Nic Pizzolatto, the Man Behind True Detective – Vanity Fair

Pizzolatto grew up on the outskirts of Lake Charles, Louisiana, a mean little oil city between New Orleans and Houston. Squeezed by the banks of the lake and the banks of the interstate, this chemical landscape has served as the backdrop for his best work. The I-10 corridor, ramshackle towns, Pentecostal churches, fishing camps trapped in an eddy of the uneven flow of time. “My house was near an inlet of Calcasieu Lake that looked out on the refineries, not far from the intercoastal waterway,” he wrote in an e-mail. “My mom was a schoolteacher until I was six, and my dad was an attorney in a state overfilled with them.”

His stock is Italian. He descends from a tough lot. There were few books in the house. Like the rest of us, he was raised by TV. The flickering light, the cicadas outside the window, the freeway roaring like surf. Saturday Night Live.**Cheers and Seinfeld. Whatever was on. On weekends, he played football, his imagination fueled by images. “I was a painter and a visual artist before I started writing,” he told me. “I went to college on a visual-arts scholarship. So I think visually; the sensibility for me was always married to storytelling. Even my artwork often implied a narrative. It wasn’t Abstract Expressionism—that’s for sure. It was heightened realism.”

At Louisiana State, he found the canvas too confining. His best pictures were like stills from films that had never been made. He learned to write in order to finish the stories glimpsed in his art. Action and violence, the gun moll, the cheap wisdom—it was all there from the start. He got a creative-writing M.F.A. at the University of Arkansas, which led to teaching, fooling with phrases between office hours—the wild young prof who is a shade too intense. He took jobs at the University of North Carolina and the University of Chicago, selling stories on the side, small literary magazines, big literary magazines, The Atlantic Monthly. After publishing a collection in 2006—Between Here and the Yellow Sea—he began work on a novel. Soon after it was finished, he had the first of a cascade of epiphanies: I hate this book! It’s lifeless and nowhere and dead. Scribner was ready to publish, but Nic killed it. Because screw this and hell no. At that moment, he decided to take the life he wanted rather than settle for the life he had.

“After I pulled that novel, I had this attitude: I don’t give a fuck if I’m a success or not,” he told me. “What the fuck does that even mean? Who cares? I can live under that goddamned bridge and I’ll be fucking fine. Then my wife got pregnant. When she was in her third trimester, I wrote the first draft of Galveston in four weeks. I felt the responsibility and stakes in the world I had not felt previously, [when] I didn’t owe anybody anything and who gives a shit? But the idea that I was going to bring somebody into this world, who didn’t ask to be in this world. I was at her delivery and she was holding my pinkie when she was being washed up. I remember thinking, You poor kid, of all the dad dice you could have rolled, you got me.”

Galveston, which was published in 2010, is the auteur as we still know him—hard-boiled, as new as this season and as ancient as Dashiell Hammett. It’s the story of Roy Cady, a torpedo on the run from the Mob, “a bad man who tries to go from being a soldier to being a shepherd and suddenly has meaning thrust into his life by virtue of two female presences,” Nic said. “Its main character has the same initials as the main character in True Detective.”

Like True Detective, Galveston is as much about place as people. If it were a painting, he’d call it Landscape with Figures. In America, fate has always been determined by terrain, the first explorers overwhelmed by the mountains and rivers. “The descriptions in Galveston are what we filmed in True Detective,” Nic told me. “That’s one of the reasons I consider the works so connected. The [characters] inhabit a poisoned dystopia. It’s literally toxic…. These stories take place in areas where the revelation has already happened. The apocalypse has come and gone, and no one’s quite woken up to that fact.”

It was Dennis Lehane’s review in The New York Times that really established Pizzolatto. He mentioned it to me, seemingly offhand, soon after we started working together. According to Berkeley professor and Hebrew scholar Robert Alter, the first words spoken by a figure in the Bible tell you everything. It’s the same with people—straight off, they give you all the information you need to piece them together. I went right back to my hotel and looked up Lehane’s review. Here’s the money shot: “Galveston, in its authenticity and fearless humanism, recalls only the finest examples of the form. Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past and David Goodis’s Down There, Carl Franklin’s One False Move and James Ellroy’s Black Dahlia. It’s an elegy to the broken and never-weres … ”

Of course, artistic approval is not the same as commercial success. As good as it was, the book did not sell. I mean, what are we talking about? Four or five thousand hardbacks? Not enough readers to fill the loge deck at Wrigley Field. Which led to Nic’s second epiphany: if you want the big audience, you have to go where the people live, which is in front of the TV. Nic had fallen under the spell of a new kind of show by then, the cable epic that unfolds in chapters. TV was experiencing a renaissance. Florence in the 1500s. They were building cupolas and domes. “The Sopranos was the first shot across the bow,” he told me. “Deadwood and The Wire continued that upper trend of layered, textured, ambitious, character-driven, adult storytelling.”

In this world, David Milch, who wrote for Hill Street Blues and co-created NYPD Blue before creating Deadwood, is the master. TV writers speak of him as Shiites speak of the Hidden Imam, a storied figure who will set the world back on its axis at the end-time. “For me, it has nothing to do with the culture of personality,” Nic said. “He’s a big deal because of the work. Long before Deadwood, he was producing excellent work within the network system. You can tell a David Milch anything. He absolutely stands the test of time. The body of work articulates a vision. He’s managed to make deeply personal things that appeal to a wide audience because of this great equalizing medium of television. I always liked the wide spectrum. My favorite movies are Seven Samurai and Andrei Rublev. I love Tarkovsky. I love Kurosawa. At the same time, I see a lot of value in Bad Boys II. And Hooper! Hooper is great. I got a Burt Reynolds thing.”

Dennis Potter was the true progenitor, Nic told me. “He did The Singing Detective and Pennies from Heaven and Lipstick on Your Collar and Karaoke and Cold Lazarus and Blackeyes, all this great stuff. That was your TV auteur right there, and there’s still never been any TV like it. The Singing Detective is not for everybody, but it’s still the best thing ever done on television. Before we had a notion of a show-runner, that’s the guy who wrote a different mini-series every couple years. That was somebody making art as ambitious as any art being done but using this popular fallen medium of TV.”

The Writers’ Room