Best-selling novelist Don Winslow’s past is practically as colorful as the stories he crafts. Raised by a sailor and a librarian, he was instilled early on with a love of books and storytelling. Winslow knew when he was young that he wanted to be a writer, but took jobs across the board and around the world: teaching Shakespeare in Oxford, leading safaris and tours in Africa and China, doing private investigation in California and New York. An epiphany in Africa led him to buckle down and finally pursue his dreams, writing his first novel, A Cool Breeze From the Underground, over three years. After a few more books and years of juggling writing and day jobs, he sold the manuscript for The Death and Life of Bobby Z to both Hollywood and Knopf. Since then, he’s been writing full-time.
His latest novel, The Cartel — an epic, cross-border vendetta saga set in the brutal world of Mexican drug trafficking — was published to copious critical acclaim. A sequel to the 2005 crime thriller The Power of the Dog, The Cartel picks up the story of DEA agent Art Keller and his nemesis, drug kingpin Adán Barrera. Having spent close to a decade researching and writing a narrative that revolves around the narcotics trade, Winslow has become a passionate and outspoken advocate of ending the war on drugs; recently, he took out a full-page ad in The Washington Post. Addressed to members of Congress and the president, the eloquent open letter takes them to task for futile, ill-advised and destructive U.S. policies. “Let me come right out and say what you won’t tell the American people. The war on drugs is unwinnable,” Winslow argues. “At 44 years, it’s America’s longest war, and there’s no end in sight.”
Winslow, a Playboy favorite — his short story “By Sun and Lightning” and his three-part serial Extreme both appeared in the magazine in 2014 — talked with us in a far-ranging conversation about everything from why he’s still writing about drugs to trying to get mugged to what makes for a good sex scene and why his best is yet to come.
The Cartel continues the drug-war tale of Art Keller and Adán Barrera. It’s been a decade since The Power of the Dog was published. What is it about the war on drugs that captured your attention and held it?
I didn’t really want to write this one, to tell you the truth. I thought I was done with this topic. I first got into it because back in 1998 there was a massacre of 19 innocent people down in Baja, California. I asked myself how people could be capable of doing that — I didn’t really start out to write a book. I didn’t even start reading about drugs; I started reading about philosophy and ethics and that kind of thing, but I didn’t find any answers there. Then I started researching drug traffic and Mexico and the cartels, and that turned into Power of the Dog. Five years later, when I started The Cartel, the violence had spiraled so much out of control, past what any of us ever thought could happen — I guess I felt that I should similarly try to find some answers. So I started researching again, going to history and journalism and some of the sources that I’d had in Power of the Dog. I thought I saw some patterns and decided to write The Cartel, despite having denied to everybody — my wife, my agent, my friends — that I was going to do it.
What kind of patterns did you notice?
Things have changed. One of the major changes was the militarization of drug trafficking, where one cartel hired their own private army. They recruited a bunch of special forces soldiers who’d been trained largely in the United States and got them to desert and come over to the other side. That sort of started an arms race between the cartels, where each leader decided that he or in some cases she needed to get their own private armies. You had this escalation of the lethality, of the people and of the weaponry. It used to be that these drug traffickers would slug it out themselves with a few guys, but now they farm it out to these armies made up of special forces or current or ex-police. In 2006, when the Mexican government decided to try to crack down, it realized it couldn’t do it with the police; it had to send in the military, and that escalated things all the more.
Given the depth of your research, were you ever tempted to write nonfiction on the topic?
Well, I thought about it. I always start off in nonfiction mode in order to research. I’m a historian by training and kind of a geek, so that’s automatically where I go. With The Cartel, when I was just trying to find answers and lying to myself that I wasn’t doing it to write a book [laughs], I started a chronology because I’m a big believer that C follows B and B follows A. I jotted down anything that happened related to the drug wars in Mexico on any given day. I ended up with a 157-page single-spaced document. I really discovered things. But I think that, really, I’m a better novelist than a nonfiction writer. And I think novels can do things that journalism can’t or isn’t allowed to. We get to imagine the inner thoughts and emotions of people, we get to make things up, we get to take real events but put them in dramatic structures. I thought I’d have more impact on the reader if I did it as a novel.
You dedicate The Cartel to 131 journalists in Mexico who were murdered or “disappeared” during the period the book covers. Can you talk about that?
I have very high regard for journalism. I read five newspapers a day; I’m a news junkie. I felt I owed it to these men and women who were killed for trying to do this job. While I’m not a journalist, I am a fellow writer, and I feel something of a brotherhood and a sisterhood there. I thought they deserved to be named. The cartels had become so sophisticated that they had figured out they didn’t just need to control the action, they needed to control the narrative. What we’re seeing from ISIS now I think is taken from the cartels.
