Featured Author Interview: Don Winslow

This month, we’ve had the pleasure of hosting the criminally talented Don Winslow as our Featured Author. We hope you’ll check out the reviews of his previous and new titles we’ve featured.

We’d like to thank Mr. Winslow and his publicity team at Simon and Schuster for their encouragement and support of LitStack.

Remember that the Savages film adaptation will launch on July 6. You don’t want to miss that one. To wrap up our June Featured Author segment, we sat down with Mr. Winslow for a chat about his writing, his inspiration and why he never gave up on his dream.

Enjoy!

LS: Stylistically, your writing is unique and is somewhat reminiscent of classic crime/noir novels. Were you influenced by this genre? If so, who were some of your favorite writers?

Oh, sure.  I’m a noir guy, although writing as much as I do about California, I sometimes call it ‘soleil’.  I think we were all influenced by Chandler, who set the standard as to what the main character should be, you know ‘Down these mean streets must come a man who is not himself mean’. After that, I have pretty much the list you’d expect – John D. McDonald,  Ross Macdonald, Charles Willleford, James Crumley, Robert Parker, Elmore Leonard, Lawrence Block, James Ellroy, Michael Connolly, T. Jefferson Parker, Robert Crais, Dennis Lehane., Ken Bruen, John Harvey, Ian Rankin. There are so many – I’m always afraid of leaving someone out.

LS: On your website you mention growing up around story tellers. What other influences (such as novels you read as a kid) impacted your decision to become a writer?

I don’t think I read fiction until I was twelve or so.  Before that, I only read histories and biographies.  Then I discovered Dickens – Oliver Twist and David Copperfield.  I think Dickens is one of the progenitors of noir fiction, writing as he did about the criminal underclass. I also read a lot of Shakespeare.  Then I started reading novels by Michener, Uris and Ruark and thought, “That’s what I want to do.”

LS: Personal history and the culture of our backgrounds tend to influence us later on in life. How has your ‘cultural history’ manifested in your novels?

Well, I was brought up in a stony New England place where ‘it cost fifty dollars to bury your cat’ and a lot of the people were fishermen – a hard way to make a living.   So you were taught – and saw all around you – that nothing was expected to be easy. You had to work at it.  I think I’ve taken some of that attitude in the way I approach my writing. I guess I also tend to be a bit spare with my words.  New Englanders are not exactly known for our chattiness.

LS: You’ve had experience with the film industry that most novelists don’t get: writing and adapting one of your books. What has that experience been like? 

Challenging, Interesting. I had the great advantage of working with my friend Shane Salerno, a really terrific screenwriter, so that made it both rewarding and fun.  Screenplay structure is so specific and so demanding – you have to be efficient without being superficial. It’s a tough gig and I have a lot of respect for screenwriters.

LS: Every writer experiences a moment when they decide if they want to be married to writing or just fool around with it. When did that decision come to you?

I was sitting in Oxford (sounds so snooty, doesn’t it) with my friend Jim Basker, a professor of literature at Barnard, and he said, ‘You’ve been talking about writing a novel for years. Why don’t you just do it?’ A few weeks later I was in Kenya, leading a photographic safari, sitting in front of a fire before dawn, and thought, ‘He’s right. I should just up and do it.’  I had heard an interview with Joseph Wambaugh who said that when he was still a cop he decided to write ten pages a day.  I didn’t think I could do ten, but I could do five.  So I decided that before the sun came up and stuck to it.

LS: The scope of the publishing industry is changing. What is your opinion of the evolution of the e-book and self-publishing and their impact on the industry?

It’s enormous, of course, and I don’t know that anyone has really figured out its full impact yet. As long as people are reading, I’m not sure that the format matters, except I do worry about the impact on bookstores.  I’m of that generation for whom prowling a bookstore is a wonderful thing, and I would hate to lose that.

LS: Given the violent ties that we’re living in, do you feel you’re surrounded by plot fodder or do you not need external influences to inspire your work?

It’s not so much a matter of external influences as it is external reality. The truth is, I can’t keep up with the headlines. My books tend to be closely related to real crime, and, especially in the case of the drug trade, the real crimes are horrific. My work reflects that reality.

LS: Every writer struggles with rejection. What has your writer’s road been like? Did you ever want to give up? What kept you going?

No, I’ve never had a serious thought about giving up.  Rejection is just part of the job, but writers aren’t unique in that regard – everyone faces rejections in their work.  People don’t get jobs they want, or lose out on bids, don’t get that promotion or that raise, people get laid off.  It’s just that writers and actors are more romantic about it.  I know some writers save rejection slips and cultivate them like noxious weeds in a poisonous garden – I guess it’s a motivational tool – but I never really needed that.  I just crumpled them up, threw them away, and kept writing.  But, in all candor, I’ve been lucky – my first novel was turned down by fourteen publishers.  The fifteenth accepted it and I haven’t had a novel rejected since.

What kept me going?  Sometimes I joke ‘the mortgage’, although there is some truth to that.  I had a family to support.  But the real reason is that it’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I decided to do it.  I’d write even if they didn’t pay me to do it, but let’s not tell them that.

LS: “Savages,” as Janet Maslin said in her New York Times review, jolted you “into a different league.” Were there any differences in your writing process for that novel than for your others?

Some.  I wrote it in a burst of energy, and I decided to write just as I heard it in my head, without regard to ‘the rules’.  It must have been hell for the copy editor.

LS: You’ve accomplished so much in your career and I get the feeling that you aren’t the type to slow down. What would be your ideal of career fulfillment?

To get up every day and do good work.  That’s fulfillment.

And, of course, the future.  I am in the process of finishing two new books.

LS: Given that you’ve been writing and publishing novels about violence and crime for some time is there anything that surprises you about human nature?

The capacity of our species for both depravity and nobility never ceases to amaze me.

 

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