Don Winslow on his amazing new book ‘The Cartel’ and America’s drug war

Have you read Don Winslow's remarkable open letter about the drug war?

If so, then you've got some sense of the simmering anger that runs through his new novel, The Cartel, which is one of the most impressive books I've read this year. Dense, sweeping, and scathing in terms of pointing at all the systemic failures that keep a horrifying mechanism in place, The Cartel is worth your time, and it's worth a serious conversation, which is exactly what I had with him about a week before the book hit the shelves.

He dialed me directly. I was at home, and as I hit record on the conversation, he was already mid-explanation about how long he's been working on telling this particular story, which arrives just as this conversation seems to be heating up onscreen (the documentary “Cartel Land”) and in real life.

DON WINSLOW:  … when I started to see developments going the way that they were in Mexico, I was kind of reluctant to come back in. I had written about what I saw at the time, terrible things, in Power of the Dog, which unfortunately in the era that I was writing about in The Cartel might not even have made the papers. Things got so much worse. So at a certain point, I felt I had to come back in, I had to tell the story. To answer the question you asked me, I had to answer the whole story because there had been great things written about it and are great things written about it, particularly in journalism. But in slices, you know? In detail at this place or that place or this person or that person, but I haven't seen anything that tried to say okay, in a fictional sense, here's what's behind those headlines. When you see 17 people killed, 23 people killed, let me see these gruesome videos and photos, you know, here's what's behind it. So I set out and I felt it was my, in a way, responsibility to write the story in that breadth.

DREW MCWEENY:  Right away, as soon as you open the book, it's a very emotionally stark thing to confront the dedication to all of the journalists who have fallen, and it goes on for pages, name after name. One of the things that I would describe your work as is journalistic. I find that they even though they are novels, the amount of work that you have done to make sure that you have ground this novel in a reality and in the way things actually work, it's overwhelming. Just on a mechanical level, the amount of research you've built into this piece is pretty remarkable.

DW:  Thanks. Look, at the end of the day, it is a novel and I've fictionalized some things and moved things around a little bit for dramatic structure, but the vast majority of it is very, very close to the bone. There may be two elements to that. One is what I alluded to a little earlier, that I wanted to tell the real story of those years as close to the bone that I could because I thought that was important. Secondly, the events were so novelistic that they lent themselves to that kind of portrayal. They were dramatic. They involve traumatic kind of larger than life characters in some sense, and were examples to me of incredible heroism and nobility and sacrifice among all the shit in there. So the events themselves, I'm being redundant, lent themselves to that sort of epic kind of novel treatment.

DM:  We're seeing a real shift right now in terms of America's conversation about the drug war in general. I believe there is some admission that we have not only lead a futile effort but that it has been a wrong headed effort in many ways in terms of how we've even approached the conversation about what needed to be done. What do you think five years or ten years from now that border looks like and then within America is it going to change radically? Is it going to change slowly?

DW:  I think it will change slowly. I think that the attitude toward marijuana will change rapidly and it seems to be changing rapidly and that will help, but that's only a part of the story. The attitude toward the other drugs I think is going to be a tougher struggle. And that prohibition on those drugs will keep the cartels alive and healthy and keep the border situation pretty much unchanged.

DM:  So, unfortunately, we have not learned anything really from the last 15/20 years of the way this has been fought. Is part of the problem of changing things the fact that we are dealing with not just our own attitudes but the fact that we're having to deal with whatever Mexico is going to do or whatever Central or South America legally and socially are doing towards this? Is it a solvable problem? Is it something that we can coordinate to solve?

DW:  Well, listen, it's never a fully solvable problem. Alcoholism, tobacco, drunk driving, these things will always be with us. There's always going to be a certain percentage of any population that is addicted to certain substances. Having said that, there are solutions to the larger problem. They both lie in the producer or transit countries. They lie in the consumer countries, us, Europe, we're the market really. There is a domestic market in Mexico now as a byproduct of this drug war but it's relatively small, it's relatively localized. America is the largest drug market in the world.

