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Interview: Don Winslow, Author of The Kings of Cool, Prequel to Savages

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Don Winslow‘s last book, Savages, was an amazing tour-de-force and it will be interesting to see the film adaptation, directed by Oliver Stone. The film opens this weekend and you can see trailers at Winslow’s blog. Savages was named one of the top ten books of 2010 by The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Winslow previously wrote more than ten other books including The Power of the Dog and The Death and Life of Bobby Z.

Now with The Kings of Cool Winslow has published a prequel to Savages, providing more background to its three main characters and the culture they worked in.  The main characters are Ben and Chon, high-end marijuana dealers with contrasting personal belief systems, and their mutual girlfriend, O. While Savages is the better of the two books, The Kings of Cool is also quite good.

Part of what makes both books great is the author’s writing style: tough, tight, gritty sometimes bordering on vulgar. The descriptions are sometimes hilarious. An excerpt from the book with give you a sense of the style I’m talking about. It sets up the start of the book’s action and explains the book’s title. As The Kings of Cool starts Ben is eating at a favorite restaurant, when a stranger sits down: Dig his description of the guy and the situation:

Burly guy.
Big, sloping shoulders.
Sandy, receding hair combed straight back.
Kind of old school.
In fact, he was wearing one of those ‘Old Guys Rule’ T-shirts, which totally miss the obvious point that if old guys really ruled, they wouldn’t have to proclaim it on a cheap T-shirt.
They’d just, you know, rule.
These are guys who can’t figure out social media technology, so Ben figures their days of rule have gone the way of the compact disc.
Anyway, this guy who looked to be in his fifties sat there staring at Ben.
Very high creepiness rating.
Ben was like, do I know you, am I supposed to know you, is this some sort of weird early-morning gay thing? Or is this guy just one of those ‘I’m a people person’ tools who thinks it’s his human duty to strike up conversations with people sitting alone at restaurants.
Ben is not I-like-to-meet-new-people guy. He’s I’m-reading-my-freaking newspaper-and-flirting-with-the-waitress-so-leave-me-the-fuck-alone guy.
So he said, ‘Bro, no offense, but I’m kind of into what I’m reading.”
“Like, there are five empty tables, why don’t you sit down at one of them.
The guy said, ‘I’ll only take a moment of your time, son.'”I’m not your son,’ Ben said. ‘unless my mother has been deceiving me all these years.”‘Shut your smartass mouth and listen,’ the guy said quietly. ‘We didn’t mind when you were selling a little custom shit to your friends. But when it starts showing up in Albertsons, it’s a problem.’
“It’s a free market,” Ben answered, thinking he sounded like a Republican all of a sudden. Seeing as how Ben is generally to the left of Trotsky, this came as an unpleasant epiphany.
“There is no such thing as a ‘free market,'” Old Guys rules said. ‘The market costs – there are expenses. You want to sell up in L.A., compete with our little brown and black brothers, be our guest. Orange County, San Diego, Riverside – you pay a licensing fee. Are you paying attention?”
“I’m riveted.
“Are you clowning me?”
“No.’
“Because I wouldn’t like that.”
“And I wouldn’t blame you,” Ben said. “So, for the sake of discussion, what happens if I don’t pay this licensing fee?”
“You don’t want to find out.”
“Okay, but just for the sake of discussion.”
Old Guys Rule looked at him like he was wondering if this kid was fucking with him, and then said, “We put you out of business.”
“Who’s ‘we’?” Ben asked. He saw the look on the guy’s face and said, “I know – I don’t want to find out. And if I do pay this fee?”
OGR held out his hands and said, ‘Welcome to the market.”
“Got it.”
“So we have an understanding.”
“We do,” Ben said.
OGR smiled.
Satisfied.
Until Ben added, “We have an understanding you’re an asshole.
Because it’s also Ben’s understanding that no one controls the marijuana market…

As the chapter ends the old guy says this: “You motherfuckers think you’re the kings of cool, right? You know everything, no one can tell you anything? Well, let me tell you something – you don’t know shit.”
“OGR gave Ben one more Bobby Badass look and then walked out.
“The kings of cool,” Ben thought.
“He kind of liked it.
“Now he turns his attention back to the game.”
  

