Where I came from a lot of people viewed violence merely as efficient communication


Nic Pizzolatto was born in New Orleans and grew up in Louisiana, on the Gulf Coast. His fiction was published in The Atlantic, The Oxford American, Poughshares, The Missouri Review, Best American Mystery Stories, as well as some other magazines. Interview with an important author.

What motivated you to write this novel?

Before I wrote ‘Galveston’, I spent about two years working on a terrible first novel that was scheduled to be published in 2009. I finished it and ended up pulling the book from publication so it could never see the light of day, and I was left with the rather desperate feeling that I’d wasted all that precious time. During the same period, my wife became pregnant and the economy collapsed, with the publishing industry receiving a particularly fatal diagnosis. So the outlook for my chosen vocation was somewhat grim, and I was feeling like my back was against the wall. Thank God for that, because I was able to honestly confront myself about what I wanted to do with my writing. At this time I was also a professor of literature, and I truly despised academia. I enjoy teaching very, very much, but the life of an American university professor in the liberal arts amounts to participating in a Ponzi Scheme, and I truly couldn’t stand the preciousness and lack of work ethic among my colleagues.

When a writer is also involved in academia, a bubble can form around them which cuts off the writer from the actual society and audience that he wants to capture. I found university life unpleasantly hermetic and without consequence or stakes, and I had to admit that at some point I’d seemed to assume ambitions that were never my own, only what I’d been told a writer should want (to be a ‘professor’, to teach writing workshops, etc.) So when I destroyed that first novel and began a new attempt, instead of fulfilling other people’s ambitions or aesthetics, I went inside myself and asked what type of story I wanted to tell, what sorts of characters I wanted to talk about, what obsessions I wanted to discuss, etc. The mood of literary apocalypse actually allowed me to stop listening to any voices or opinions other than my own. About six weeks later, I’d written the first draft of ‘Galveston.’

Was it difficult to find the right balance between the two “adult” protagonists?

The structural balance wasn’t very hard, I don’t think, in that structurally it’s a very pragmatic book that tries not to waste its words or overall form. Structurally it was simply a matter of hearing what needed to be said. What was most difficult was to feel the weight of the characters’ lives, their desperation and loneliness, their mutual hauntings. The characters took me back to places I don’t often allow myself to go, and I’d find myself stunned into silence or on the verge of tears because of what I’d felt on their behalf. Somewhat like an actor when playing an emotionally wrenching role.

The atmosphere of the novel looks like a wise blending of opposite feelings; the darkest black, with blood and tears, bitter as treason, and this obsessing desire of the want-to-do-good killer for the young girl. It seems that you worked hard on the rhythm alternating lulls and tempests. Was it your intention? Should a novel be composed as a cocktail?

It was always my intention to use an energetic plot to begin the story and propel it forward, but then open the story into unexpected areas, a story about the spirit, about reclaiming it and the past and finding nuances of triumph that exist within tragedy. I think of the book as starting with a bang, then settling into this protracted idyll before the gathering wave crashes down on everything. My ultimate concern is always character and language, but I do love a good plot. In my education it seemed I was always being told to mistrust plot as a phony conceit that betrayed and warped literary art. This, of course, is total bullshit, one of the more useless remnants of so-called modernism. The truth is that life breaks down into plot quite neatly when we choose to see it that way, and narrative is one of the most fundamental human instincts there is. Our cave paintings told stories. If you ask a stranger to tell you the story of their life, they’re going to naturally edit that story so that it has peaks and valleys and seems to conform to a unified tale with an ultimate point. I mean, I can look at my own life and it definitely follows a plot, with several clearly discernible character arcs. Part of the ‘tempests’ in the novel, I think, might just reflect my willingness to engage plot rather than have people wandering around emoting.

