Author interview — Don Winslow

Don Winslow_pic by Michael Lionstar

Best-selling US crime author Don Winslow’s latest novel, The Force (HarperCollins), has earned some very high praise indeed. Lee Child describes it as “probably the best cop novel ever written”, and Stephen King compares it to The Godfather — “only with cops”. I  concur on both counts.

The Force

Set in the gritty and perilous precincts of contemporary New York, The Force is stark in its portrayal of the physical, mental and emotional battles fought daily by police officers confronted by drug-fuelled violence and the sort of criminal behaviour spawned by multi-generational addiction and poverty. As the story unfolds, Winslow explores the circumstances that might lead a well-intentioned, once-honourable cop along the path to corruption and self-destruction.

I found the plot chilling and horrific yet utterly convincing — and the writing is sublime.

Winslow’s protagonist, charismatic NYPD veteran detective Dennis “Denny” Malone, leads an elite special unit fighting gangs, guns and drugs.  He’s arrogant and contemptuous of authority, yet he’s fiercely loyal to his team — “Da Force” — and motivated by a determination to keep his neighbourhood as safe as possible. He’s also corrupt.

With the bosses turning a blind eye to the methods adopted by Malone and his cohort, rules are broken, long-held values are compromised then abandoned, and Malone gets caught up in an investigation that threatens his career and those of his best mates.

For those who appreciate intelligently crafted crime fiction with complex characters, a driving pace and a liberal dose of realism, The Force is a must-read. Don Winslow’s answers to my interview questions also make for fascinating reading. 

A force to be reckoned with…

ME. What was the inspiration for The Force?

DW. When I was a kid I was very influenced by those great books and films such as The French Connection, Serpico and Prince and the City. They were a big part of my becoming a crime writer in the first place, so I have always wanted to do a big New York cop novel in the spirit of those works. I lived and worked in New York – was born there, actually – so this book is more of a homecoming for me than a departure from my previous books. I finally felt that I was ready to write it.

ME. Can you tell me a little bit about the research you did for this novel?

DW. In some ways I’ve been researching this book my whole adult life. I’ve spent a lot of time with cops, worked with cops, cooperated on cases with them when I was a PI. For this book, I interviewed cops, went out on the street with them, hung out, talked with their families, wives and girlfriends, spent a lot of time in the various locations in New York City. I say ‘interviews’ but most of them were more like conversations, some of them extending over the course of years.

ME. Just how accurately do you think it reflects the operations of the NYPD?

DW. Accurately, and I’ve had a lot of cops tell me so. Look, there are 38,000 officers in the NYPD, and their experience varies from location to location, assignment to assignment. So the operations described in the book would be common to some officers, perhaps unrecognizable to others. The cops featured in this novel go wrong – they’re dirty – and most cops are clean. But all them are clear-eyed and realistic that corruption happens, and that corruption is accurately portrayed in this novel.

ME. What were the greatest challenges associated with writing this novel?

DW. Voice. I had to get the sound of contemporary New York City right. And not just in dialogue – although that was challenging enough – but also in the rhythms of the narrative prose, a beat very different from the California and Mexico locales that I had been writing. Also the book deals with several subcultures – cops, Irish-Americans, Italian -Americans, African-Americans, Latino-American, all with subtle but important differences. This is one of the things that makes New York so fascinating, but also challenging to write.

To me, every location has its own ‘music’ if you will, and I think it’s important to capture that music. I hope I did.

ME. And what did you enjoy most about creating the story of Sergeant Dennis Malone?

DW. When you meet this kind of ‘rock star’ cop, you realize that they are truly charismatic. They have a certain kind of magnetism and charm that is palpable. It’s part of what makes them so good at their jobs, and it’s also a necessary tool for survival. Malone is that kind of guy, and that kind of guy is really fun to write because he’s always pushing the envelope a little bit, whether it be verbally or through action. I had to get to know Malone for years before I actually started to write the book. I also wanted to write a character who was deeply conflicted, who had to make impossible choices, because that’s when character gets really interesting.

ME. This story shows “New York’s finest” at their best – and at their worst. Is it inevitable for police officers to compromise their ideals and intentions in the 21st Century? Or is it possible for individual officers to remain dignified and honest in the face of potential corruption and under the influence of organised crime?

DW. Of course it’s possible – I know cops who have and do – but it’s very difficult. Life has a way of eroding our ideals, and that erosion is especially true of cops, given what they have to deal with on a daily basis. Some cops start doing wrong things for right reasons – they take shortcuts, they bend the law – it’s a slippery slope. And society is deeply conflicted – I would say hypocritical – about what we want cops to do. We want to be safe, we want them to take dangerous criminals off the street, and we often don’t care how they do it. I hasten to add this isn’t just a 21st century issue – I would say that, if anything, departments like NYPD are cleaner than they were at any time during the 20th century.

