'The Cartel' A Conversation With Don Winslow

06/22/2015 11:20 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016


Photo: Knopf

Don Winslow is known to thriller lovers everywhere, especially after his extraordinary novel, Savages, which was made into a riveting film directed by Oliver Stone. Don grew up in Rhode Island, and at age seventeen, left to study journalism at the University of Nebraska, where he earned a degree in African Studies. While in college, he traveled to southern Africa, sparking a lifelong involvement with that continent. Later, he obtained a master's degree in Military History.

Don spent time in California, Idaho and Montana before moving to New York City to become a writer. He paid his bills working as a movie theater manager and as a private investigator. Later, Don joined a friend's safari firm in Kenya, where he led photographic expeditions, as well as hiking trips to the mountains of Southwest China. When not on safari, Don directed Shakespeare plays at Oxford during their summer program.

Don's first novel, A Cool Breeze On The Underground, was nominated for an Edgar Award.

Moving to California, he returned to doing investigative work, as a trial consultant. A film and publishing deal for his novel, The Death and Life of Bobby Z, allowed him to write full-time and settle in southern California, the setting for many of his books.

Don's latest novel, The Cartel, a sequel to his 2006 epic book, The Power of the Dog, covers the years between 2004 and 2014. The DEA's Art Keller is pitted against Adan Barrera, the head of Mexico's most powerful drug cartel. Keller has been hunting Barrera for 30 years, and for these two men, the hunt has become personal. Keller is responsible for the deaths of Barrera's brother and uncle, and his ultimate capture. After being imprisoned in the U.S., Barrera is extradited to Mexico, where he escapes. Barrera places a two million dollar bounty on Keller's head as each man hunts the other. The novel is a sprawling epic of drug trafficking, murder, coercion, and corruption at the highest levels of Mexican law enforcement and government.

The Cartel has astounding details about the Mexican drug trade and the so-called war on drugs. Will you talk a bit about your research for the novel?
Between The Power of the Dog and The Cartel, I spent ten years researching and writing about the topic. If you include Savages and its prequel, The Kings of Cool, it's more like fifteen years. Everyone had stereotypical images of the Mexican cartels, and like most stereotypes, some are true, but many aren't. For me, it was a matter of going after the details, trying to give these people real lives. My research technique partly involves my training as a historian. I try getting deep background, most of which won't show up in the book, but which informs how I write the novel. I didn't start with crime or cartel lore, I began with Aztec and Mayan history, and the conquistador era. When I felt I had some understanding of the culture, I went to more recent history, extensively reading articles and books about the drug cartels.

I didn't want to approach DEA people, cops, former intelligence people or drug people out of ignorance. I wanted the background before talking to these people. You know, when you're writing, the research can be constant. As you write, you may be in the middle of a paragraph, when more questions arise. I even want to get physical details of what things look, sound, and smell like--everything. The bizarre, surreal thing about researching the drug cartels was that most of it was already in the media and social media. By the time you get to the cartel era between 2004 and 2014, the drug lords were advertising. They were putting out demos on video clips. They were writing to newspaper editors and photographing banners over stacks of bodies, explaining what they did and why they did it. The drug wars became hyper-violent and widely known.

You dedicated The Cartel to more than 100 named journalists who were murdered or "disappeared" in Mexico during the period of the novel. Tell us about that.
The cartels came to a point where they realized they not only had to fight the war with bullets, but had to win 'the hearts and minds of people.' They wanted to control the narrative, so they began killing journalists who told the truth. They began bribing journalists, army officers, and the police--it was a matter of 'Take this money or we'll kill you.' So, many journalists caved in and wouldn't cover the cartels' activities.

The novel clearly exposes the cartels as virtually a shadow government.
Yes. In fact, they are shadow governments. They control somewhere between eight and twelve percent of the Mexican economy. Their economic power alone makes them a shadow government. They began dictatorially controlling news coverage. And that meant intimidating, terrorizing, and killing journalists.

Shifting gears, you said when you wrote Savages, you wanted to write a book that 'tore the cage a little, and maybe broke out.' What did you mean?
(Laughter) I'm a genre guy, and there's that slight stink on us. Literary fiction looks down on us. We're in something of a ghetto. Over the last ten years, bloggers, critics, publishers and editors have become so concerned with branding and defining what crime fiction should be. There are definitions and sub-definitions, and I felt all of these categories kept tightening the cage. You know, it's the notion that if you're a thriller writer, you must have your character in mortal jeopardy on page one, or it's not a thriller. Or, by page one-hundred sixty, you must introduce a secondary character who has critical information regarding the case (Laughter). I began wondering, Who's setting these rules? I felt we thriller writers were becoming serial brands--like Frosted Flakes, Wheaties, or maybe Cheerios. People have had trouble categorizing me. Some stores have my books in the mystery section, others have me in fiction. I wanted to break out of that box.

Do you break any "rules" of writing with your novels?
I guess so. (More laughter)

Which one do you break most often?
I break the rules about point-of-view, switching them like a schizophrenic. Some writers try to figure out how to switch point-of view inside a page. I'm trying to figure out how to do it inside a word. (Laughter).

Here's another question about technique: many of your novels are written in the present tense. What made you decide to use that approach?
I remember the moment I first did it. It was in 1995. My career was flat-lining. Working as an investigator, I was riding the train each day from San Juan Capistrano to downtown L.A. I was writing on my laptop in the traditional third person, past tense narrative style. But it seemed flat and dull. I was bored with myself. So, I began writing the next page in the present tense. It opened up a whole new world for me. I began to have fun again. It turned into The Death and Life of Bobby Z.

