Don Winslow
Photo by Sven Jacobsen

Don Winslow: “I like being scorned”

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Short Profile

Name: Don Winslow
DOB: 31 October 1953
Place of birth: New York City, NY, United States
Occupation: Author

Mr. Winslow, you were born on Halloween night 1953. Were you destined to end up writing noir thrillers and crime fiction?

I wonder about that sometimes! You know, when I was a small boy, I used to think that on everybody’s birthday people came to your house in costume and your parents gave them candy. (Laughs) As for its influence… People do joke about that. I guess if you’re born on Halloween in New York City, you don’t have many choices!

The story also goes that your grandmother worked for the mafia.

“Worked for” is a different definition. My grandma was a gambler in New Orleans and she ran poker games and dice games and things. So when you do things like that, you need permission from the mob, sure. I grew up with a lot of those people. I lived in mafia neighborhoods off and on when I was a kid. If you were in Little Italy, in East Harlem, in Brooklyn… Those neighborhoods were, in those years, dominated by mafia families. You knew it and you felt it, you know?

Did you feel affected by that as a kid?

No, I mean, I don’t think as a child you were very aware of it — it was just the norm, you know? There were always those guys; they were just around. It was only later as a young man looking back on it and reading journalism and books that I went, “Oh!” (Laughs) You know?

“You have to avoid what I call the ‘smartest boy in class syndrome,’ which is: just because you know it, you don’t have to tell it.”

Do you try to keep those past realities away from your writing?


Because you’re worried you’ll wake up with a horse’s head in your bed?

No, otherwise I think it would be too tedious! (Laughs) You have to avoid what I call the “smartest boy in class syndrome,” which is, just because you know it, you don’t have to tell it. I often will go through a manuscript crossing stuff out, and say, “This is just too much,” you know? It gets boring and you have to remember that there’s a dramatic pace to the book. But there would be very little that I would keep out because of danger. I would disguise people, you know, make sure that nobody could track the origin of that story.

Chuck Palahniuk said that to get people to tell him their darkest secrets, he has to live like a monk and look like a priest. How do you get people to tell you their stories?

When I talk to people I’m always very honest about what I’m doing. I say, “Look, I’m here to get it right and if you want to talk to me now’s your chance.” And I’ll bet you use the same line. But you know, “If you don’t talk to me, don’t bitch to me later that I didn’t get it right because I’m here right now.”

Do you think your past as a private investigator also helps in situations where you need people to trust or underestimate you?

Yeah, I’m small and can look like a victim, you know? For a while, many years ago, my job was to get mugged. My job was to walk around Time Square trying to get a mugger to attack me, so that someone else could come in and arrest the mugger.

And hope that that happens before the guy stabs you…

Well, I am not particularly fearful of people. I’m aware of my surroundings. I’m definitely aware if someone looks, what we would call sketchy or predatory, my radar’s pretty tuned to that. I know it sounds boastful and I don’t mean it to, but I’m really not very afraid of those things. You know, as a P.I., I’ve been shot at; I was stabbed once.

How was that?

Not that serious, actually. But the day to day workings of a P.I. is not the way it looks in movies and television. I have yet to sit in my office and a beautiful blonde walks in and trumpet music plays. There’s an unfortunate amount of paperwork involved in it. (Laughs)

How is your life looking these days? Are you still getting shot at every once in a while?

I’ve been married to the same woman for thirty years. I live on an old ranch in the countryside most of the year. My private life is very quiet. My life when I’m writing a book is very quiet as well. But at the same time, I’m a crime writer, that’s what I write. I don’t write travelogs, I write about crime. The story really dictates what I’m doing so when I’m researching — it’s a different story. I will be riding around with police, I will be in tough neighborhoods, I’ll be in Mexico researching the cartel.

“I like that! I like being scorned; I like people looking down their noses at us a little bit...”

Ride-alongs with the police are a far cry from researching the cartel though.

I actually felt pretty safe. I don’t think anyone’s terribly interested in killing me. I haven’t been overtly threatened but I do get communications from some of these people. A lot of Mexican journalists have been killed, and I dedicated my book, The Cartel, to them. As an American and as a fiction writer, I have a certain level of protection, the cartels are not going to risk killing an American novelist… Plus I’m not exposing things people didn’t already know really. I’m telling stories that are known in Mexico certainly, maybe not so much in the United States.

Does it bother you that the kinds of stories you tell are sometimes scoffed at in elite literary circles? Crime fiction novels will probably never win you the Nobel Prize in Literature…

(Laughs) It’s funny because I think that genre literature can be looked down on by literature literature. And I like that! I like being scorned; I like people looking down their noses at us a little bit... It gives us a little chip on our shoulder.