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Winslow’s “Savages” A Uniquely Modern Thriller

Audio

Aired 7/13/10

Don Winslow is the author of more than a dozen thrillers, many set in San Diego. His new book "savages" revolves around a deadly and vicious battle between slacker Laguna Beach marijuana entrepreneurs and a Tijuana cartel.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. The crime novels of Don Winslow have been well received for years but, according to the New York Times, his most recent book “Savages” is his gutsiest and most stylish crime story yet. It's the tale of two unlikely drug kingpins from Laguna Beach who happen to develop a strain of artisinal marijuana. It becomes very popular, in fact too popular, for members of a Mexican drug cartel. Author Don Winslow, who lives in Julian, blends humor, hipness and violence in his writing with a Southern California kind of attitude. It's a pleasure to welcome Don Winslow to These Days. And good morning, Don.

DON WINSLOW (Author): Good morning. Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now more than one critic has pointed out that you take some literary risks in your book “Savages.” It starts in the first chapter which consists only of a phrase that we can’t use on the radio.

WINSLOW: Right.

CAVANAUGH: And the last word is ‘you.’ Some of your writing in the book looks like poetry or like a screenplay on the page.

WINSLOW: Right.

CAVANAUGH: Now did any of this seem risky to you?

WINSLOW: Yeah, it all seemed really risky to me. You know, I was surprised when anyone wanted to publish it, to tell you the truth.

CAVANAUGH: Well, why did you bring in those devices?

WINSLOW: You know, I think one thing that’s maybe happening in our genre, the crime genre, a little bit is I think it gets overly defined. And I think people have a set of expectations and a set of rules for you. You know, if you’re writing a thriller, your character’s supposed to be in jeopardy on the first page, if you’re writing a whodunit this, if you’re hardboiled that, and I thought maybe I needed to just throw my elbows out a little bit to gain a little breathing space. And also, not to get, you know, too artsy about this but I was also inspired by the French new wave of filmmakers, you know, Truffaut and…

CAVANAUGH: Right.

WINSLOW: …and those guys. And I was trying to experiment a little bit with the crime genre and try to do a little bit of what they did to film back then.

CAVANAUGH: How do you see it – how do you see that connection?

WINSLOW: You know, use of short phrases.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

WINSLOW: Perhaps such as the one you alluded to.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

WINSLOW: Jump cuts, as they used back then, followed by sort of long strings of action, unbroken in terms of narrative. Use of an authorial kind of presence that comes in and out without warning.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

WINSLOW: Yeah, and I also think – I wanted the book to reflect the kind of media chaos that we have now. You know, we get our information from so many places and, it seems, all at once, you know, from film, from the internet, from books, from radio, and so I was trying to mix those genre a little bit.

CAVANAUGH: Now, to write this way, you obviously have to have an ear for the way people talk. It has to be – It just has to strike right dead on real to people because that’s, in a way, that’s how you’re conveying the story. Is that something you developed that – to pick up phrases and the way people actually talk? Or did you always have that?

WINSLOW: You know, I think I’ve deliberately developed it.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

WINSLOW: I think writers maybe talk too much—as we might experience in this discussion—and don’t listen enough. And so I like to hang out in places and just listen. But I also, a few years back, in fact, up in Julian went and started to do theatre as an actor just to polish my sense of the spoken word and kind of the muscularity of words so that I had a better sense of what they sounded like.

CAVANAUGH: Now I gave a two-line description of what your book is about, “Savages.” Can you tell us a little bit more about the story?

WINSLOW: Sure. It’s – It takes place in Laguna Beach, and it’s about, as you said, these two guys who have a very upscale marijuana business with a high end demographic. They’re both in love with the same woman, ‘O’, who is a sort of a female, south Orange County slacker. And a Mexican cartel comes in and insists that these guys go to work for them, and they resist. And then trouble follows.

CAVANAUGH: Now your previous book, “Dawn Patrol,” in it there was a hero that was a – who was a private investigator and he was also a surfer and he’s a middle-aged guy who’s never really grown up. These two main characters, Ben and Chon, in “Savages” are kind of like not-grown-up, too. So, I wonder, is this kind of arrested development an interest of yours?

