How the bestselling crime novelist continues to take on all sides of the narco-trafficking universe, from cartels to cops, with astonishing vividness and plausibility.By Akiva GottliebJun 14, 2017 10:12 AM
Don Winslow might be the most entertaining crime writer in America — and that isn’t even the best reason to read him.
With globetrotting, brutally violent epics like The Power of the Dog and The Cartel (part of a soon-to-be trilogy about narco-trafficking and the failed “war on drugs”), and the new thriller The Force, which tackles police and government corruption in New York City, Winslow is piecing together a massive fictionalized history of power and injustice in the 21st century.
The Cartel, the Audible team’s pick for Best Thriller of 2015, is a Godfather-scaled saga that tracks DEA agent Art Keller’s obsessive, decades-long hunt for Sinaloan cartel boss Adan Barrera. The Force, Winslow’s twentieth novel, takes readers inside the head of hard-boiled NYPD detective sergeant Denny Malone, leader of the fearsome Manhattan North Special Task Force, as he descends from hometown hero to dirty cop.
Winslow’s novels are addictive, soaked in sunshine and blood, and full of pulpy pleasures. They are also extensively researched accounts of vast, interlocking systems that crush any attempt by his characters to live nobly. With the release of his most gripping novel yet, Winslow’s work is bound for even greater visibility. He helped pen the screenplay for Oliver Stone’s fiercely funny movie adaptation of his 2010 stoner-buddy novel Savages, and now at least two more of his books are headed to the big screen.
We reached Don by phone one recent morning at his home in an old Gold Rush town an hour east of San Diego.
Audible Range: You include your past jobs in your author bio. I know there were safaris in Kenya and private investigations in Times Square — can you take me through your adult life before you became a writer, and tell me how that work is relevant to what you do now?
Don Winslow: I’ve always wanted to be a writer, but nobody stamps your passport for that. You go to medical school, you come out you’re a doctor, you go to law school, you come out and you’re a lawyer, but the equivalent for novelists doesn’t exist. And I don’t come from money, so I knew I had to make a living.
I went to New York to become a writer, and within days I was a starving writer, and got a job managing movie theaters. That led to a job in a private investigation agency. Then I went back to school and got an M.A. in military history, that brought me to Africa, and eventually I became a safari guide. Came home and went back into the investigation and consulting business. I guess that all those things informed my writing.
I became a crime writer mostly because I loved the literature and the films, but also because I had an investigative background, which helps me now when I research books. You might think that being a safari guide has nothing to do with any of this, but I was a photographic safari guide, and what it taught me was to look for detail, because detail was really the key to finding the things that my clients wanted to photograph.
AR: Your career has moved into a different period now, with these big, totalizing books about vast systems. What’s the biggest challenge about writing these big books?
DW: The answer’s sort of in your question. It’s the mass systems part of it. Traditionally, crime writers tend to write one major character, one point of view, one crime. And that was pretty much the model for most of noir fiction. The detective gets a problem, and the book is about solving that problem. And that enforces a certain kind of structure.
As you quite accurately said, I moved into a new phase with The Power of the Dog. All of a sudden I’m looking at five major characters over the course of 30 years, each of them in massive systems — the DEA and the Justice Dept., the Mexican cartels, the Catholic Church, the Mafia — and so the problem of organizing that was a massive challenge … that really defeated me for a long time. I knew I had a lot of good stuff, but it was a hot mess. I realized that each character was trying to answer a central question — how do you live decently in a basically indecent world — that was the spine of the book.
For The Cartel, I created a chronology. Just like you would in writing a history book. I tried to jot down everything that happened in the war on drugs over the course of 15 years. And then I looked at that 153-page, single-spaced document, and I went through it and thought: What are the significant events, and what events occurred that caused other significant events?
AR: When you say chronology, you’re obviously talking about a real world historical chronology.
DW: Yes, you could write a nonfiction book from that chronology.
“You can’t write fiction anymore. Because what really happens in the war on drugs is so surreal, you wouldn’t think of it.”
AR: Why do you think someone interested in systems like narco-trafficking or policing should read your fiction as opposed to — or in addition to — any nonfiction books?
DW: Well, I think they should read in addition to. There’s been fantastic nonfiction journalism written on these topics. No question about it. In a way, fiction can do things that journalism shouldn’t do. As fiction writers, we’re allowed to imagine the interior lives of our characters. So I always think that my job is to take the reader into a place that he or she otherwise couldn’t go, or at least to let them see it differently. I can make up dialogue. I can invent interior thoughts. And that gives me a kind of advantage, and gives the reader a different perspective than pure journalism.
I do try to keep it close to the historical record. At the same time, that can become a sort of flaw. Sometimes, writing Dog and Cartel and The Force, I had to remind myself: You’re a novelist, not a historian. I don’t have to have every killing, in the exact order that they occurred. I can move things around for dramatic structure.
AR: In the New Yorker review of The Cartel, it said that there was stuff from the historical record that you had to tone down to make it believable. That’s an occupational hazard about writing about the war on drugs, probably.
DW: It is. I used to say: You can’t write fiction anymore. Because what really happens in the war on drugs is so surreal, you wouldn’t think of it. There were some incidents that were so hideously violent, I didn’t think that a reader would believe them or be able to handle them. I was afraid that at a certain point, it would just become numbing, so that nothing you wrote beyond that would have any effect.