DM:  And I think your book is very clear about the fact that there is a responsibility from the consumer end of it. What I find fascinating is just the machinery of watching how different bureaus and different jurisdictions and everything… how completely that game works in favor of the criminal side of things.

DW:  A lot of times we're working at crossed purposes. We've had a war on drugs since the 1970s, but within that time we've also had a war on communism and a war on terrorism, a war on broad concepts around the world. Each time and every time really that the so-called war on drugs has collided with either first the war on communism or later the war on terrorism, the war on drugs is shoved into second place. So that in the 1980s we cooperated with cocaine dealers in the Caribbean in exchange for their support against the Nicaragua Contras. In the past number of years we've cooperated, for instance, with Afghan opium growers in exchange for their cooperation against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. And so you do have these various agencies, sometimes cooperating and sometimes finding themselves at odds and I think that the cartels have been very, very good at finding the seams between those and working those seams.

DM: You had the experience with Savages of watching one of your books being turned into an A list movie. You had Oliver Stone come in, which seemed perfect since his films often deal with tough subjects and deal with them head on and in a very gritty way. I would argue though that maybe film is not the place right now for storytelling this complicated or this dense. Has there been any approach to you from the TV side of things, particularly when looking at a book like The Cartel that seems far more suited to the world of something like an HBO than to a studio trying to figure out how to condense it or break it.

DW:  Yeah. I have to tell you that Shane Salerno and I are kind of down the road on feature films on two of them. First for Power of the Dog and then to be followed up by The Cartel.

DM:  Wow.

DW:  Yeah. Of course we thought about television but I think that these are big stories and I think big stories to me are optimized on the big screen. The thing we've lost in the past number of years with film is the group experience that it should be.

DM: See, I'm all for that. I believe there's nothing like what happens in a room when you have a room full of people responding in the same way to something.

DW: Exactly. And so because of all… and you know far more about this than I do, enough that I feel a little silly talking to you about it… but because of all the delivery systems that deliver these films individually to us now, even big films have become living room things where people are looking them on their watches, for Christ's sake. I think you lose something. With a subject like this that, to me, is an important subject and has an impact on who we are as people and as a people, I'm very attracted to getting several hundred people in the same space, in the same time, focused on something big so that you get the details of the interaction.

DM: Well, let me ask you then, because you say you're working with Shane and I know that you and Shane have been partnered for a number of years now. Is that really the lesson that you take from an experience like Savages is that you want to make sure that you're involved in how these things make the transition?

DW:  You bet. You bet. You know, before I started working with Shane, and you are going back some years, I had not exactly the opposite but pretty much the opposite opinion about these things. Let the filmmakers do what the filmmakers are going to do. I've changed. Now I want to be involved. I want to be involved in what that product is going to be at the end of the day, what it looks like, what it sounds like, all of those things. And so partnering up with someone like Shane makes that kind of an ideal combination.  And I'm not saying I know it all, but I want now a serious seat at the table.

DM: I look at many of Michael Crichton's books and they feel to me almost like pitches for movies. They feel like very specifically like he's saying, “This is my way of getting this onto the page so you see what it is, but you're going to make a movie out of this and it's going to be it's own thing.” Your books do not feel like that. Your books are complete experiences on their own, so the movies would be something different. For example, with The Cartel, what would you hope to convey with a movie? Is it the reality of this world, so people can see what the machinery looks like, see how it is actually moving and working right now?

