Dan Slater ’00 on his nonfiction thriller Wolf Boys
1999: It’s late, but a bleary-eyed Dan Slater ’00 is engrossed in a book at Case Library. Tomorrow he’ll walk up the Hill for Professor Fred Busch’s Living Writers class, the most intellectually satisfying in Slater’s course load. Slater will be prepared — he’s read beyond the syllabus, exploring the authors’ other works and biographies. He’s captivated because the writers are alive and able to talk about their books and careers.
“I recognized the value in getting access to the people who, in a sense, are returning from the future to tell you about the road ahead,” he says.
Twenty years later, Slater himself is back from the future.
His book, Wolf Boys (Simon & Schuster, 2016), was included in the 2019 Living Writers course. It’s the true story of two Laredo, Texas, teenagers who joined an infamous Mexican drug cartel. The book follows the harrowing account of their lives within Los Zetas, leading to their eventual arrest and detainment.
Slater started writing Wolf Boys in 2013 after he read an article about the two boys’ arrests. Having a fascination with Mexican drug cartels, Slater felt the need to dig further. His journalism skills from a previous post as legal reporter at the Wall Street Journal would help as he started to explore the brutal lifestyle of the teens, Gabriel Cardona and Bart Reta. Then, he picked up a pen and wrote a letter to Cardona.
The two corresponded via pen and ink for months before Slater made the 1,600-mile trek from his home in Connecticut to the Allred Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He faced many struggles writing Wolf Boys, from the toll the constant traveling to Texas took on his new marriage to the mental weight he carried after hearing the violent details of Cardona’s and Reta’s wrongdoings. Conscious of his privilege as a financially stable white man, Slater decided to communicate with Cardona and Reta with complete openness. “I was serious, and I cared,” he says. “I think that’s the prerequisite. Even for fiction writers, if you’re going to take on a subject that’s not about your world, you have to be earnest.”
Slater was also well prepared in other ways. His Brooklyn Law School degree aided his conversations with lawyers, including Assistant U.S. Attorney Jose Ángel Moreno, from whom he learned specifics of the case. When he wasn’t interviewing sources, Slater was neck deep in research about sociopathy and psychopathy relating to murder and violence, trying to understand the minds of Cardona and Reta.
Published before the true-crime craze took hold, the critically acclaimed book earned positive reviews from the New York Times and other media outlets. But to Slater, the most important feedback comes from the English teachers of adolescents in similar situations to his book’s protagonists. After Wolf Boys was published, Slater sent copies to schools in and around Laredo, but soon institutions across the country were calling. “The coolest thing to come out of the whole process was to see all these high schools adopting the book,” he says. The letters of thanks from those teachers and students — and the knowledge that he’d made a difference in young people’s lives — fueled Slater.
Slater is using that gusto to write his third book, a piece of historical fiction about the early 20th-century Jewish underworld. He says that the notion of writing for a career was planted during his first experience with Living Writers. The revered Busch invited an agent to the class to speak about the business of writing and publishing. “Before then, I thought writers lived on mountain tops, had long beards, and delivered their tablets down to little people below.”
2019: Back on campus to teach his own Living Writers course, Slater knows authors don’t live on mountain tops. But, sometimes, they can be found atop a hill.
In addition to working as a writer, Slater held positions at a university, a literary agency, a law firm, a TV production company, media outlets, and a can recycling company.
Professor Fred Busch inspired both Slater and screenwriter Karen Bloch Morse ’95. Read more about his legacy and his contribution to Living Writers.