Don Winslow: ‘Trump’s relationship with Putin was almost a love affair. It was sickening’

The New York author, who is considered one of the best living crime writers, talks to EL PAÍS about his new book ‘City on Fire,’ reading the Greek myths and Trumpism

Writer Don Winslow in Rhode Island.
Writer Don Winslow in Rhode Island.Eduardo Muñoz

For someone who is a master of fictional murders, Don Winslow is surprisingly kind. The 68-year-old author was born in New York and is considered one of the best crime fiction writers of our time: he is very good at killing his characters. He spoke to EL PAÍS via video call from Rhode Island, his hometown, where his latest novel City on Fire is set. The novel was released in Spain on Monday, ahead of its release in English.

Question. Is Spain important to you?

Answer. Spain has always given me a lot of love and loyalty. There were years when people probably read me more in Spanish than in English, so of course, it is important to me. It also has sentimental value because of the influence that Don Quixote had on me and on crime fiction in general. I don’t think we could imagine crime fiction without Don Quixote.

Q. Your new work deals with the war between the Irish and Italians in New England. Is this something that impacts you personally?

A. Yeah, I grew up in that area watching mafia-style gang wars. I met those people in real life.

Q. You’ve written a lot about Latinos, about the border with Mexico, but this is where you really came from. Your story. Do you feel Irish?

A. I’m half Irish and half English. My father was very English, very WASP. And my mother is of Irish origin. So when in this book I was writing about Irish immigrants to New England not being accepted by the WASP power structure, I could write about it from both sides. My family was part of that power structure. But I also grew up with the Italians in my neighborhood. I remember how they would shut down the block to have big celebrations, with pasta, desserts, incredible parties with music, singing, which was so different from the very reserved and more formal WASP family that I come from. It would be funny as a kid to see my English-descendant dad dancing and partying with those Italians and Irish. There’s a party scene that occurs on the beach. That’s the place I grew up. And I live there half the year. That’s where I walked to say goodbye to my parents when they died. The settings of this book are intensely personal.

I started to wonder: could I take some of those themes that we find in classical literature and write a contemporary, standalone crime novel?

Q. You describe the book as a kind of Trojan War. Why?

A. In the 1990s, I realized how ignorant I really was. I had a very narrow education in African history. I also realized I didn’t know a great deal about literature. So I got a hold of one of those “great book lists” and decided to read all of it, which took me seven years. I read it chronologically: The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid. And it struck me how many of the themes that we have in contemporary crime fiction are already found in those works. The Iliad is all about power and turf. It starts with jealousy over a woman, but that’s just a pretext for two powers to fight each other. I started to wonder: could I take some of those themes that we find in classical literature and write a contemporary, standalone crime novel? Well not a standalone, but three, because it is a trilogy. I started working on this 20 years ago, but in the pandemic, I finished all three.

Q. Are they already written? All three? Tell me more!

A. It moves on, just as the Trojan War moved on. The Trojans lost and the survivors had to leave. My main guy Danny Ryan has to leave. Aeneas flees Troy and eventually becomes the founder of Rome, so in the second book, we find Danny in Hollywood. When Aeneas is shipwrecked, he walks into a cave and sees murals on the walls of the Trojan War. He sees himself, his dead friends, his wife... And I was trying to think what’s the contemporary version of this? We’re not going to put him in a cave with murals on the walls, that wouldn’t work! And I thought, well it’s Hollywood.

Q. Your character Danny is also of Spanish origin. Why?

A. In Ireland, there are the so-called “Black Irishmen,” which refers to descendants of Spanish sailors from the Invincible Armada who were shipwrecked and stayed there, married to Irish women. They had dark hair and features. I think I might be one. That’s why.

Q. Is this new trilogy a kind of Homeric poem?

A. Absolutely. It’s in prose and in modern crime language, but yes. I see a certain kind of poetry in the crime genre. If you read Raymond Chandler out loud, it’s poetry. The Iliad or The Odyssey address with a poetic voice people’s struggle to survive, to go against the machine in search of their fates. It’s about honor, dishonor, loyalty, revenge, love, lust. Everything you find in The Odyssey is in the crime novel.

Q. After the success of The Cartel Trilogy, are you afraid you won’t be able to outdo yourself?

A. Yes. I feel a combination of excitement and fear. I’m always afraid one day I am going to hear the scraping of the bucket on the bottom of a dry well, you know? And that fear motivates me.

Q. How do you carry out your research? Like the private investigator that you once were, or as a writer?

A. It’s a combination. I start reading like a historian until I feel like I have a base knowledge of the subject, so when I go out to talk to people I am no longer interested in the facts, which I already know, but in their thoughts, their feelings. And that’s where the investigative work comes into play. I was always trying to be aware of the subtext, to be aware that people are lying or hiding things. You develop an instinct from that. As a novelist, what interests me is people’s interior lives. You have to spend enough time with people to develop a relationship that isn’t just question and answer, but that you become part of their world and for good or ill they become a part of your world, which is sad with some because you know they won’t have a happy ending.

Q. After your previous trilogy on drugs, it was assumed you would be tired of the subject, but now you’re writing about it again. Was it not enough?

A. I knew I would have to come up with a Trojan horse moment, where people invite something or someone into their lives that is eventually going to destroy them. I had to ask myself: what would be the contemporary version of that? And the answer was drugs. It’s just a coincidence that the nickname for heroin at that time was “horse.”

Q. You’ve been a tough campaigner against Trump.

A. And I still am.

Q. Has the danger passed?

A. Absolutely not. I wish it were, but it’s not. We had an attempted coup on January 6, and nothing has been done about it. There have not been consequences either for Trump or the high-ranking politicians who were accessories and who are still out there spewing their lies. I wish it were over. But it’s not. And we are going to have to face it again.

Q. Do you in any way connect the Ukraine war with Trumpism?

A. Trump’s relationship with Putin was almost a love affair. It was sickening. Trump admired Putin and wanted to be like him. He tried on January 6. And all this emboldened Putin. They share the same idea of a strongman. I think it’s extraordinarily dangerous, I think we are in an existential moment for Western democracies.

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