Beyond 'The Cartel': An Interview with Don Winslow

Don Winslow/Photo © Michael Lionstar

Novelist Don Winslow is no stranger to Hollywood or the Mexican drug wars, and on any given day it can be a toss-up as to which is more fascinating and disturbing. Right now, he's got a lot going on in both worlds. His new novel, The Cartel, picks up the complicated cross-border DEA-drug war saga he started in his 2005 book, The Power of the Dog, which he and producing partner Shane Salerno ("Shaft") have been developing as a potential adaptation. While The Death and Life of Bobby Z (1997) and Savages (2010) have been turned into movies -- the latter co-written by Winslow, Salerno, and director Oliver Stone -- Winslow also has film versions of California Fire and Life (1999), The Winter of Frankie Machine (2006), and Satori (2010) in development. Buzzing from a recent reading of Richard Ford's "extraordinary, sensitively detailed" Canada, Winslow spoke to Signature about his gritty new work, his seventeenth.

SIGNATURE: How and why did you ultimately decide to continue the story you were telling in Power of the Dog?

DON WINSLOW: I came back to this reluctantly. When I finished with Dog I thought I was done with that topic. I thought that there would be nothing new with the drug wars. Boy, was I wrong, huh? I was sitting here on the sideline not wanting to go back to it, but watching it. And what's been so dramatically different is that you could watch this phase of the Mexican drug wars as if you were watching a dark television series. It's on blogs, it's on vid-clips. It used to be that criminals were ashamed of what they did and tried to hide those facts. Now they announce them to the world as part of propaganda and recruitment and intimidation. Social media became a tool of the drug wars. Another part of it is I felt a little bit like a deserter in a war. It's become an even more fascinating story in so many elements than Dog was.

SIG: What's the most fascinating or disturbing truth you turned over in researching this book?

DW: The most fascinating thing was the very drastically changed role of women, and how really inspirational some of them were. These women who took over their police departments because the men were all dead or had fled, knowing that four of their predecessors had been killed. Women who became mayors and town councilwomen when otherwise there would have been no government in these towns. And they were killed for it and shot numerous times and kept coming back, wounded women, survivors of horrific assaults, and said, You're not going to stop me. That kind of courage is mind-boggling. I think the most disturbing -- damn, there was so much, with the beheadings and disembowelings and mass murders. We don't even know whether there were 80,000 to 100,000 people killed in drug-related violence in those years.

SIG: Don, do you do any yoga or meditation, man? Because swimming around in that stuff for years, how do you keep your own positivity?

DW: [laughs] One of the things is that I found in the midst of all this horror such nobility and courage on the part of some individuals that it does give you some faith in our species. But I make a very deliberate, not always successful, effort to leave my work at my desk. I do four to six-mile runs and walks and get out on the ocean when I can. I think writing a book of this length is partially an athletic event anyway.

SIG: What talents that you developed as a private investigator earlier in your life became most useful in your writing work?

DW: Ninety percent of what you do is to observe and to try to see patterns in what would otherwise look random. That was very often the case with doing investigative work, that things appear to be randomly weird but then you start finding facts and start putting a story together. Ways of reading documents. The ability to go through sometimes thousands of pages of court transcripts, journalism, interview statements, government reports -- that was a lot of the investigative work that people tend not to talk about because it's not dramatic, it's not cinematic, long-legged blondes are not coming into your office accompanied by trumpet solos.

SIG: What about the ten percent that's actually engaging with people?

DW: To me the style of questioning is very similar to journalism, but you're looking for a different end result. When you're doing investigative work you're looking for certain key pieces of information to nail a case, or you're looking for a confession. But in terms of the style of questioning, I learned a lot from the investigative end, which is principally to start wide and then go narrow. I almost never ask questions when I start an interview. It's always sort of, "Tell me about it ..." Because if I'm asking questions then I am either consciously or subconsciously tipping what my priorities are, and I want to know what the witness's priorities are. I've seen people make that mistake so often, where they've done the research and they go for the interview, they've already made up their minds about what the world looks like and miss something absolutely critical. I had a murder case one time where very good lawyers but inexperienced on the criminal end interviewed their client but didn't take her through her day on that particular day and missed very critical information that eventually helped to clear her. But in terms of writing fiction, it's important to me to just be very honest with people. To say, "Look, I'm writing a novel and I want to get it right, so talk to me. But if you don't, then don't bitch at me later that I got it wrong."

SIG: How would you characterize your experience of collaborating with Hollywood at this point?

DW: I've changed the way that I work with Hollywood completely. Whereas prior to working with Shane I took an attitude that a lot of novelists do, which is to say, Well, the film people know best. I've changed that philosophy in the sense that I've taken everything back, and I want to be very much involved. That may or may not mean that I co-write a screenplay, but I'm demanding that I have a very serious seat at the table. With Power of the Dog and Cartel, I also bring over ten years of research to the table. I definitely want that to be heard, because I want those films to reflect reality.