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.

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