You mention the parallels between the cartels and ISIS in your open letter to Congress; do you think ISIS is in some ways following the cartels’ playbook? Yeah, I do. Long before ISIS was putting out vid clips of their atrocities, the Zetas in Mexico were — and other cartels followed suit. They started that. They had the idea that they would control social media and journalism, newspapers. They attacked television and radio stations with rocket launchers and machine guns. It’s a war for drugs, but also a war against all kinds of freedoms, including freedom of the press — and in many ways a war against truth. And just as ISIS does, the cartels use it for terror, intimidation and, also in the same sick way that ISIS does, as a means of recruitment.
A thought that drug lord Adán Barrera has in The Cartel is, “The North Americans never learn” — a realization he uses to his advantage. You repeated the idea — “We never learn” — in your open letter. What’s the effect of not learning from our mistakes?
The effect on Mexico, Central America and our own society has been catastrophic. In terms of the money we’ve spent, the lives that have been lost, the people we’ve put in prison, the families shattered, the social fabric shattered, the alienation between our police and our inner city communities — I had five cops call me commenting on that ad, saying, “I’d never say this in public, but you’re dead right; you got it exactly.”
Have you had any reaction from politicians?
Not one. [Laughs] Maybe it was naïve or overly optimistic, but I had hoped that if I challenged them a bit in their hometown paper, which I hope appears on their desk with their coffee in the morning, that maybe I could get a conversation started. But no, I have not heard from a single politician.
Marijuana is gaining more and more acceptance legally, socially. What are your thoughts on America’s drug culture?
My thoughts are complicated. We’re starting to legalize marijuana — it seems to be headed in that direction, and I think that’s a positive step, but it’s a partial step. It’s already had some beneficial effects. Since some states have legalized or decriminalized it, marijuana coming up through the border is down almost 40 percent. The cartels in Durango and Sinaloa are stopping growing the stuff because they can’t compete with the quality and prices in the United States. Just by ending the prohibition of marijuana in some states, we’ve cut marijuana smuggling almost in half in two years, after 43 futile years. That’s the positive effect. It’s had a negative effect in the sense that the Sinaloa cartel, the dominant power by far in the Mexican drug scene, has responded to its loss of marijuana income by increasing production of heroin and lowering the price. The people who were getting street pills are now going to black-tar heroin because it’s cheaper. Because it’s illegal, the cartel still controls that business. I wonder what would happen if we legalized opiates, legalized heroin and all of that. We might, over the course of time, put the cartels out of business.
The other part of my feeling about American drug use — it’s complicated, and it seems contradictory — is until we get our laws straightened out into some kind of sanity, I’m very much against recreational drug use. The people who are partying on coke and marijuana and all of that need to take the responsibility of knowing where it comes from. And it comes from sociopathic mass murderers.
So for you it’s a moral issue?
It is absolutely a moral issue. How can you say you’ll only buy fair-trade coffee and then go smoke weed that might’ve been grown by slave labor in Mexico, by women who are standardly raped and turned out to prostitution? Drugs that’ve been muled up across the border by fathers, the cartels are holding their families until they deliver the drug and often kill them anyway? I blame the prohibition of drugs, but I also blame the recreational drug use. I just can’t understand going out and having a good time on somebody else’s suffering. Sorry to be preachy. People always give me the same answer — they know where their dope came from; it came from Eddie down the street, who grew it in his window box or in his bedroom. And I go, “Yeah, okay, but those trailer trucks are coming up full of something by the ton, and I don’t think Eddie’s growing that in his closet.”
Your first novel, A Cool Breeze on the Underground, was published when you were in your late 30s. Tell me about what you were doing beforehand and how you came to writing.
To be really honest with you, I’ve always wanted to do this. Since I was a little kid, this is what i’ve wanted to do — be a novelist. But, you know, the world didn’t agree for a long time. I had to make a living, so I did a lot of different things. I managed movie theaters in New York, I was a private eye, I led photographic safaris in Africa and China. I came back and went back to investigative work out here in California as a consultant to law firms. I taught Shakespeare in the summers at Oxford. I was cobbling together a living doing whatever I could do, all the time thinking, I want to be writing. But you come up with a lot of excuses for yourself, you know, because you’re afraid of failing, and the psychological cost of failure would’ve been so high. Finally, I was sitting in Africa, at dawn — it sounds very melodramatic — by a fire, shivering a little bit from malaria, and I thought, “You’d just better do this and stop with the excuses.” I decided to write five pages a day no matter what, and that’s what I did. I think it was three years, and I had a book. Now, 14 publishers didn’t think it was a book! [Laughs]
But that 15th…
The 15th one did and gave me a two-book contract, and I was already writing the second one as I was getting rejection slips for the first.
And you were still doing side work?
