The King of Cool, Don Winslow

How the SoCal transplant became a best-selling author by delving into Laguna Beach's legends

* * *

Fuck You.

Those two words comprise the first chapter of Savages.

Don Winslow, Laguna's taco bard
John Gilhooley
Don Winslow, Laguna's taco bard
Winslow helped to scout Laguna locations for the film version of Savages
John Gilhooley
Winslow helped to scout Laguna locations for the film version of Savages

Winslow was frustrated at the fact that despite having written a dozen best-selling books—all but one of which has been optioned for screen—only Bobby Z had been made into a movie. It starred Laurence Fishburne, Olivia Wilde and David Carradine and went straight to video. "I was really pissed off at the publishing world," explains Winslow. "I sat down at my typewriter and typed, 'Fuck you.'" Winslow imagined somebody at a bookstore picking up the book and cracking it open to the first page. "Either they are going to laugh and buy the book or get really pissed off and put it back on the shelf."

Winslow kept writing. "All of a sudden—I don't have an answer for this—I'm writing from the point of view of a twentysomething-year-old woman and her boyfriends in the drug trade," he recalls. The woman, a blond beach girl named Ophelia, or O, is the shared love interest of Ben, a UC Berkeley-schooled botanist and creator of a super-powerful marijuana strain, and his childhood friend Chon, a Navy SEAL and veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ben is the brain of the operation, Chon the muscle.

After spending five years researching the horrific world of the Mexican cartels for Power of the Dog, Winslow says, he never planned to write about them again. But by the end of Chapter Two, he already knew they'd play a key role in Ben, Chon and O's story. Whereas Dog deals with mayhem south of the border, Savages depicts its inevitable arrival in el Norte. "The cartels are here," Winslow says. "They're in every major American city, taking over rural America. It's a mad, mad world, and it's gotten so much worse."

(Yes, they're here in OC. Last month, the federal government busted what they say was a quarterhorse-racing empire in the United States that served as a front for the notorious Zetas drug cartel. Among its main playgrounds? The Los Alamitos Race Course.)

As the book begins, O is playing with Ben's laptop when an anonymous sender delivers a video clip via Skype. When Ben clicks on the link, he's treated to chillingly dispassionate video footage of several decapitated heads, all lined up neatly.

While the scene is imaginary, the video isn't, according to Winslow. "I have been sent the exact video that appears in the book," he says.

The faces are Mexican; the heads belong to drug dealers who refused to work for the Baja cartel, which, in the fictional context of Savages, is headed by the ruthless Elena, played by Salma Hayek in the film. The message: Sell your weed exclusively to us, or we chop off your heads. Ben and Chon opt for a third option, which you'll have to either buy the book or watch the movie to learn, but suffice it to say it involves a bloody confrontation with Elena's ruthless hitman, Lado, played by Benicio Del Toro.

Winslow wasn't sure where he was going with the plot at first, just that he wanted to have a strong female character as the narrative anchor to the story. "A young woman character who was entirely in charge of her sexuality, unashamedly, unabashedly, and who talks about it," Winslow explains. More generally, he also wanted to capture the disembodied way people experience reality in contemporary culture. "The threat literally starts as severed heads, but the characters are talking to each other in Skype, which is digitally severed heads, just heads floating in space."

Without stopping, Winslow typed up the first 14 pages of Savages. It was unlike anything he'd written before. His first few books had been told in the traditional method, in the third-person, past-tense voice from the point of view of an omniscient narrator. He'd mixed things up in Bobby Z a bit, as well as the novels that followed it, by introducing some verbal jujitsu into the mix, so that Winslow isn't just telling a story about the characters on the page, but also speaking directly to the reader.

"All of a sudden, I'm writing in present tense, with tight points of view, flipping points of view," Winslow recalls. "I mean Savages flips points of view inside paragraphs, so does Kings [of Cool]. And there's this rule—thou shalt not switch points of view inside a chapter. I don't do it inside a chapter; I do it inside a syllable if I think it's the right thing to do."

As a best-selling author with his own established style, Winslow knew his flouting of literary convention was risky. "It's deliberate," he says. "I always have the reader in mind. I want them to get a certain kind of reaction, a certain kind of kick. It drives copy editors insane. I say, 'Take away their shoelaces and their belts before you assign this book because I'm just going to be writing, 'Stet,'" he jokes, referring to the term authors often write in the margin of copy-edited manuscripts, which roughly translates as, "Don't you dare fucking change this word."

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