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'Cowards and Sycophants': Don Winslow Rails Against Republicans, Talks Gangster Novel 'City of Fire'

Don Winslow has had many careers: private investigator, safari guide, best-selling crime novelist, Hollywood screenwriter, and, in the last few years, political activist. On his social media feeds, Winslow regularly drops videos like #JoeManchinSenatorForSale or Trump is Lying to You. The videos — which Winslow writes and produces with his longtime agent, Shane Salerno, under the banner Don Winslow Films — aren’t subtle, but they are Hollywood-slick and extremely effective in their messaging. According to Winslow, they have been viewed by some 250 million people. 

Somehow, in between all the social media activity, Winslow, 68, still finds time to write big, fat books. He’s so good at crime fiction that Stephen King called Winslow “America’s greatest storyteller” and the novelist James Ellroy dubbed him the “The dope-war king.” Winslow’s latest crime novel, City on Fire, the first in a trilogy, is a gritty gangster saga set in his hometown of Providence and based on two of the oldest narratives in history: the Iliad and the Aeneid. It’s the tale of a bloody mob war between Italian and Irish gangsters. The conflict is set off at a New England clambake by two rivals for a beautiful woman and rips the city apart. Half the fun is figuring out who is who from the epic poems, the other half is Winslow’s live-wire prose and gift for plot and character. He’s said he’s retiring after these books, which is too bad, because he’s still at the top of his game.

“We can look back to these classics and see how timeless they are,” Winslow tells Rolling Stone. “They were writing about themes that apply now: loss, tragedy, death, revenge, compassion, love, lust — everything we write about in contemporary crime fiction.”

How did you get through the pandemic?
Writing this book, basically. Let’s be honest, for a writer, in terms of work situation, social isolation is a work tactic for us. But my mom died during the pandemic. She was 3,000 miles away and we couldn’t do a funeral. But to answer your question, I wrote this trilogy.

What inspired you to write a gangster saga based on the Iliad?
I remember years ago, Xenophon’s March of the Ten Thousand became the movie The Warriors. And of course James Joyce and Ulysses, one my favorite books, but I’m not comparing myself to Joyce.

Are you a little worried about angering the Sons of Columbus by making Aeneas, the founder of Rome, an Irish person?
Not yet. Maybe they haven’t realized it yet, I don’t know. Founder of Rome an Irish guy. [Laughs.] I chose Aeneas very deliberately because he has a slightly outsider’s view. He’s a minor player in the Iliad. He married into the royal family, but he wasn’t really of it, and I like that slant. This soulful guy who’d lost everything and with the remnants of the Trojans wanders the earth. And that, to me, was really evocative.

You set it in the Eighties. Is it easier to write these crime stories about a time before everybody had smartphones and computers?
I did. Because I live for the day that I’m going to frisbee this phone into the ocean. I can imagine there’s zing and it bounces a couple of times. And then I’ll go get it. So as not to pollute. But yeah, listen, technology has changed crime writing because everyone can be in touch all the time. But really, I set this in the Eighties because it’s been underdone as an era, and also I’m projecting 20 years into the future with these people.

Is it hard to make a gangster story fresh nowadays?
It is. Look, you always know that you’re always following, from The Godfather to Goodfellas, Casino, to The Sopranos. You’re always going to be in their wake. And I’m not running from that at all. I love all those works for different reasons. But the reason that I did this classical thing was because I went back and I started to read the classics. Around the mid-Nineties, I realized how ignorant I was. I had this really narrow education in African history, which I specialized in [in] college, and took almost nothing but courses involving Africa. Which was great, still love it; but then I realized, shit, I don’t know anything. I mean, I’ve always read Shakespeare. I’ve been reading Shakespeare since I was a kid, but other than that I was pretty dumb. And so as an adult, I picked up one of those great reading lists, dozens, and I said, “I’m going to read it from beginning to end.” And I did. It took seven years.

