When I was in college, my best friend’s brother became famous. Put more precisely, he became famous to people like us: The Atlantic bought and published two of his short stories, and this was, as Vice President Biden would say, “a big fucking deal,” bigger than anything I could have ever imagined for myself. His stories were perfect and beautiful and maddeningly true. I envied him for telling these stories before I had the chance, for being so diligent, so precise, for upsetting the cosmic order of our universe by puncturing through all of it, before I really had a chance, for giving away the beginning, the middle, and the ending of what I had wanted to tell. And, of course, for selling it to The Atlantic.
But it was also his story; it was his story before it ever belonged to me, and truth be told: He was a better writer than I was.
My friend’s brother, Nic, was also a graduate student in the same creative writing program as my cousin Paul and his wife Jen, which made our worlds seem even smaller to me, and, at the same time, also made me feel even more loyal to Nic. We had only met once, over a weekend of debauchery in Las Vegas, but I knew, instinctively, that Nic understood Louisiana the same way I do. His first novel, Galveston, confirmed that to me. I sank into it; I was hooked, and Nic and I have remained friends.
Today, because of Nic’s HBO show True Detective, he is now being lauded as a genius writer. I knew that a decade ago, when his first story in The Missouri Review (remember, I was his brother’s best friend and roommate) about a boy going to a horse race with his alcoholic father reduced me to tears.
So, to my friends in Louisiana: Listen, we are surrounded by wonderful, creative geniuses. All we need to do is pay closer attention.
Nic’s legitimately famous now. He’ll probably be on stage at next year’s Golden Globes. His show, True Detective, is that good. So, I asked him a few questions, and he answered them for me. And he agreed to let me publish all of it.
Lamar: In the premiere, while driving through the dystopia of Erath, Louisiana, there’s an exchange between Hart and Cohle that I found fascinating and provocative.
Cohle: “People out here, it’s like they don’t even know the outside world exists, might as well be living on the fucking moon.”
Hart: “There’s all kind of ghettos in the world.”
Cohle: “It’s all one ghetto, man, a giant gutter in outer space.”
Whose side are you on? Is it all one big ghetto? Or are there all kinds of ghettos in the world?
Nic: Well, that’s the scene where the show firmly announces it is not what you might’ve expected. I’m not on either character’s side. I let the characters speak for themselves and I speak for myself. My own suspicions about the nature of reality are not articulated by Cohle or Hart. And, you know, I don’t speak like either one.
Lamar: But is there something special and unique about the slums of rural southwestern Louisiana?
Nic: Rural Southwestern Louisiana means something to me because its where I grew up and its imagery and culture stayed inside me long after I left, so a lot of dense layering- materially, visually, thematically –was not only possible, but very personal to me. I think, too, these areas are part of the wide ‘unknown’ America, the fly-over places where economic and cultural gulfs are waiting to be explored for what they might tell us about ourselves as a whole.
Lamar: I understand you had initially intended on setting True Detective in rural Arkansas and were enticed back to Louisiana, in part, because the incentives the state provides for film projects. As you may know, Hollywood South has not been without its critics, many of whom suggest that the State is not really receiving anything of economic benefit in exchange. I’m not trying to get you into any trouble here, but I’m curious if you have an opinion on the value of Louisiana’s film incentives, if you think that Louisiana is actually investing in a lasting industry and lasting jobs or if we’re just engaging in a type of “race to the bottom”? That is, what happens if a state like Michigan, for example, offers twice as much in tax incentives and credits as Louisiana?
Nic: Well, there’s no question we moved it to Louisiana for tax incentives, but there were other states we could have chosen. I chose Louisiana so that I could take full possession of everything I’d ever wanted to explore and portray about the place. So it was fortunate, in that it actually brought the work to a more personal place with me. As for the future of the Louisiana film business, I don’t have enough working knowledge of its history and prospects to really comment, but yes, I’d think that when the incentives drop or other, better ones are offered by other states, the industry would totally migrate to those places, the same way it migrated to Louisiana. There’s also the idea of just having shot-out a place. If most movies and a lot of TV in the last years have been set in Louisiana, which has a very particular look, then it stands to reason people will be getting tired of seeing it.
But my whole life there it was always something— the petroleum industries, the riverboat casino gambling, the film industry –that was finally going to lift Louisiana out of nearly last place and provide some kind of economic future for its children. What money there was didn’t seem to go to the right places, though, and the entertainment industry is as tough and fickle a place to do business as any. So maybe just take all that into consideration.
Lamar: As you know, I’ve been a fan of your writing for years. I actually published a review of your first novel, Galveston. In a recent profile, a reporter referred to you as a “former novelist.” Have you really decided to stop writing books?
Nic: God, no: I’ll always write fiction, and I have many books left to write, I hope, and some plays and other things. The books are off to the side, patiently waiting for me to lose my HBO job. At which point I’ll get back to the business of novels.
Lamar: When you grew up in Louisiana, we were a blue state with a Democratic Governor and Democratic legislature. Now, Louisiana is considered a deep red state, with a Republican supermajority and a Republican Governor. In your estimation, has Louisiana really changed all that much, or did it just take people a couple of decades to figure out that they were actually Republicans?
Nic: I’m shocked to recall we were a blue state. I don’t think the rest of the country would’ve considered it blue, no matter the name of the party in control. That might be my personal experience as around my family and peer groups, from birth to college, it was all deeply conservative and religious. On the surface, at least. Everything only on the surface.
Lamar: What is your relationship like with the state today? You’ve obviously been drawn to it in your work, and you write about the Dirty Coast better than just about anyone on the planet. It’s interesting to me, because it’d be easy to label you as a “romantic,” but the truth is, I think, you seem more interested in “de-romanticizing” than anything else. The Louisiana in your book and in “True Detective” is gritty and dirty and poor. Although some may say it’s also “gothic,” it’s not the Louisiana most people from outside of the state are familiar with. Do you think this is because you’re from Lake Charles- a part of the state very rarely written about- or is it reflective of a larger impulse? A way of illuminating by demystifying?
Nic: I guess the answer I would provide is that I am interested in de-mystifying and seeing a place and people clearly, but that I see such a compulsion as the only way we honor anything, the only way we honor reality, to attempt seeing it unvarnished and then to love it or not. You’ll see the same landscape more or less that I traversed in ‘Galveston’, and these are all the places I knew from where I lived and traveled. But remember that we just photographed what was there. We didn’t build any houses or refineries, and we stayed in a localized region (the same way the detectives do). I see de-mystifying as a romantic gesture, an impulse toward the true, even if the mechanics of that impulse are reached through the imagination.