"The Cartel" author Don Winslow on the war on drugs: "There is an exit strategy — legalize drugs, and treat them as the social problem that they are"

The acclaimed crime writer sits down with playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis to discuss drugs, noir and "The Cartel"

Published June 23, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

Don Winslow      (Knopf/Jerry Bauer)
Don Winslow (Knopf/Jerry Bauer)

New York Times bestselling author and Raymond Chandler award recipient Don Winslow has written 17 novels, including "The Kings of Cool," "Savages," "The Winter of Frankie Machine" and the highly acclaimed epic "The Power of the Dog." His sequel to "The Power of the Dog" is out today. "The Cartel," hailed by James Ellroy as "'The War and Peace' of dopewar books," will join "The Power of the Dog" in what Deadline reports is a deal for a two-film series on the futility of the drug war that spans 45 years and focuses on two mortal enemies: DEA agent Art Keller, working in Mexico at the dawn of Nixon's war on drugs, and Adan Barrera, the head of a powerful drug cartel.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis ("Between Riverside and Crazy," "The Motherf*cker With the Hat," "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot") sat down with Winslow to discuss "Cartel," writing crime novels and the ongoing war on drugs.

Your novel "Power of the Dog" must have been a Herculean undertaking and the critical raves were no doubt well-earned and much deserved.  And now you give us "The Cartel."  Why tempt fate and write a sequel?  And why should we, as readers, invest in another massive opus on the drug trade?

First, I was reluctant to write "The Cartel."  It wasn’t so much about tempting fate, it was more that "Dog" represented over five years of my working life and, frankly, wrung me out.  It was tough stuff to research and write.  So when the idea was first brought to me to write a follow-up volume that brought the story to today, I couldn’t get off the phone fast enough.  But as I watched things gets worse and worse in Mexico – far worse than I wrote about in "Dog" — I knew I had to write about it.  I had unfinished business.  Not to be overly dramatic about it, but I almost felt like a deserter from a war.  Immodestly, I thought that I had the background, from "Dog," to tell this story — to explain to readers what had happened in Mexico, and that I should do it.  It wasn’t an easy decision – it’s a five-year commitment, and it wouldn’t affect just me, but my family and my friends, because I knew if I started, I’d become obsessed.  And that spending many of my days looking at atrocity vid-clips and photos would take a toll on me, and therefore, the people closest to me.  You try to protect them from it, but in the very act of protecting them, you isolate yourself from them.

Why should you read it?  Well, if you read "Dog," you’ll want to continue the story, which picks up just months after its original leaves off, and features the same main characters.  Together, the two volumes – something like a combined 1,300 pages -- make up one fictional history of over 40 years of the War on Drugs.  It’s a huge story – filled with larger-than-life characters, dramatic situations, conflict, treachery, courage, honor – all rich material for a novelist.  It would be incredible if you didn’t know it was drawn from real events.  As Americans, we see the headlines coming out of Mexico, but we rarely get deeper.  I think – I hope – "The Cartel" shows what goes on behind those headlines.  It shows the people, the emotions, the real-life impact of the War on Drugs.  Journalists can give facts, but novelists can tell truth, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with these two novels.

In your new book, "The Cartel," your DEA agent Art Keller embarks on a 10-year odyssey to take down drug kingpin Adan Barrera -- again!  Are there parallels to Keller's obsessiveness in your own life?  And if so, can you share some of the pluses and minuses of that kind of internal DNA?

Both Keller and I thought we were finished with the War on Drugs after "The Power of the Dog." We were both wrong.  As I’m sure you know, most writers are obsessed.  I think you have to be to do what we do – to spend years researching a topic and then writing it, always trying to find the answers to the question "Why?"  I guess the pluses of that character trait are obvious – you stick with a project until you finish it, until you have the answers.  The minuses?  Well, tunnel vision, for one.  It’s hard to turn your mind off the project, you think about it every waking hour and dream about it when you’re asleep.  I don’t know about you, but I also have to make an effort to keep that obsessiveness out of other areas of my life.  I’m not always so successful at it.

