Savages Author Don Winslow on Orange County, Drugs, and Oliver Stone

Don Winslow’s on the kind of roll that’d make other crime writers want to fold him up in a cement sofa bed next to Jimmy Hoffa. Not only is his critically beloved New York Times best seller Savages getting the full Hollywood treatment as a film by Oliver Stone this weekend — fortunately, gonzo U-Turn/Natural Born Killers Stone, not What’s-This-Love-Story-in-Wall Street 2 Stone — but Winslow’s latest, the Savages prequel Kings of Cool, is again on the best seller list, and Warner Brothers picked up his Go-master/hit-man novel Satori as a vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio. And, oh yeah, he’s writing a script with Chuck Hogan (i.e., the Prince of Thieves author who was indirectly responsible for giving us the Jeremy Renner/Ben Affleck Southie showdown in Affleck’s adaptation The Town). It’d be easy to schaden-hate him, if his novels weren’t so damn fun — full of crackling wit and head-turning action, all with a sly eye for the social ills of the drug trade he knows so well.

So, as he promoted Kings of Cool and waited to see how America embraced his beloved designer potheads/ménage à trois-lings O, Chon, and Ben as brought to life by Blake Lively, Taylor Kitsch, and Aaron Johnson, I jumped at the chance to snag phone time. Turns out, he’s a pretty nice guy, all the cutting sarcasm in his novels reserved for true follies like America’s war on drugs. He was also quite convincing in getting me to think about legalizing everything, how the Real Housewives of Orange County are actually as deep as an ocean, and why it’s better to have a stoner driving at you in the midnight hour rather than a drunk.

I sped through Savages and Kings of Cool, and O is an amazing character. I’m weirdly in love. She’s the kind of spoiled OC beach bunny I’ve met in real life and rolled my eyes at, but in the books, you adore her. Is there a real O out there that you’re basing her on?

Thanks! There’s no one real O, although women will come up to me and tell me that they are her.

What, they’re into surprisingly stable threesomes and custom-tailored weed?

Ha, no, but they tell me they’re Orange County slacker rich girls. In fact, I was talking to a reporter last week who said, “This was my first roommate in California.” It’s nice to hear that, because you think, OK, I got it right.

As a longtime Californian who pined after girls like that, you nailed it. I don’t know how you did it.

Thank you. A lot of it’s just hanging around Laguna Beach and listening. It’s funny sometimes — my editors from the East Coast don’t believe this. And I say, “You know what, get on an airplane, I’ll pick you up at John Wayne Airport, and if I can’t take you to these people in 45 minutes, you win.”

I love how all the reviewers say, “What a great satire of southern California” — I don’t think it’s a satire at all!

Yeah, it’s gritty and realistic I think!

Pure naturalism. It’s the Madame Bovary of Southern California.

Wow, thank you. Listen, again, I lived in Laguna, I lived in Dana Point, and these stories are out there and these people are there. I was there the other day [being interviewed], and this reporter from New York, her chin was down to her chest. The guys were on the volleyball court, and she was saying, “There’s Ben and three Chons right there!”

I love O’s mom, Paqu — she’s the ultimate Real Housewife of Orange County. Is there a bar where you go trolling for trophy wives to get this material?

There’s a bunch in Laguna. The Cliffs, Tommy Bahamas. For the surfers, it’s the White House and the Marine Room. Then, just hanging around. You go there, and bam, it’s a fruit orchard for a writer. You just stand around and pluck it.

I feel like when it comes to highbrow writers like the Jonathan Franzen types, no one thinks to go to Orange County. Everyone writes those people off.

From Newport Beach down to the Mexican border to me is just a fascinating cultural biome, because it has so many subcultures and micro-cultures. I think people who dismiss it are missing something. I liken it to the waves: You know you see something on the surface, but there’s always something under it that’s causing what you see. You look out there and you see this beauty and the beautiful people and the money, but if you stay still for a little bit, and look a little deeper, you’ll see a whole other story, a causal story, an origin story, which is what Kings of Cool is about.

And how do you write the cartel characters? You hang out with those guys, too?

Ha, I’ve certainly met them. I wouldn’t go so far as to say hanging out.

So, no tequila shots at El Torito with them.

Yeah, no, right. Again, it’s a process of living in the area, so if you live as we did in Dana Point, San Juan Capistrano is predominantly Mexican American.  Again, I’m a big believer in subcultures and micro-cultures.

Well, I appreciate the attention to the Mexican American blue-collar world. It’s a huge part of this region and I think it gets short shrift in books and films.

Absolutely. I used to love it in Dana Point on Sundays: The Mexican American families would come down from San Juan Cap to Dana Point harbor and set up these elaborate picnics in the park in their church clothes. It was so warm and touching to me. I live part of the year in a little town called Julian up where there are a lot of Mexican American families that have been there forever. They’re the bedrock of the community. And really, The Kings of Cool is about family, it’s about people having to make a hard choice between their biological family and their chosen family.

It’s nice that as a sequel it’s not just a retread, it’s a different type of story. There’s an element of that generational conflict that Savages by nature didn’t have.

They really are two different kinds of books. Savages is so fast, and it encompasses a few weeks of those people’s lives, picking them up late in their arcs. But I always knew their backstories, I just didn’t choose to tell it in that book. When I came to write Kings, I wanted to tell a bigger story about people examining their families and their origins, and this sounds presumptuous, but the origin myths of the country over that period of time from the ’60s to the present.

