Waiting for Don Winslow
Don Winslow listens to opera somewhere at the end of America.
But I didn’t know that when I started asking the question. I just couldn’t figure out when he’d disappeared on me. I lavished much-deserved praise on his last outing, The Dawn Patrol, in this column and was eagerly awaiting news of its sequel, The Gentlemen’s Hour. When I found out it had already been published in England, I was floored. I haven’t wanted to lay hands on a book so badly in ages, and now I couldn’t have the damned thing.
My predecessor Sarah Weinman soon found that the longtime crime writer was jumping ship to another publishing house, but that didn’t answer most of my questions. Where was Winslow? What was he writing? What was next from a guy who writes like he has to dip his pen in his own blood to scratch out a sentence?
Then I got a peek at a brand new Winslow novel. Winslow should be back on the media radar soon when the film adaptation of his novel The Winter of Frankie Machine, directed by no less than Michael Mann and starring Robert De Niro, hits screens. But if you really want to get ahead of the curve, preorder Savages, dropping on shelves in July. This standalone novel published by Simon & Schuster is just as much fun as The Dawn Patrol and you’ll glory in every nail-biting sentence and laugh-out-loud bite of dialogue.
Savages is about a couple of Laguna Beach dope smugglers, a laconic environmentalist named Ben who just wants things to be cool, and his ex-SEAL partner Chon, who’s on hand to handle things when things aren’t cool. Their most treasured amigo besides each other is the enigmatic Ophelia, called O. Not twenty pages into the book, the threesome are faced with a choice from the local smuggling cartel that wants to make the independent operators into a franchise. It’s not much of a choice, and one made worse when O goes missing.
The whole book is composed of beautiful, stripped bare passages that read like it’s been purged of every superfluous word, leaving only the most fundamental elements of its nature.
This is a single page.
“Are you going to take the deal?” O asks.
Chon snorts, “No.”
He turns off the laptop and begins reassembling the pretty gun.
And this is another.
If you let people believe that you’re weak, sooner or later you’re going to have to kill them.
Finally, I managed to get its creator on the line. When the phone rings in California, there’s music blaring, background noise for Winslow’s latest project, which we’ll talk about later.
Winslow has authored nearly a dozen books including the series launched with the killer A Cool Breeze on the Underground and the standalones California Fire and Life, The Power of the Dog, and The Death and Life of Bobby Z as well as the aforementioned Dawn Patrol series. Asked about his earliest works, the former private eye said he never thought about writing anything beyond crime novels, at least when he first got started.
“I always wanted to write,” he said. “When I was a PI, I was reading Elmore Leonard and Raymond Chandler and John D. MacDonald and Charles Willeford and Robert Parker. Some of the best writing going is in the crime genre now, which is self-serving, but it’s true.”
In fact, it might have been his unusual first profession that led to his iconic writing style. The writer recalled writing The Death and Life of Bobby Z, an unusual Prince and the Pauper swap between a convict and a drug lord, in pretty inhospitable circumstances.
“Bobby Z was something else,” Winslow said. “When I was writing that book, I thought my career was over. I was still working legal cases and taking a train back and forth to L.A. I quickly found that it’s more fun to write a book on a train than read a book on a train. I’d write a chapter going up, and a chapter coming back. Where ever I was in the book, when I heard the conductor say, ‘Union Station, ten minutes,’ I’d wrap the chapter up.”
So how does a book like Savages happen to a guy who’s already made a career writing these things?
“I don’t know where it came from, man,” Winslow said. “I think I’ve taken it a little further this time. Savages is drawn somewhat from reality. These guys get out of the service and they need work. They can go to one of these private security firms or they can find something else to do. I live thirty miles from the border, so it’s all very real to us here. Often, you write about what it is you’re seeing every day. I wanted it to be about Southern California right now, and the way people are now.”
Asked if he’s consciously playing not just with the components of the crime novel but also with its integral structure, Winslow humbly admits that he’s thinking in some very different ways.
