Live Chat with Don Winslow

What follows is a transcript of the live chat with Don Winslow, author of Savages, a book that I think is the literary equivalent of narcotic stimulants.

We’ll start with a few questions from me:

Sarah Weinman: – So first I wanted to talk a bit about Savages opening chapter (or opening line) and, at the risk of quoting myself – always dangerous – my sense was that “If you cackle out loud, you may proceed to Chapter 2. If not, you’re not Savages ideal reader, and it’s no great loss.” So was “fuck you” always the way the book started? Or did you have to pare things down, hack away at it, before that phrase became the book’s opener?
Don Winslow: First, Sarah, thank you for all the very kind words about the book. As a matter of fact, ‘fuck you’ was the first sentence I wrote, even before I had characters or a plot. I guess I was just in a bad mood. But then I got thinking, ‘What about it?’ Who says it? Who thinks it? The next thing I knew a 20-something Orange County woman named O was describing her friend Chon, and it went from there.

Sarah Weinman: Savages has quite the high-wire act in that it starts out as kind of high comedy – two guys and a girl, partying in the USA, so to speak, a threat nobody really takes seriously – and then things get Very Serious and it turns out that light-hearted beginning is basically a big lie. How did you make sure not to have too much comedy or too much tragedy, so that the tension between the two keeps the reader going until the illusion basically gets ripped away?
Don Winslow: Well, I like the high-wire, maybe because I’m so afraid of heights. I think life itself constantly flips between tragedy and comedy, and often very quickly and without warning, so I just wrote it that way. Frankly, if I thought something was funny, I put it in and took the chance. But as the story moved inexorably toward tragedy, the events argued against going for any laughs. Sometimes I think of story structure as a wave – it builds and builds and can do some funky things, but when it breaks, it breaks – when it crashes it crashes.

Harry Hunskicker: No memory, U wake up in a motel w/ pile of $ & dead hooker, police at the door. What fic. charac. do you call?
Don Winslow: [laughs] I call Philip Marlow, no question. But if you really are in this situation, Harry, you might want to consult a good lawyer.

Sarah Weinman: There’s a one-page narrative monologue near the end of the book that I think really delivers Savages knockout punch to American material culture and to the way boomer selfishness has not only failed subsequent generations but the country as a whole. Which is to say, you don’t mince words, and it seemed like the whole book was written from a place of frustration, if not anger, at how we ply ourselves with consumerism and are wholly ill-equipped for a world where such values don’t count.
Don Winslow: Yeah, I was pretty angry when I was writing this book. Hell, I’m pretty angry now. The widening economic disparity, the yapping, quarreling politicians who won’t address the real problems, the obsession with celebrity and cheap fame, and the endless consumerism that serves as a narcotic – really our worst drug problem. I was especially pissed off at the right-wing media bullies and congressional cretins who feel entitled to say anything, but then go running to mommy if anyone hits back. So I thought I’d take a rhetorical baseball bat to them.

Mexico's war on drugsDuane Swierczynski: Do you research before, during, or after writing a novel — like, say, Savages, which is full of tons of sharp insights into drug cartels, grades of marijuana, etc.? (Then again, it is entirely possible you’ve run a cartel at some point, and research is a moot point.)
Don Winslow: Thanks Duane! You know, I do a fair amount of research before and during. And so, it’s funny because you don’t know what you don’t know until you have to write it and so you think you’ve done enough research and then you’re writing and you realize there’s something you don’t know.
Afterwards, I try not to, I try to forget it and move on to the next book

Kathy Roberts: What’s on your iPod?
Don Winslow: Steve Earle, Robert Earle Keen, lots of Springsteen, James McMurtry (like in Larry McMurty’s son), Thelonius Monk, John Coltrane and a surf reggae band called Common Sense out of Laguna Beach

Cort McMeel: For me, The Power of the Dog was a seminal work of fiction. You wove an extremely complex plot with a lot of uninventable details of the Mexican drug trade while painting an in depth portrait of a whole gallery of characters. My two questions:
1) In your research did you interview any actual DEA agents, drug cartel members, Mexican police and/or prostitutes? 2) If so, who was the most interesting to you personally, and why?
Don Winslow: Thanks for the kind words, Cort. I have to be really careful about this. Suffice to say that I did a lot of research, including talking to people. Beyond that, I think I’d better be discreet. You know, they’re all interesting in their own ways.

