10 Questions with 'True Detective' Creator Nic Pizzolatto

10 Questions with Nic Pizzolatto

What more can I say about True Detective that hasn’t already been said? Chances are you’ve read the reviews of the Matthew Mcconaughey/Woody Harrelson fronted HBO crime drama in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, etc. Chances are you’ve seen Mcconaughey making the rounds on the talk show circuit touting the show and its creator, novelist Nic Pizzolatto. But for you cave dwellers out there, you can check out the trailer for the show—which debuts Sunday night—below, and I’ll add that True Detective may be the heir apparent to Breaking Bad and The Wire.

For those of you not familiar with Pizzolatto, he’s the author of the short story collection, Between Here and the Yellow Sea and the Texas noir, Galveston.  His prose is gritty, emotionally haunting, and can easily be compared to Dennis Johnson and the darker works of Richard Ford. Needless to say, Pizzolatto's been more than a little busy, and I feel fortunate that he was able to carve some time out of his schedule to answer my questions.

What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?

A story called ‘Ghost Birds’ in 2002. It sold to the Atlantic Monthly.

When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?

I sold two stories to the Atlantic at the same time, when I was 25. Used the money to send myself to Europe for two months.

Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full... how do you write?

Here’s my honest opinion: when it comes to serious personal endeavors, all advice is dangerous and I try not to give or take any.

My process is whatever it takes to get the job done. A large portion of my waking life is spent writing in my head, taking walks, exercising, but always thinking, always trying to bring something into focus. I work long hours at the keyboard at some point, but I also write on Post-its and big Moleskine portfolios. I try to stay fluid and nimble, and I don’t tie myself to any set of ‘writing conditions’. Instead I’ve tried to train to write in any conditions. Just get it down.

What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?

Probably trying to apply other people’s processes to myself. Not realizing early enough that process is just the methodology you develop to circumvent all the personal qualities that would keep you from writing. Process is like religion or spirituality: it’s different and particular for each person, and what works for someone else isn’t likely to work for you because you are a complex equation that must be solved by you alone. Process is as particular as how you live your life in order to get the best from yourself, and you can map onto someone else’s belief system, but it avoids the central confrontation with yourself which can provoke beneficial change. That confrontation with self is the essence of the journey, and asking for tips doesn’t lead anywhere.

Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?

I have no idea and honestly don’t know how to answer a question like that. Seems like the answer should be somewhere around Barbarella or Modesty Blaise, right? I mean if we’re just imagining stuff.

What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?

An exhaustive and major catharsis. A couple thousand hours writing, then three months prepping the show for production, rehearsing with the actors, then 6.5 months of 14 hour days filming, then editing the episodes, then doing sound and score. It was eighteen months of my life, and besides the exaltation of finishing and being very proud of the completed product, I did excise a certain amount of personal history and obsession, particularly with the character of Cohle and the things he expresses. He’s something of a metaphysician and as a character he’s extremely close to my heart. The landscapes and culture where these men operate are the landscapes and culture where I grew up, so it also meant a great deal to bring my personal vision of that place to a national stage, to throw the landscapes that haunt me onto the television.

Where do you buy your books?

Amazon. I live in a small town without bookstores.

How do you handle a bad review of your work?

If it's by an intelligent reviewer whose analysis and criticisms are legitimate, I try to acknowledge the flaws they describe and avoid them in the future. If it's by a unintelligent reviewer I just ignore it. Pretty easy.

What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?

“Write what you know.” This advice seems to be given or taken to mean something like ‘write autobiography,’ which would imply that the imagination plays no role, and that sort of assertion has no place in the writing that interests me. Certainly we should write about those mysteries of the heart with which we are most concerned, and the author should be engaged in a concentrated study of the world and the human creature, but to that end perhaps ‘Write what you understand’ might be better advice. And in that case I might prefer the counter-argument: ‘Write what you don’t understand until you understand it.” Here’s my honest opinion: when it comes to serious personal endeavors, all advice is dangerous and I try not to give or take any.