AR: You are a Southern California writer, and I believe that you wrote The Force from your perch near San Diego. How was the process different for this novel? How did you immerse yourself in contemporary New York?
DW: I don’t reject the “Southern California writer” label. I’m proud of it. However, people forget my first books were set in New York City, in the same neighborhood Denny Malone is patrolling in The Force. I was born on Staten Island, where Malone is from. I’ve lived and worked in New York off and on all my life. So, yeah, I’ve been out here the last 20 years — I claim it. I’m proud of it. But there’s a lot of New York in my DNA.
I go back to New York a lot, and I do what I do for any book. I spend time in the locations. Walk the streets. Drive the streets. I went out with cops; I did ride-alongs. I spent a lot of time talking to police and their families and their girlfriends. But that’s an old story for me. I’ve worked with cops almost all my career. It’s not a departure. If anything, it’s more of a return.
AR: You clearly put a premium on authenticity. It sounds like you’ve met your share of Denny Malones. But do you need to meet an Adan Barrera to write an Adan Barrera?
DW: No. Listen, I’ve met drug traffickers, but I’ve never met the two or three individuals that Barrera is closely drawn from. And I’ve never met Chapo Guzman. I don’t think you have to. I think if you can, it’s good. And I certainly try to. But I also think that there’s a role still in fiction for the imagination.
AR: You seem to walk that boundary between getting your research right and leaving room for imagination — it’s an informed imagination.
DW: I might steal that phrase from you. I want to take my readers into a real world, and I want everything the characters think and feel and do to be plausible. At the same time, I am writing fiction. It’s good to let my imagination off the leash.
AR: Getting back to The Force, Denny Malone takes us to some very dark places, and he’s constantly revising his understanding of his own corruption. And throughout the novel, you keep us very close to his point of view, so the intimacy is very different from the narrative sprawl of The Cartel and Dog. So how was Denny different for you than some of your other “antihero” protagonists?
DW: People at seminars love to talk about heroes and antiheroes, and I don’t know that I get it. I don’t really care about the definition. What I really care about is getting close to the character. You’re quite right: The book never leaves Denny’s point of view, and that was a really conscious decision. I usually like the freedom to move outside and see scenes from different points of view, but I stuck with him because I wanted the reader there for the whole experience. I thought what was interesting about the book is what goes through this guy’s head. So that was a very different kind of writing experience. Every day I had to get up and live with that guy.
People ask me about a lot of these characters — Adan Barrera, Denny Malone, a character I wrote called Bobby Z. And they say, well, how do people get to that point? My answer is: step by step. It’s very rare that someone just leaps into the deep end of the dark water.
AR: About a dozen of your novels have been optioned for film, including The Force. Does seeing your work on screen change the way you write?
DW: No, it doesn’t. I know that I am basically a novelist; that’s where I live. So if I start to write a book with film or TV in mind, it’s gonna be a bad book. It has to be a novel first and exclusively. Then, when it’s really done — then if people want to think about it in other terms, fine. And I’m glad. It’s done good for my career.
AR: Your books are a big hit with Audible listeners. You were quoted in Interview Magazine saying that you were terrified for Ray Porter, “the poor guy” doing the audiobook of The Cartel. Did you ever speak to the poor guy?
DW: I’ve never spoken to him. I think he’s terrific, by the way. I think he won an award for it.
AR: Have you listened to that audiobook?
DW: Yeah. I’ve not listened to all of it … I don’t listen to my own stuff, since I already know what’s there. But yeah, I’ve absolutely listened to pieces of it. It’s terrific.
“I’m a big believer in the musicality of words, and I was raised in the theater. Before I made it as a writer, I was directing Shakespeare.”
AR: I wouldn’t call you a fussy prose stylist, but your sentences definitely have a musicality. Do you think a lot about the way your work sounds?
DW: Yes. Absolutely. I read it out loud to myself.
AR: What do you learn from that process?
DW: Well, I learn what’s wrong. Because when I read it out loud, I hear the false notes, and I hear the false rhythms. That’s the only way to do it. I’m a big believer in the musicality of words, and I was raised in the theater. Before I made it as a writer, I was directing Shakespeare. So to do that, it couldn’t just be words on paper. You had to put it on its feet, you had to make it move. You had to have sounds, you had to have action.
So I don’t always read the narrative aloud — though I usually do — but I always read the dialogue out loud.
AR: Is the goal to have the dialogue feel realistic?
DW: I always want it to be realistic, because I write in a realistic genre. So it needs to have that feel whether it’s a beach in Laguna or a street in Harlem. But I also want there to be a musicality to it. There’s definitely a music to people’s conversations. I don’t think there’s necessarily a contradiction — dialogue, for me, needs to be realistic and beautiful. You know, “there is a rose in Spanish Harlem.”
AR: What appeals to you about crime fiction as a genre? You’re clearly able to write in a number of modes, but I don’t get the sense that you’re uncomfortable with how your novels are categorized.
DW: I definitely identify myself as a crime fiction writer. I’m proud of the genre. I love the genre. I sometimes feel that we define it too narrowly. Sometimes when I’m talking to aspiring crime writers, I say: Absolutely read Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and Sherlock Holmes, but also Shakespeare and Dickens and the Greek tragedies. Because you will find that the same themes we write about in the crime genre are there.