WINSLOW: You might ask my wife. I don’t – You know, yeah. I mean, I think in sort of surf and beach culture, I don’t know if I’d call it arrested development but I think there is sort of the Peter Pan factor going on and there is a resistance to growing up. I think that the character in “Dawn Patrol,” you know, is directly dealing with that. The two guys that are in “Savages,” you know, I think that they realize that now they’re coming to a different phase of their life, they want to do something different. One’s a war veteran who kind of wants out. So, yeah, you know, and, listen, I’ve been called immature. I’d like to grow up but I can’t take the pay cut.

CAVANAUGH: Now in “Savages” it must’ve been fascinating to write about these two characters, Ben and Chon, you know, sort of like arrested development kind of characters, who actually face this lethal threat. How did you bring them through that change in their lives?

WINSLOW: Well, change is the operative word. You know, you have Ben, the one character, who is kind of a retro hippie, you know, he’s peace and love and he spends most of his money on charity projects around the third world, trying to change things. And then you have his partner Chon, who is a former soldier, who’s, you know, very, very used to violence. As the plot continues, they’re plunged into violent situations and you see Ben change, you know, as he gets involved in violence. And I think it was Yeats who said after the first death, there is no other. And so it definitely changes him. At the same time, it changes Chon who’s just fed up with it and starts to see things in a different way. So they each develop almost in different directions.

CAVANAUGH: Now I’m speaking with Don Winslow and his new book is “Savages.” Don, you – I mean, to say you’re a prolific writer is an understatement. You told an interviewer you have two or three books going at any one time.

WINSLOW: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: First of all, how do you keep them straight?

WINSLOW: Well, it’s really simple. I have a morning book and an afternoon book and then I have a sort of weekend book.

CAVANAUGH: Why did you – why do you do it that way? Why don’t you just, you know, people tell you you have to concentrate on one thing and get it done.

WINSLOW: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t know that they’re right. I mean, I think – Look, I think everybody works differently, you know. I treat writing like it’s a factory job. You know, I start at 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning, depending on the season, and work until 10:30. Take a break and go back at it. And so, you know, I put my hours in. But I like to keep it fresh. And I think after, you know, five or six hours of writing on one project, I don’t – I’m not sure on a daily basis that I’m going to write that well on it anymore. But I still want to work and then so I switch to a second project. I liken them to ponies in a corral. You know, when one gets tired, you hop on the other one.

CAVANAUGH: Now you didn’t start out to be a writer. You are one of these writers that has this just fantastic background of various jobs and life experiences. Tell us a little bit about your background.

WINSLOW: Oh, man, you know, hardcore unemployable. I mean, you know, a lot of different jobs. You know, nobody – You know, if you study to be a doctor or a lawyer, you get a degree and then you go and you be a doctor or a lawyer. There is no such stamp for a writer. You know, so I got out of college, I wanted to travel, and so I needed to do something that would pay for that so I worked for a while as a journalist and then later as a safari guide…

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

WINSLOW: …because I wanted to be in Africa. I went to New York City to become a writer and was very quickly a starving writer, as most people are. And then I eventually got a job with a, you know, private investigation company. So, for me, it really was a matter of making a living that would allow me to do kind of interesting and different sorts of things on the way to getting the chops to be a writer.

CAVANAUGH: Now when you started to write thrillers, you wrote a number of novels about one investigator. His name was Neal Casey (sic). Have you stopped writing about him?

WINSLOW: You know, for the time being, yeah. You know, I did five of the Neal Carey novels and then I just wanted to move on to do something different. I think I might go back to Neal, though, in a year or so.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, okay, so he’s still an option.

WINSLOW: And I just finished the screenplay of the first Neal Carey book so…

CAVANAUGH: Oh, I see.

WINSLOW: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, and – Okay, talking about screenplays, “Savages” has been bought by Oliver Stone.

WINSLOW: Right.

CAVANAUGH: What’s that like?

WINSLOW: It’s terrific. You know, he’s an interesting guy. It’s pretty kicky to get a phone call at your house from a man who’s won five Oscars and says, hey, I love this book. I want to do the movie. Can we have dinner and talk about it?

CAVANAUGH: So what did you talk about?