ME. How did your former roles as an investigator, anti-terrorist trainer and trial consultant help you in writing this novel?

DW. Well, the first and the last quite a bit, the middle one hardly at all. My former role as an investigator is always useful because it gives me the research and interview background I need for any book. My work as trial consultant helped with the courtroom scenes, and both have given me career-long access to police and lawyers. I know how interviews, interrogations and cross-examinations work, because they used to be my job. My job as an anti-terrorist trainer was pretty specific – I took people hostage in training exercises, so, fortunately, that particular skill set is rarely called for. In fact, never. Let’s hope it stays that way.

ME. Your dedication at the start of the book acknowledges law enforcement personnel who were murdered in the line of duty during the time you were writing it. Why was it important to you to acknowledge these officers? And have you had any response to the dedication from their families or colleagues?

DW. At the end of the day, the worst my wife has to worry about is that I might come home in a bad mood. But she knows I’m coming home. Police spouses don’t know that. So while I sit safely behind a desk, cops are out risking their lives, and in some cases – too many cases – losing their lives. I thought it was important to acknowledge them by name. Yes, I have heard from colleagues and families, but I’d prefer to keep the exact nature of those interactions private.

ME. The Force has been praised by some of the best-selling and highly acclaimed US authors of our time – including Stephen King, who likened it to The Godfather, and Lee Child, who described it as “probably the best cop novel ever written”. What does this sort of praise mean to you?

DW. Well, it blows me away. I have vast admiration for both the writers you mentioned, and they’re not only great writers, they’re great people. The real effect on me though, is that it makes me want to do better. It makes me want to really earn that kind of praise.

ME. Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process? Where do you write? Do you have a set routine, or are you flexible in your approach? Do you create a formal outline before you start the storytelling process, or do you let the story unfold as you go?

DWI have a pretty rigid routine. I start at 5:30 AM, write until about 10, do some combination of walking or running, and then work again until about 5. I wish it were more romantic than that, but it just isn’t. There’s just no substitute for time. I treat it like a job – a job I’m so grateful to have and the one I’ve always wanted. I most often work in an office that used to be an old gas station, a minute’s walk from the house. I don’t draw up an outline – I try to really get to know the characters, then start them out one day and see where they go. Sometimes they surprise me, and that’s a good thing.

ME. Finally, what’s the next writing project for Don Winslow, author?

DW. Right now I’m working on the third – and final – instalment of a trilogy that began with The Power of the Dog and continued with The Cartel, about the War On Drugs, Mexico and the United States. I swore after each of the first two books that I wasn’t going to write another, and here I am making a liar of myself again. But there’s still more story to tell there, and I think it’s important. I think that novels can sometimes treat real subjects in a way that journalism can’t, because we’re allowed to imagine the inner lives of characters, and therefore bring readers into certain worlds in a very intimate way, and I want to do that.

The Force, by Don Winslow, is published by HarperCollins. It’s available in Australia here.

Shelf Aware — Lily Malone

lilym_lowresRomance and contemporary fiction writer Lily Malone is charming, vibrant and warm, with a keen wit and a sharp intellgence. She lives in the South West of Western Australia, where she divides her working hours between an adminstration role for a local real estate agency and her writing. Lily has written three full-length romances stories and a novella, all published by Harlequin Escape, and her debut trade paperback, The Vineyard in the Hills, was published by Harlequin MIRA this time last year. She also recently completed her first contemporary fiction title, Ashes, inspired by the true story of a family member’s fight to recover from traumatic burns.

But the biggest news in Lily’s writing career to date is that she recently signed a three-book deal with Harlequin MIRA, for the ‘Chalk Hill‘ rural romance series. The contract was offered on the strength of the first book in the series, Water Under the Bridge, which Lily writes about in her guest post for my Shelf Aware series. I’ve been “friends” with Lily online for quite some time, and I finally got to meet her in person a couple of months ago. It felt like we’d known each other for years, and I just wish we’d had time to sit back and chat for longer. The next best thing was being able to read her answers to my Shelf Aware questions. I hope you’ll enjoy reading her post, too. As you will see, she’s a big fan of fantasy fiction, as well as romance, and she’s not too keen on systems for filing her books…

Q. How would you describe the work that you do and how you do it?

Lily covers

A. Well, I have two jobs. One is a good old administration day job working for a local real estate agency in my hometown, but the work I think you’re most interested in here is my writing. I write contemporary romance, usually in small-town or rural settings. I love the Australian wine industry so many of my books to date have been set in wine/vineyard regions of Margaret River and the Adelaide Hills/McLaren Vale in South Australia. I try to write three days in the week, with an aim of producing 10,000 words a week. I’ve been on that pace since school went back in February and so far, I’m sticking to it fairly nicely. 

