Oliver Stone's latest film, Savages, opened in theaters earlier this month. The movie centers on two young marijuana growers, Ben and Chon, who live and deal in California, alongside their girlfriend O — short for Ophelia. They find themselves thrust into a world of violence and murder when a Mexican drug cartel comes after their business. The film is based on the book by crime writer Don Winslow, who also co-wrote the screenplay.
Although Winslow had written 12 novels before Savages, that book launched his career. It made it to the top of The New York Times best-sellers list and garnered high praise from literary critics. His new book, The Kings of Cool, a prequel to Savages, is set in 2005, when Ben, Chon and O are just starting their business.
"They run into a wall," Winslow tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz, "and it turns out the wall is their own past."
On how he developed his characters in Savages and The Kings of Cool
"I used to live up in the Laguna Beach, Dana Point area, and would hang out and do a little surfing, and so I got to know these kinds of people. I got to know the Bens and the Chons who would hang out at the volleyball courts and play and they would talk about their dads and their uncles and they would talk about friends of theirs back in the day. And so I started to hear stories about the early days of the marijuana trade."
On the authenticity of his characters
"It's funny because sometimes editors from New York will express some incredulity, if you will, about some of the characters or some of the ways that they speak and what I always say is, 'OK, get on an airplane, I'll pick you up in San Diego or John Wayne Airport in Orange County and if I can't take you and put you in front of those characters in 45 minutes, you win the argument.' But I've never lost that bet."
On how his early days as a private investigator helped him as a writer
"I always knew that I wanted to be a writer, I sure didn't know I was going to be. But I used to sit and read, you know, I would be reading Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy and T. Jefferson Parker, sometimes while I was on stakeouts. And so when I got serious about sitting down and writing my first book I thought, Well, you know, it's a combination of something that you love and love reading, and something that you know a little bit about, which was the investigative world and the criminal world."
On his writing process
"It's more for me like a factory job. It's a job that I love and I'm very grateful to have, never thought I'd get there, but I really just think of putting time in at the desk. And some days are great and I get a lot of pages done, and other days aren't so great. I think it's like everybody's job."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Oliver Stone's latest film, "Savages," opened in theaters earlier this month.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, 'SAVAGES")
BLAKE LIVELY: (as O) Ben went to Berkeley and double majored in business and botany.
AARON JOHNSON: (as Ben) This is the best cannabis in the world.
LIVELY: (as O) He takes 99 percent of the violence out of the business. The other one percent? Well, that's where Chon comes in.
RAZ: The movie is based on the book by crime writer Don Winslow, and it centers around two young marijuana growers who live in Laguna Beach, California, and get tangled up with a Mexican drug cartel. His new book, "The Kings of Cool," is a prequel to "Savages," and it's set in 2005 when the main characters, Ben, Chon and O are just starting their business.
DON WINSLOW: I wanted to tell an origin story in "Kings of Cool." It's a generational story. You know, it's a story about these three young people who are trying to start something up, and they run into a wall. And it turns out that the wall is their own past. And so I go back to the beginnings, to the roots of the early drug trade in Southern California, in Laguna Beach, all the way back to the 1960s.
RAZ: Tell me about how you developed the personas of each of these three characters.
WINSLOW: Well, you know, I used to live in that area. I used to live up in Laguna Beach, Dana Point area, and would hang out and do a little surfing. And so I got to know these kinds of people. You know, I got to know the Bens and the Chons who would hang out at the volleyball courts and play, and they would talk about their dads and their uncles and they would talk about friends of theirs back in the day. And so I started to hear stories about the early days of the marijuana trade.
RAZ: Do you think you can write these characters and the dialogue you write for them without having known people like that?
WINSLOW: You know, maybe I could have, but I don't think I would have gotten it right. It's funny, you know, sometimes editors from New York will express some incredulity, if you will, about some of the characters or some of the ways that they speak.
And what I always say is, OK, get on an airplane, I'll pick you up in San Diego or John Wayne Airport in Orange County. And if I can't take you and put you in front of those characters in 45 minutes, you win the argument. But I've never lost that bet.
RAZ: There's some great dialogue in both of these books. For example, one of the characters says: Every great wine tasting should end with arsenic. And you read that line, and it just tells you so many things about that character and about the world in which he inhabits.
WINSLOW: Thank you, first of all. I try really hard to use small bits of dialogue to say larger things and to give the reader an intro into character and into attitude. In that case, though, I think they're talking about sort of a class thing and what they like and what they don't and what annoys them. And I hope it does tell you something about character.
RAZ: One of the things that makes you particularly well-suited for this kind of writing is your background. You were a private investigator yourself for many years.
WINSLOW: I was. You know, I did - I started in New York City, and then came out to California to do cases.
RAZ: Did you always know that you were going to be a writer when you were a private investigator?
WINSLOW: No. You know, I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. I sure didn't know I was going to be. But I used to sit and read, you know? I would be reading Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy and T. Jefferson Parker sometimes while I was on stakeouts.
And so when I got serious about sitting down and writing my first book, I thought, well, you know, it's a combination of something that you love reading and something that you know a little bit about, you know, which was the investigative world and the criminal world. And so I tried to put those things together, and here we are.
RAZ: Talk to me a little bit about your writing process, because you have written now, I believe almost a dozen books. Is that right?
WINSLOW: I think it's more than that.
WINSLOW: I think it's a little shocking. I think it's more like 14 or 15, yes.
RAZ: That's incredible. How do you do that? What is your average day like?
WINSLOW: My average day is very much the same. You know, I'm a very routine, kind of boring guy. I get up at 5 a.m. I start work at 5:30. I work until 10:30, and then I, depending on where we are, I either go hit the beach or I go run four to six miles, something like that, come back, take a break and go back to work until about 5 or 5:30.
RAZ: Do you generally have a goal of a word count or a number of pages that you want to reach every day?
WINSLOW: I really don't. It's more for me like a factory job. It's a job that I love. I'm very grateful to have. But I really just think of putting time in at the desk. And some days are great, and I get a lot of pages done, and other days aren't so great. And I think it's like everybody's job.
RAZ: Talk to me about the process of getting those drafts into shape. Do you sort of hand pages to your wife or somebody you trust while you are in the process of writing and rewriting?
WINSLOW: You know, the story about "Savages," actually, is that I sat down and typed the now infamous first chapter of that book, you know, two words.
RAZ: Yes, two words.
RAZ: The second one is you.
WINSLOW: Yeah, first one isn't. And then I wrote 14 pages in a flash. And I sent them off to my friend and cowriter and co-conspirator Shane Salerno in an email that said, either I'm crazy or this is really good. And he wrote back in half an hour and said, drop everything else you're doing and finish this book while you're in this head space, which is what I did. But that's unusual for me. I usually don't show drafts to people. I keep it pretty close to the vest.
RAZ: I have to assume you're working on something now as we speak today. You're taking a couple hours to go to the studio and do this interview, but, I mean, you're going to go home and continue to work on the book you're working on now.
WINSLOW: I say this with a little trepidation. I'm working on three books right now.
WINSLOW: I sort of have a morning book and an afternoon book. I like switching back and forth. And I don't think I've written my best book yet. So it's an exciting time. You know, I love getting up in the morning, and I love getting at it.
RAZ: Well, that's writer Don Winslow. His new book is called "The Kings of Cool." It's a prequel to his 2010 bestseller "Savages." That film, directed by Oliver Stone and cowritten by Winslow is in theaters now. Don Winslow, thank you so much.
WINSLOW: Thank you so much. I've enjoyed it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.