WINSLOW: Well, we talked about a lot of things but we talked about the book. And it was really interesting because one thing Oliver said was, you know, this book’s really radical in style. And I said, yeah, it is. I was kind of waiting for, you know, the usual Hollywood we’ve got to make it tame.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

WINSLOW: And he went the other way with it and said, you know, we have to keep that kind of freshness and that kind of radical approach. And actually we talked a lot about French new wave cinema, and he wrote down on the restaurant receipt a list of movies he thought I should see.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

WINSLOW: Which I have framed, by the way, on my desk in my house.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, that’s wonderful. Now, are you going to be writing the film adaptation?

WINSLOW: Yes, ma’am, I will. In fact, I’ve just finished the first draft and I’ll be writing kind of the first take on it and then Oliver’ll be coming in and writing the second take on it.

CAVANAUGH: Well, as you mentioned, you know, with this idea of the French new wave that was in your head when you were writing this thriller, do you see it as if it were on the screen?

WINSLOW: You know, some scenes I do. And in those scenes in the book where I thought the reader might see them better than read them, if that makes any sense…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

WINSLOW: …I wrote them in screenplay form.

CAVANAUGH: Right, you did. Yes.

WINSLOW: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

WINSLOW: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: And it’s kind of – I looked at that and I said, you know, I wonder if this actually will appear in the movie? Are you lifting that from the book itself?

WINSLOW: Yeah, actually we are. We are. But, you know, it was funny because I watched my son go through high school. He’d be studying, he’d have a headset on, he’d have the computer on and the television on and, you know, he’s on the Dean’s list. And so I’m watching this kid, you know, experiencing all these different kind of media in his head at the same time and keeping them straight and I think that that is kind of the way things are going to be now. And so I really wanted to reflect that in the book.

CAVANAUGH: Now, again, a lot of critics have mentioned the fact that there’s this juxtaposition in “Savages” between humor and a really good working relationship between the heroes and then these bursts of violence.

WINSLOW: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, is that hard to write?

WINSLOW: Yeah, I think it is. I think you have to be very careful because you’re walking an extremely narrow line, you know. But life, for good or ill, is often like that. You know, life’s very, very funny in one moment and then horrific in another. And I think, you know, the bits of violence that I’ve seen or experienced, they haven’t happened in smooth, narrative prose. They tend to happen in these sort of jagged, almost poetic images, you know, just flashes of memory and things. And, again, you know, I tried to reflect that in the book.

CAVANAUGH: How long does it take you, Don, to write a book?

WINSLOW: It depends. I think the longest it’s taken me is five-plus years. That was a book called “The Power of the Dog,” which was a real tome…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

WINSLOW: …about, you know, the drug war, so-called war against drugs. “Savages” took me about a year.

CAVANAUGH: And what are you working on now?

WINSLOW: Well, you know, two or three things.

CAVANAUGH: I know. The morning book and the afternoon book.

WINSLOW: The morning book and the afternoon book. Well, I just finished another novel called “Satori,” which is a prequel of a rather famous old thriller by Trevanian called “Shibumi.”

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh.

WINSLOW: So it will be Don Winslow writing as Trevanian. And that was a lot of fun to do. And then I’m working on a larger crime novel which, believe it or not, is a retelling of Virgil’s “Aeneid” in a modern crime setting.

CAVANAUGH: I see. So you’re just basically slacking off there, right?

WINSLOW: Yeah, yeah, I’m a slacker, you know. I think in the past 14 months I’ve written three novels and two screenplays.

CAVANAUGH: Like something…

WINSLOW: Which is crazy.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, it certainly is. Are you astounded with yourself?

WINSLOW: No. Appalled maybe.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Don Winslow, I want to thank you for speaking with us today.

WINSLOW: Okay, thank you very much for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Don Winslow’s new novel is “Savages.” He will discuss and sign copies of his book “Savages” tonight at 7:00 at Border’s bookstore in Carmel Mountain, and this Thursday at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore at 7:00 p.m. and next week at Warwick’s La Jolla on July 19th at 7:00 p.m. I think that’s next week. I don’t know. It’s July 19th at 7:00 p.m. If you’d like to comment, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, tracking San Diego’s wildlife. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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