“I wanted to be uncompromising about the style,” he said. “It makes me sound nuts, but I step away from the computer, to a distance where I can no longer make out the words, only the shapes, and ask myself if it looks like what it’s supposed to look like. Sometimes, I want to grab the reader and not let them off the train until I’m done with them. So the page needs to look like that. Other times, I want to focus the reader’s attention on one very small image, in which case you need lots of empty space around it. I think it is tougher because you have to restrict yourself so much. I don’t want to get all Zen-like but if you try to do things with one stroke instead of twelve, that one stroke better be damned good.”
Zen might be a good tactic for the author in the coming months, as he attempts to blend his own writing identity with that of another writer. It was reported not long ago that Winslow has accepted an offer to write under the guise of celebrated thriller writer Trevanian, and pen a sequel to the pseudonymous author’s most famous novel, Shibumi. The new novel, published by Grand Central Publishing, will be called Satori and is apparently being written under the influence of Italian opera.
It all started when Winslow got a call from his agent asking whether the word Shibumi meant anything to him. Sure, the author informed him. It means “Understated Elegance” in Japanese. But how did he know it?
“When I was in college, we all discovered this book, and it became a bit of a cult,” Winslow recalls. “It started a bunch of us playing this game, Go, that’s in the book. I’ve always had a fondness for this book and those characters, so it’s a fun project.”
Winslow will use his own style to write the sequel, but will continue with the original’s compelling lead character, Nicholas Hel.
“Character is everything,” he said. “If people don’t like the character, or at least care about the character, they’re not going to care what’s done to them. I’m a little less interested in plot, but I’m really interested in story. Once you find your characters and discover who they are, their story tends to tell itself.”
Back in his own realm, Winslow is still very enthusiastic about the characters that originated in The Dawn Patrol. Its sequel, The Gentlemen’s Hour, won high praise in the UK, and follows Boone Daniels through another long day in Pacific Beach. For better or worse, we’ll see Savages sooner, but The Gentlemen’s Hour won’t reach these shores until July of 2011. Don’t hold your breath, but more books in the series are definitely pending.
“I like these characters and I like the setting,” Winslow said. “I hope to do at least four more of these books. The idea is to take the characters through the surfing day, in respect to their titles. The next one will be about the mid-day lunch break, and the series will eventually end with a book called Night Surfing. I have a definite idea for the arc of this story.”
Winslow recalled that one editor didn’t really believe that the denizens of the series -- a gang of honorable, mostly mellow, truly gifted surfers who communicate in a language all their own -- would really talk that way. I had to tell Winslow that his “Surfbonics” weren’t all that different from the lingo we have here in the mountains, where white powder and surfboards aren’t all that rare either.
“I told him that they probably don’t talk this way in Manhattan, but if you fly to San Diego, I’ll introduce you to these people,” Winslow laughed. “One thing I love, and I hope it comes through in Savages, is this new language you find here. Some of the best times in my life have been spent talking to guys just like these. When you hang out and listen, you start hearing this evolving language in the midst of an evolving culture. Some it is very positive, and some of it is very destructive. But being able to hang out and hear the music of it is a treat.”
It’s not just a treat, the author explains. It’s a responsibility.
“One of the problems with being a writer these days is that it’s hard to find the time to listen,” he said. “Then you feel guilty. You have to remind yourself that at the end of the day, you’re a listener and an observer. If you let it all go, you’re going to have nothing to write about.”
As if he weren’t busy enough, Winslow has also written a screenplay for one of the novels in his Neal Carey series and already has his next book in mind, an epic retelling of an ancient story, viewed through the prism of the crime world.
“I think we owe our reader and effort,” Winslow said. “I want the reader to love both the characters and the style. I want the subject to wow them. I want them shocked that it’s that good.”
It’s a fine last word from one of the finest crime writers working. My curiosity is sated, for now.
But a few days later, I get one more surprise in the mail. It’s a British copy of The Gentlemen’s Hour, and my whole month is made.
Inside is scribbled, “To Clayton, with appreciation and a regard for ‘Ski-bonics.’ Best, Don Winslow.”
And I laugh like hell.