Don Winslow is one of America's most widely read and acclaimed crime writers. His work has been adapted for major Hollywood movies and TV series.
In his bestselling books "The Cartel" (2015), "The Force" (2017), and "The Border" (2019), Winslow has taken the mystery, action, grittiness, moral dilemmas, and authenticity that typifies the best of crime fiction as a genre and combined it with epic storytelling and complex characters against the backdrop of America's failed war on drugs.
Winslow's new book "Broken" is a collection of six short novels focusing on the tragedies and triumphs, and day-to-day lives of people – cops, bounty hunters, drug addicts, drug dealers, detectives, their loved ones, friends, and community – who are criminals, those trying to stop them, and the human rubble left along America's "criminal highway."
Winslow is also a very outspoken truth-teller about the criminality, cruelty and inhumanity of Donald Trump and his regime.
In the conversation below, Winslow explains how Donald Trump embodies everything wrong with American masculinity and shares his observation that the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect metaphor for the pain and harm being caused to the American people and the world by Trump and his movement.
Winslow also reflects on the obligations of the artist in a time of crisis and why he has chosen to be so vocal about Trump and his regime's many crimes against human decency and democracy.
You can also listen to my conversation with Don Winslow on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Could you have imagined all that has happened with Donald Trump being president? If it was fiction no reasonable person would believe it.
No, you can't make this up. It's the problem with writing fiction right now. Every day you get up, and the headlines have outpaced anything you could reasonably imagine. It's discouraging. To me the coronavirus feels like the physical manifestation of some sort of metaphysical infection that we have had during the last three years at least with Donald Trump and this situation. Now Trump and all that has come from him feels almost feels like it's finally physically manifested in the form of the virus. Now we have to see how we are all going to get through this intact.
America is sick society. The sickness is so omnipresent that too many people have become used to it as being "normal." Your description of the coronavirus as being both physical and metaphysical is such a perfect encapsulation of the Age of Trump.
I'm really beginning to come to that conclusion. It feels like in a weird way that we must get through the coronavirus in order to get past it and what it represents. It is all like the fever breaking and you go through the sweats and the shakes and the bones hurting and all that comes with getting through the illness.
And there is of course the surreal aspect of it all, with Trump's religious leaders telling people to lick the floors of churches to prove that the virus does not exist, or still telling the congregation to come to church and then they inevitably get sick from the coronavirus. Trump leads a cult. It is all a manifestation of how sick American society really is.
The first thing I do in the mornings is I usually look at five or six newspapers online. For the last few days, I almost haven't wanted to. I almost have to force myself to follow my routine. Each day's headlines are always worse than yesterday's. And then we read this ridiculous stuff about people licking the floors of churches and other madness, and then one has to ask themselves, "Is this who we are as a people? As Americans? What is going on?"
In terms of a narrative and the traditional Western storytelling form, there is no climax with the Age of Trump. There is no end, just one horrible thing after another without pause. One must wonder what that lack of closure is doing to the emotional and intellectual lives of the American people.
In my trilogy about America's drug wars I intentionally abandoned the three-act structure in exchange for a five-act structure, which is the classic structure of tragedy. That is what this moment feels like to me. It is a tragedy.
A person cannot continue to support Donald Trump and still be an introspective and decent human being. To support Donald Trump is to abandon being a human being who actually thinks deeply about right and wrong. To support Donald Trump is to be a party to and support all the horrible and cruel things he does.
I don't want to just recite the whole "Greatest Generation" trope about World War II but I live in a very rural area, and it's mostly Republicans. I'm the Democrat who gets sent out to talk to my Republican neighbors when a school bond issue or some related matter comes up.
For some reason they like me. I can tell them, "Hey, we need to get these school bonds funded." They respect me, and we can work together. I have never had an issue with the 70- and 80-year-olds. They are rock-ribbed, conservative ranchers who wear cowboy hats and boots. They get it. If I go to them and I say, "Hey, we need this. I need you to vote this way because the kids need this for their educations," then they are on board. It is the 50- and 60-year-olds who are not supportive. Their response is, "Yeah, if it was good enough for me, it's good enough for them." I tell them, "That's funny because your own dad doesn't think so."
