The King of Cool, Don Winslow
Fuck Taco Bell.
This is what Don Winslow is probably thinking as he stands in line at the Taco Bell at 699 S. Coast Hwy. in Laguna Beach. It's a Tuesday morning in late June, and there's a photographer nearby snapping pictures of Winslow. The fat guy working the cash register is giving him the stink-eye, and the restaurant manager is waving his arms in the air.
"I told you already—no photos inside the restaurant," the manager whines.
"What are you complaining to me for, dude?" an innocent Winslow asks. "I'm just trying to buy a taco."
For the purposes of this story, Winslow is attempting to purchase a Doritos Locos Taco, a national sensation that's really nothing more than a steaming clod of cheesy beef dumped inside a stale, orange shell. He has no intention of eating the thing, which is just a prop for the surreptitious photo shoot. Later, over a trio of far more salubrious Baja-style fish tacos at 230 Forest Avenue in downtown Laguna, Winslow tells Jean, his wife of 28 years, about his taco troubles. "We were taking pictures inside the Taco Bell," he explains. "Which seemed to upset Taco Bell to no end. They did not want us to shoot inside Taco Bell lest we reveal secrets."
Of course, Winslow's only joking about revealing the fast-food joint's secrets, but ironically, he has done just that with Kings of Cool, his just-released prequel to his New York Times-best-selling 2010 book, Savages, the film version of which was released on July 6, directed by Oliver Stone and starring Benicio Del Toro, Salma Hayek and John Travolta. It concerns fictional Laguna Beach pot dealers Ben and Chon and their mutual love-interest, O, a love triangle that suffers coitus interruptus at the hands of the Mexican cartels.
Kings of Cool tells how the three fell into the drug business in the first place, how they're really just following the paths laid out for them by their parents, who turn out to be members of a secretive drug ring called the "Association." The story bounces back and forth between Laguna Beach in the mid-2000s and the late 1960s and profiles, among other characters, surfing weed dealer Doc Holliday, nicknamed Taco Jesus, who gives out free tacos at the same Taco Bell where Winslow has just been hassled, one of the oldest remaining in the chain.
In fact, that Taco Bell used to be the epicenter of Orange County's drug scene. As I revealed in my 2010 book, Orange Sunshine, the restaurant was just a block away from Mystic Arts World, a famous head-shop, art gallery and countercultural market run by the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, which inspired Winslow's "Association," a secretive group of hippies that smuggled hashish from Afghanistan in Volkswagen buses to fund an international LSD-distribution network.
While the reaction to both Savages and Kings of Cool has been overwhelmingly positive—both books won rave reviews by Janet Maslin of The New York Times, who called the former "lean, mean, piercingly funny" and the new release "too damn good to be polarizing"—here in Orange County, not everyone has been enthusiastic about his portrayal of Laguna's shady past, even though he uses the prism of fiction. In October 2010, Winslow was speaking at the 11th annual Men of Mystery event in Irvine when the owner of a now-shuttered Laguna Beach bookstore buttonholed him. "I want you to know that I won't be recommending your book to people," he huffed.
Winslow was too polite to respond. He's used to dealing with critics, as well as meeting people who think they somehow inspired one or another of his various characters. In the acknowledgments for Kings of Cool, Winslow does thank certain friends for sharing their stories, a debt he says that can best be repaid by not mentioning their names. "Guys I hang out with, do martial arts with and surf with were telling me stories," he tells me. "I don't think you can hang around here very long without that history, that culture, coming into your awareness."
Winslow points at the ocean. "It's like a wave," he elaborates. "Look out there. There's always something on the surface that you can see. But there's always also something under the surface that's causing what you see on the surface, that view and the people who inhabit it, the surf world and—let's face it—the dope world.
"There is a very cool aspect to it," Winslow continues. "The whole country has always thought that California was cool. The migration went west, the culture flushes back east, so in 1964, you've got kids singing 'Surfin' Safari' in Kansas, and it's cool. It's definitely cool."
* * *
Before he migrated west and flushed California's culture back east and beyond, Winslow grew up in Rhode Island and New Orleans, surrounded by legends. His father served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and saw action at Guadalcanal, and Winslow remembers late nights eavesdropping, entranced by his dad's war stories. His neighbors included Mafia-tied families, which explains why he has never been shy about writing about organized crime. "They were there," he says matter-of-factly. "And I knew them."