Yeah, I’d be doing stakeouts, scribbling away. The interview and research techniques I learned were really helpful. When I first started out [with investigative work], I did a lot of street work in New York in Times Square, looking for pickpockets, making low-level dope buys so we could turn it over to the police to chase them out, because we worked for businesses in the area. I was bait for a while. I would troll around, because I’m a small guy, trying to get mugged. We hired thugs to follow me and jump in; it was like the rodeo. Looking for runaway teenagers, stakeouts — that kind of stuff. Then at a later phase I did homicide cases, both for the prosecution and defense.
When were you able to set that aside and focus on writing 100 percent?
I’ve been more or less a full time writer since 1996 or 1997. I was commuting to downtown L.A., where I was working on a case in the same law office every day — in the Biltmore Hotel, actually, kind of a bit Raymond Chandler–esque. I would write a chapter going up and a chapter going down. It was just more fun to write a book than to read a book. It [The Death and Life of Bobby Z] sold to the movies on a Friday afternoon and sold to Knopf on the following Monday, and all of a sudden I could be a full-time writer.
Do you remember your first encounter with Playboy magazine?
Of course, what American boy doesn’t? In junior high, my friends Victor and Mark brought in a Playboy. They would cut it up and slip the pictures into their schoolbook folders, and we’d sell the pictures to other kids for 50 cents. [Laughs] Sure, I remember it very well. I also remember that Victor thought our 7th grade algebra teacher looked very much like one of the women in the magazine and actually went up and asked her. He got a vacation from school for a couple of weeks. We debated it for a long time. It was so titillating that we just couldn’t resist discussing it. The possibility was just so mind-boggling when you’re in seventh grade. It kept us going for a while. Algebra was pretty boring.
You’ve created plenty of strong, smart female characters, including in the two stories you did for Playboy. How has your approach to writing women characters changed over the years?
I think we’ve all sort of evolved a little bit, and women’s roles have evolved. Strong women are more fun to write; I try to write them because they’re more interesting. If you met my wife, you’d understand. I’ve been married to the same woman for 30 years, and she’s a strong, wild woman. So I have that example always around me. [Laughs]
In terms of The Cartel, the role of women in Mexico in the drug scene has changed so radically in the past 10 years that it really demanded a very different look. You had things you’d never had before: Women cartel leaders, for instance, who took on roles because all the men had been killed or jailed; others who had been in prison for relatively minor crimes and met drug traffickers there and came out and decided, Yeah, why shouldn’t I be in that business, why shouldn’t I own a piece of that instead of just being a courier or something? On the other side, you have these remarkable young women who took over jobs as police officers when their four predecessors had been killed for it, or some of these social activists in Juarez and Chihuahua who took on the army, the police, the government, demanding human rights, and all too often were killed for it. I have no way of accounting for that kind of courage, that kind of moral backbone. It’s just amazing to me.
Let’s rewind all the way to your beginnings: What role did books and storytelling play in your childhood?
Immense. My old man was a sailor, one of the great raconteurs of all time. He’d have his Navy buddies over, and I’d literally get under the table. He’d pretend to think I’d gone to bed, and as long as I was quiet, he’d let me sit there, at the feet of these great storytellers, and listen. I could listen to those stories over and over and over again. My mom was a librarian and my dad a great reader, so we always had books in the house. We were allowed to read anything we wanted, at any age, and as long as we were reading there was no bedtime — they were perfectly happy for us to just pass out while reading. My older sister by two years [Kristine Rolofson] is also a novelist, very highly regarded. Two kids in the house, and they both become professional writers. So, yeah, an absolutely immense role.
What’s your advice on how to write a good sex scene?
Oh my god. [Laughs] I think that like any other action scene, a good sex scene reveals character and moves the story forward. And in the same way you handle action, or maybe even violence, you want it to have a physical feel. I want that reaction from the reader. So if I’m writing a gunfight, I want a fearful, suspenseful reaction, but if I’m writing a sex scene — or a love scene, if you will — I want to use words and sounds that are sensual and sexy. To be perfectly honest with you, I work pretty hard at it. An action scene has a certain kind of rhythm to it, and a sex scene has a certain kind of rhythm to it, and they’re hopefully quite different. Not always, but usually. You want softer, longer sounds, softer consonants, as opposed to plosive consonants, longer vowels, that kind of thing. That’s what I work for.
What projects are on your plate right now?
Right now I’m doing nothing but touring with Cartel, but you know I’ve snuck in half a short story here and there. I have a couple of fiction books in the works, neither of them about drugs. And I will say this, I don’t think I’ve written my best book yet. I think that’s in my future. I think I still have a lot to learn and a lot to achieve. I think I can do a lot more with words and a lot more with style and am looking forward to doing that. I don’t know if I could get up in the morning if I didn’t think that.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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