Don Winslow: The Crimespree Interview

Jeremy: So when we last spoke, you had mentioned that THE POWER OF THE DOG had been the biggest undertaking of your career, both in terms of the writing and the research which was something like twenty years of the war on drugs. So when you completed this Herculean task, did you know you wanted to revisit these characters?

Don Winslow: Absolutely not. In fact, it was the exact opposite, I said I would never revisit them and was very resistant to the idea. When people brought it up, I hung up the phone. So years went by without giving it another thought. But as I was sitting here near the border and watching events unfold in Mexico, seeing how the violence escalated, the sadism escalated, the sheer number of killings down there, I started to research it and follow it. Really, it was for my own interest and I just could not seem to stay away from it. I think eventually, I started in think about see material for another book.

Jeremy: When you started to think about that, did you already have a story in your mind? Or was it simply I have all this material, I understand the current world of the drug wars and I want to further explore that.

Don: Here is how is played out: I was sorting through it, trying to find answers for myself, I put together a chronology of virtually everyday of anything that happened. From early 2001 to the present, it was about 150 pages, single space. After that, I stepped back from that chronology. I started to see patterns and explorations.

So when I decided to jump in and write THE CARTEL, I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to pick up the story of those two main characters, Art Keller and  Adan Barrera. I knew that that was going to be the spine of the story. To mix metaphors, it was going to be a laser-guided beacon, because I knew it was going to have so many characters, so many developments, changes and shifts, because it had to reflect the real power struggles, that it was going to be hard to tell the whole story. But I knew if I took those two characters, they would give the story direction.

After that, I had to look at all the major real life events and decide, which had to be included, which were needed to get to the next event. After that, I had to decide through which character’s point of view should we experience this? Is it Keller’s? Is it Barrera’s? Is it a journalist? That is basically how I tried to wrestle this beast to the ground.

Jeremy: For this novel, you came back to Knopf (The publisher of POWER OF THE DOG) and to Knopf Chairman Sonny Mehta, who was your editor for The Dog. What was it like working with him again?

Don: It was great, it was a wonderful experience. When I decided to do the follow-up, I knew I wanted the same editor. Not just for consistency, but also because I respected Sonny so much.

Jeremy: Since the last time we spoke, marijuana has become legalized in a number of states. In some, it is strictly for medicinal use, but others, like Colorado, have moved to recreational use. What are your thoughts on it?

Don: I think it is a step in the right direction, but there are still problems with it because it is illegal on the Federal level. I think it is time to legalize drugs, and treat them as the social problem that they are. We should use the billions spent fighting drugs to adress the problems behind drug use. The money spent imprisoning people could be spent on treatment. What we’re doing now isn’t working. It’s time to try something else.

Here is a problem I have with pot, and this is where I lose some popularity: When people go out and buy drop, there is a high probability that it is coming from Mexico, coming from the cartels and they enslave and murder people.

Jeremy: They are supporting the violence.

Don: Yes, they are supporting the violence and they are supporting slave labor. You have people buying fair trade coffee, and farm-to-table beef, and about where their chicken was raised, yet they think nothing of buying marijuana.

Now I would never tell somebody what they should or should not put into their body, all I am saying is Be Aware of what it is and where it comes from.

Jeremy: At the beginning of each chapter, there is a quote. These quotes come from an incredibly diverse group of sources: John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Nelly, Hemmingway, David Brooks, The Bible ( Revelations, Psalms) and even the ancient Greek playwright Aristophanes. How much work went into collecting those quotes?

Don: Actually not all that much, I am a fairly eclectic guy with a wide variety of interests. In some cases, I came across the quote and thought it would work for a certain chapter, other times I was working on a chapter and thought of something that I felt would be excellent for what I was writing.

Jeremy: It has been almost 25 years since A COOL BREEZE ON THE UNDERGROUND (Don’s first novel) was published. What would you say is the most notable change, if there has been one, in your approach to writing.

Don: When I wrote Cool Breeze, I had no idea what I was doing. I was working three other jobs and was trying to write five pages a day, no matter where I was. So I was writing in notebooks, on manuscript pads, I was just trying to persevere, to tell this story. It took me about three years. Since about Bobby Z, 1996, 97, I have had the economic luxury to be a full-time writer and to treat it like a factory job, with regular hours.

From a style level, the biggest change is that I now writing primarily in the present tense. That was a real change for me. I find that to be more exciting, more interesting. Sometimes I don’t, but for the most part, that is how I prefer to write.

Jeremy: So what is your one main vice?

Don: My vice? Coffee.

Jeremy: How do you take it?

Don: Black, straight up!

Saxophonist) Sonny Stitt

Jeremy: And a current guilty pleasure?

Don: Hmm, I am such a dull guy. I would say my current guilty pleasure is frozen Reese’s peanut butter cup.

Jeremy: I know you are big music guy, what is something you recently came across that really wowed you, really kicked your butt.

Don: James McMurtry‘s latest album, Complicated Game. I am a big Jazz guy and have been listing to a lot of Sonny Stitt.

Jeremy: It has been great talking to you, best of luck on the book and on the big tour you have ahead of you.

Don: Thanks Jeremy, great talking to you again.