MysteryPeople Q&A with Don Winslow

This is the summer of Don Winslow and his characters Ben, Chon, and O, two high end marijuana dealers and their mutual girlfriend from Winslow’s book Savages. The book been turned into a movie directed by Oliver Stone with a screenplay co-written with Don, and is out in theaters tomorrow July 6th. If that isn’t enough, he recently released, The Kings Of Cool, a prequel to Savages, that shares the previous book’s punch, dialogue, and style as well as a deep emotional look at two generations.

We’re grateful to Don for finding the time to discuss The Kings of Cool with us, a book we predict will be on a lot of top ten lists at the year’s end.


MYSTERYPEOPLE: What drew you to not only look at Ben, Chon, and O’s early days, but to look at their parents, as well?

DON WINSLOW: I picked up the characters in Savages, shall we say, late in their cycle.  But I always knew their backstories – who they were, where they came from, who their parents were, how they were raised. I hope that’s why the characters in Savages are so fully realized. So when Shane Salerno first suggested the idea of a prequel to me in an elevator leaving Oliver Stone’s office, I had those stories in my head, people seemed interested in the characters, so I thought I’d go ahead and write it.

MP: Most authors tend to write lead characters from their generation. How do you approach writing characters who are a generation younger than you are?

DW: By being awake.  Looking, listening, staying current.   I spent many hours in Laguna just looking and listening. (Nice work if you can get it.) I think one of the more charming follies of youth is that only youth can understand itself.

MP: Even though this is a kick-ass crime novel, you seem to use it as a meditation on the baby-boomers from the ’60s and their relationship to their children’s generation. You’re fair with both, but pull no punches with the boomers, especially with an interior monologue from Ben’s father. What did you want to say with them?

DW: I wanted the characters of both generations to examine the mythologies of their own origin stories.  What really happened as opposed to how we romanticize it.  The boomers are a half-generation ahead of me – I was a kid when the counter-culture came into bloom, but I certainly watched it happening.  I wanted to discover how idealism turns into cynicism.  Is that always the case, or was it particular to the American experience of that era?  I think you could track the mood of the nation by observing which drug is in vogue at the time. Right now it’s Oxy – do we all just want to be asleep?

MP: Had you planned to have cameos by Frankie Machine and Bobby Z when you started the book?

DW: Yup.  I’d like to think that when you put all of ‘California books’ together, they will tell a history of crime in this part of the country. There is a canvas and every book I write in that world is part of it.

MP: The style you use in Savages and The Kings Of Cool is even more punchy than in your other books. It also switches formats, you use screenplay style, dictionary definitions, and even a couple of words for whole chapters. That said, it’s very accessible reading. How does it serve you in a way a “normal” style can’t?

DW: I think you said it – this style is more accessible to the current reader.  We get our information – our stories – these days from so many different media, so many different directions at once, and so quickly.  I wanted to reflect that jagged, shattered way of hearing stories.

MP: Laguna  is practically another character in the book. You and T. Jefferson Parker have put it on the crime fiction map. What distinguishes it for fiction as opposed to L. A.?

DW: Jeff’s a good friend and a fine writer, so I’m honored to be included in the same sentence.  Savages actually won the T. Jefferson Parker Award last year, and it was handed to me by T. Jefferson Parker, so that was a big moment for me.

Laguna is unique.  I think it’s the prettiest beach town in California, maybe the country.  It started life as an artists’ colony, and it’s always retained that counter-culture spirit.  It’s a small town, as opposed to the major metro area that is Los Angeles. You bump into people you know on the street or the beach.  That being the case, its folklore is very personal.  You can stand in one spot and point out, “This happened here, this happened there.”

Review: THE KINGS OF COOL

Don Winslow is one of the most fearless writers out there. He pushes the stylistic side of the genre. While others play with point of view, he will switch form from his tight prose, to poetry, screenplay, he’ll even give dictionary definitions for chapters. This practice and his short, punchy chapters could be tossed off as MTV writing, but it expresses a lot. This is where genre fiction and experimental novel meet. What is even more amazing is how accessible his writing is. His latest, The Kings Of Cool, is no exception.

Some of us were apprehensive about him doing a prequel to his break-out book Savages, the story of high-end marijuana dealers Ben and Chon trying to get their mutual girlfriend, O, back from a Mexican cartel that wants to take them over. On the surface the prequel seemed like an attempt to cash in on previous success and the film version of Savages. We forgot Don always goes beyond the surface. Here he uses the origin story for something grander.

Not only do we learn how the three bonded when some gangsters and crooked cops set out to take them out of business in 2005, we meet their parents in the ’60s. As revelations from each time build, the stories merge not only as a microcosm of forty years of Southern California history, but also as a meditation on how a generation who protested the Vietnam War ended up sending their offspring to Iraq. As Ben’s father ponders in a long soliloquy:

“…we saw a dream turn into a nightmare we saw love and peace turn into endless war and violence our idealism into realism our realism into cynicism our cynicism into apathy our apathy into selfishness our selfishness into greed and then greed was good…”

He even connects the greed to being parents. Then Winslow goes further. No generation is safe.

This is crime fiction as social examination, even social conscience. The novel’s style prevents the book from getting bogged down in self importance or preaching.

It also gives us hope. Society may have gone to pot smoke, but Ben, Chon, and O prove that footing and a possible future can be found in honor, trust, and love. In fact The Kings Of Cool makes an argument that the bond of friendship is stronger than blood.

Don Winslow has created a perfect mix for a virtuoso crime novel. The Kings of Cool has an unnerving eye for violence, sharp dialogue, heroes trying to find honor in dishonorable business and an even more dishonorable world, true emotion, and balls to spare.

And style, lots of style.