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Crime novelist Don Winslow has authored more than 20 acclaimed international bestsellers, including “The Border,” “Savages” and “The Cartel.” His latest is “City on Fire," the first in a trilogy. It's a gritty gangster saga inspired by the mobsters of his Rhode Island home town and, Winslow says, by Homer’s “Iliad.” Geoff Bennett spoke with Winslow this week as he was traveling on his book tour.
And now to our weekend spotlight, this week I spoke to famed crime novelist and activist Don Winslow, about why his new series of books will be his last and what's in store for his next chapter.
Novelist Don Winslow has authored more than 20 acclaimed international bestsellers, including The Border, Savages, and The Cartel. His latest is City On Fire, the first in a trilogy. It's a gritty gangster saga inspired by the mobsters of his Rhode Island hometown, and Winslow says by Homer's Iliad, we spoke this past week as he was traveling on his book tour about why this latest novel is his last, as Winslow shifts his focus from writing to activism.
So Don, your new book, is this Iliad saga telling the story of these warring crime families in 1980s Providence, Rhode Island. Where did this idea come from to combine crime and the classics?
Don Winslow, Author, "City on Fire": Well, it's been 27 years ago, I was reading the Iliad, as one does. And the precipitating story, the Helen of Troy story reminded me so much of a real life incident that had taken place in New England and the crime world when I was — when I was a kid, that it struck me, the parallel struck me and I thought, I wonder if I could do that, if I could make a fully modern crime novel that would stand on its own as a contemporary crime novel, but also echo those stories and themes from the classics.
The protagonist, I guess, the Trojan hero of this story, is Danny Ryan. He's part of this Irish crime family in Providence. I read where you've said that he's not based on you, but that he's somebody who you know well, give us a sense of who he is and this world that he comes from?
Yeah. Danny, you know, is a is an Irish American guy. He was a longshoreman. He was a fisherman living down in a little town where I grew up in, and he marries the daughter of the Irish mob boss. And so he enters the family that way. And because of that, because of his loyalty to his wife, and to his family and his friends, he gets dragged into this war.
One of the most interesting things about you is that you've lived so many lives. You were in — a private investigator, years before you started writing, before that, you were a safari guide in Kenya you had a job in a panda reserve in China, you directed Shakespeare plays in Oxford. First of all, how did you do all that? But then how did you really sort of navigate the transitions from one life to the next?
Yeah, you know, I've always wanted to be a writer since I was a kid. But nobody stamps your papers to do that, right? The transition, you know, I was in my 30s. And I thought I better get serious about writing. I've been talking about doing it for a while, but talking isn't doing is it. And one morning, in fact, in Kenya around a campfire before dawn, I just decided I'd better really seriously start doing this. So I decided to write five pages a day no matter what, no matter where I was, it was on safari, if it was in China, you know, England, wherever it happened to be, I'd write those five pages. Three years later, I had a book, or I thought I had a book most publishers in the industry did not agree.
And fast forward to the current moment, you're one of the most celebrated crime novelists in the country. And yet you're retiring from writing to focus more on politics and your advocacy work, why?
I think it's time for me to get off this stage. But more importantly, I think it's — we're in an existential crisis for democracy around the world, but you know, particularly here at home and I started feeling that way and not coincidentally, around 2016. I don't think we're out of the woods by any stretch of the imagination. I think this is going to be a fight. It's a fight we have to win and I wanted to devote more time and energy to that fight.
That fight has included dropping these slickly produced digital videos on his social media feeds, critical of Donald Trump and warning about the dangers to democracy. Videos, which Winslow says have been viewed online more than 250 million times. At the same time, he also warns that as he sees it, the January 6 committee will not produce anything relevant to aid and holding Trump accountable for the insurrection or trying to overturn the election he lost.
Look, it's been 16 months since January 6, it's been five and a half years since he fired Jim Comey and then admitted that he fired Comey in order to, you know, shut down an investigation, not a single Republican involved in the January 6 attack has been subpoenaed. Never mind indicted on something we all saw in hurt. So the clock is running at, let's see committee finishes up in September or October. The midterms are in November, if the past is prologue, you know, what history tells us is that the party that's out of power tends to take power, and then they will shut everything down. So that's the basis for my skepticism.
You tweeted recently, Democrats have better ideas, better candidates, and a better vision for tomorrow. What they don't have is better messaging. And I'm going to try and change that, how?
By talking in plain simple terms, but meeting people where they are, by using little videos to reach people, you know, because that is the battlefield, we need to be tougher against the right wing, against the white supremacists. You know, we have to stop bringing — I've said this before, spoon to a knife fight.
What have you learned about human nature? What have you learned about this sort of moment in politics based on your experience as an investigator and a prolific crime writer?
I think what I've learned is that as human beings, we have an infinite capacity for nobility and for evil. We can go in either direction and sometimes in both. And that has stopped surprising me.
Don Winslow, thanks for your time.
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Geoff Bennett serves as co-anchor of PBS NewsHour. He also serves as an NBC News and MSNBC political contributor.
Andrew Corkery is a national affairs producer at PBS News Weekend.
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