Keeping ‘Cool’ with author Don Winslow

July 11, 2012

(Spoiler alert: The ending of “Savages” is discussed in the first several paragraphs of this story.)

Prequel? Not exactly – at least writer Don Winslow doesn’t look at it that way.

Sure, he says, his best-selling new book, “The Kings of Cool,” picks up the story of the characters he killed off in “Savages,” the 2010 novel made into an Oliver Stone movie released July 6. And yes, he’ll cop to the fact that the book itself says, “The Kings of Cool: Prequel to Savages,” right on the cover.

But the veteran crime writer simply doesn’t look at it that way.

“I picked up the characters in ‘Savages’ a week before the end of their lives,” Winslow says, sitting in a conference room at Simon & Schuster, his publisher, a couple of weeks before Stone’s “Savages” was released – and savaged – by critics. “They were these old young people. But I also knew their backstory – and I got hungry to tell it. I didn’t want to do ‘The Previous Adventures of…’ because that seemed kind of shallow. But I wanted to tell the larger story of it.”

(End of spoiler alert.)

“The Kings of Cool” picks up the story of the “Savages” trio – the weed-dealing Laguna Beach, Calif., ménage of Ben, Chon and Ophelia – a few years before the action of “Savages.” They’re feeling the heat on their homegrown business – from crooked cops and, less so, from the expanding tentacles of the Mexican drug cartels. But Winslow also delves into the environment that produced these three characters: the Laguna of the 1970s and ’80s – specifically, the world of their parents.

“I’ve lived in that part of the world for 20-odd years,” Winslow, 58, says. “The book was inspired by people I hung out with and observed, and the zeitgeist of southern California. That culture has always fascinated me.

“People look at southern California and see it as this homogenized culture, as though it’s all one thing. My experience is that there are all these different subcultures – and this is one of them that I was fascinated by and wanted to write about.”

It’s a world in which surfers and marijuana dealers coexist with the wealthy, conservatives of the area – and everyone, it seems, is looking for high-grade marijuana. The expanding empires of Mexican drug rings brought a new level of violence to that world – but, Winslow notes, California’s pioneering passage of a law legalizing the prescription of medical marijuana in 1996 has changed the game.

“It changed it entirely,” he says. “Everybody feels they’re working under the blade and under the clock. Everyone is looking five or 10 years down the road to being in the right position when it’s legalized.

“And I think it will be. Magazines like the National Review came out years ago in favor of that. It’s a different political climate. People are tired of spending money on laws that don’t make sense and don’t work.”

Winslow himself isn’t a marijuana user: “Oh sure, when I was a kid, but it was never a thing with me. I’ve never been a heavy user of anything. Although if I have to get off coffee, I’d probably have to go to Betty Ford.”

“Savages” isn’t the first of Winslow’s novels to reach the big screen; that distinction belonged to “The Death and Life of Bobby Z,” which went straight to DVD in 2007: “I think all my books have been optioned at one point or another,” Winslow says. “With ‘Savages,’ it was a matter of changing the way I did things.

“There are two broad streams for a novelist. You can take the money and run – or you can be involved. I used to be the former, until I saw what happened with ‘Bobby Z.’ And I was surprised how much it distressed me. So I partnered up with my friend Shane Salerno, who’s a prominent A-list screenwriter, and started doing things in a different way.”

Including cowriting the script for “Savages”: “I don’t look down on screenwriting – it’s a very tough, demanding gig,” he says. “You have so much freedom when you’re writing a novel. You have the great tool of internal thought and the omniscient narrator.”

Most of Winslow’s time, however, is devoted to his novels. A one-time private detective and safari guide who was one of the first two African Studies majors ever to graduate from the University of Nebraska (“And we were both white guys,” he observes with a smile), Winslow usually has two or three novels going at the same time.

“I like to have more than one pony in the corral,” he says. “When one gets tired, I jump on another one, until I get toward the end of one. When I’m in the phase of finishing one, that’s all I focus on.

“That part is such a hateful experience. All you want to do is be done with it. You’ve been writing this thing for a year or a year and a half and you just want to get it done – and done perfectly. It’s tiring. It’s like the end of a marathon: You can see the finish line but it’s not getting any closer. When I’m doing that, I’m obsessive; I’m no fun to be around. Because, in the crime genre, the ends of books are very picky. It’s like the narrow end of the football – and you just keep getting pickier.”

Winslow makes a distinction about his field: He writes crime fiction – but not mysteries.

“I’m not smart enough to write a mystery,” he says. “I can’t figure the damn things out.”

Winslow always dreamed of being a writer, but was in his late 30s before he tried his hand at a novel: “I’d left the writing dream behind, given the necessities of making a living,” he says. “The truth of it is that I was afraid to fail. Then a friend, who’s a professor at Barnard, said, ‘You’ve been talking about writing a book forever. Why don’t you just do it?’

“A few weeks later, I was sitting at a campfire in Kenya at 5 a.m. I’d heard Joseph Wambaugh speak about the fact that, when he was an L.A. cop, he decided he’d write 10 pages a day – and that became his first book. I thought, ‘Well, I can’t do 10, but I think I can do five.’”

He’s written 16 books since 1991. He now writes daily from about 5:30 a.m. to just after noon. While he gets admiring reviews in the New York Times and elsewhere, he recognizes that crime fiction has never quite had the same cachet as literary fiction – and that suits him just fine.

“I love writing crime fiction – I think some of the best fiction-writing in the world is being done in this genre,” he says. “I don’t know that it’s still fully accepted as literature – and I’m not sure I want it to be. There’s something about living in any ghetto that’s kind of bracing. Crime writers seem to get that.”

Winslow would still like to write “the great African novel, but nobody wants it. And, well down the road, I’m going to write about Native American history, nonfiction. The truth of life is there are too many good stories to write them all. I don’t understand why anyone is ever bored.”

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