Q. What is your latest project, and/or what do you have in the pipeline?

A. I just finished (literally) a new rural romance called Water Under The Bridge. Shortly before writing The End I discovered that this will be a series, and Water Under The Bridge is Book 1. I can see three books in the Chalk Hill series, dealing with the stories of three brothers. The first is Jake’s story, the second is Abe’s and the third will be Brix’s book.

Q. Where are the main bookcases in your home or office? Do you also keep books in other places at home (or elsewhere)?

Book shelf

A. Our one and only big bookcase was bought in South Australia and has travelled through three homes and two States with us now. It’s Baltic pine — and gorgeous — and as well as our books it also has our stereo/internet radio and speakers. I do have books in my office (but these are mostly my books — boxes of them), plus some very special books that I keep in my office rather than in our bookshelf. My eldest boy, Mr 9, also has his own bookshelf in his room for kids’ books. Actually, speaking of kids’ books, these are also in a good old South Aussie meatsafe that is probably older than me! I weeded these out in the Christmas holidays but we still seem to have a lot!

Q. How are your books organised/arranged?

Shelf top

A. No filing system here. That would be way too mathematical for me. Our top shelf has a lot of our fantasy reads and my hubby’s and my favourite author, John Sandford, who writes crime fiction. Cookbooks & gardening are kind of together, on the third shelf, and my hubs has a lot of music books – Bob Dylan’s albums, lyrics, biography that kind of thing. He has a lot of guitar instruction manuals/music manuals in there too. The bottom shelf has photo albums (his and mine); two huge heavy fishing reference books, maybe something about card games, Australian Rules Football, a cricket almanac or two… and now I have to go check to see what else. (The bottom shelf is not very memorable!)

bottom shelf

Q. What sorts of books predominate?

A. We have a lot of fantasy. I loved the ‘Empire’ series by Raymond E Feist and Janny Wurts, and I’ve read those books over and over. I also have the ‘Rift’ War series, Magician etc; and Lord of the Rings on the top shelf.

We have lots of Stephen King and John Sandford. We do have a few autobiographies. Andrew McLeod (Adelaide Crows footballer); Bob Dylan. I think I have an unauthorised Shane Warne biography somewhere.


Q. Describe your favourite reading place.

reading room shelfA. In summer, it’s outside on an old but very comfortable blue chair. In winter, it is on a couch by the fire. I don’t read in bed. I have a Kindle that I like reading on these days as my eyesight gets worse — I do love that you can enlarge the font on an e-reader.

Q. What book/s are you reading right now? Why did you choose that book/those books and what do you think of it/them so far?

A. I’ve just finished a rural romance with a big twist called Shelter by Rhyll Biest. This was my ‘reward’ read after finishing my own Water Under The Bridge book mentioned up above. While my book was out with critique group and beta readers is a good time to churn through the reading pile. Then I read a Dystopian book called The Last Girl (The Dominion Trilogy Book 1) by Joe Hart. Cracking read but I needed a very big dose of ‘suspension of belief’ to work with it. Right now, I’m reading The Dressmaker by Rosalie Ham. My jury is still out on that one.

Q. What are your favourite books and/or who are your favourite authors?

A. My favourite author is an American crime/serial killer writer called John Sandford, more particularly the ‘Prey’ series featuring the hero Lucas Davenport. Ahhhh, Lucas! I also love Michael Robotham’s writing in Australia.

There are so many Australian women writers who I think the world of. In no particular order these would be: Rhyll Biest, Ainslie Paton, Tess Woods, Kylie Kaden, Charlotte Wood, Louise Allan (I cannot wait for her first book later this year); Jennie Jones, Juanita Kees.

Q. In the event of an emergency, if you could save just three books from your collection, which books would they be – and why would you choose them?

A. I think I’d save the ‘Empire’ series books I mention above. Mara of the Acoma was a wonderful woman in fiction, a great role model for leadership, and as I’ve grown older I recognise more and more political themes within that book every time I’ve re-read.

Q. If you could sit down for afternoon tea with your three favourite characters or authors, who would they be, what would you serve them, and what would like to talk to them about?

Body LengthsA. Afternoon tea? I think I’d pick two amazing Rhyll Biest heroes: Stein and Belovuk to have over to my place for afternoon tea, except I think we might drink Vodka. I’d also need a fireman character from somewhere, to hose me down… anyone know any great fireman characters from fiction? Perhaps otherwise, better sit them down with Leisl Jones perhaps, and we can all cool down discussing Leisl’s swimming autobiography, Body Lengths. I used Leisl’s book for research when writing Water Under The Bridge, about an almost Olympic swimmer… who never quite makes the team.

Find out more about Lily Malone here. She’s also on Facebook and Twitter.