DW: Yeah. All of that. You know, look, to cut in on the premise of your question, I never think about a movie when I'm writing a book, because I think only two things could happen and both of them are bad. You write a lousy novel and a lousy film. Having said that, I think it's disingenuous for writers of my generation to say that we're not influenced by film. When I go back and look at my influences in crime writing, foe instance, of course it's Hammond and Chandler and Lawrence Block and John D. MacDonald and Bob Spencer and Elmore Leonard, for god sakes, and a whole bunch more. But it's also movies. It's “The French Connection,” “The Godfather,” the best crime films ever made, like “The Friends of Eddie Coyle,” which is certainly the most realistic. Guys of our generation when we're looking at our influences and look how we write, it's kind of a mixed bag. I think that cinema has influenced the way we look at things and even the way we write about them in narrative. I'm not looking to make a movie when I'm writing a book, but I might think in film terms. I might think, “I need to quote something here,” you know what I mean? Whose point of view am I going to see this from, because most of my writing lapses into third person personal point of view.  It starts out with an objective sentence and then I try to sort of sneak you into the person's brain where you're seeing the action from his or her point of view. Or “I need an establishing shot here. I need to let the reader know where we are.” I think that it's somewhat mixed.

DM: There's something about your work that I find very particular, that as much as you do the giant overview, and The Cartel is exhaustive in terms of the way it portrays not only how the law enforcement side of things is working and/or how the cartel side of things is working, but also what that interaction does socially to both sides of that fence. Within that, and this is where I really think your books work on me on a deeper level, is that they are always about what those systems do on a human scale, what they do to the people within them, what they do to their families, what they do to their values, what they do to their perspectives and how you can justify the things that you have to justify to live and work in those worlds and do so in a way that you can function. Finding those human perspectives in it that really distinguishes it at this point and makes it valuable.

DW: Well, thank you very much. That is certainly what I tried for. You've almost summed up my working method. I think that it's important to me that the reader goes on a ride with the characters, that you set context enough to know, “Okay, here's where we are in the world.  Now we're just going to go inside this person's head, this guy's heart, this woman's ambitions and take it down to very, very small scale.” I think a lot of times, writers are told write as big as you can, and that's not untrue. But at times I think it's better to write as small as you can, to start scenes with little personal details or people who are doing average every day human things. That, to me, lets the average reader into that person's life. “Yeah I eat breakfast. I take a shower.”

DM: It's a tough world to spend time in, though, and you as a writer, to spend the time that you do in this worlds and immersed in these perspectives… these are heavy things to invite into your life on an ongoing regular basis.

DW:  No question. Yeah. And listen, I don't want to be overly dramatic and I don't in any way want to compare myself with these brave Mexican journalists or with people, you know, who physically suffered through all of it. But yeah, I think if you're going to do this job well and if you're going to try at least to write honestly and realistically then you do have to immerse yourself into this world. And if you're going to write from some character's points of view and do it well, do a good job of it, which I hope I have, you have to kind of feel their feelings. You have to approach it almost as those old method actors would approach it. Do you know what I mean? That does get sad, infuriating, frightening. And then you also feel a bit like a voyeur for doing that. But again, if I don't to do that then I feel I'm cheating the reader because otherwise this violence and all this craziness gets redundant. It gets like real violence does after a while. It deadens you to it. And so, I kept having to find different points of view to look at it.

DM:  There's so much crime fiction out there and that's important. I have read a lot, and it's certainly it's one of those genres I'm drawn to, yet there comes a point where if it is simply a catalog of atrocity I don't particularly find it terribly interesting.  And that's never the way your work feels for me.

DW:  Like a catalog of atrocities?

DM:  Yeah. It never feels like that's all you're doing, saying “Look how terrible it is.” I find it odd who I empathize with at times in your work and that's to me the mark of how well it works. If I can disagree with some somebody's world view completely and yet empathize with them…

DW: Yeah. I mean that's part of the technique, do you know what I mean? Do the research and look at these events and look at some of these people, and of course on an objective level they're evil.  But if I did write on that level, you're quite right, it's just an indictment; it's just a catalog of atrocities. So I have to try to see it through those people's eyes. And very few people that you ever talk to think that they're evil. They'll sit down with you, and I've sat across tables from murderers and they always have a justification or they always have an evolution. I think that with the exception of real psychopaths, who are rare except in serial killer fiction, people tend to walk toward evil, toward these atrocities one step at a time. I call it the MacBeth syndrome.