The first few sentences of that book changed my writing life. Writing in the present tense is liberating. I love it. The next sentence is coming at you in the here and now. And, it's cinematic. It immerses the reader in the immediacy of now. It's as though I'm saying to the reader, 'Come with me on this cool trip. I want you with me. I'm not going to tell you, 'here's what happened. It's too bad you weren't there when it happened, so let me describe it to you.' Instead, I say, 'Let's travel this path together.'

In an earlier novel, you described an elevated structure as being 'Carl Sagan high.' In The Cartel, you describe an obese man as 'one jelly donut away from a triple bypass.' Your metaphors are arresting and often reference popular culture. Tell us about that.
I think I use pop culture because I'm not that intellectual. I look for things people can relate to. We thriller writers write about a lot of really far out things--stuff most readers never encounter in their lives. So, I look for images and metaphors that will make it familiar. I also think they're fun. They just come to mind. And of course, the rhythm of the writing is important--even a single syllable can make a huge difference.

Like 'One Jelly donut away from a triple bypass...?'
(Laughter) Yes. It has a cadence, a rhythm of its own. At first, I thought maybe it could be one jelly donut away from a heart attack. But then, I wanted to push it a little bit--maybe angle it off, and take it one step further to make it more distinctive. The triple bypass reference is funnier.

Is it true you once said that for you, writing is an addiction?
(Laughter) I think it's true. Sometimes I think it's a good thing; sometimes, not.

Is it also true that you work on two or even three books at a time?
Yes. For the most part, I'm afraid it's true. But when I'm nearing the home stretch of a book, I focus on that one, exclusively.

How do you feel if a day goes by and you haven't written?
Anxious. Very anxious. (Laughter). I feel guilty. I should be home writing. I feel as though I'm's a strange kind of dysphoria. I think this writing addiction is like a dope-driven rush. When it's going well, it's a real high. When it's going badly, it feels like it's just a job.

I try taking Sundays off. I sort of get away with that because I feel like I'm improving myself (More laughter). But, I definitely feel as though something is wrong. Sometimes, I just can't turn it off; I'm writing in my head. I'll be walking with my wife and she'll say, 'What did you say?' I'll answer, 'I didn't say anything.' But it turns out I was speaking a character's dialogue, and wasn't even aware of it.

I walk nearly every day on this winding road with these wicked curves. One day, I was so caught up in my thoughts, I literally walked off the edge of a little cliff. Luckily, it was a short drop. I was busily plotting something. (More laughter).

Do you have a favorite among all your novels?
That's a tough one. They're all my children. It's not a favorite, but I'm so attached to my first book, A Cool Breeze on the Underground. It was such a struggle and took so long to write. I have a fondness for Dog and Cartel because I spent so many years on them. And then there's Savages, which was such a dice toss. I just said 'the hell with it. It'll probably end up badly.' But it didn't. I really can't say I have a favorite. I love them all, but each in a different way. Picking a favorite is sort of like trying to pick your favorite child.

Or being asked which is your favorite dog?
Yes. You know, it's been eight years since we lost our last dog. It was one of the worst days of my life. I haven't been able to get another one. I just can't go through that kind of loss again.

The Winter of Frankie Machine concerns a former mafia hit man, and is a 'smaller' and very human story, in contrast to the epic proportions of The Cartel and The Power of the Dog. Will you talk about that?
It took me five years to do Dog. I came out of that experience mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. After that, I wanted to do a smaller story--even though the story of Frankie Machine is about crime in Southern California. All the cases in the flashback scenes were real cases I fictionalized. It's a good changeup to play with scale. So, rather than telling the story of twenty-five people over fifty years, I decided to just get into the head of this individual, and look at life through his experiences. If the reader gets some history, that's good; but I wanted the intimacy of one man's story. After the first twenty pages, you know Frankie, and you care about him. I wondered if I could write about a guy whose job it was to kill people and make him human, and even likable.

Is there anything in your background that's made you so interested in crime stories?
Sometimes, I ask myself that question. I don't know that I can come up with the real answer. I guess the hypotenuse answer is that it's life in the extreme. I grew up during the New England crime wars, so as a kid, I knew about these kinds of guys in the neighborhood.

You're having a dinner party and can invite any five people, living or dead, from any walk of life. Who would they be?
Crazy Horse would by my first guest because I want to know what really happened at the Little Big Horn. Buddha would be next, because I feel I have to get noble here for just a second. Then, I'd have Bruce Springsteen because I think he's the American poet. He's always, in a real sense, spoken to me. I'd have the late Art Pepper, a great saxophone jazz artist. Then I'd have Brendan Behan, the Irish poet, novelist and short-story writer. He was so clever, he actually said, 'I'm a drinker with a writing problem.' (Laughter)

What would you all be talking about?
(Laughter) Assuming we could talk...if I spoke Lakota, I'd be probing Crazy Horse about what really happened at the Little Big Horn. I wouldn't want Custer there because he was a liar. I would love to hear Brendan Behan and Springsteen talk. I'd be talking to Pepper about riffs in certain jazz songs. I don't think I'd talk much. I'd just sit back and take it all in.

Congratulations on writing The Cartel, a grand and gripping epic novel James Ellroy called "The War and Peace of dope-war books." It has plot, character, action, vivid dialogue and description--it has everything.

Mark Rubinstein
Author of The Lovers' Tango and Return to Sandara