Ray Banks: You only recently established a solid web presence. How important do you think the internet is to an author’s career, and how involved are you?
Don Winslow: As you said, I’ve only recently caught on, Luddite that I am, as to how important the net has become to an author’s career. I know think that it’s critical, and I’m trying to get up to speed and become more involved. I’m a techno-idiot, though, so it’s no easy task.

Mark Billingham: What happened to the DeNiro/Michael Mann Frankie Machine film project?
Don Winslow: Hello Mark. These film projects can be slow developers. Mr. Mann is no longer with the film, but Mr. DeNiro is, and it appears to be moving forward. Stay tuned.

Ken Bruen: Paul Walker , Laurence Fishburne starred in the movie of The Death and Life of Bobby Z…………….did you see that as good casting and what did you think of the movie, as the book was so immediate and gripping. And congrats on The Dagger Nomination and Oliver Stone on Board for Savages.
Don Winslow: Hi Ken, Great to hear from you, and thanks for the congrats. (Ken and I first met when we literally ran into each other rushing out of elevators at the Edgar awards a few years back. On all fours, picking up our books and papers, we noticed each others name tags and said hello.) Regarding the film of Bobby Z, I did – and do – think of it as a good cast, which also included Olivia Wild and Bruce Dern. The results were somewhat problematic, though.

APMonkey: If for some reason you couldn’t write for a living, what would you be doing?
Don Winslow: I’d be a safari guide. I used to be in the safari business for five years, in fact my first book was written a lot by campfires in Kenya. I led photographic safaris in Kenya, China and back in Africa.
And I loved it, so if I couldn’t write, that’s what I’d be doing.

Alan Glynn: The Power of the Dog is written on such a huge canvas I wonder how you envisioned it at the start, in terms of structure, and how you felt when you were deep into it, wading forward with so much ahead of you – was that as scary as I think it must have been?
Don Winslow: Hi, Alan. Yup, it was terrifying. In terms of structure, I always envisioned it as a Jacobean tragedy of sorts, so I gave it a five-act structure. Beyond that, I was lost trying to find the book’s shapes for years. I just kept researching and writing, and the book became bigger and bigger. The real-life events of the war on drugs drove the narrative, but I was in despair as to how to shape it into a novel. I didn’t find the ‘through-line’ until I realized that each character was trying to respond to the challenge of how to live decently in an indecent world.

Ray Banks: Out of all of your books, The Power of the Dog is the epic (and one of the few books over 550 pages that doesn’t need cutting down) – do you see yourself working that kind of canvas again?
Don Winslow: Hello, Ray. Yes, in fact, I’m currently working on another epic crime novel, based on the new England mob wars. I’ve really enjoyed writing my books since ‘Dog’, but I have missed the larger canvas.

Brian Lindenmuth: Loved Savages, a kind of epistolary novel for the new millennium. Ever read any Kem Nunn? You guys seem to draw from the same well of surfers lore.
Don Winslow: Oh sure, I’ve read Kem and admire him. I’d recommend The Dogs of Winter and Tijuana Straits to those who want to start reading him.

Sarah Weinman: I also see Savages and The Power of the Dog as companion books in a way, despite the obvious heft and style differences. But they both deal with the failure of the War on Drugs and how we’re fighting so many futile wars, both literal and personal.
Don Winslow: Absolutely. Afghanistan is not America’s longest war, the so-called ‘War on Drugs’ is. We’ve been at it since 1973, there are more drugs than ever, and the violence that surrounds them has become horrific. Let’s declare a ‘War on Cancer’ or a ‘War on Hunger’. If we spent the billions of dollars we’re currently spending on the so-called war on drugs, we might actually win.

AP Monkey:Have you ever read a book and thought, “Damn, I wish I wrote this” and, if so, what was it?
Don Winslow: You know there have to be 20 of those, I think, Ken Bruen’s The Guards would be one of them. Several books by Jeff Parker, All The Pretty Horses, Lonesome Dove, Anna Karenina. I think that’s a fairly common occurrence in my reading life. There are so many good writers out there.
When I’m writing, I rarely read in genre at all, simply because I’m a natural born mimic and I don’t wan to be even unintentionally imitating someone else’s voice. All my reading time when I’m working is taken up with research reading: documents, court transcripts, hearings, that kind of stuff.
But then when I’m not directly working on a book which is, frankly, unusual, then I try to catch up in the genre.
Another book I wish I’d written was The Given Day by Dennis Lehane.
Then there’s Michael Connelly, Ian Rankin, Lee Child. It goes on and on.

