From fiction to activism, Don Winslow is moving on
In an interview with The Day published almost exactly two years ago, bestselling crime novelist Don Winslow was on the phone talking about his then-new "Broken," a first-ever collection of novellas that had him feeling energized and creatively open about his career.
After 21 novels — most of them massively successful bestsellers — Winslow had utilized the short-fiction form in part to reacquaint himself and readers with popular characters from the wildly disparate catalog: The witty early PI novels with Neal Carrey. Boone Daniels and the expansive cast of regulars from SoCal surf-noir novels like "The Dawn Patrol" and "The Gentlemen's Hour." Chon, O and Ben from the metafictional "Savages" and "The Kings of Cool." And in "The Last Ride," Winslow even offered an emotionally brutal thematic postscript to his epic Cartel Trilogy — "The Power of the Dog," "The Cartel" and "The Border" — that chronicled the incestual tragedy between Mexico and the U.S. in the so-called War on Drugs.
"The problem with a writer's life, which you increasingly recognize as you get older, is not that there are too few stories to write," Winslow said at the time. "It's that there are too many." And Winslow, with fresh perspective on possibilities for those favorite old characters — and yet plenty of new ideas to work on — was pleased by the range of possibilities. "Never say never," he said.
On Saturday, though, when Winslow appears in Westerly's United Theatre to discuss and answer questions about his incredibly ambitious and marvelously rendered new novel "City on Fire," a mob novel set in Providence, he's also saying "Never," after all.
In a statement on April 23, the author, who grew up in Perryville, R.I., and splits his time between the Ocean State and Southern California, announced his retirement from writing. The United Theatre appearance is the next-to-last appearance of his farewell book tour. (Full disclosure: this journalist is moderator at the event.)
"I love writing and do not make this decision lightly, but I'm going to pick a fight," Winslow's statement reads. "Donald Trump was defeated in 2020, but Trumpism is a cancer that has metastasized across the country ... I want to see real consequences for Trump, his family, and the enablers who share his cynical, soulless, corrupt and sub-literate worldview. I want to see consequences for the architects of January 6 and not just the foot soldiers. Fifteen months after January 6 and not one single Republican lawmaker has been held accountable for their actions on J-6 ... not one."
Winslow isn't just throwing out rhetoric. In the final months leading up to the 2020 election, Winslow spent millions of dollars of his own money to write and co-produce, with his agent and friend Shane Salerno of The Story Factory, dozens of political videos "exposing Trump and other Republican leaders." The videos garnered over 250 million views on YouTube, Twitter and other social media sources, and, Winslow says, "had a real impact on key races around the country."
He says he will now work full-time on behalf of the Democratic Party and their "better ideas, better candidates and a better vision for tomorrow. What they don't have is better messaging and I'm going to try to change that. That will be my focus now."
Winslow released his retirement statement after an interview with The Day in support of "City on Fire," which is the first of a trilogy; the other two books are already completed and will be published in April of 2023 and April of 2024.
During the conversation, Winslow hinted at his future, saying, "For most of the Trump years, I managed to compartmentalize and work factory hours in the best possible sense. But in the final months (before the election), I confess I did very little writing. In addition to the videos, I can't remember ever being as tense as I was those last weeks, and I couldn't do anything on election day or night. I finally just went for a long walk along the ocean. It's too important."
By that point, "City on Fire," a masterwork of mobster fiction that instantly lands it alongside such high watermark properties as "The Godfather," "Goodfellas," "The Sopranos" and "Casino," was already completed and scheduled for publication in the fall of 2021. It was pushed back till now because of the effects of COVID on publishing-related issues, and indeed the downtime of the epidemic allowed Winslow the time to complete all three books in the trilogy.
Going back to Rhody
Winslow says he's particularly proud, considering his retirement decision, that these novels will be his last inasmuch as they represent a story about his native Rhode Island he's been struggling to write for a long time.
"City on Fire" is about a protracted mob war between Italian and Irish gangs that starts in 1980s Providence. The story is told from the perspective of Danny Ryan, a decent enough Providence dockworker whose tie to the Irish mob is mostly tentative and familial; he's married to Terri, whose father is a kingpin in the organization and his own father is a retired mob patriarch. Not much is required of Danny otherwise because all is peaceful and relatively cordial between the Italians and Irish. They each have their criminal territories and specialties, and they even occasionally socialize at beach parties.
That changes on the afternoon of one of those surfside gatherings when Danny's drunkenly brazen brother-in-law Liam grabs the breast of an Italian mobster's girlfriend as she emerges from the surf. Rude and moronic? Yes, but presumably a small thing in terms of the inter-gang truce — until it's not. Indeed, out of that impulsive gesture evolves a rapidly intensifying storm surge of conflict and increasingly violent retaliation. The easygoing Danny is suddenly forced into situations he'd rather not be part of but must do so out of honor and duty.
