Interview: Don Winslow

Discussing coastal noir and the overlapping worlds of vice and surf with the acclaimed author/surfer.

Light / Dark

Don Winslow writes about larger-than-life surf characters in his novels The Dawn Patrol and The Kings of Cool. The latter became a New York Times bestseller whose sister novel, Savages, was adapted into the Hollywood film directed by Oliver Stone. In these books, the surfing protagonists may at first seem odd to place up against crooked cops, murderers, and drug smugglers. Yet the Southern California coastal setting Winslow writes about is a spiritual home to Crime Noir for a reason. In our surfing lives, most of us only catch glimpses of this underworld, even if we sense its larger presence in the atmosphere. We see a coastal real estate boom but not the laundered drug money that helps support it. We hear about a bale of dope or a missing person reportedly washed ashore, but do our best to ignore that the ocean doubles as a freeway—and surf towns the off-ramps—for cartels supplying America’s drug habit. The pleasure of reading Don Winslow is allowing oneself the thrill of imagining how all of this connects. In our conversation, Winslow described how decades spent surfing and researching coastal underworlds has allowed him to entangle these subjects in his fiction. — Kyle DeNuccio

Where did gathering the material for your novels on surfing begin?

I grew up in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, about a mile from a beach called Matunuck, which is one of the local surf spots. If you look at a map of Rhode Island, it’s one of the south-facing beaches that’s exposed to swell, near where Long Island Sound opens up. My dad was a sailor, and so he had my sister and me in the water regularly by the time we were 3 years old. My first memories of surfing are seeing it live. In junior high and high school everything revolved around the beach. You hung out in the beach parking lot with your friends. You surfed there, brought girls there. I bodysurfed a lot as a young kid and started surfing once I was a teenager. If there was a good swell in high school, classes were notably emptier. Then after high school, I left for college in Nebraska—which is not particularly known for its surf—and lost touch with it for most of my 20s and 30s. I traveled and worked in Africa, England, China, and New York City, but didn’t surf much. It wasn’t until I got to California in the late 80s that I picked it up again.

What brought you to California?

I was working as a private investigator. At the time, I was doing a lot of arson cases and insurance fraud—a couple of homicides, whatever paid the bills. I had a case in Orange County and ended up getting a day free, so I left my hotel and decided to drive out to the coast. I ended up on the Pacific Coast Highway just north of Laguna, and thought, “Wow, I don’t know why I don’t live here. I don’t know why I would ever leave this.” Not long after that my wife, son, and I moved out to Southern California, and lived like nomads for the first three years. It was great: I was a surfing a lot and making 200 bucks an hour as a private investigator, living in hotels and finding the best taco places in every town. Moving around like that helped me get to know all the little micro-cultures of surfing throughout Southern California. And I still never get bored driving that coast, particularly North County San Diego, from Del Mar up to Oceanside. It’s got what I call The Small Gods of Place: that surf shop, that taco shop, that beach, that surf break.

There’s an analogy available with the ocean that I find helpful, which is thinking about the causes of what you see on the surface. Something that happened hundreds of miles away could produce the conditions you see at Swamis. That’s the heart of crime fiction: looking at what’s happening in that underworld.

What’s your surfing routine now that you’re in North County?

We lived in Solana Beach for a while but now I live in Julian, about an hour inland in San Diego, and I still love to spend August and September in Rhode Island. If I’m in Rhode Island I’ll try to surf several times a week. Living in Solana Beach, I would just take a set of steps down to the beach at a break called Rockpile. I could look out the window and decide when to surf. In Julian now I have the webcams going for Encinitas, and I surf a little less frequently. I usually start writing around 5 in the morning, and I’ll quit in the late afternoon and go to the beach. It would be rare for me to play hooky and go surf. I’m not a junky. I know that sounds negative, but I’ve always viewed surfing as a reward. It helps put me in my place. I spend all day inventing worlds and characters who do whatever I say. I write their dialogue and if they don’t do what I want, I delete it. That makes it easy to become very egocentric. But the ocean is never going to do what I want it to. I like that I’ll go down to the beach later today and it might be shitty, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

How did the move to California and coming back in contact with surfing influence your writing?

I kind of reinvented myself in California. It changed my writing a lot. Until then I had a very traditional style in my fiction: third person, past tense. I realized how bored I was by that. I began to think that instead of writing from overhead, where you can see everything, I’d write from the perspective of a surfer, where everything is unfolding right in front of you. I threw out 300 pages of the book I was working on at the time and the one I ended up producing, The Death and Life of Bobby Z, allowed me to become a full-time writer. It’s a point of pride and prejudice to remind my friends from Los Angeles that Raymond Chandler wrote some of his greatest Los Angeles novels while living in San Diego. His writing, and this area, have been huge for me. I just re-read all of Chandler’s work last year, and I continually read Ross Macdonald as well. Noir is really formed out of the conditions of California, where you have beautiful towns and beautiful women, Hollywood, celebrities, and wealth, but an underworld along with them, which felt very natural for me to write about. With crime stories, there’s another analogy available with the ocean that I find helpful, which is thinking about the causes of what you see on the surface. Something that happened hundreds of miles away could produce the conditions you see at Swamis. That’s the heart of crime fiction: looking at what’s happening in that underworld. It could be caused by something that occurred hundreds of miles away and years prior. Or it’s beneath the surface and it might kill you. No one ever died just being on top of the water.