Would you even be able to properly write Donald Trump as a character in one of your books?
I don't think so. But he appears in another form in a book of mine called "The Border." But really it is impossible to write a parody of a parody. It just can't be done. Here's this guy Donald Trump in the midst of this coronavirus crisis with people dying, worried, and scared. What does Trump talk about? How it cost him billions of dollars to become president. What? Gilbert and Sullivan couldn't write lyrics for this guy. So no, I'll take a pass on it. Thank you.
We fiction writers are all struggling right now about how to write anything about and in this era. Our stories for the most part are set right now. We have to describe this moment in this era somehow. It is very difficult to do. As a writer it is easy to find yourself wandering into sarcasm, which means there will be more irony than you might otherwise want.
In America we truly are living a caricature of reality with Trump as president. What type of art do you think this moment is going to produce?
I don't think anyone's going to write anything really good about it this moment for another 10 years. We need perspective on it. I don't think that there's much in terms of novels anyway or films that are going to be done because it is so very immediate. Everything that is happening is simply too close. We also don't know the truth and all the facts about what Donald Trump has done. That reflects a broader problem with contemporary culture: with the 24/7 news cycle everything is so fast. The first story is usually wrong. To fully grapple with Donald Trump and that has happened and is happening needs time. We will also need more time before anything approaching art is made in response to Trump and this moment.
What is the obligation of the artist in a time of crisis?
I do not think that there's a responsibility to speak out. Let me just stick with my own genre. I think it's perfectly okay to write what is just a good suspense novel that entertains people and maybe to a certain extent informs the reader. That is perfectly appropriate. I kind of got into speaking about politics simply because of what I was writing about. I never intended to be a political person and I never intended to be terribly outspoken. Frankly, it goes against my personality. My inclinations tend towards being an introvert.
But in the 22 years of doing my drug trilogy, I felt that if I didn't speak out then I was almost being some type of voyeur on the genuine suffering of the people being hurt by the drug wars.
If I knew, which I do, that the war on drugs is both futile and counterproductive and wrong, then at a certain point it was incumbent on me to step outside of the novel and say it. If I knew that Trump's wall along the U.S.-Mexico border was a cruel travesty in terms of solving the heroin epidemic, the opioid crisis, then at some point I needed to step outside of saying it in a novel and say it in public. That was necessary for me to do but I don't think it is necessarily a responsibility that every artist has.
I was thinking about the border wall and how Trump and Stephen Miller and other people who share their values talk about nonwhite migrants, refugees, and immigrants. Driven by bigotry and racism, it is very easy for some people to disparage and hate people that they never met and don't know.
It frustrates me terribly when I hear people from the Northeast claim to be experts on the border, and they've maybe come down for an hour or two and gotten the standard tour. I live very close to the border. I know the people who live here. They're my friends. They're my neighbors. They went to school with my kid. We're on committees together. They're, for the most part, really fine people. It infuriates me when I hear Donald Trump call them "rapists" and "murderers" and blame them for bringing diseases into the country, including the coronavirus.
I believe that very few people, regardless of their political persuasion, could physically, in person, see somebody suffering or dying in person and not do something to help them. That's on the micro level. On the macro level though, we talk about "illegal immigrants" and "wetbacks" and use other such language and then it is very easy for people to become indifferent and cruel.
I wrote "The Border" to get beneath the headlines in these discussions about immigration. Let's live with an immigrant, albeit through fiction, for a few hundred pages. Let's not talk about the opioid crisis. Let's live with a young woman who is a heroin addict. Let's live with a cop on that beat. Let's try to see what is happening from that individual level. That makes a huge difference. To be able to do that is one of the great opportunities provided by fiction as a genre because we can create a story in our heads and hearts and then bring the reader close that world and feelings.