Although he can't recall a time when he didn't want to be a writer, Winslow didn't publish his first book until relatively late in life, after he'd already sampled several other careers: a theater manager in New York, a safari guide in Kenya and a private investigator. His cases typically involved arson and fraud but also the occasional murder or child abuse, and they often took him to California.
Winslow still remembers the first time he came to Laguna Beach. It was 1990, and he had the day off from work, so he drove from his Costa Mesa hotel down to Pacific Coast Highway, and then headed south from Corona del Mar, hoping to arrive at some friends' house in coastal San Diego County in time for dinner. When he reached Crystal Cove, Winslow pulled over. "Holy God," he thought to himself. "I've never seen anything like this."
He ate lunch at a restaurant that is now Laguna Cliffs Inn; he dined on peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches served by unreconstructed hippie waitresses. Then he drove to Dana Point, bought a bottle of wine at a liquor store near the marina, and called his wife, who was at home in Connecticut. "Babe, you've got to come out here," he begged.
For the next three years, he and Jean lived out of hotels, their bills expensed by the law firms who were paying Winslow's investigator salary. Jean birthed a son, who is now in college and volunteering for the Obama campaign, and they eventually bought a condo in Dana Point before moving to a ranch near Julian, a rural town in northern San Diego County. Somehow, Winslow also found time to write several mystery books, the first of which, 1991's A Cool Breeze On the Underground, won a prestigious Edgar Award. But none of them would pay the bills.
Everything changed with The Death and Life of Bobby Z, published by Knopf in 1997, which led to a three-book deal that allowed him to become a full-time writer. Winslow wrote the book on the train between San Juan Capistrano and downtown LA's Union Station, during his commute to and from his day job. Each leg of the journey took just more than an hour, and Winslow wrote one chapter per trip, two per day. "When I'd hear the conductor say, 'Union Station, 10 minutes,' whatever was happening in that chapter, I'd wrap it up," he recalls. "It worked miracles."
Bobby Z was also Winslow's first book to probe Laguna Beach's notorious past as a drug-dealing mecca. The namesake character is an almost mythical marijuana smuggler who has presumably died in Thailand but whose legend lives on, particularly in the hallucinations of a character nicknamed One Way, a homeless casualty of the acid-drenched 1960s. One Way wanders up and down the coast heralding Bobby's imminent arrival by sailboat with an epic haul of weed.
Although Winslow's characters are fictional, much of what they experience is real, even the most spectacularly violent episodes Winslow offers up in books such as 2005's Power of the Dog, his drug-war masterpiece chronicling the rise of the Mexican cartels, or, for that matter, Kings of Cool, which features a cop-turned-cartel-assassin who writes warnings for his opponents in the entrails of his victims. "My editor would say, 'Oh, that's over the top,'" Winslow recalls. "And I'd say, 'Oh, I absolutely agree, but it's what happened."
Some of the anecdotes in Kings of Cool—characters who hand out free tacos to runaway kids, teenagers sleeping in caves, laundering cash and selling joints to support their newfound family—are familiar from Orange Sunshine, which Winslow kindly cites in his book's acknowledgments, along with The Brotherhood of Eternal Love, published in the 1980s by British journalists Stewart Tendler and David May.
But some of the most compelling material in his book, Winslow says, comes straight from just hanging out and meeting interesting people. "It's funny," he muses, pointing downhill at Laguna's Main Beach, which is where the first day of filming took place for Savages. "I've taken location scouts around here, and they flip because it's right out of the book—guys playing volleyball and girls watching them, or girls playing volleyball and guys watching."
On previous books, Winslow adds, he grew tired of editors telling him that real people didn't talk like his characters. "You get on an airplane, you fly to San Diego or John Wayne Airport, and if I can't put you in front of these people in half an hour, you win the argument," Winslow says. "Of course they never take you up on it because you can't get them across the Hudson."
One of the most harrowing passages in Kings of Cool, Winslow claims, comes straight from the mouth of one of his friends who grew up in Laguna in the 1970s. The son of a pot dealer, he recalled how some of his father's "friends" picked him up one day and drove him out to the desert, where they held him hostage at a safe house. As it turned out, the friend's dad owed the men a large quantity of cash. He spent a weekend drinking beer with his captors and flipping through porno magazines until his dad came up with the cash. "That happened up right there," Winslow says, nodding at the hillsides above Laguna Canyon.
* * *
Those two words comprise the first chapter 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."
