Before True Detective: The Short Stories of Nic Pizzolatto

The first published works from the creator of the best show on television were dark, philosophical pieces of fiction in The Atlantic.
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Two sets of events, separated by a decade. In 2003 and 2004, The Atlantic published a pair of short stories by a young writer named Nic Pizzolatto. In early 2014, the magazine’s website declared Pizzolatto’s unfolding HBO hit, the heady crime drama True Detective, the best show on television.

In the universe of True Detective, this would be unmistakable evidence of a shadowy conspiracy. Alas (or rather, thank goodness), in the duller reality of everyday life, it’s merely a coincidence.

It wasn’t until after I’d written the piece on True Detective (and participated in the first installment of our post-episode roundtable), that I belatedly discovered the earlier connection. Pizzolatto submitted the two stories, “Ghost-Birds” and “Between Here and the Yellow Sea,” to The Atlantic’s fiction editor, Michael Curtis, in September 2002. At the time, Pizzolatto was in the MFA program at the University of Arkansas, and these were the very first stories he’d submitted anywhere. “I knew so little that I submitted two stories at the same time,” Pizzolatto told me in a phone interview.

Some time later, he received a call in return. “I came home from teaching classes, and there was a message from Mike Curtis on the answering machine, saying that he really liked the stories,” Pizzolatto says. “I think at first I thought it was one of my friends, being an asshole.”

Curtis says he was struck by Pizzolatto’s “fluency with philosophical ideas and moral stringency”—qualities that will be familiar to viewers of True Detective. Curtis met Pizzolatto on a visit to Arkansas, and remembers him as “young, serious, and all business, with none of the repressed vanity or career anxiousness of many MFA students.” Pizzolatto, for his part, says, “The Atlantic really gave me my writing career—even just the conviction to be a writer.”

“Ghost-Birds” was published in the October 2003 issue of the magazine; “Between Here and the Yellow Sea” followed in November 2004. True Detective fans will find familiar themes running through the stories. Both feature protagonists with a penchant for philosophy, for instance. And in both stories the idea of a contaminated landscape hovers in the background, much as it does throughout the HBO series, notably during the title sequence. “I can see the nascent form of visuals and obsessions that I would embrace later on,” says Pizzolatto. The protagonist of “Ghost-Birds” even blames himself for the death of a loved one, as Rust Cohle does on True Detective.

Pizzolatto, who included the stories in his 2006 collection Between Here and the Yellow Sea, is also the author of Galveston, which was a finalist for the 2010 Edgar Award for best first novel. He’d like to return to print at some point. “I have quite a few books I’d like to make,” he says. “I’m just waiting to lose my day job.” (It may be a while: Pizzolatto’s current contract with HBO runs until the summer of 2016.)

Curtis retains another vivid image from the time when he met the fledgling author: “his truck, a red pickup he kept spotlessly clean.” When Pizzolatto confirms this, I ask the obvious question: Does Rust Cohle drive your old car?

“No, no,” he laughs. “Mine was a Nissan.”

You can read Nic Pizzolatto’s short story “Ghost-Birds” here, and “Between Here and the Yellow Sea” here.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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