Was 'True Detective' originally conceived as a teleplay or did it start off as a novel or film?

It originally began in summer of 2010 as a novel told in two first-person voices, the voices of each of these detectives being interrogated, switching off chapters as they shared narration. Then I started playing with it as a two man stage play. Then I thought that television might best contain the story because of the time shifts and the acting opportunities a lot of these (effectively) monologues presented. Also I thought it grounded in familiar procedural tropes while subverting each trope, and I hadn’t seen that being done. So I adapted the first four chapters I’d written into a pilot and I was very happy with it, and rather than sell it I held onto it until I could make it the way I wanted.

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Keith Rawson

Interview by Keith Rawson

Keith Rawson is a little-known pulp writer whose short fiction, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews have been widely published both online and in print. He is the author of the short story collection The Chaos We Know (SnubNose Press)and Co-Editor of the anthology Crime Factory: The First Shift. He lives in Southern Arizona with his wife and daughter.

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Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading Everything He Gets His Hands On January 10, 2014 - 11:55am

So fired up to see this. The LA Times today had a stellar review, plus some dialogue excerpts that sound like they jumped out of Cormac McCarthy and David Mamet's unholy spawn. The fact that it was created by a novelist and not some industry hack makes it that much better. Good job on the interview, Keith.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine January 10, 2014 - 12:07pm

I am so pumped for this show. He sounds like a smart dude.

Jeff's picture
Jeff from Florida is reading Another Side of Bob Dylan by Victor Maymudes January 12, 2014 - 8:31pm

I'm psyched to check this out as well. Rolling Stone gave it a nod and the still of McConaughey stalwartly facing down an enraged looking Harrelson bore a certain charm. I'm printing this out. I dig Pizzolatto's contrarian and original response to the "advice" question. 

justwords's picture
justwords from suburb of Birmingham, AL is reading The Tomb, F. Paul Wilson; A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby February 13, 2014 - 11:05pm

I'm a huge fan of the series, so far. Don't know if Mr. P had anything to do with picking the cast, but great choices by whoever--even though I'm no Woody H. fan (he plays a great p***k of a husband).

Love Matthew Mc; he gave an Academy award performance in my opinion in Dallaa Buyers Club, not to mention he is a hunk and seems to be a really nice guy. He has definitely grown as an actor over the last decade.

I think Mr. P probably gets tired of those "who'd you have a beer with?" etc. questions; I would. I'd like to know who he feels influenced him to write, how he feels about good vs evil in people, has his religion (if any) has played a part in his plots, more questions than I can give here.

I'm interested in how much Louisiana influences his writing; he knows a lot about the Delta Cajuns and not just the regular rites of Mardi Gras in the big cities (see the photo of Dora with the Fat Tuesday riders--presumably one of them is her father-- when her mom is interviewed). Most of the actors for the characters south of I-10 have believable accents and mannerisms.He's good w/details, and the camera man doesn't overdo - at least so far - giving us a glimpse but not a thump on the head with background info. 

There's a whole dialogue going on about human nature that I find fascinating. Mr. P is good with filling out whole characters, including females, unless the screenwriter is filling them out for him; though I read "Galveston" and I think he does ok on his own. For some reason, that's hard for most male writers. Maybe it's the Hemingway curse.

I look forward to the remaining episodes!


Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine February 16, 2014 - 5:50pm

The series has been so good so far. Pizzolatto's writing is top notch, providing the perfect foundation for a crew of talented people to take it to the next level.

Emma C's picture
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Emma C from Los Angeles is reading Black Spire by Delilah Dawson March 26, 2014 - 12:21pm

Nice work, Keith.

Finally watched the entire TD run. As far as I'm concerned, Mr. P is THE television writer right now. Going back to anything else is just going to be painful.

microgeekus's picture
microgeekus July 19, 2020 - 1:51am

i watched it first time and it is a very good series to watch....mywifiext