Some of the works from 3,000 years ago are just as meaningful today.
Yes. Early on, you get to the Iliad, the Odyssey, and especially the Greek tragedies. And man, look, you read Aeschylus, right, and the Orestes cycle, that’s a war novel. That’s a gangster novel. Guy comes home from the war with a mistress and is killed by his wife and her lover. Then the son comes back and he kills them. And then you have these prosecutors, the Furies, who relentlessly track him down and bring him to the first trial in Western literature. I read that, it just blew my fucking mind. It’s like, “Wow. I’ve seen this in print and in real life.”

Did you base any of this on real life?
There was an incident that happened in real life in New England, where the Italians and Irish were at a party — a beach party, like in the book. And one of the Irish guys gets drunk — I knew that’s a punchline on its own, but — he feels the breast of one of the Italian guy’s girlfriends, and that they beat him up so badly, it starts a war. And I went, “Shit, Helen of Troy.” But of course, these things are just pretext to fight over money and power. It was up near where I grew up in Rhode Island.

You set this book on the coast of Rhode Island, so was this a homecoming
Very much. Yeah. Look, I grew up in an era in that town when Rhode Island was very mobbed up. Not so much now; today, the mob is a shadow of its former self. But when I grew up, it was powerful and it was real, and you’d get up in the morning and in the front page of the newspapers there’d be photos of dead gangsters. There’d be stories.

Tell me one.
I was in a restaurant one time, I think I was 14, and had lunch, and three hours later, two guys were shot in that restaurant. And you knew people, right? You knew people who knew people who knew people. The motto of Rhode Island should be: “I know a guy.” And so, it was very much in my consciousness. I left when I was 17 because it was, if you will, a Bruce Springsteen town. It was a beach town, a fishing town, a factory town, but the factories had all moved to North Carolina. The Russian fishing-factory boats were just outside the international border, sucking up all the fish. So, there was no future there, and plus, I didn’t want to stay anyway. I wanted to see the world and I wanted to do something different.

Let’s pivot to your social activism for a little bit. On social media you’re regularly producing highly charged political videos really going very hard at the Republicans. What happened?
What happened? Sean, you saw it. We had an attempted coup, a violent insurrection plotted and led by the President of the United States, trying to become a dictator with a bunch of Republicans, still in office, who are accessories before, during, and after the fact of a major crime. I don’t know what people don’t get about this. And I don’t understand… see, I’m already getting worked up. Thanks a lot, man. Beautiful sunny day — I just finished a four-mile hike. Thank you very much. No, but look, man, I don’t understand what people don’t get. We all saw it, we all heard it. We heard his voice trying to get votes in Georgia that didn’t exist. We saw him send a crowd marching to the Capitol. We saw that crowd intent on murder. You saw the gallows they had set up. It was not an out-of-control mob. It was a mob sent by the President of the United States to overthrow the duly elected government. And now I’m yelling at you and I don’t mean to, I’m sorry.

I get it.
The reason I’m so active is, look what’s happened — 15, 16 months now of that committee, not one single Republican lawmaker involved in January 6th has been subpoenaed by that committee. Not one.

Why do you think that is?
You tell me. Because they’re afraid. Because they’re scared of him. They’re afraid of his followers. Listen, Lindsey Graham’s a special case. I mean, Lindsey always seemed to need somebody to worship. It was almost bearable when it was John McCain, it’s completely unbearable when it’s Trump. And I think that there are reasons for his loyalty to Trump that I think slander forbids us from getting into. But they’re all afraid. Listen, they’re cowards, they’re sycophants. So, they’re who they are. I’m concerned about the committee and about the Attorney General. Why hasn’t the just department picked up on Mueller’s evidence that has all these cases of obstruction prepared? Why hasn’t he pursued the obstruction case against Trump? Why Bill Barr? Bill Barr gets a, and I love this phrase, “courtesy meeting.” Courtesy meeting. A courtesy meeting with the January 6th committee, not under oath, and he just had a number one New York Times best seller. He carried water for Trump to the one yard line.

