The Cartel is the new novel by Don Winslow. Giacomo Brunoro had a conversation with the master of modern crime fiction for Sugarpulp MAGAZINE
Don Winslow is a master of modern crime fiction, a great author who wrote some masterpieces such as The Winter of Frankie Machine, The Power of the Dog, The Dawn Patrol, Savages (which was made into a film directed by Oliver Stone) and many more.
I had the pleasure to talk with Don about The Cartel, his new amazing novel.
Interview with Don Winslow by Giacomo Brunoro
You are back in bookstores with a great thriller The Cartel, a novel that in my opinion is different from your previous works, in particular for your way of writing. It is more similar to The Power of the Dog (The Cartel is in fact its continuation) than to Savages. How was working on this new story?
As you alluded to, it was more a return to the style, technique and working habits of The Power of the Dog.
My works in between the two books were shorter, faster, and in a different style of language. ‘Dog’ and The Cartel are marathons; together they tell a story of over forty years in the War on Drugs and forty years of a vendetta between the two main characters, the DEA agent Art Keller and the drug lord Adan Barrera.
So I had to make sure that the two books were consistent in both content and style. I think that story should determine style – these books needed a more traditional narrative approach, because they had to explain true-to-life events over the course of many years.
I want the reader to understand what happened in Mexico, even though these are fictional works.
I think that The Cartel took you a lot of time for both research and documentation, is it right?
Yes, it did. The first task was just to get a grip on what happened. I went through every day in the Mexican drugs wars over a period of twelve years, and jotted down every related event that occurred, and created a chronology that ran to over 150 pages.
Then I looked for patterns, developments that could explain the headlines. When I thought I had determined that, I selected about twenty major events and then went about researching them particularly. I read a lot, talked to a lot of people. This process took years.
The odd thing about the era of The Cartel was that you could also follow the events on social media. Criminals used to try to hide their crimes, but the cartels were bragging about them on the Internet, as a means of intimidation, propaganda and, sadly, recruitment.
How was facing the world of drugs 10 years after The Power of the Dog? Have you found a different situation?
Yes, the situation was unimaginably worse. The level of violence, the militarization of the drug wars, went so far beyond the period covered in ‘Dog’. Over 100,000 people were killed – 22,000 ‘missing’ – making it one of the bloodiest conflicts in the Western hemisphere since the American Civil War.
The level of brutality – the sadism, torture, dismemberments – became just horrific, nightmarish if you didn’t know that it was all too real. Also, the fighting was on so many more fronts – all over the country, and multi-faceted, with cartels fighting each other, federal police fighting local police, and the military fighting the cartels and police allied with the cartels.
One enormous difference was that the Mexican government sent the military in – it literally was a shooting ‘War On Drugs’. Also, in this latter period, the cartels formed their own private armies, made up of special forces veterans, which escalated the violence. So you often had ex-special forces fighting current special forces.
This novel is also a way to strongly complain because what you have written is not fiction but real.
Yes, too real. Almost everything that happens in The Cartel actually happened in one form or another. So the book is very close to reality.
Journalists really were threatened and killed; entire towns were depopulated, the people forced to flee; incredibly brave women stepped up to take police and government jobs and were killed for it; pitched battles between cartels – sometimes lasting weeks – were fought along the border; there were thirteen-year-old hitmen. Sometimes fiction can’t match reality.
But I think that fiction can give readers an insight into the inner lives of people, can portray their thoughts and emotions – what it means to be threatened, what it means to have a love one murdered, how it feels to see your city destroyed, your country corrupted. And I think that can make a powerful statement.
Mexico and United States are neighbouring countries and they have many things in common but in your last novel they seem to be light years away from each other. How can you explain such a paradoxical situation?
The two countries have very different cultures and very different histories. Mexico came rather late out of a paternalistic, Catholic, Spanish empire, the US rather early out of a Protestant British Empire grounded in the Enlightenment, so our ideas about government and economics, patterns of landholding, ways of religion are vastly different.
Not to mention, of course, that we speak a different language. And a history of hostility – we tend to forget that about a third of what is now the United States was once Mexico (including where I live and also where I’m now sitting typing this), and that the US took it by force. I’m not sure that the two countries have ever understood each other, and I’m not sure that we’ve ever really tried.
I am sure that we’re going to have to make a better effort, though, because we do share that border, and that border has a lot of problems that can only be addressed from both sides.
Don’t you think that limiting drug problems to Mexico is restrictive? I think that this is a global problem, that involves everybody.
It’s absolutely a global problem. The so-called ‘Mexican drug problem’ isn’t the Mexican drug problem, it’s the American and European drug problem. We’re the buyers, we’re the consumers, we send the money to the cartels. There is a domestic Mexican drug market, but it’s relatively small.
So Mexico produces marijuana and heroin, it processes meth with precursor chemicals imported from other countries, and it’s a transit point for cocaine. But the market is elsewhere and it’s increasingly global.
The price of cocaine in Europe is 30-50% higher than it is in the United States. Because of the ease of international communication, drugs are easier to ship and market everywhere. So this is a global problem and there can only be global solutions. The problem won’t be solved in Mexico.
I think that a long and complicated story like this, starting from The Power of the Dog and arriving to The Cartel would be perfect for a tv series. You’ve already had several experiences with cinema (Savages was made into a film by Oliver Stone in 2012), would you like to experience a tv series?
Sure, at some point I would, but not for The Power of the Dog and The Cartel. We’re already way down the line on these as feature films.
I think that they’re big stories that need a big screen, and I want people to see them in a theater as a group experience, something I think that we’re unfortunately losing as people watch films more on the tv sets, computers screens and I-Pads.
‘Dog’ will come out first, followed by The Cartel. I’ve seen what’s been done on the screenplay and I’ve very excited. Stay tuned.
We all know that surfing is one of your greatest passions, have you ever thought to write a book about Miki Dora?
But I’m always been fascinated about that era in surfing – so many real characters, who were hitting breaks that had never been ridden before. When I’m at some of those places in California, I get this real sense of history, and try to imagine what it was like in those days.
I actually saw Dora – albeit briefly – toward the end of his life, down at Capo Beach in South Orange County. Cold, gray winter day.
I was with a buddy who recognized him, but it was clear that he wanted to be left alone, so we respected that.
What’s the difference between writing and surfing?
Actually, there are more similarities. There’s an old surfing saying, “Sometimes you ride the wave and sometimes the wave rides you.” And I’ve often thought, “Sometimes you tell the story and sometimes the story tells you.”
I’ve had that happen, where the characters or the plot just started doing things I hadn’t planned and I felt that I was just along for the ride. And crime writing is a lot like a wave – you see a certain thing on the surface, but there’s always something underneath that’s causing what you see.
Both surfing and writing require physical and mental stamina, both require a little courage, both require curiosity about ‘what’s next’.
Thank you very much Don and I hope to see you soon in Italy!