What elements of that underworld do you draw on in your books about surfing?

There was a moment I wrote about in The Kings of Cool, when drug culture and The Brotherhood of Eternal Love was formed in 1960s Laguna Beach. Surfers were running drugs up from Mexico and then, of course, they started running in opium from Afghanistan. When you look back at The Brotherhood, there’s almost an innocence there. I don’t want to overstate that. It was definitely criminal, but there was some of that early counter-cultural innocence. One of the reasons The Brotherhood started running weed up from Mexico, for example, was that they wanted to build a bookstore in Laguna Beach. That was one of the larger organizations at the time, but it’s miniscule compared to the drug operations I write about now, which are fueled by hyper-violent Mexican cartels that are antithetical to anything we think of as surf culture. Yet they still have an enormous effect on coastal California today. Take the 2008 financial crisis: What were the first areas to recover? They were all areas on the border. The Mexican drug cartels were liquid, and their investments laundering money through real estate allowed the economy to move along again—jobs, construction, finance. The economic recovery started in places like San Diego, and other surf towns, which has per force changed surf culture.

I spend all day inventing worlds and characters who do whatever I say. I write their dialogue and if they don’t do what I want, I delete it. That makes it easy to become very egocentric. But the ocean is never going to do what I want it to. I like that I’ll go down to the beach later today and it might be shitty, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

What do you see as the effect on these coastal towns?

It means that the cheap places to spend the majority of your time surfing are disappearing in the U.S. Living in North County San Diego, you see the culture shifting drastically, and not always for the better. Look at how chichi surf shops have gotten. They’re basically department stores. I was in a surf shop with a friend, just killing time, and we walked by these display cases that had old photographs in them. My friend stopped and goes, “Damn, that’s me.” We looked through the merchandise in this display case and there he was, as a younger guy at a surf spot that wasn’t too far away. It was a photo of him just coming out of the water from surfing with a couple friends. There was poignancy to that, and what it says about surf culture now. But I don’t want to be “that guy,” because every generation thinks they had it the best.

I think you’re making a different point, though, which is that none of these things occur in isolation.

We love to think surfing is autonomous, don’t we? That’s part of the joy of it. It’s you and nature. And to a great extent that is true. But we also have to be clear-eyed when we step back from it—both in terms of environmental issues, but also culturally, in terms of the economy. The ocean and coasts we love to surf are also a transportation vehicle for the cartels. The violence in Mexico that’s close to many resort and surfing areas is tied to a battle for control of the ports. In my book The Dawn Patrol, I took a lot of heat for writing about human trafficking in San Diego. On the drive to some of my favorite beaches there are strawberry fields that were then full of migrant laborers, and people trafficked up to sexually service those workers. People said to me, “You wrote this fun beautiful book about surfers. Why did you put that in there?” I swear if one more person describes my work as “dark,” I’m going to scream. Both the beauty and the darker side of these places interest me—and those things are more closely connected than people immediately recognize.

When did you decide surfing was worth rendering in fiction? Your writing doesn’t seem to rely heavily on autobiography.

I really hesitated to write about surfing. It wasn’t anything that I wanted to be part of my public life. Surfing has always been something I’ve done to get away from people. At the same time, as a writer, I was finding myself so drawn to surf culture and dialogue. I’d written a couple of really heavy books, ending with one called The Power of the Dog about the cartels. After finishing it, my wife actually said I was depressed. I needed a break, so I took the opportunity to write partly about surfing’s micro-cultures. I love that between two beaches, one mile apart, the scene can be quite different. That’s something I think the general public doesn’t realize about surfing.

Did you draw on the stories of surfers you knew?

I try to be careful about stealing people’s lives. I don’t feel that way when writing about drug cartels, but with surfers, I don’t want them to ever feel like I’m using them or that I’m just there to get material, because I’m not. Every once in a while I’ll use dialogue or stories borrowed from surfers, but the characters are fictional, and I make them a little larger than life because that’s what fiction is.

What were the unique challenges of writing about surfing?

I don’t want to push this too far, but writing about surfing is similar to writing about sex. It’s easy to slip into silly pornography and clichés. Crime writing can also quickly become parody: “She was blonde, beautiful, and dead.” With surfing, you have the added challenge of navigating between readers who know the experience of surfing very well and a general-interest audience who doesn’t at all. What those readers have in common is a desire for excitement and an adrenaline rush, even if it’s suppressed, so you’re trying to draw them into that experience.

Do you plan to write about surfing again? It’s been a few novels since you have.

You really can’t plan your writing life out. It’s somewhat like surfing in that regard. You think you can, but actually you can’t. I’m working on a book for my trilogy about drug cartels and that’s been really time-consuming. But I’ll come back to writing about surfing eventually. I have six surfing novels in mind with the character Boone Daniels from Dawn Patrol, spanning a full day. So the last novel in the series would be on night surfing, which is one of the stupidest, but most fun, things we ever do.