And the drug wars. In fact, you’ve been a chronicler of the drug wars since Power of the Dog.

Yeah, Dog is a very long book. It follows five equally important characters through 35 years of the so-called “war on drugs” and charts the evolution of the Mexican cartels from a bunch of gangster farmers in Sinaloa to an internationally powerful organization. That was a five-and-a-half-year project that involved a lot of research.

How do you think California’s legalization of pot has changed the industry?

It’s changed it a lot. It created a gigantic market, and more of a market for high-grade as opposed to ditch weed. By the way, for the record, I don’t even smoke pot. But it’s created a larger and much more lucrative market. California growers and particularly kids coming out of Berkeley have really created quite a product. They’re all like Top Chef, they all have their own recipes.

It’s like the drug version of the gastropub craze. Instead of 50 types of craft beer, now you can get 50 types of weed.

Ha, right, that’s a really good analogy.

Speaking of the drug war: Mexico, pretty screwed, huh?

Well, when I wrote Power of the Dog, I thought I’d written about the worst of the worst — I was wrong. In the years since Dog came out, there’ve been over 50,000 drug-related killings in Mexico. Look, the “war on drugs” is a misnomer; the “Mexican drug problem” is a misnomer — it’s not the Mexican drug problem, it’s the American drug problem. We’re the ones buying it. If I were a Mexican government official, I’d be outraged because you’re dealing with the schizophrenic giant to the north that says on the one hand stop smuggling the drugs — that’s the government — but on a popular level you’ve got all the people buying it. It’s that money that’s funding and motivating the violence and we send guns down there in order to accomplish it. I’d say it’s a farce, but it’s too tragic to be a farce. It’s very sad.

Do you think the PRI’s [Editor's note: The Partido Revolucionario Institucional, whose candidate Enrique Pena Nieto won Mexico's presidential election last week] return to power will change anything?

I don’t think the military or even law-enforcement model will ever solve this problem either in Mexico or here. I think what you’ll see with PRI is they’ll deemphasize the drug wars and the effort to interdict drugs coming into the U.S. in order to try to lessen the level of bloodshed in their country, and I don’t blame them.

Fight corruption with corruption.

What about our corruption? Again, we’re the ones buying. We bear some responsibility. But you point to a vicious problem, because the cartels are so lucrative that they can buy, and do buy, government officials, police, and soldiers. It’s even more pernicious than that, because they don’t give them the choice between “take the bribe” and “don’t take the bribe,” they give them the choice between “take the bribe” or “have their family be killed.”

So, what can [they] do?

First, end the war. If you ask what America’s longest war is, people will say Vietnam and then correct themselves and say Afghanistan. Neither are true. It’s the war on drugs: 1973. We’ve been at it for 40 years, and the result is [that] drugs are more plentiful than ever. And we’ve created multinational corporations loaded with sociopaths, because in a world where violence rules, the most violence rules, so the scum floats to the top. So we should end it. Really, we should start with marijuana, legalize it, decriminalize it — we’re headed in that direction — then, I think we should even take a look at the other drugs, the so-called harder drugs.

Wow, really?

Yeah, it’s the prohibition that causes the profit, it’s the profit that drives the violence. If a product costs $3 on one side of the border and $300 on the other side, I would argue the drug is no longer the product, the product is the ability to move it across that line. So, now you’ve created turf worth killing for. If it costs $3, a lot of people will get out of the business. In terms of marijuana, grow it, tax it, do whatever you want with it. I’d rather have somebody smoking a joint in a car at night headed toward me than somebody blitzed from the bar. The most lethal drugs in the country are perfectly legal: tobacco and alcohol.

Aren’t the greatest number of deaths related to those?

By far. The other drugs don’t even make it on the chart. I’m not saying these things are good. I’m saying what we’ve tried hasn’t worked, at tremendous social and economic cost. One of the few growth industries in America right now is prison construction, and that’s being driven by the so-called war on drugs. It’s creepy when towns are competing to have prisons built there. We’ve created these two massive institutions that are the coyote and the sheepdog from the old cartoon. When you count the cost of keeping those people incarcerated, add the cost of their families on welfare because of it, $17 billion in interdiction, yadda yadda yadda — there’s a lot you could do with that money. Sorry, I get preachy.

Kind of hard not to. In fact, I wonder if part of your books’ appeal is they’re a tonic for what we all know is an insoluble problem — a catharsis, really.

Well, I think journalism tells facts, and fiction can tell truth ’cause we’re allowed to go inside the hearts and minds of our characters.

On a happier note, are you excited about Oliver Stone’s version of Savages this weekend?

It feels good. Oliver brought a lot of energy to it, and there’s some terrific performances.

It’s very different from the book. I know you co-wrote the screenplay — how did you guys decide what to change?

Of course, it’s a constant conversation. Even I know as a dumb novelist that they are two different media with different needs. I was aware there’d have to be changes, some of which I agree with and some of which I didn’t. I miss Paqu. I disagree with that, but for the most part I think it captures the book.

Well, I better end, otherwise I’ll ask you about drug lords and you might give an answer you regret. I’d rather you stick around to write more novels.

Yeah, hah, thank you, I appreciate that.

John Lopez is a writer/filmmaker living in Los Angeles. He’s a regular contributor to Vanity Fair‘s Hollywood blog, has written for the Los Angeles Times, Businessweek, Departures, and Esquire.com, and blogs for Huffington Post: Los Angeles and Moviefone.

Filed Under: Savages