In "The Cartel," Keller is tested unendingly and in every manner physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.  To me, that's a big part of what makes your novel so compelling and exciting.  That said, do you believe it's actually possible to  “Face down the devil and not lose one's soul”?  And what's the closest you've come to winning or losing that fight?  

I’ve often said that "Dog" was more about religion than drugs.  To me, the spine of the story was about a group of people who lose their faith and then try to find a way to live decently in what is basically an indecent world.  Some do, most don’t.  Without that moral compass, they are lost wanderers in a morally bleak and hostile terrain.

I’m not sure about myself in that regard.  When you write a story like this, you sure as hell (pun intended) stare at the devil, on a near daily basis.  You look at so much suffering, violence, sadism and treachery that it’s easy to start seeing only the evil side of humanity.  I was no rookie to violence – in my prior career as an investigator I’d worked murder cases, abuse cases – I saw more of that side of humanity than I ever wanted to.  Not all knowledge is good – you learn things that you’d probably be better off not knowing, see things that would have been better unseen.  It has a hardening effect on you.  I can remember when I was still doing trial work, I was flipping through autopsy photos of a murdered woman with one hand and eating a ham sandwich with the other and I suddenly stopped and wondered what I’d become.  Was I that jaded, hardened, inured to violence?  In that case, you feel pretty close to losing the battle.  You have to make a conscious effort to remember the good things in life – family, friends, people who are out there doing good things.  In all candor, you wrestle with despair when you write books like "Dog" or "The Cartel" because you spend so much of your time dealing with the worst aspects of the human condition.  You start to lose your faith in people, as well. But then you encounter the inspirational – and true – stories of amazing courage, honor and sacrifice in the midst of this horrifically messed up world, and that allows you to face down the devil.

A compelling protagonist is only as badass as the antagonist he or she must go through to get to the other side.  So tell us: Who would you rather have in a foxhole with you -- Keller or Barrera?  And why?

You’re absolutely right – Ahab is nothing if the white whale isn’t "great."  You need the irresistible force and the immoveable object. Each makes the other stronger, more determined.

As for the foxhole: Keller, definitely.  He’d stay in the foxhole with you when things got tough.  While the two characters are equal in power, in no way is there a moral equivalency.  At the end of the day, most gangsters are narcissists – they can see nothing more important than themselves.  They’re often sociopaths, incapable of feeling anyone’s pain but their own.  They believe in nothing bigger than themselves.  Over the course of these two books, Adan has come to believe that his own survival is paramount – that he is the cartel.  Keller – for good or ill – is exactly the opposite.  He believes himself to be insignificant on the scale of things and is almost too devoted to a larger cause, which is the destruction of Adan and his beloved cartel.  Keller is old school – he believes in loyalty, sacrifice, honor.

Given the subject matter of both "The Cartel" and "Power of the Dog," in your opinion, is there a credible exit strategy for our failed War on Drugs, and if so, what would that process look like -- and do you think it will ever happen?

There is an exit strategy: legalize drugs, and treat them as the social problem that they are.  The billions of dollars we would save every year would let us address the root problems behind drug use.  Why don’t we spend more money on treatment instead of imprisonment?  Why don’t we build factories and businesses in the inner cities and give people decent paying jobs?  Why don’t we improve our schools?  We’ll never completely cure addiction (the rates of addiction are remarkably consistent) but we would definitely reduce it.  What is clear is that what we’re doing now isn’t working.  It’s time to try something else.  Will it ever happen?  For the first time, I’m optimistic.  We see marijuana laws changing rapidly, and we see a coalition of right and left talking about judicial reform as it relates to sentencing.  The left is demanding it from a human rights standpoint, the conservatives want to see it for fiscal reasons.  Both are correct, and it’s something they can actually get together on.

I'm a big fan of your surf noir novels.  Your Boone Daniels character and the world he inhabits is such a no-brainer for a great television series.  Any plans to do so?

In some ways, surfing is a perfect metaphor for noir – you see one thing on the surface – the top of the wave – but there’s always something going on beneath that surface, and it’s often dark and murky.  If you’re going to ride the wave, you’d better know what’s going on underneath, or it’s going to take you down with it.  It might anyway.