After finishing those first 14 pages, Winslow immediately emailed the proto-Savages to his friend Shane Salerno, the A-list Hollywood screenwriter who penned Armageddon and the Shaft remake, among others. The two had previously collaborated on a TV series called UC: Undercover, which was canceled after one season in 2001. "This is either really good or it's horrible," Winslow wrote. "Either I'm nuts or I'm on to something."
Salerno still remembers his first glimpse of Winslow's new novel. "It was explosive," he says.
About a month earlier, Salerno and Winslow had talked about the latter's frustration with writing books that, while huge successes in the publishing world—achieving best-seller status in the U.S., Europe and Latin America—never seemed to be appreciated by Hollywood. "Listen," Salerno told his friend. "Forget about the rules. Write about whatever you want, and let it rip."
When he read what became the first two chapters of Savages, Salerno knew he had a film on his hands. "It just grabbed your throat off the page," he tells me. "I emailed him back: 'Drop everything you're doing, and finish this while you're in this headspace.'"
It was clear to Salerno that Winslow was under the grip of visions or being driven by some hideous passion. "He has never adequately explained to me or anyone else where this voice came from," Salerno says. "I believe he channeled something. I've known him 13 years, and he's always known where things have come from.'
By the time Simon & Schuster published Savages in July 2010, Salerno had already arranged for Oliver Stone to direct a movie version of the book. He set up the deal as a testing ground for his recently formed production company, the Story Factory. Salerno knew that, as with Winslow's previous novels, Savages could easily be sold to a studio, but he convinced his friend to forgo that process and package the deal.
"That's how we came to Oliver," Salerno says, referring to Stone, who ended up co-writing the Savages screenplay with both Salerno and Winslow, which led to a bidding war between Paramount, 20th Century Fox and Universal Studios, which won. "From the time the book came out to the time it got sold was 11 months," Salerno says. "From Universal buying it to shooting was three months. We did it in an incredibly efficient manner."
Salerno arranged for Stone and the film's cast to meet with several DEA agents and former drug traffickers. "We actually spoke with someone who had been kidnapped by the cartels and someone who was a girlfriend of a cartel figure," he says. "I had met some of these people on another project, and they did a really good job of bringing reality to Don's fiction."
Before shooting began, Salerno and Stone accompanied Winslow to do some location scouting in Laguna Beach, checking out specific spots from the book such as Main Beach and Reef Point. They met the director at the Montage resort somewhat late in the day, and being that it was winter, the sun was already getting low in the sky as Salerno, who was driving, steered the team along Coast Highway.
"It was so funny," Winslow recalls. "The sun is going down, and Oliver is like, 'Shane! You gotta go faster—we got so much to cover!' So Shane would speed up, and I'd say, 'Over there is the beach where...' and Oliver would say 'Shane! Jesus Christ! Slow down! We're trying to see stuff here!'" After this happened three or four times, Salerno finally pulled over, stopped the car and turned around in his seat, according to Winslow. "Oliver," he said quietly. "I can go faster. Or I can slow down. I can't do both. Which is it?"
Working with Stone on the screenplay meant allowing the book's focus to filter through the director's idiosyncratic lens, but Winslow is happy with the results. "It's a good movie with some terrific performances," he says. But despite working with one of Hollywood's top screenwriters and most celebrated film directors, Winslow never allowed himself to believe the movie would actually be made until the first day of shooting. "I'm that way about life itself," he remarks. "It's maybe not the best thing about me, but I never really believe in anything until after it has happened."
He certainly never stopped working. In a 15-month period, Winslow not only wrote Savages, but also completed two screenplays and three other books, including a draft of an unpublished novel whose topic Winslow prefers not to discuss. He also wrote 2009's The Gentlemen's Hour, about surfers in San Diego, and Satori, published in 2011, a prequel to Trevanian's best-selling 1979 martial-arts novel Shibumi. Thanks to Salerno's Story Factory, the latter project is already being developed as a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Despite his hectic schedule—when I met him for tacos in Laguna Beach, Winslow had already been back and forth to New York twice within the week and was about to fly east again—he still adheres to a strict writing schedule. He wakes at 5 a.m. every day, works on one book for several hours, then hikes in the hills for 5 or 6 miles before coming home to work on another book for several more hours.
On the day I interviewed him, he'd already put in half a day's writing work and wasn't done yet. "You've got to find the hours somewhere," he says, adding that he has already started on three more books.
"I'm just really excited about the future," he says. "I've spent the past three years with Ben, Chon and O. It's been fun, but I'm looking forward to doing other things."
This article appeared in print as "King of Cool: How Don Winslow became a best-selling author by delving into Laguna Beach's legends."