Don Winslow is the acclaimed author of Savages which was voted one of the ten best books of 2010 by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times and publications around the world. Winslow's other celebrated novels include The Power of the Dog, The Winter of Frankie Machine, California Fire and Life, Death and Life of Bobby Z, The Kings of Cool and the Neal Carey and Boone Daniels series.
By Shane Salerno | Aug. 10, 2010 | Books, Film, Guest Posts
Novelist Don Winslow and screenwriter Shane Salerno have known each other for a long time – eleven years to be exact. They have worked together, including creating the NBC TV series UC: Undercover, trust each other implicitly and often exchange early drafts of their work and talk on the phone every day, usually about film adaptations of Winslow’s work which Salerno produces. Winslow’s latest novel Savages will be directed by Oscar winner Oliver Stone and Shane Salerno serves as the co-writer and executive producer. At our request, Salerno rang up his buddy Winslow who was in the middle of a cross-country book tour and interviewed the acclaimed crime writer about his life and work.
Salerno: What does it mean for you to be a writer?
Winslow: It means everything to me to be a writer. You know I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid. I grew up with great story tellers. My old man was a sailor, and I used to sit under the dining room table when he had his old Navy buddies over, and he’d pretend to think that I’d gone to bed and he’d let me sit there and listen to some of the best story tellers in the world so I always worshiped those guys. And we always had books around the house. My old man came out of World War II, you know 17 years old on Guadalcanal and what he wanted to do was ride around on boats, go to every zoo in the world and sit around and read books. So there were always books around our house and we were allowed to read anything we wanted at any age. There was no censorship, no nothing and so I imagined from when I was 5 or 6 years or so that if I could be a writer that would be the best thing in the world to be.
Salerno: Tell me 5 books that knocked you out?
Winslow: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential–where am I? that’s three?–a book called A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, it’ll come to me, a really beautiful Indian novel about Mumbai, and, without question, All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy.
Salerno: Name some authors’ you consistently admire in the genre?
Salerno: You’ve been married for twenty-five years, and yet all of your characters are a mess. How do you access that?
Winslow: [laughs] All of my characters are a mess?
Salerno: They’re a mess!–Every single one of them.–A beautiful mess in some cases but…
Winslow: Y’know, I think methods are interesting. You know what I mean? Vulnerability’s interesting. I don’t think like ‘steady’ is real interesting in fiction, you know? I think that a character’s flaws are what give a character depth and interest. So, I’ve been married for 25 years but I had a life before I was married. It’s a little hard to remember sometimes but I did and I think I was the same kind of flawed, kind of vulnerable kind of character so it is pretty easy for me to access that.
At the same time, I think, you know any writer looks around him. You know, you look at people you look at relationships, you look at other people you know, you look at people in restaurants and cafés, you sit there and you make up stories about them you hear snatches of conversation you see little bits of behavior and that finds its way into your work. But if I was to just sit and write about myself I think we’d have some damn dull books. It would be about some guy sitting alone in a room typing. Not very interesting.
Salerno: Give us a short history of your childhood, your parents and growing up.
Winslow: Oh, man. There’s no short history. My dad was a Navy man, Marine in World War II, and then into the Navy, Childhood was spent on most of the destroyer ports on the East Coast. My mom was from New Orleans, my dad met her while he was on leave during World War II. They got married six weeks later, and she came from a family of gamblers. My grandmother was a ward healer for Huey Long after the depression, and then she worked for Carlos Marcello the Mafia chief who probably had Kennedy killed — who by the way I met as a child we used to go to parties at his house in Algiers.
Winslow: So um, then I grew up in Rhode Island. I was born in New York City but grew up in the tiny state of Rhode Island in a Mafia bedroom community at first then we moved down to Perryville, on the coast. It was a blue-collar place, my old man would take me down to a fish factory which you could smell, and he’d say, “If you don’t study, you are going to wind up shoveling fish guts in that place.” And I go back there in August and September, but it’s the place that you’re from. And I always knew that my ticket out of the fish factory was writing stories.
Salerno: Let’s talk about, in just a couple of sentences, the genesis, the spark, the idea behind some of your books. Let’s start with Neal Carey. What was the spark, the genesis, the inspiration for the Neal Carey series?
Winslow: The inspiration behind the Neal Carey series was real easy. I was a graduate student trying to get an advanced degree in history and I couldn’t attend classes because I was working as a P.I. and I was always being sent out on cases, and that’s just like Neal Carey. A lot of the cases I was being sent out on were called in those days were called Golden Retriever work–go fetch, go get em–runaway teenagers, business men who were off on a drunken tear somewhere and it was my job to find them and bring them back. And so when I first started to get serious about writing I was doing a lot of things to make a living: I was a PI, I was a safari guide, I was directing Shakespeare in the summer’s at Oxford, believe it or not, and so I took that old thing “write what you know.” I loved the crime genre, you know I was reading John McDonald and Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler and those guys and so I said okay, I’ll write about a graduate student who can’t finish his degree because he was being sent out on cases.