Sunshine and Noir: An Interview With Don Winslow
Credit: Photograph by Bryce Duffy

Before Don Winslow became Hollywood's favorite crime writer, he lived. He led lion safaris in Kenya, guided groups up 14,000-foot mountains in China to Buddhist and Taoist monasteries, and investigated arson for a living. Now he writes crime thrillers – about killers who decapitate with chain saws, surfers who smuggle drugs in their boards, and antiheroes who grow top-grade marijuana. 'Savages,' the Oliver Stone–directed movie based on Winslow's 2010 novel, is out now, as is his newest book, the 1960s Laguna Beach thriller 'The Kings of Cool.' A film version of his 2011 book, Satori, is also in the works, with Leonardo DiCaprio producing. It's been the most successful – and busiest – year of his career.

You co-wrote the 'Savages' screenplay and acted as a consultant on set. What was that like?
It's an odd experience. Things that were only in your head are now happening with real human beings. Plus, working with Oliver Stone was everything you'd expect. It was intense.

You write about drug lords, dealers, and DEA agents in great detail. How do you research that?
People think parts of Savages are over the top. It begins with the beheading of seven people, but I picked up the paper yesterday and they found 49 beheaded bodies in northern Mexico. You think you've written about the worst, but you really haven't.

Your novel 'California Fire and Life' is about an arson that is used to conceal a murder. Did you use details from your work as an arson investigator?
It was as close to reality as anything I've written. I decided to have the dogs out of the house, which is common in arson fires. People rarely burn their pets. Then the sources of fire: It's hard to burn a house down with one source, so typically in arson fires, there'll be multiple points of origin.

You're an East Coast surfer in California. How's that working for you?
I have to remind the people who put down East Coast surfing that Kelly Slater is from Florida. Still, you can surf year-round here. There, you've got 10 to 12 weeks.

You write about surfing a lot. Why?
It shows you your place in the world, you know? You're a speck. Maybe you have fun, maybe you don't. Maybe you get trashed. Then you come in, and you get that hot shower, and I eat like a horse, just ravenous, and then crash and sleep peacefully.

What drew you to SoCal?
I first came out here as an arson consultant to law firms. I had a day off, and I drove the Pacific Coast Highway and just fell in love with it – seeing this stretch of beach and these cliffs and going into Laguna. I never lost that feeling. I found something here, and it changed my writing style and a lot of what I wrote about.

Do you see a connection between writing and being a wilderness guide?
I was a safari guide in the 1980s in Kenya. When I started out and didn't know what I was doing, I would just show people a lion. A few years later, I would show people a lion and tell them why it was where it was at a given point in the day. I think that's sort of true of writing. At first you see the what. It isn't until later on that you see the why.

What's your craziest wilderness trip?
In China, on Mount Emei, there were bandit monkeys that would attack you to get your food. They'd wait on the trail, so I'd climb through the jungle to get above them and throw crap at them to clear them off before my group came through. Seriously, there were wanted posters on individual monkeys.

Do you write every day?
I heard an interview once with [crime novelist] Joseph Wambaugh. He was a cop who wanted to be a novelist. He decided that to do that, he had to write 10 pages a day, no matter what. I couldn't do 10, but I did five. And son of a gun, he was right.