His Final Words

by Matt Cosentino | Apr 22, 2022
His Final Words

For a man who has spent the majority of his career as a novelist telling tales of bloodthirsty drug cartels, murderous thugs and corrupt cops, Don Winslow comes across as surprisingly affable in conversation. Unfailingly humble and grateful for his status as one of America’s most revered authors of crime fiction, Winslow laughs often, pokes fun at himself and is quick to offer insight into his creative process. He especially comes to life when talking about mentoring younger writers and doing his part to promote their work.

At 68 years old and with more than 20 books on his resume, Winslow still has plenty to say these days. Yet he won’t be doing so in the same manner that his fans have come to expect and love over the past two decades. The author best known for his “drug trilogy”—The Power of the Dog, The Cartel and The Border—recently announced his retirement from writing to focus on his political activism, a topic that has become increasingly important to him in recent years.

Fortunately, however, he has left his readers with one final gift, or three to be exact. City on Fire, released in late April, is the first book in a trilogy centered on the crime wars between Irish and Italian syndicates in Winslow’s home state of Rhode Island during the 1980s and ’90s. The second and third novels in the series, both finished and untitled, will be released in 2023 and 2024, respectively.

The film rights have already been bought by Sony’s 3000 Pictures, joining previous Winslow books that have adapted by Hollywood. Savages was turned into an Oliver Stone movie, while Satori and The Force are in development with the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon attached. The drug trilogy is slated to become a television series on FX.

South Jersey Magazine spoke to Winslow in the midst of his final book tour, which arrives at the Free Philadelphia Library on Thursday, May 5 at 7:30 p.m.

SJM: I’m sure it’s a grind to visit so many different cities across the country on your book tour, but this is your last one ahead of your retirement. Do you enjoy meeting readers face to face and getting to speak about your work?

DW: Absolutely. It’s been a while since we’ve been out with readers because of COVID and it is my last go-around, so it’s nice to say thank you to readers and book sellers because they’ve been so supportive of my for years. I owe everything to them.

SJM: Philadelphia and South Jersey both have large Irish and Italian populations, so I think they will connect to this story. Are you excited to visit Philly on your tour and connect with the readers here?

DW: Sure. I think the last time I was there I was at the Library and I met a lot of good people. I did one or two sessions over the phone with high school students in the area and it was great. I really enjoyed it and I hope to do it again. I love coming there.

SJM: Do you consider City on Fire and this trilogy to be your baby in a lot of ways? I know it’s a story you’ve had in the back of your mind for quite some time.

DW: For 27 years—I [first] had the idea 27 years ago. I wrote other books in between, obviously, but this is the first book that I’ve set in my hometown. It’s kind of different and very personal.

SJM: Most of your earlier work was set in California or Mexico. Was it fun to write about Rhode Island, including places you grew up in and know so well?

DW: Sure, because the research was walking out the door. We live [in Rhode Island] now six months a year. The book starts on a certain beach and I’m there every day for six months out of the year, from about 3 in the afternoon until sunset. Some of the bars and restaurants and what I call the small gods of place were great to be back to both physically and then of course mentally in writing the book.

SJM: Is it true that The Iliad was your inspiration in telling this story?

DW: It really was, very directly. When I was reading The Iliad it reminded me, believe it or not, of true crime stories from New England when I was growing up, and that’s what gave me the idea.

SJM: You’ve touched on some mob stories before, notably in The Power of the Dog, but did you feel like you had room to expound on Irish and Italian organized crime?

DW: Yeah, because when you’re writing about New York, it’s always big. Rhode Island organized crime was small. It was powerful but it was small, so everyone knew each other and that’s very essential to the story of this book. It’s much more intimate, and also, having grown up there, I felt like I knew these guys. 

SJM: Danny Ryan, the main character, seems a bit different than a character like Art Keller from the drug trilogy, who was always driving the narrative forward. Danny is more of an observer.

DW: Absolutely, that’s really perceptive. In the first book he is just reacting. He’s a reluctant participant: He marries into the ruling family and out of loyalty, he’s forced to react and get involved in the war. As the trilogy goes on, he becomes more of a driver of the action.

SJM: Did you always see this as a trilogy?

DW: Yes, from the get-go. I was also inspired by The Aeneid—Danny is really the character of Aeneas in The Iliad and so I wanted to follow that life cycle. I knew it came in three distinct parts: He fights in a war and loses, then he has to leave and wander and try to find a place to be while on the run, and then he builds an empire. Those were three really distinct pieces that fell very naturally into a trilogy.

SJM: You didn’t experience great success as a writer until later in life. Do you often think, especially now that you’re retiring, about the unique path you’ve taken?

DW: Yeah, of course I reflect back—it’s been a road, you know? But it’s been fun the whole way. Everyone struggles and I’ve been fortunate enough to have some success. I didn’t make this decision easily and part of me is sad because I love what I do.

SJM: What do you say to writers who are thinking about giving up on their dream because they haven’t hit it big by age 30 or 40? You’re living proof that it can still happen.

DW: That’s exactly what I say to them: Don’t give up, don’t ever give up, because it can happen. If this is what you love to do, then do it.

SJM: You have championed many younger writers and spread the word about their work. Is that something you will continue to do in retirement?

DW: Absolutely I will continue to do that. That’s part and parcel about supporting younger writers, to get the word out about them and let people know that they’re there and hopefully inspire people to read them. That’s really fun.

SJM: You’ve had so many memorable characters and they’ve been with you for many years. Are you going to miss Art Keller or think about what Boone Daniels is up to even though you won’t be writing about them anymore?

DW: [Laughs] That’s funny, no one has asked me that before. I think so. I spent 23 years with Art and over a decade with Boone. I know it’s funny to say because those are people who don’t actually exist, but I will miss them a little bit. Maybe I’ll read the books finally.

SJM: What’s the status of some of the television and film developments of your books?

DW: A bunch of them are moving forward. The drug trilogy is being made at FX as a television series. The Force is planned for a feature film with Matt Damon. This book has been bought by Sony for a feature film. Satori, a book of mine, is planned for a feature film with Leonardo DiCaprio. There’s a lot going on, it’s kind of crazy.

SJM: Is it true that Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro were set to adapt The Winter of Frankie Machine but ended up doing The Irishman instead?

DW: That is a true story. [Laughs] I can laugh about it now. I wrote a funny column about it called ‘I Blame Eric Roth.’ Eric Roth was the screenwriter who sent The Irishman to DeNiro to help with research for Frankie Machine. And they ended up liking that book better—I think it’s called [I Heard] You Paint Houses—so they ended up doing that. I feel fine about it. It’s the world, it’s the business, and those are all good people. I have no hard feelings.

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Author: Matt Cosentino

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