Author Don Winslow On Mexican Drug Cartels, Writing, And Being A Wanderer

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It’s always enjoyable to talk with someone who genuinely defines the term “cultured.” Many say it. Few embody it. Don Winslow, author of novels such as Savages, The Kings of Cool and The Cartel, is a worldly man who has hopped from lily pad to lily pad (from Africa to Europe to Asia and beyond) and allowed the content of his writing to not only reflect himself, but the environments he’s found himself in.

We recently spoke to Don to delve into what makes him tick as a writer, and to find out where and how he draws inspiration.

Don, you’ve had a hell of a life in regard to travel and professions. From being a movie theater manager to a private detective, you’ve run the gamut. How have these experiences influenced and/or been a pinnacle tent pole in the stories you write?

Many of my jobs have involved travel, and I think that being a constant wanderer (“Not all who wander are lost.”) gives you a world view that’s pretty useful for a writer. You learn to look, you learn to see, and you learn to at least try to discern what’s beneath the surface impressions. Why is a town laid out the way it is? Why do certain groups live in a certain part of the city? What’s behind the architecture? You explore food and dialect and other aspects of culture, and you learn to listen. There are stories out there, bits of dialogue, memorable images that have all popped up in my work. As most of my travel has been ‘on the job’, I’ve been simultaneously an insider and an outsider wherever I’ve gone, a good position for a writer.

And to go along with your life, your upbringing intrigues me greatly: your dad was a sailor and your mom was a librarian. Today, these professions are not really that common. Is there any specific moment in time you can remember when you were younger where the light bulb clicked and you said, “This is what I have to do?”

Ever since I can remember. My dad was an inveterate reader and a consummate raconteur, so we were always reading or hearing stories in my house; no event was complete without the telling of it. With my mom at the library, we always had access to books. So from a very early age, I thought that storytelling was the very best thing in the world to do, and if my life worked out the way I wanted it to, that’s what I’d do. Now, it took some years for the world to agree with that, so in the meantime I had to do a lot of different things, as you alluded to in your first question. It wasn’t until I was in my early thirties, on a safari in the Masai Mara, when I really had that ‘now or never’ moment. I decided to write five pages a day no matter what. Three years later, I had a book, although the first fourteen publishers disagreed.

Is there any specific location that has been a “best writing spot” for you (ie: you being in Asia, Europe, Africa, etc.)? Does one bring out a better story than another?

It’s only been the past few years that I’ve had the luxury to have a ‘best writing spot’. Prior to that, I’ve had to discipline myself to be able to write anywhere, and I’ve written on planes, trains, buses, in tents, hotel rooms, even in cars on the freeway. (No, I wasn’t driving.) I just had to learn to focus and tell myself that the only essential thing was some kind of writing tool, that everything else was inconsequential. Now my favorite place to write is in my office at home, but I can still write anywhere and have done so lately as I’ve been traveling on a book tour. The other day I worked on the floor in the Denver airport.

A lot of your protagonists seem to stray from beaten paths, but at the end of the day, they have good hearts and will fight for the hard right over the easy wrong. With that in mind, do you enjoy penning anti-heroes? 

Well, I enjoy writing realistic heroes. I’ve never met a perfect human being and don’t expect to, so this is just life. But I do prefer to write characters who are on the edge, who have to struggle between right and wrong, who have to make tough choices. This is the great advantage of crime fiction as a genre, because almost all our characters are on the edge – of society, of their real selves, of pure survival. They’re in danger – physical, ethical and moral, and that’s what makes them so interesting.

Where does inspiration for these types of characters come from (like Ben and Chon)?

Characters like Ben, Chon and O came out of real experience – I hung around with people like them in Laguna Beach and elsewhere. I don’t necessarily approve of what they do, but they are interesting and complex. Their choices walk them into harder choices, and I think that’s what good fiction does.

Your new novel, The Cartel, delves deep into the Mexican drug trade, while also tackling the bribes/politics that go along with it. What’s drawn you to this subject matter? 

I’ve been writing about this topic for over fifteen years. I was first drawn to it by a massacre of 19 innocent people that happened in Mexico back in 1998, and I wanted to know why. How could any phenomenon – in this case the drug trade – come to a point where people would be willing to commit such an atrocity? I started reading about the history of the drug trade in Mexico and became fascinated, outraged, and, I suppose, obsessed. Also, it’s the most important subject in the field of crime today, and you want to be where the action is.

Are you excited to have Ridley Scott signed on to direct the movie?

Absolutely. He is an extraordinary film director and producer. Come on, the director of The Duellists, Blade Runner, Body of Lies, Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, American Gangster and so many other great films. ‘Excited’ doesn’t cover it. Plus, he’s a really good guy. He aggressively pursued the book and when we had a number of choices, we selected Ridley.

And speaking of movies, I know you’ve dabbled in screenwriting with your screenwriting partner, Shane Salerno. How did this process take off?

Well, for me screenwriting is harder because I don’t have the experience that I do with novels. Screenwriting is an extremely demanding art form, for which I have immense admiration, and for exactly the reason you cite in your question. In addition to writing Avatar 4 with James Cameron, the sequel to the highest grossing film of all time, Shane has written films for Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard, Oliver Stone, Michael Mann, William Friedkin and countless others. He is a gifted writer and I am thrilled he will be adapting The Cartel for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it was Shane who first suggested that I write a ‘sequel’ to The Power of the Dog. You may not know this (few do) but Shane is also my book agent. He’s a busy guy but he finds the time to do a lot of different things. He often says he would die of ‘acute boredom’ if he did only one thing. We have known each other for sixteen years and the work that he has done on my behalf has changed my life, personally and professionally.

Do you find the screenwriting medium harder or easier than penning a novel (aka only being able to write something you SEE and HEAR vs. the internalization you get from a novel’s format)?

As a novelist, I always have access to a character’s interior thoughts. I can also stand back and narrate in that omniscient third person voice so beloved of novelists. Having said that, even when writing narrative prose, I often think cinematically – do I want an ‘establishing shot’ (that third person omniscient), or do I want a close up? Do I want to see this moment through a certain character’s POV (Point-of View)? Do I want a tracking shot – that is, follow a character through a series of actions? A lot of that has to do with the fact that I usually write in the present tense, which is inherently cinematic – the action is unfolding in real time in front of you, just like in a film.

How do you get started on a project — outlining? Sketching? 

No, I think a lot and then I start writing. Sometimes I will outline – more of a chart, really – of the major moves to see if they work. But I never really know until I sit down to write them. Also, I want to retain the possibility of surprise – I think it’s good for me and good for the reader.

Do you put together your first draft by hand or computer?

I usually work on a computer – a Mac Laptop hooked up to a big screen – but sometimes I’ll take my work outside and then I write by hand on a legal pad. I also do that when I deliberately want to slow myself down.

Who are some of your favorite authors that have inspired you? 

You know, there are so many. I think we all start – consciously or not – as mimics, and I’m sure that as a novice writer I aped Robert Ruark, Leon Uris and James Michener, whom I read as a kid. When I started in the crime genre, I imitated Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, Joseph Wambaugh, Charles Willeford and Robert Parker, among others.

What was it they did in their storytelling (or personal life) that helped nudge you forward to find your own voice?

Their economy of words, their humor, their ability to establish a full, breathing character with just a few strokes. As time goes by, though, I think that you find your own voice. I still admire those masters that I mentioned, as well as so many others. Yesterday I read a Dennis Lehane novel and was blown away, as I always am. The state of our genre is very, very good.