“I fight against pornography of violence”

At 68 years old, the author of “Cartel” ends his career with an ultimate criminal trilogy, from which the first volume, “The City in Flames” emerges. Meeting a writer who took the thriller to literary heights.

He could have been content to be the honest author of Detective Neal Carey’s Adventures, published in the early 1990s. But in 2005, ex-detective Don Winslow plunged into a world of great writers of black literature publishing as a 51-year-old. . A Shakespearean tragedy at the height of James Ellroy’s “Los Angeles Quartet”. For through this novel, followed by the masterful “Cartel” ten years later, and ending with “The Border” in 2019, Winslow threw three cobblestones into the pond in an America plagued by drug dealers’ money and revealed the bloody reality of North-South relations. Today, Winslow bows with a crime trilogy under the seal of Homer and Virgil. A way to definitely register in the pantheon of the best thriller writers.
Paris Match. Is your latest trilogy as ambitious as your drug cartel series?
Don Winslow. It becomes less comprehensive, but it is also ambitious in its own way, for I wrote the first chapters of it twenty-seven years ago. I resumed and left “The City in Flames” several times, it did not work. Probably because the action takes place on Rhode Island, where I grew up … I needed to get away from it both temporally and geographically.

You’re inspired by the Trojan War to tell the story of a gang of Irish and Italian gangsters. Are classic writers relevant even in the noir novel?
Yes, their themes are universal. The same thing happened with Helen of Troy, where I grew up. At a beach party, the member of an Irish clan drunk his head together with an Italian gangster’s girlfriend. He hit him so hard that he spent weeks in the hospital. Retaliation took place, and from revenge to revenge the conflict lasted ten years and cost 40 lives!

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Do fiction and reality echo each other to that degree?
They go hand in hand. When I read “The Iliad,” I thought to myself, “Damn, but I know this story, it happened in my neighborhood!” So I had to grab it …

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This taste for literature, does it stem from your childhood?
My mother was a librarian. I had the right to devour everything without restrictions. I started reading Hemingway around 11-12 years old. As for my father, he was a sailor who had traveled the world. I hid under the table in the evening to hear his stories full of noise, rage and completely crazy captains!

Orality has therefore played an equally important role as writing for you?
Yes. In addition, I became an actor from the age of 12 and I performed on stage. Very early on I was familiar with the power of words. Reading is not only an intellectual activity but also a physical activity!

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Do you, like Flaubert, shout at the passages you have written?
I read my entire dialogue aloud to hear if my sentences sound true. During an action scene, I want my words to pop [il frappe dans ses mains]. For scenes with love or sorrow, I want them to have a delicate, soft texture …

Without jazz, I would not have understood how to write a detective novel

You speak like a musician!
Jazz affected me tremendously. Without this music, I would not have understood how to write a detective novel. The genre has an intangible rule: the ending must be surprising and inevitable. It’s totally contradictory! This paradox haunted me for years, until the day I heard the great saxophonist Sonny Stitt perform his classic “Everything Happens to Me”. I knew what chord the piece would end up in, but the way to achieve it amazed me. I then realized that it was necessary to end a thriller in the expected tone, but that the images and the words used to lead to the inevitable result had to surprise. Luckily, I reread “Corruption” just before it went to press: I ended up on a fake note, I spared my hero eventually when he was going to die.

Still, readers love stories with happy endings, right?
Yes, but here I had struck the wrong string. I called back to the editor, who said to me, “But finally! Why do you want to change? I love the ending! ”I did not give in, I had to rewrite the last forty pages and sacrifice my character… even though I loved him.

When I was a detective, I had killers of the worst kind in front of me

You were a private detective for fifteen years. Has it helped you in your work as a writer?
Not when I started in New York, where I just chased pickpockets and junkies and runaways. Later, in California, I worked on fraud, murder, I met victims, police officers, judges, and criminals. I had killers of the worst kind in front of me. It broke into my books, but the most useful thing was to use the same investigative methods: I scrutinized police reports, those from the FBI, CIA, transcripts of lawsuits … thousands of pages …! And I’ve been hanging out with San Diego gangsters and drug dealers. The techniques are ultimately quite identical.