The rhythm somewhat mirrors my own experience,of life, and perhaps my musical sensibilities. In general as humans we enjoy lulls, but they have no value without the tempests, and I tend to be most enervated by the grand, unexpected and unavoidable movement in stories or music. Either Billy Joe Shaver or Jimi Hendrix was playing during the novel’s drafting, and some of their music infected the structure. I’m Italian from the American Deep South, so I like passion, I like to hear the music swell, I want to know that everything is at stake…

Probably nothing except cocktails should be made like cocktails, but I see your point: it stands to reason that a composite of things that please us should please us more than the individual qualities alone. But of course, as with food and drink ingredients can clash rather than compliment, and you can end up ruining the whole recipe. I guess for me a story’s assembly is a little more organic. I used to have to codify and explicate all my choices because I was a professor teaching craft, but now it’s more like building a piece of music — all my principles have been internalized and now operate on instinct. I know I want true emotion, a visceral, sensory vividity to things. I want a story which suggests that life matters. Then within those meta-concerns are my usual obsessions: time, memory, sex, women, death. Combine and season to taste, I suppose.

Do you have the reader in mind when you’re writing?

The only reader I ever really have in mind is some version of myself. The reader in me without the writer. Probably like most writers I write for myself, figuring that I have outstanding taste and if I can please myself, surely some others might be pleased as well. I don’t know any other way to make art.

Who are your favorite writers?

My all-time favorites are probably Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Melville, Hammett, Lovecraft, Greene, Cesare Pavese, Bowles and Munro. I’m a great admirer of Jim Harrison, and I think Denis Johnson is one of the greatest and most truly visionary American writers of the last half-century. His work is one of the great spiritual visions of our time. I think of him as a modern Blake. I like Robert Stone a great deal. Playwrights like Martin McDonagh, Sarah Ruhl and Tracy Letts.

Faulkner especially meant a great deal to me. He was the first ‘literary’ writer I discovered, having come from a place where books and education are mistrusted, and I remember reading ‘Absalom, Absalom’ at age nineteen and thinking, ‘Yes. That’s exactly what it’s like. He’s right.’ And feeling like I was no longer alone with the insane thoughts and feelings I had, the degree to which I was haunted by where I came from.

What have you been through to describe violence and distress so efficiently?

Well, I grew up in a very poor, very isolated rural area in South Louisiana, on the Gulf Coast. Besides being a stunningly ignorant part of the country, a kind of casual violence is a common language there. I’m from Lake Charles, and a friend of mine once described it as “the easiest place to get your ass kicked on the Gulf Coast.” Lots of poor, stupid people there, lots of drinking and fighting and cheating. Also lots of fanatical religion and illiteracy. It’s a rough place, and you grow up fighting.

Beyond that there’s a certain amount of experience I’m not comfortable talking about, and I guess that’s one reason I write. I left home at 17 and have been completely on my own ever since. I don’t speak to my parents, or go back to Lake Charles, and there’s a certain amount of trauma tied to that, largely physical trauma.

Growing up our house was very isolated, away from town, and we didn’t have books in the house or any other kind of intellectual materials, and I usually found myself occupying my free time by being in the woods, wandering in nature, and all you have to do is pay attention a little to see that ‘red in tooth and claw’ applies to all of us. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that, in contrast to other more liberal and intellectual parts of my country, where I grew up gave you violence as a common language, as much a part of daily life as the French Creole the Cajuns spoke. Violence as a legitimate rhetoric in daily life.

Where I came from a lot of people viewed violence merely as efficient communication.

As for the distress, it’s probably an effect of poverty. In America poverty amps up the usual existential dread we all feel. There, if you’re poor, you die. Or you turn to crime. Most crime in America looks to me like class warfare, the same way WWI just looks like class warfare to me, the upper classes sending the lower classes to slaughter. Once you realize that’s the situation, it makes perfect sense that not everyone is going to follow orders.

How in the world do you manage to write so well?

Principles. And that’s an extremely flattering question, but to consider it any further would be hubris.