Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Interview: Nic Pizzolatto, creator/writer of HBO's True Detective

True Detective premiered January 12th on HBO, and two episodes into it's run it's already making waves. The show follows homicide detectives Rustin "Rust" Cohle and Martin Hart (played by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, respectively) as they hunt for a killer in Louisiana. The narrative jumps back and forth between 1995, when both partners begin the case, and 2012 with the detectives being interviewed as the case is reopened. The eight episode season is a standalone story, and further benefits from having Cary Joji Fukunaga direct every episode. True Detective is an ultra-dark noir, and features several elements drawn from horror literature, most notably The King in Yellow by Robert Chambers.

Show creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto was good enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions for The Arkham Digest below. Enjoy!!

It seems that some elements of True Detective draw influence from the realm of literary horror. I speak not only of the references to The King in Yellow, but also the stick-like creations reminiscent of Karl Edward Wagner's story “Sticks”, as well as Cohle's Ligottian worldview. What drew you to these elements, and how did you go about choosing to incorporate them into the show? 

Nic: Sure. That influence is, like everything in True Detective, part of a whole-earth catalog of cultural obsessions, including my own. If your character conveys a vision of cosmic horror, it felt appropriate for me to dramatize the Lovecraftian sense of madness, of a carnivorous universe in which you’re food. And Cohle’s attitude is similar to things Lovecraft said (and Cioran, and Schopenhauer), though we can see Cohle would have a substantial confirmation-bias based on his life story. 

The stick lattices are actually things I discovered in researching early Megalith cultures and the mound-builders in Louisiana, but I discovered Wagner’s story and then it seemed even more appropriate to the kind of subconscious cultural associations the killer creates, the atavistic dread that the show tries to transmit. I suppose what drew me to these elements were the show’s themes and characters, and my own interests, which to be fair are pretty broad and discursive. And no one told me I couldn’t do it, you know? If these things are all appropriate to the story and its themes and they can be incorporated organically and become an authentic part of the story, why not? Why not mash these influences together? Provided it’s in a way that doesn’t betray or lead astray the governing genre being served.

The landscape itself is a rather looming presence. What can you tell me about your choice of venue and what it means for the story?

Nic: The landscape is literally the third lead in the show. This is the area of the country where I grew up, and I knew the kinds of environments waiting for us there. Very detailed, prosaic descriptions of setting were a large part of the script: taking these opportunities to witness the contradictions of place and people, to feel a sense of a corrupted, degrading Eden. It was always going to be a rural show, but originally in the Ozarks, which I also know. Out of a few subsidy states, I chose Louisiana for the move because there were all these personal connotations and knowledge of the place I could bring to bear. It enabled me to write landscape that was almost as full as the characters, and that became an important guidepost in the writing: the awareness of contradiction, the landscape as culture.

The show is straddling a fine line between realistic terror and what could be interpreted as the supernatural, or figments of madness. Do you find this a tricky balance to pull off? 

Nic: A bit. We have a hallucinating detective in episode 2, which is weird, and the visions themselves are almost religious in their metaphysical nature. But the important thing, I think, is that there is a realistic explanation for everything. Cohle’s visions are accounted for by his neural damage, probably guided in some part by his unconscious associations. There’s no evidence to suggest that the things we’ve seen are the result of anything supernatural. Ritualism, some sort of worship is implied in the murder, but there’s nothing supernatural. Reality is the dread, and that’s probably where the line’s drawn. So we can touch these things and by doing so provide avenues for layers of meaning to settle and refract and resonate, but we don’t strictly-speaking break from the realist mode.

You also have a novel, as well as a collection of short fiction. Does your fiction delve into territory as dark as True Detective? Do you plan on continuing writing fiction, or do you see yourself focusing more on television in the future?

Nic: I think if you read ‘Galveston’ you’d probably spot pretty quickly that it and True Detective are the work of the same writer; same voice, same landscapes, etc. My short stories weren’t really genre-bound at all, but tended to be plotted character pieces that took a range of subjects and stories, none of them particularly genre. I absolutely plan to keep writing fiction. There are, I hope, many books waiting to be written, and they’ll be there waiting when the industry kicks me out. But right now all my creative bandwidth is occupied, so it might be that I don’t get to seriously return to books until I lose my HBO job.

I caught a glimpse of an interview in which you spoke about Laird Barron, one of the finest current practitioners of the weird tale, and an author whose work shows a strong literary backbone. How often do you read dark fiction, and do you have any personal favorite authors, or authors you would dub as essential reading?

Nic: I read all kinds of things. My all-timers are Conrad, Faulkner, Camus, Dostoevsky, Henry Miller, Robert Stone, Denis Johnson, Jim Harrison, but I also love Lovecraft, Campbell, Barker, Straub, and yes, Laird’s stuff is fantastic. One of the very few writers I read as soon as possible. Also love George Higgins, Hammett, Ross MacDonald, Ellroy, etc. I think ‘Red Harvest’ is one of the best, purely American novels ever written. So my interests are everywhere on the literary map, I guess. And when creating, I’d just gotten to a place where I didn’t feel the need to necessarily compartmentalize or excuse them as ‘low’ or ‘high’ art. Story can accommodate them all.


  1. Outstanding-- love that he's a Laird fan!

  2. Is it just me, or is Pizzolatto being coy about the obvious Ligotti influence?

  3. really like this show
    darkly, meditative, oppressive

  4. I haven't seen the show, but from the Rust character's lines that I've seen quoted, they seem like they are torn directly out of Ligotti's Conspiracy Against the Human Race.

  5. I've been looking forward to this show from all I've heard about it, and now I've another reason for sure.

  6. He's very explicit about the Ligotti influence, elsewhere

  7. Janet Mccauley RosteetFebruary 16, 2014 at 11:20 PM

    I love True Detectives. Pizzolatta is very talented. Having lived in the South all my life especailly in Lake Charles I am familiar with the local politics and scenery. Nic is doing a great job of depicting the South. Continue writing please!!

  8. Love the creeping cosmic dread of the show and McConaughey's character Rust's misanthropic pessimism and obsession. When he first started talking about his views, they were the darkest I'd ever heard from a TV character, so reading of the creator's weird fiction interests now makes perfect sense!

  9. I love Pizzolato's writing on this show, but having read Ligotti's "Conspiracy Against the Human Race," I'm convinced he has clearly plagiarized the author. Considering TD's success, I won't be surprised at all if Ligotti files a lawsuit over this.