DM:  Yeah. You look back and realize where you've been and it's, “Oh my god, look at that!”

DW:  Yeah. You meet MacBeth and he's a loyal soldier. Then he meets the witches and they put an idea in his head, and then one of the guys in-between him and that idea is executed through no arrangement of his own and he goes, hmmmmm. Then he goes home and his wife says, “Man, the King is coming tonight? Does that give you any ideas?” Then he kills the king, and that changes him in a way that allows him to kill his best friend. Then that changes him in a way that allowed him to kill an innocent woman and child and a lot of other people, and by act five, it's that monster Macbeth. It's Shakespeare's shortest play by the way, so that happens barely 80-something minutes later. I kind of look at some of these characters that way. There's a character in there that's a young hit man, Chuy. He's just this kid, who should be objectively horrifying, but as a writer, we can't do that. Otherwise he's just like some sort of minor character in “Game of Thrones.” I think we had to say, “How did he get to that?” When you look at it and you look at the real life story, by the way, there are at least six of these kids, and you see trauma after trauma after trauma after trauma. One leads to the other which leads to the other to the point where I think the worst incident of violence in the book, or one of them, is where I take these people off this bus. By the time he goes and does the horrible thing of killing that young woman police officer, he's beyond feeling these things. It doesn't mean anything to him. He's just reacting to his trauma over and over again. I think I could take virtually every character in the book and walk through a certain process. Anyway, poor guy, you asked me one question and I go on and on.

DM: No. Not at all. No. And it's a tremendous read Don. I'm excited to be able to get a look at it. It's not what I would call a typical sequel by any means. It's not something where if you aren't familiar with the book before, you will feel lost or you're going to have to pick it up.

DW:  That was tricky. How much information do you give? How much backstory do you throw in there so that people know what's going on but without alienating the new readers? That was one of the toughest parts of the book.

DM:  What was the reason that you felt like instead of starting from a new place to tell simply the story of the cartels, what was it that made you connect it back to this earlier story?

DW:  A couple of reasons, really. Frankly, one was ambition. When I finally decided to come back into this world, kicking and screaming, I wanted those two books together to tell the story of the whole thing up to this point in time, kind of hoping that the drug wars are dying down. I'm not convinced, though, and we can talk about that if you want. The second reason was I knew that The Cartel was going to be an organizational monster. There was so much material. Even before I decided to write the book, I started researching, still denying to myself that I was going to write this book. I started this chronology. I was doing a chronology and finding that every damn day, something happens in that world, and I made a notation about whether it was a killing or an arrest or seizure or someone going to prison or a meeting or an election or whatever, it didn't matter; if it touched on it, I wrote it down. So when I looked at that, I went, “Oh my god, this is a monster.” There's so much going on in so many different locations.

So I knew that the story needed a spine from which I can hang these various crucial events. If you look at this time period, there are certain watershed events, you know? Like the guy in the gulf hires the Special Forces people. That was a watershed event because it changed everything else. Chapo Guzman in real life got out of prison. I wouldn't use the word escaped. That was a crucial event. And there are a number of those. I thought of the Adan and Keller story as the spine of the book, and then these events as the bone and muscle that came off of it. Does that sound awfully pretentious?

DM:  No. Not at all. In fact, it makes sense because you are trying to figure out a way to hang a ton of different threads so it organically feels like one step after the other makes sense. And I feel like this does, it lays it out very cleanly, which is one of the reasons I feel like “The Godfather” resonated in the '70s. People were fascinated at the notion of the mafia and that was such a clean way of using a family to show you how that structure really worked. I feel like you've done that with cartel culture here in a way that some people may not have ever really been able to get their heads around before.

