan Hinckley stalked his opponent, the Democratic President Jimmy Carter. He switched parties in the middle (after Carter lost) so how could anyone say the shooting had something to do with politics?

America is a big country, one it’s easy to become lost in – emotionally, psychologically. For a young man in desperate need of structure and boundaries, hitting the open road is the most dangerous option. To remove oneself from family and community, to drift across the open plains – it’s easy to lose track of yourself, to lose any moral compass you once had.

When a reader of mystery novels notices the name of Ellroy in a novel, he immediately thinks of James Ellroy. Is Ellroy « a half-retarded little fellow from the countryside »? More seriously, who are the author-s who inspired you?

I don’t think the character of Ellroy was inspired by the author, though I am a fan of his work, especially American Tabloid. I was inspired from an early age by authors like Don Delillo and Philip Roth, but also novelists like Milan Kundera and JM Coetzee. The novels I like best are character-driven, but also thematic and philosophical. Kurt Vonnegut is another huge inspiration to me, an iconoclastic author who wasn’t afraid of humor, who wasn’t afraid to champion common sense and simple, honest morality. Not in a judgmental way, but as a reminder that we are put on this earth to be decent to each other.

Do you have a family or an education ideal?

I think it’s important to give a child structure and encourage him or her to be interested in things, to be curious. Discipline is important, not imposed discipline but the development of self-discipline. A child who is curious and has the determination to accomplish great things will become an adult who can survive and even thrive in the wild. At least, in my opinion.