Allan Guthrie: What do you know now about the publishing industry that you wish you’d known when you first started writing novels?
Don Winslow: Holy smokes, Allan. I think I know more know how sales work. I know a little more about how marketing works. I know more about the relationships between publishing and the major bookstores and of course so on the business front, I’ve learned a lot of things that I had no clue about when I wrote my first books.

Allan Guthrie: What do you know now about the craft of writing that you wish you’d known when you first started writing novels?
Don Winslow: I hope that I know now is more structure, a better sense of the architecture of the book. whereas in my first novels, I was just floundering around. And so, I hope that I’ve learned how a good novel is built although occasionally I still find myself floundering. Very specifically, I think I’ve learned the critical importance of the setup, you know the character and setting the character up. Every one is different, but every one also shares that every one has a character who wants something and really the story is about that want or that need.

Keith Breese: You’ve called writing an addiction and I’ve read that you take long hikes during the day before settling back in to write in the evening. What role does physical activity play in your writing process? Is getting the endorphin rush a way to escape the addiction or to feed it?
Don Winslow: I think it feeds it, oddly enough! I typically write from 5:30 in the morning to about 10 or 10:30 and then I do, I go out and take long hikes, or recently I’ve been bicycling or if I’m by the shore, I hit the waves.
I don’t think I write really well unless I feel really well. And writing is a physical activity in some ways so I like that endorphin then I come back to the writing with that in the afternoon and it steamrolls me through my afternoon.

Jason Pinter: How long did it take to write The Power of the Dog?
Don Winslow: Five and a half years of research, writing and re-writing. The last year and a half was cutting it down from 2,000 manuscript pages to 1000 manuscript pages. I feel like I have a bachelors degree, plus, in the drug trade.

Melissa Klug: I read Savages in two sittings. Unbelievable. Wholly unique and a fabulous ride. I’m now forcibly making friends and family buy it. I discovered the book as a combo of a feature by your publisher at Book Expo America, cemented by Sarah’s enthusiasm for it on Twitter…I absolutely HATE that I hadn’t discovered you before now (I’ve rectified that on my bookshelf.) Given that, are there any writers out there that you believe are extremely talented but under-recognized?
Don Winslow: Yes, I mean, two names come to mind immediately because I saw them: David Corbett (Do you Know I’m Running), Tim Maleeny, Jon Talton.

popculturenerd Who do you want to play Ben, Chon & O in Stone’s movie?
Don Winslow: There are several actors interested and several people Oliver is interested in, but it would be impolitic to name names right now. Stay tuned for more news!

Alan GlynnThe New England mob wars book is a tantalizing prospect, absolutely can’t wait for that. What do you think of the new long-form narrative thing that is going on in TV these days, The Wire, Brotherhood, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and so on?
Don Winslow: Well, listen, I think it’s the greatest development on TV ever. I’ve often thought that TV is more of a novel-like medium than film is simply b/c of the number of hours that you can devote to it. And I that those shows are so good because they replicate the novel and novel structure. And so you can attract great writers who can develop characters and storylines over the course of 20 hours, 40 hours, how long did The Sopranos go on for? 7 years? I’m one of those guys who buys the DVD sets and watches them for 3 or 4 hours at a time. Those shows in some ways are the Dickens of our time. But instead of picking up a magazine, they’re turning on the TV.

Wes Miller: As someone who grew up immersed in surf culture and has spent a lot of time at California beaches, what do you think of the skate culture that emerged from California in the late ’80s–or its present incarnation? Do you find it significantly at odds with surf culture, or similar in any noticeable ways?
Don Winslow: I find it similar in a lot of ways. I’m not a skater, but it has that same kind of attitude, and that same kind of anti-establishment as surfing. But, you know, skaters were those people who couldn’t get to the beach. They didn’t have waves, so they created their own waves, so they created urban waves. It’s not my thing because the water is soft and the pavement isn’t, so it was never my thing. But they do have a lot of things in common. And I like it too b/c it is subversive. I think the skate culture is subversive b/c skaters are in the traffic flow. They kind of like to get into people’s faces a little bit and I like that.