DM:  Yeah. Listen, it was an organizational nightmare and then deciding, “Okay, I'd have to step out of the novelist role back into the historian's role,” and then I say to myself, “Okay, if you were writing the history of this, what are the critical events? I had to define “critical event,” because otherwise I would have a 3000-page book. So I made up a definition of a critical event. A critical event is something that caused another critical event. There could be no B without A, no C without B, no D, et cetera, et cetera. That enforced a discipline on me and on the structure of the story. If it didn't matter, then 90% of the time, it wasn't going in. I made a couple of exceptions. Then I had to put down my historian's hat.. and I'm trained as a historian, that's my thing. I'm a real history geek. And then I put the novelist hat back on and say, “Okay, now that you've identified the critical event, how does that work in a dramatic five act structure of a tragic novel, and of a thriller too? How do you make that work?” I knew that was a matter of going through the characters and saying, “Okay, whose experience is this event best seen through, and without turning anyone into “Zelig” without getting kind of foolish about it?

I hate when some bad guy just pops up everywhere all the time when something important is happening because that would be stupid and I think would be insulting to the real life story.

“Boy, I can have Keller go after Adan here because that makes sense, but it doesn't make sense to have Keller and Juarez at this point in time. I need somebody else to see it through,  given what happened to journalists in that part of the country, maybe a journalist character.  And I originally intended those to be pretty minor players and you know how characters surprise you, they became pretty major people in the story. That was kind of a way to organize it, but all the time trying to be aware of this sort of homing beacon laser beam, which was you've got to keep Keller going after Adon. That, to me, is sort of the gas pedal if you will of this particular automobile to torture a metaphor to death or mix metaphors rather. Am I making any sense at all?

DM:  Yeah. Absolutely you are, Don.

DW:  Then when the book got really fat and I was looking at what I needed to cut, that's what I was remembering. There's an old martial arts saying, “How do you carve a tiger?” The answer is you take a big block of wood and you cut away everything that doesn't look like a tiger. That's the rewriting process to me. “Now I've got my big, big block of wood. Now I need to start cutting out almost everything that doesn't look like a tiger.” I think that's the difference between film and a novel. I think in film you have to cut it all and in the novel I think we're allowed an ounce or two of fat here and there.

DM:  When you pick the book up, and it's funny because I have made the jump and I feel like a terrible, terrible person admitting this but I made the jump almost entirely to Kindle at this point simply because of travel.

DW:  Travel does change, but I don't. I've still got my books, and I was on an airplane the other day. I take a book out of my bag and the people around me are looking at me like, “Oh, gosh, you're Amish.”

DM:  For me it's just a matter of sheer weight of it, because I would pack my bags with books in the past and leave them places as gifts for people.

DW: It makes absolute sense. I do the same thing. I leave books in hotel rooms all the time.

DM:  Yours was one of the first books that I've picked up in a while as a book, and it was a reminder of what that tactile difference is because you pick the book up and you go immediately, “Ooh, feel it. Ooh, there are a lot of pages.” All right, yes. But then what's great is your book is so propulsive that at no point does it feel like a book of that weight and that width.  Every single piece of it is moving forward, with a great sense of purpose.

DW:  That's a process of rewriting, more than writing I think. It is going back and doing exactly that. Every chapter moving and coming up with something. It was always moving us to this confrontation between Keller and Herrera, which to me stands in for the war on drugs. You know, this obsessive, repetitive, grinding, bitter, angry, bloody conflict that's going on. When you pick up Dog, it starts at the beginning of the war on drugs with Keller as this idealistic young guy in Mexico who's going to keep drugs out of his neighborhood. By the end of The Cartel, he doesn't care about drugs, not even at all. He just wants to kill these people.

DM:  Don, I can't wait. I'm going to tell people it's even going to make their Kindle a little heavier but it is such a rewarding read. Excellent, man. Very good to finally speak with you.

The Cartel is in book stores now, and it is one hell of a read. Do yourself the favor.