Saturday, January 28

Don Winslow: ‘I’m a cupcake. I certainly couldn’t be a leg-breaker’ | crime fiction

EITHERsee Zoom from his Rhode Island home, Don Winslow is straight from central casting for a 68-year-old former private investigator turned crime writer who works in the morning and goes hiking in the afternoon. He’s lean and tanned – he splits his time between California and Rhode Island – with a bald dome of a head and owlish spectacles. Winslow has written 22 novels, a collection of stories, and numerous film and TV scripts, most notably the adaptation of his novel savages, which was directed by Oliver Stone. He has become a prominent figure in US politics, producing a series of films in the lead-up to the 2020 US elections that were highly critical of Donald Trump and were viewed 250m times. His latest novel by him, City on Fireis published on 26 April.

Your new book retells the Iliad against the backdrop of warring gangs in 1980s Rhode Island. where did thand idea come from?
Other people have obviously done this – you immediately think of Joyce’s Ulysses – but there was an incident in real crime history where a war was touched off between two syndicates and it was an argument over a woman at a beach party. It happened not far from here. That struck me at the time – going back some 20-odd years – as being a Helen of Troy incident. Just like Troy, the woman was the pretext, but the real reasons were what they have always been: money, power and turf. I have taken the best beats of the Iliadand this is the first book in a trilogy, so later books are going to draw on the Aeneid and the odyssey and work in other Greek dramas, the Oresteia, forinstance. I read those texts looking for contemporary parallels. Where could the poetry of my beloved crime genre meet the poetry of the Greek classics?

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What do you think it is that still speaks to us about these ancient tales?
I do feel that there’s something in the zeitgeist just now. We’ve spent the past two or so years flying through this cloud that we can’t seem to get out of. Enforced isolation has forced us to think a little more about who we are. I’ve often said that in crime fiction we search for our roots in too shallow a soil. We look back to Chandler, Agatha Christie, Sherlock Holmes. But we could go further. We should look back to Shakespeare, to Dickens, even further back. During this last round of Covid I started reading English Romantic poetry. I couldn’t stand poetry before, but suddenly I was reaching for Keats and Shelley and Wordsworth. I think we’re all looking for something deeper.

Do you feel that crime as a genre isn’t given sufficient credit for the quality of its prose? Your novels have a strong literary sensibility.
I just write stories, man. I want to write good stories with good characters and I want to write them as beautifully as I can. I do pay attention to the shape of sentences, to what you might call the poetry of the genre. If you read Chandler, if you read the first few sentences of The Long Goodbyefor instance, it’s pure poetry.

There’s something almost nostalgic about the story – Irish and Italian gangs, the sense of honour, the unions and the longshoremen.
Deliberately so. I think it’s more interesting to write about the dying of the light, isn’t it? I wanted to write about a culture that was in decline and aware of it.

Is the protagonist, Danny, a version of you?
You can’t see it from there, but I’m 5ft 6in and a buck thirty (130lbs). I’m a cupcake, I certainly couldn’t be a leg-breaker. I chose to look at this story through the perspective of Aeneas, who in the Iliad is a minor character and was always on the outside, was never really accepted even though he married into the Trojan royal family. I like to start a story at true north and then kick a little bit slanted, so you get this quirky perspective of someone who had the awareness to comment on things. Danny is looking from page two to get out. Danny’s not me, but I know him. I grew up Irish Catholic in a fishing port. I know all of these people intimately.

It feels as if you’re a writer who thinks harder than most about the ethics of violence in literature.
It’s something that all of us in this genre think about a lot. I spent 23 years on the Mexican drug beat, in hyper-violent situations. Sometimes I backed off from writing about them because they were so horrific, or so surreal I didn’t think any reader would even believe them. I was always worried about crossing a line into the pornography of violence. It’s a thin line. At the same time I don’t want to sanitize violence. I don’t like the idea of ​​murder as a parlor game. If you’ve ever seen someone die of a gunshot wound you know there’s nothing pretty or romantic about it.

Was the Trump an aberration?
We need to fight him harder now than ever before. You can hear the sigh in my voice. I think we thought for a brief time after the election that it was won. And then came the insurrection. And then came the unbelievable non-reaction to it by the Republicans. The open collusion in trying to overthrow a democratically elected government of this country. I think Trump – I hate saying his name about him, by the way – will run again. I think he has to be beat again and he has his coterie of imitators that need to be defeated. So we’ve got a fight on our hands.

What books are on your bedside table?
Right now I’m reading Sense and Sensitivity. I can read about 10 pages at a time and enjoy it and appreciate it and then I get a bit worn. The highly mannered speech gets to me a little bit, but I do now appreciate the genius of it and the substance of it in ways I couldn’t have a few years ago. and also Don Juan by Byron.

Which novelists and nonfiction writers working today do you admire the most?
Richard Russo should be much better known. The late Jim Harrison is a better and more important writer than Hemingway. My buddy Adrian McKinty I enjoy a lot. Lou Berney. There’s so many. One of the great sorrows and joys in life is there’s just not enough time to read everything you want to read.

How do you organize your books?
I’m pretty OCD about it. Most of the books on my shelves are nonfiction. There are two or three bookcases of American western history that are organized chronologically by theme. There’s African history ordered chronologically by theme. There’s what you might call the classics, organized chronologically. Then my collection of classic crime novels organized by author. There’s a section of biographies of jazz artists.

City on Fire by Don Winslow is published by HarperCollins (£20). To support the Guardian and observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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