There are many ways to create that type of connection with the reader. The technique that I choose is to see life through the eyes of the people in my stories. And that does require a certain amount of empathy. It requires sitting down and talking to people. It really requires sitting down and listening to people – which is something by the way that we as writers need to remind ourselves to do.
As human beings we share a common humanity. While fortunately I have not suffered in the way that the people in "The Border" or my other books have suffered because of the war on drugs, we do all have common human experiences. We've all suffered loss, we've all suffered fear, we've all felt hope, we've all felt disappointment, and I think that we can relate on those levels.
One of the throughlines in your books are questions of masculinity and violence, and the relationships that men have with one another as fathers, sons, brothers, and comrades. When I see Donald Trump, I don't see a "bad man" ora real tough guy. I see a man pretending to be tough, a wannabe mafia boss.
All the real tough guys I know are either dead or in jail. Very often these Hollywood wannabe tough guys have made a gangster movie and they think they are the character in real life. They are not. Donald Trump wants to be a badass and clearly is not. Growing up, my intuition is that Donald Trump didn't have any friends or other people to tell him that, "Hey, you're being a jerk." It appears that Donald Trump did not have anyone to help define him as a person and help him learn boundaries and correct behavior.
Trump's wannabe tough guy swagger and machismo bullying and posturing is part of his appeal. Again, it reveals a sickness in American society. Specifically, a crisis in American masculinity.
Much of this is in fact a crisis in masculinity. Donald Trump represents most of what I don't like about men. Donald Trump represents men at our worst with all that macho posturing and other nonsense.
In the research for your books you have encountered some real bad men, legitimately tough and dangerous people. What were they like?
They are each different. They remind me of the famous Tolstoy observation that, "All happy families are the same, and all unhappy families are different." That is true of the real bad guys.
I have sat across a table from multiple murderers who can be as charming as anyone you've ever had dinner with, and yet you look in their eyes and you definitely see it. Others are just cold businesspeople. To them, violence is unfortunate but necessary. Others are very quiet. Those ones are the really serious guys. Some are sociopaths or psychopaths and others are just muted. What you typically don't see though with these types of real bad men is the macho posturing because they have no need to do it.
As the cliché goes, is all writing therapeutic?
No. Not for me. That's not the deal that I have with the reader. The reader doesn't care and shouldn't care about Don Winslow's feelings. The purpose of my books is not for me to bare my soul. The purpose of my books is hopefully to tell a really good story in a good way and to maybe give people some information that they didn't have. I also hope that after finishing one of my books that the readers see the world in a different way than they had before.
How did writing become your vocation?
I've always wanted to be a writer. I felt that ways since I was a little kid. I grew up around great storytellers. My dad was a sailor and one of the great raconteurs of all time. He and his buddies had seen the world and could tell such amazing stories.
I used to sit, literally, at their feet hiding under the table. They'd pretend not to know I was there while they're drinking beer and telling great old stories. And the stories got better every year. My mom was a librarian, so I grew up around books. My dad was a tremendous reader, so I always thought that I wanted to read and write for a living. But at some point, we often experience a crisis of confidence. I remember thinking to myself, that "No. I am not good enough to write for a living. I don't have the talent to do that." I needed to make a living, so I did that by trying to do things that were more interesting as opposed to less interesting and I was lucky enough to get some of those gigs.
I remember this vividly. I was in Africa on a safari – photographic safaris to be clear – sick with dysentery and a malaria relapse and thinking to myself, "You better do this thing, man. You better just stop thinking about it, stop talking about it and really do it." And I'd heard Joseph Wambaugh say that when he was a Los Angeles homicide cop – which he was for many years – he really wanted to be a writer. So, he decided to write 10 pages a day. I said to myself, "Well, I can't write 10 but I can do five." I did it every day for the next three years until I had my first book. All the other things I did for money were just ways of evading what I really wanted to do which is to be a professional writer.