Winslow agreed to let me interview him by email about the books and the movie.

How did this story come about? Was the plan always for your next book to be a prequel to Savages or did it just work out that way?

I always knew the story that became The Kings of Cool–it informed the characters in Savages – but I didn’t make the decision to write the book until much later.  I wanted to write a story about families – what happens when these young people have to choose between their biological families and the family that they have formed with their friends.

Right after this book comes out the movie version of Savages is coming out, directed by Oliver Stone. First, was it planned for those two things to come out near each or did it just work out that way? Second, how involved have you been in the film adaptation of your book? Have you seen the finished product and what did you think of it?

It was very much planned that way. I co-wrote the screenplay with my friend and partner, Shane Salerno, and Oliver Stone.  I have seen the film–I think it’s a good movie with some terrific performances.

How would you describe Ben, Chon and O to the readers? Which of the three are you most like? When I was reading about how Chon is both fascinated with wordplay yet often silent I was wondering if that was a reflection of your own obvious love of wordplay. For example I love this: “Together, Ben and Chon make up a collective pacifist. Ben is the paci Chon is the fist.”

Ben, Chon and O are three young, cool people who have formed a tight bond.  Lacking meaningful families, they create one of their own.  Regarding Chon’s love of wordplay–yeah, I think that does come a little from me.  As a kid, I used to read the dictionary for fun. Sad, huh?

What’s it like to get such critical praise, such as Stephen King calling your book “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid on autoload” and “a revelation…. Every bit as savage as its title.”

It’s wild.  That kind of comment, coming from someone I admire like Mr. King, is a little overwhelming.  But very cool.

Was Janet Maslin of The New York Times right, when she wrote that “Savages will jolt Mr. Winslow into a different league?” Do you feel like you are in a different league or have higher expectations after that last book was such a smash?

Savages and The Kings of Cool has certainly enlarged my readership and put me more in the media than I’ve ever been, so I guess yes is the answer.

Speaking of expectations I noticed that both the last book and the new book have two word first chapters both with the word “fuck” in it. Was that unintentional or did you do that on purpose? Savages starts with the sentence “Fuck you,” while The Kings of Cool starts with “Fuck me.”

I have to tell you that I did both on purpose.  I mean, The Kings of Cool had to start that way, didn’t it.

What kind of research did you do for this book and for Savages? For example, did you talk to people to learn about making premium weed and, if so, who? I don’t mean names so much as law enforcement or pot growers?

Both.  I hasten to add that I’m not a pot grower or even a user. 

What have been the high and low points of your career?  I’m wondering where Savages fits in there.

Savages is definitely one of the highs.  Low points?  You know, all writers go through them.  My first book was rejected by the first fourteen publishers who saw it.  I probably felt pretty low after the twelfth or thirteenth.  But then I just got mad and made me more determined.  I put myself on a clock for feeling down–two hours tops–then I go back to work.

One thing I love about both Savages and this one is how sharp and quick the dialogue and the observations are. There are only a few writers who are adept at capturing dialogue and the first two who come to mind are Richard Price and Elmore Leonard but I’m thinking you’re just as good if not better as those two. Is that something you’ve always been able to learn to do or is it something you’ve improved at over the years? Any tricks or tips on how to do that?

Well, thanks.  I hope I’ve gotten better over the years–it would be pretty sad if I didn’t.   You know, there’s that theory about how it takes 10,000 hours to get good at something.  As for tricks or tips?  One of them is to read the piece out loud and really listen to it.

What question are you most tired of answering?

“Where do you get your ideas?”

Do you have something you want readers to take away from your book besides just having an enjoyable yet wild read? For example, are you hoping they will learn something about Southern California drug/crime history?

Absolutely. First of all, I want to entertain.  But if the reader learns something about the history, all the better.  And I think that most readers do like to learn things while they’re being entertained.  At least they tell me they do.

What are you working on next? Another book with these characters or something completely different?

I’m working on three new books, actually –each of them completely different from The Kings of Cool and Savages.

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.