Despite the surface gentility of mafia culture — and, as Danny has known all along in a "hope for the best" fashion — these are NOT nice people. And his struggles and capitulations are at the heart of the intensifying tempest that swirls around him.
Winslow, of course, has all along written eloquently, amusingly, tragically and with human understanding about criminal organizations throughout his career, and it's fair to say he's a fan and student of the genre as represented in literature, television and film. But the source material for the "City on Fire" trilogy might surprise his longtime readers.
"At a certain point in the mid-'90s, I realized I was pretty ignorant," says Winslow, who studied journalism, has a degree in African history from the University of Nebraska, worked for years as a private investigator and an anti-terrorist trainer, among many other things, while trying to establish himself as a novelist. "So I got one of those 'greatest books ever written' lists and it took me about seven years, but I read them.
"The Greek classics were overwhelming. I loved them at once even though they took a long time to read and a longer time to fully understand and appreciate. And it occurred to me that 'The Iliad' and 'The Odyssey' — or 'Don Quixote' is another one — all have the elements of a gangster novel. It blew my mind and became an obsession."
"City on Fire" and its two sequels, Winslow says, are a conscious retelling of the Trojan War as depicted in "The Iliad" and "The Aeneid."
"I picked (the 'City on Fire') manuscript up and put it down for over 20 years," Winslow says. "I'd finish a project and go back and look at Danny during garbage time. I'd work on it, then I'd go back and read 'The Iliad' and 'The Aeneid' and find the poetic and thematic connections between that genre and my beloved crime fiction."
Eventually, it all came together. Those schooled in the Greek classics will recognize Danny as Aeneas — an admittedly minor character in the Greek saga who nonetheless has a ringside seat, so to speak, as well as increasing investment in the tumultuous proceedings. Meanwhile, Pam, the girlfriend whose ethereal beauty caused Liam's spontaneous and inebriated advance on the beach, is Helen of Troy.
Those NOT schooled in Greek classics will blissfully enjoy the ride, as well. Winslow says he absolutely wanted the books to stand alone without the classical references, and "Fire" has all the earmarks of classic mobster mythology with the themes of honor, betrayal, revenge, family, love, souring trust and truly inventive murder. And, of course, there are great characters. Winslow is not just a fine stylist and reliably creative plotter. His characters are indelibly affecting and multidimensional — and those peopling the pages of "City on Fire" are so real you feel as though you can reach out and touch them.
Go west, young criminal
Winslow says it was a joy to finally write about Rhode Island. As for whether he personally knew any of the characters who fictionally appear in "City on Fire," Winslow laughs. "Sure! But that's as specific as I'll get. I think it's more that I tried to capture certain types of people and certain aspects of their character. But where I come from? That's real. Those places are intimate to me. I grew up on the beaches in the book; I've pulled people out of the water there. It's home."
The story arc of volumes two and three of the "City on Fire" trilogy head west, with the second book taking place in Los Angeles and the third in Las Vegas.
"In mythology and in real American life, the metaphor is 'go west or die,'" Winslow says. "The cowboys went west. The mob went west. I went west and reinvented myself. And so much of the American crime and detective novels went west, as with Raymond Chandler and several others."
In addition to Winslow's final two books, fans can look forward to a TV series based on the "Border" trilogy. Every novel he's ever written has been option for TV or film, and many are reportedly in development. In 2012, Oliver Stone made a movie of "Savages."
"I think a lot of these stories will stay alive in one way or another," Winslow says in a thoughtful, possibly wistful tone. "I hope so, obviously. They mean a lot to me."
The author, whose job description has required he kill off hundreds of characters over the years — some deserving; some absolutely not — is asked if a doomed character ever came to mean so much to him that he couldn't bring himself to actually kill them.
"Yes!" Winslow sounds delighted and possibly relieved with this confessional opportunity. "But sometimes it has to be done. There was a character in 'The Cartel,' Pablo, a journalist, and he had to be killed. It was horrible. I was really upset. (Recurring Cartel Trilogy character) Marisol by all rights should have been killed, and I wrote the scene — but then I went back and changed it.
"And in (the dynamic, stand alone novel about corrupt New York cops) 'The Force,' a character had to die and I couldn't do it. So he was spared. Then I HAD to go back and kill him because it was wrong for the story to have him live."
Winslow laughs and says, "I will NOT admit to having moved myself to tears in these situations because I'm a heartless and tough guy crime writer."
Yes, he was.
If you go
Who: Novelist Don Winslow
What: Discussing and answering questions about his new novel, "City on Fire," and his decision to quit writing to pursue political activism
When: 7-9 p.m. Saturday
Where: The United Theatre, 5 Canal St., Westerly
Presented by: Savoy Bookshop and Cafe
How much: $10, $38 including hardcover copy of "City on Fire"
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