But with these videos, do you worry that you’re simply preaching to the converted?
You always worry about that, but here’s the point. What we’re trying to say to the people who already agree with us is: This is really serious, and take action. Vote and be aware. So, I think that’s quite useful. Saying, “Hey everybody, we thought this was over when we won the election, it’s not over.” That reminder is useful in an era when everyone’s so fatigued by the Trump years and fatigued by the Covid years.

So you’re not making money doing this, though?
I’m losing money doing this. I’m spending money doing this. Look, we do not solicit or accept payment or donations of any kind. People are always asking us, “How do we donate?” You don’t. This is our thing. About preaching to the faithful: I think we’re also reaching a wider audience. The videos have gotten 250 million views, which blows my mind. I can’t even deal with that kind of number. So, they can’t all be the faithful.

Are you concerned that Trump and Trumpism are not going away? And once again, Trump defying expectations…
No, it’s not going away. I think he’s going to run again. I think it’s going to be a tough fight, and we’re going to have to fight really hard and get organized and stay committed. People are tired right now. People are mentally and emotionally fatigued. It’s not even a breathing spell, it’s a gasping spell right now.

One of the themes in your books is violence. What did you think when confronted with the mob violence of January 6th?
Totally shocking to me. I thought it was a joke at first. It was surreal and, but what I mostly felt was rage and shame. It outraged me beyond, I can’t even describe it. One of my ancestors is in one of the paintings on the wall of the Capitol. And when these white supremacist assholes talk about blood and soil, I can talk about blood and soil from the other side. I could take you to the exact spot in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where my great-great grandfather was killed fighting to end slavery. My dad, 18 years old, a Marine on Guadalcanal. So, it’s not just these right-wing white supremacist dickheads that have a stake in a longtime investment in this country. I’m preaching again. I’m sorry.

Sometimes the left has a hard time making those sort of overt patriotic arguments.
Well, we do, but we shouldn’t. Like, I can say — look, my people came over on the Mayflower, we were immigrants, right? It’s only indigenous descendants who were here, but we were the first immigrants. And so, I can say from several centuries having my feet planted in this ground, that I am equally welcoming to that Central American immigrant who’s trying to find a better life by half. So, if you don’t like that and you’re waving a Confederate flag, fuck you. What gives you the right? Nothing by the way. Nothing. And one of the reasons behind the way we do things on the Twitter feed, is that sometimes I’m afraid that we’re too nice. We’re too kumbaya. We’re just too “Can we all get along in peace and love.” And the other side isn’t.

No, they’re not.
They’ll walk over you with their Jack boots. And so, I’m more in the school of those old Union Democrats who would punch you in the nose. I used to think I could have conversations with the right wing. Now, I’m not so sure. I think you just have to beat him. In the words of one of the Sopranos: Some people got to go. Now, I want to be very clear what I mean by that: I mean through the electoral process.

You’re a former private investigator. In terms of January 6th, do you feel like the ball has just been dropped or is it just a slow walk?
Well, at some point, the slowness of it becomes a dropped ball. Because the targets of the investigation can simply run out the clock. So, to torture the ball analogy — and let’s torture it, why not — if you’re behind by four touchdowns and you just keep running off-tackle every play, I don’t know that it matters that you fumble, you’re not going to get there. What should have happened and what should happen are publicly televised hearings under oath. I’m ancient enough to remember something called Watergate, and Watergate did persuade the public about what had happened and why it was wrong and why Nixon had to go, because they saw it. People were put under oath, under penalty of perjury, and we got the story. Why isn’t that happening now? And you look at the two events, it’s not even close, they are not in the same ballpark. It’s a misdemeanor versus a felony murder. And that is not being over-dramatic — let’s remember that five people died on January 6th.

Nixon couldn’t even get out of a Republican primary nowadays, the party has shifted so far right.
So far to the right. Could Ronald Reagan win a primary now? I don’t know. But yeah. Your point’s dead on. Listen, I no longer have any respect for the Republican party. I will never vote for a Republican for any office for any reason for as long as I live after they refuse to impeach Trump after this insurrection. It is one of the most cowardly, disgraceful acts in American history. And the way the Republicans responded to January 6th, the shame will never wash off of them.

 

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