The Gamble and the Payoff: Don Winslow on Pushing Boundaries

Let's change direction a bit. As much as we all love controversy and feuds (real or imagined), sometimes the most interesting stories are the ones behind the books. With that in mind, below is an original post from New York Times bestselling author Don Winslow on his new novel Savages. Winslow is a brilliant stylist, unflinching in detail, and his books jab a fountain pen in the eye of anyone who can read one of his tomes and state with conviction that crime fiction isn't literature. So without further ado, Don Winslow.


'Fuck you' was the first sentence I wrote in SAVAGES, even before I had characters or a plot. I heard this book in my head. I saw it in front of my eyes in a certain way, and it felt very radical, especially for the crime genre, which has a whole set of rules, but I really felt like throwing elbows to create a little bit more space for myself to create a book the way I heard it, the way I saw it.

If I thought that a reader might experience a scene better as a film than as a novel, then I wrote it in screenplay form; if I thought that a scene would read better as poetry than as narrative prose, then I wrote it as poetry. Oddly enough, some of the most poetic scenes are the most violent scenes because my experience of having been in a couple of wars as an observer, was that you don't remember it as flowing narrative prose.

I got scared writing this book, thinking: am I going too far? And then there was a temptation to pull back and then I thought no, if you start running away from it, you'll write something really bad. And to mix metaphors the only way to do this was to jump into the deep end, you know? It's a little like surfing. Sometimes you come out of the wave and you are faced with a huge wave, and the tendency is to try to get away from it, and you can't, you can't do it. The only way to survive it is to dive into the wave, into its deepest part, and come out the other side. And maybe as overly romantic as that sounds, that is what I tried to do writing this book.

Then, of course, you wait for the reviews. I was at Heathrow Airport and my son called me and he said, "There's a review in the Times from Janet Maslin," and I think he heard the terrified silence in my voice and then he said, "No, no, no it's all good, she didn't say a bad thing. It's a rave." You know that's the kind of review that turns a career around. It could just as easily by the way, have gone the other way. She could have taken my career out and shot it in the back of the head execution style, you know, but fortunately it went my way, and it was an absolute rave, and I think she got it, I mean I think she got the sort of radical nature of the book and so that was-well the fact that I'd taken a big risk-and so that meant a lot to me.

DON WINSLOW is the author of 13 books. His most recent novel, SAVAGES (Simon & Schuster) has received the highest acclaim from every outlet where books are discussed seriously. Visit him online at . This article was adapted from a Q&A Don Winslow conducted by screenwriter Shane Salerno on the Mulholland Books website.

JASON PINTER is the bestselling author of five thriller novels (the most recent of which are The Fury and The Darkness), and is an agent with the Waxman Literary Agency. His first novel for young readers, Zeke Bartholomew: Superspy!, will be released in the summer of 2011. Visit him at or follow him on Twitter.