Sarah Weinman: Have to bring this up – with Prop 19 going on the ballot in November, is Savages that much more relevant to the conversation of marijuana legalization and the way it might revive California from being totally broke? Or will we find a way to screw this up royally, too?
Don Winslow: Yeah, I think it is. And I’m hoping we find a way to make it work. Look, for some problems there are no good solutions, only less bad solutions. The ‘war’ model for drugs is a worst bad solution. Regarding marijuana specifically – in a world where tobacco cultivation (by far our biggest drug killer) is legal, marijuana should be as well. The key to reducing the power of the cartels is to lower the profit on the product. It will also be easier to regulate – and keep the cartels out – when we take the activity out of the shadows.

Sarah Weinman: You view Savages as something of a narrative risk, what with screenplay excerpts, Skype transcripts, the very stylized prose. But I’d argue that crime fiction, as a genre, has a lot of room for such risks, and that it’s very forgiving. Is it more the difference between commercial risk and artistic risk, discomfort versus comfort?
Don Winslow: Thank you, yes – the crime genre should be a big tent, with room for a lot of different styles. (This is somewhat self-serving, but I think that some of the best fiction writing being done today is in our genre.) Certainly writing a book with an edgy style like Savages was a commercial risk – but it seems to have paid off. The artistic risk was exhilarating. I’m not saying I’ll do it with every book, but the sense of freedom was heady and opened all kinds of creative doors. It was fun and exciting, and yes, sometimes uncomfortable. In all candor, there were time when I asked myself if I was pushing the envelope too far and I was tempted to back off the radical style. But then I sucked it up and decided that toe-dipping in this pool would just produce a mediocrity that reeked of fear. The only way was to keep jumping into the deep end.

John Schoenfelder: Clearly, you have a pretty strong investment in the local color of the Orange County, Laguna Beach, greater Los Angeles area. But you also have an incredibly in-depth understanding of many cutting-edge international issues. When you sit down to write a novel, is there tension between choosing a more local or international approach?
Don Winslow: I absolutely do feel that tension and I think sometimes that tension is good and sometimes a problem. After I did Dog, a five year project, for a while, I wanted a smaller, tighter canvas and that So Cal culture that I see as running from Newport Beach to the Mexican border is a very very tantalizing one for me because it combines so many ethnicities, cultures, etc. it is its own world and it is very rich. Sometimes I’ve wanted to paint with a smaller, more detailed brush but even then I tend to address those issues because they’re there and you need to write about them. Now I’m at a place that I’m looking toward the larger canvas and it’s what I want my next stuff to be.

Sarah Weinman: The one book you didn’t talk at all about in your Q&A with Shane Salerno Tuesday was Isle of Joy (aka A Winter Spy), which was published in the US under a pseudonym, MacDonald Lloyd, but published several years later in the UK under your own name. What was the story behind that book? And since it’s kind of a tongue-in-cheek spy thriller, is there some sort of Trevanian quality to it that you later tapped to write Satori?
Don Winslow: Yeah, the story was that I hated the title Winter Spy. Also, the publisher had delayed publication, and it was to come out at the same time as another book of mine called The Death and Life of Bobby Z. So I created Macdonald Lloyd, which is an in-joke based on several family names. I don’t think Isle of Joy really informed Satori much at all. I was far too concerned trying to blend my voice with Shibumi to bring a third entity to the party.

Sarah Weinman: You’ve often been quoted as saying you work on two books at a time, switching off between one and the other. How did this method come about, and how do you keep multiple projects in your head?
Don Winslow: I guess having the attention span of a gerbil on crack helps. Switching zoological metaphors, I just like having more than one pony in the corral. If one pulls up lame, I jump on the other for a while. I don’t when I started doing that. I think I always have. For some reason, I have no problem keeping them distinct from each other. Maybe I should be concerned about that.

Sarah Weinman: Finally, have you seen Shane Salerno’s documentary on Salinger?
Don Winslow: I have, and it’s terrific.

Thanks, Don!