Your cartel trilogy, which began in 2005 with “The Dog’s Claw” and ended in 2019 with “The Border”, has been a mountain of hell to climb. Like James Ellroy, did you have the ambition to rewrite America’s history through drug trafficking?
I never intended to embark on such a trilogy. “The Dog Claw” took me six years of research and authorship and almost ended my career as a writer. Because letting so much time go between two books is almost suicide! My wife, Jean, told me I was about to end, in the throes of depression … I replied, “Don’t worry, now I’m going to write stories about happy San Diego surfers …” And there, all that shit started raining again. Between 2004 and 2014, there was a new wave of violence in Mexico on an unprecedented scale … I then thought I was able to explain the reasons for it in the form of another novel.

Because a novelist can go where journalists can not go?
Exactly. Do not get offended, but one thing is to talk about illegal immigration in one, it is another when I take you on the trip with a 10-year-old kid who arrived illegally, on the roof of a train. With “Cartel” I had the most horrible experience of my life … and I decided once again that I would not be caught again. Alas, that was the election of Trump. And the most monstrous lies were told against immigrants, which made me insane! Trump talked about my friends, my neighbors, people I love! He called them thieves, murderers, rapists! [Il tremble d’émotion.] I had to fight it, go back to coal with “La frontières”.

Trump had even promised that his wall would stop illegal immigration …
This son of p …, this baboon told the parents of children who died of overdose that he would solve the problem by erecting a wall when he well knows it was a huge lie! Sorry if I get mad, but every fifteen seconds a shipment of drugs crosses the border, no one can stop such a flow. To build a wall, what is the point? Apart from further increasing the profits of the cartels, which control the borders …

Do you set boundaries when describing the extreme cruelty of sicarios?
I’m trying to write realistic fiction and I have nothing against my colleagues making thrillers where the dead pile up. I’ve seen the reality of shooting to death, and there really is no fat about it. I fight against pornography of violence. But I realized while writing “Cartel” that I was becoming insensitive to it: I looked at the autopsy pictures in a cold, technical way, I observed the position of the corpses at the crime scene …

Mexican women rose up against the cartels, against the army, against the government

Did you feel like you were losing your sensitivity?
Quite. So I said to myself that it was more important to focus on the victims, to understand the context that led to their tragic end. I will not be happy with “pan, you’re dead!” but show the pain of the families. While writing the last volume, “The Border,” I received three phone calls telling me about the murder of Mexicans whose lives I told in fiction.

In “Kartel” you mainly showed the consequences of this massacre on women …
[Au bord des larmes.] Oh yeah … because these are true stories, everything happened in my trilogy one way or another, even though I translated it: some Mexican women’s courage is incredible, those against the cartels, against the army, against the government. One of those I knew had been shot several times by the cartels. After the third attempted murder, barely out of the hospital, she had called the TVs and exposed her scars by throwing, “You will not arrest me!” Fourth time the killers managed to shoot her … In “Cartel” I could not bring myself to kill her, I sacrificed the journalist who helps her … the hardest scene I’ve ever seen. ever had to write, it broke my heart.

You have to be pessimistic about human nature, right?
I had this feeling for a period of my life, but now it’s behind me. Because if we look at life with pessimism or cynicism, how can we get up in the morning? Or you have to commit suicide … Human nature is double, and in myths and legends there is always the story of wolves, dogs or lions lurking inside us. Among these animals is an angry beast. It all depends on whether you choose to feed it or not.

Also read. 6 Reasons to Read Don Winslow

“The dog’s claw” was already a bit like that?
It is true. It would have been easy, after twenty-three years of covering the war on drugs, to feed my demons, for it has been my daily bread. And yet, near my house, there is an elementary school where I staged Shakespeare with the kids in the valley and they made it what they wanted, namely a musical, me who hates it! [Il rit.] Ok, cool. It feeds the other dog! It’s better than the kids watching beheading videos on their screens …

Also read. “Cartel” by Don Winslow: master strokes

You just announced on Twitter that you retired as a novelist. Writing is no longer a necessity for you?
We’ll see … but the three novels of “The City in Flames” that I just finished will no doubt be the last books I want to publish, even though writing has been an addiction for most of my life. I knew when I started that I was going down a difficult path, and those who present me as the author “with lightning success” amuse me, me, who only really had success after 50 years. I would have done better to follow a twelve-step detox program: “Hi … My name is Don Winslow and I want to write a novel!” “Oh no, give up!” [Il rit.] 

“The Burning City,” by Don Winslow, ed. Harper Collins, 380 pages, 21.90.

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