Regarding a television series, there are serious discussions going on now with some remarkable talent, which are exciting.  But it has to be the right situation with the right people.  What I don’t want to see is "Baywatch" with crimes.  I want something that captures the very real beauty of that world, but also captures the gritty reality beneath it.

I've got a confession:  I'm mainly a playwright, but I've always harbored the secret desire to write a mystery or crime thriller.  What's your best advice on my first three steps in the process toward writing something credible that hopefully doesn't suck?

Well, as long as we’re confessing here – I started my writing life as a playwright.  The theater can celebrate that I switched to crime fiction. Advice for you?  I know your stuff – you couldn’t suck if you worked at it.  But since you asked:

1.  Start with character.  Everything springs from that.  No character, no story.  And the character has to want something.

2.  Remember that "bad guys" don’t think they’re bad.  They always have a point of view.  We can’t stand on the outside and judge it.

3.  Read the genre’s greats – Chandler, Hammett, Macdonald, Leonard, Block, Willeford, Thompson, Ellroy.  They teach us everything we need to know.

You've enjoyed tremendous success with your novels both nationally and internationally.  What drives you?  Are you still hungry?  What do you do to keep the fire burning?  

I’m ravenous.  There are just so many great stories I want to tell and not enough time to tell them.  I’m one of those guys who, when he sees a great story, thinks that the entire world needs to hear it.  And to be really honest, I’m ambitious.  I don’t think I’ve written my best book yet, and the thought of writing that book absolutely drives me.  And I know that to do that, I have to keep getting better and better. I’m still learning.

And then there are just those moments, you know.  I remember editing "Dog" with Sonny Mehta, the legendary publisher.  We sat all night at his kitchen table in New York, debating, arguing, sometimes agreeing.  I remember so distinctly walking back to my hotel at dawn through the quiet NYC streets, with only the music of the garbage trucks and the street cleaners, knowing that I had just had one of those once-in-a-lifetime literary experiences – the sort of thing I had dreamed about as a kid – and being so grateful for it.  That kind of thing keeps you going.

I love Oliver Stone stories.  Would you be willing to share one with us that lives up to the hype?

My friend and co-writer Shane Salerno and I took Oliver on a location scout for the film of a book of mine called "Savages."  It was an uncharacteristically cold and rainy Southern California day, not the setting in which I really wanted to show off Laguna.  We take Oliver to real locations, and at every one, he’s saying stuff like “This doesn’t look like a dope dealer’s house,” “This isn’t what a money launderer’s office would look like.”  And I don’t know what to say because, well, they were.  Shane’s driving, and all day, Oliver is alternately telling him, “Shane, speed up, we have a lot to see,” “Shane, slow down, I can’t see anything.”  Finally, on the Pacific Coast Highway in downtown Laguna Beach, Shane turns 180 in his seat, looks at Oliver and says, “I can speed up.  I can slow down.  I can’t do both at the same time.  Which do you want?!”  I grab the wheel.  Oliver cracks up.  This kind of thing goes on for about eight hours, in the rain, and I’m wondering if a jury would really convict if I shot Oliver.  Later, we’re at a restaurant (a real location), Oliver starts talking about the day he came home from Vietnam, and Shane I realize we’re hearing the origin story of "Platoon."

Last question:  What keeps you up at night?  And does it find its way into your work?  

It does, because it’s my work that keeps me up at night.  It’s just hard to turn it off.  I lie there and think about characters, about scenes, especially about dialogue – these guys keep yapping and yapping, refining what they say, until it’s a real line.  Or I’ll think about a situation – an event in the book.  Am I writing it from the right character’s point of view, or would it be better seen through another character?  Or I might think of a line I wrote that day and realize that it actually stinks, and then I remind myself to take it out first thing in the morning.

By Stephen Adly Guirgis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Crime Novels Don Winslow Drug War Noir Power Of The Dog Stephen Adly Guirgis The Cartel War On Drugs