Acclaimed author of crime fiction Don Winslow has written twenty-one international bestsellers to date. His Cartel trilogy is an upcoming series on TV, and a new trilogy of crime novels set on America’s East Coast is in the process of being published.
Born in Rhode Island in 1953, Winslow fell in love with language at the age of six, when a friend cast him in the role of Julius Caesar in a play. “Stabbed repeatedly in the back during rehearsals”, Winslow says he was never under any illusion as to how difficult it would be to pursue novel writing as a career, and he worked as a safari guide in Kenya, a cinema manager in New York, and an investigator and trial consultant while he wrote in his spare time.
Two of his books, The Death and Life of Bobby Z (2007) and Savages (2012), were so successful that they became films. The Cartel trilogy, consisting of The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and The Border, proved a major accomplishment for Winslow, who spent a third of his life researching and writing them. Released between 2005 and 2019, they are considered to be one of the most respected and timely chronicles of the war on drugs and border issues in the US.
Winslow’s new book City on Fire is out now, with a sequel, City of Dreams, a third book set for release within weeks. Winslow says this new trilogy differs significantly from his previous books. It is set in New England, where he grew up, and the author says he was drawn to the homecoming story of Homer’s hero Odysseus in the epic poems Illiad and Odyssey.
Don Winslow (American accent): It’s a mob story that’s been taken from ideas from the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid… the Greek tragedies, and what I was trying to do was to take some of those classic stories and themes and characters and match them up in contemporary crime fiction. It occurred to me when I was reading those works that they reminded me of my youth. I grew up in an era known as the New England Crime Wars on the East Coast of the United States, where various factions of the mafia, Italian or Irish or otherwise, fought for dominance. When I was reading Aeschylus’ Orestes plays, it struck me, you know, the similarities with real life crime events. So, I started to wonder… could I write a trilogy that followed some of those characters in the contemporary American crime scene?
NOT THAT HERO
Winslow’s Cartel trilogy was a massive hit in the Spanish-speaking world before it took off in the US. He talked more about the books, why he wrote them and why they are to become a major new series called The Cartel, executively produced by Ridley Scott.
Don Winslow: The whole trilogy goes over the course of fifty years with dozens of major characters. The research was monumental, but then trying to organise it into a novel... I never want to compare myself in any way, in any measure, to Mexican journalists who covered that story, you know. Well over two hundred of them were murdered for doing so. I’m not that hero, I was sitting in relative safety, you know, on the American side of the border. But I also felt that I owed it to the real-life people who had experienced and were experiencing the Mexican drug wars. I also thought that Americans and Western Europeans were not aware of what was going on in Mexico. They were not aware of the real human cost of both the use of drugs and the war on drugs, and I thought that I could veer the machinery of a novel to educate people. And so, the idea now of having time to tell that story on television, I think is very appealing. And it also allows us to do something else, which is to show different aspects of Mexican culture; the beautiful aspects, you know, in addition to the violence of the drug wars.
STOP THIS WAR
Winslow is a liberal and politically-active figure; a necessary response, he says, to the very real threat of what he defines as “a certain kind of neo-fascism of a wannabe dictatorship” in America. He talks more about it.
Don Winslow: I never wanted to be a political person. All I’ve wanted to be is a crime writer, you know, and tell good stories with good characters [but] I think the nature of some of the things that I write, the subject matter, brings you into an awareness of certain issues that you really can’t escape. I spent a third of my life on the war on drugs, writing about it. The more I saw, the angrier I got. And I came to a point where I had to speak out, not just within fiction, within the novel, but outside of it to say: “Stop this war. It’s harmful, it’s doing the reverse of what we want.”
CAN WE TALK?
And, Winslow says, any contribution can have an effect.
Don Winslow: You know, I’ve taken ads out in The Washington Post and the The Nork York Times advocating certain drug policies because, really, I feel that if I didn’t do that I would be just the voyeur, you know, I would be taking advantage of tragic situations without trying to do something, however small. And they got quite a response. One morning the phone rings and it’s a police chief, and he said, “I don’t like you very much, but you might be onto something here. Can we talk?” And he eventually put a drug treatment programme into his jails.