He could’ve stepped out of a novel by Steinbeck. The writer as crusader, chronicler of love and depravity. His shirt was rumpled, his hair mussed, his manner that of a man who’d just hiked along the railroad tracks or rolled out from under a box. He is fine-featured, with fierce eyes a little too small for his face. It gives him the aura of a bear or some other species of dangerous animal. When I was a boy and dreamed of literature, this is how I imagined a writer—a kind of outlaw, always ready to fight or go on a spree. After a few drinks, you realize the night will culminate with pledges of undying friendship or the two of you on the floor, trying to gouge each other’s eyes out.
When I talked to Vince Vaughn, he alluded to early difficulties in Pizzolatto’s life: After what he overcame, you know he’s got character. At first, this did not register. I suppose I thought what Vaughn meant was simply childhood in the impoverished South, which, to a kid from Lake Forest, Illinois, like Vaughn, can count as a trauma. But after a few such allusions, I thought to myself, How much do I really know about Nic? When I asked Pizzolatto about it by e-mail, his response was sharp in the way of a curtain coming down. “That’s not something I am willing to share.”
In the writers’ room, I’d argued with Nic about motivation. Simply put, I don’t believe in it and he does. I don’t believe that a single event can explain the way a person behaves. But in Nic’s conception, every character is driven by a particular engine. Well, maybe this was why. Maybe Nic himself is driven by some early trauma. Though I never discovered its nature, it remains a blank spot in his story that might explain everything.