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Interview: Don Winslow on City on Fire and Channeling Greek Tragedy

Don Winslow discusses how he's seeking to establish crime fiction as another grand thread in the canvas of the entire storytelling tradition.

A few years after wrapping his incendiary Cartel trilogy and releasing Broken, a compact series of stories of highly charged and varying flavors, Don Winslow returns to epic storytelling with City on Fire. The poignant, atmospheric, brutally violent novel is the first in a new trilogy that re-contextualizes the sweeping arcs of classic Greek literature like The Iliad and The Aeneid into a hard-boiled yet heartbreaking story of a 1980s-era blood war.

Returning to his New England roots, most vividly the Irish “Dogtown” neighborhoods of Providence, Rhode Island, Winslow evokes a troubled community of fishermen, a fading away of theoretically principled mob rule, and an escalating war between Irish and Italian mobsters that threatens to annihilate an ecosystem of crooks, politicians, cops, and ordinary working Joes. City on Fire is vintage Winslow: carefully structured yet lively, with a volatile tone that evokes the beauty and chaos of life for over-the-top mobsters and every-people alike.

Talking with Winslow last week over the phone, he revealed that with his new trilogy, of which City on Fire is the first part, he’s seeking to establish the often marginalized crime fiction genre as another grand thread in the canvas of the entire tradition of storytelling, from the Greek tragedies to Cervantes to Dickens to even the streaming TV revolution of today.

It was interesting to read an East Coast book from you. Last time we talked about the differences between the East Coast and West Coast crime traditions a little bit. Was there a different approach for you, in terms of prep and writing, for venturing east after so many books in California and Mexico?

I think there was a different approach. I left the East Coast when I was 17, and I’ve gone back a lot, and over the last five or six years we’ve started to go back more and more often and stay longer. And so for writing this book it was a matter of listening and picking up the East Coast dialects, the East Coast rhythms. It took a while to pick that up again.

Based on the intro you wrote for City on Fire, it sounds this new trilogy has been percolating in you for a while.

Yeah, about 27 years. [laughs] Back in the mid ’90s, I started to read the classics as kind of autodidactic effort at educating myself. I was struck by the parallels between some of the stories in The Iliad and The Aeneid and crime fiction and crime reality. And I wondered if I could tell a contemporary crime story that stood on its own but was inspired by those themes.

It’s fun to see how you sneak certain things in. City on Fire definitely has a Winslow Trojan Horse for instance.

That was the fun of it. Those classics are classics for a reason. They’ve lasted thousands of years. They tell universal human stories that are fresh now as they were then.

Reading your book, I thought of Coppola’s The Godfather. Those ancient Greek narrative patterns are right there. It’s amazing that hasn’t been discussed more often.

The Godfather is a re-telling of Henry IV. I admit that Diane Keaton makes an odd sort of Falstaff, but that’s her role. And listen, smarter people than me have said it and said it long time ago: There are like 12 original ideas and we just keep doing them over in different ways.

In The Godfather—the imperilment of the family, the near destruction of the entire enterprise, the fleeing to another place, the rise of an unlikely leader—the Greek patterns are uncanny once you decide to look at it in that light.

It is, and I think it’s because these patterns reflect real human experience. Look at Kiev right now. Look at some of these other Ukrainian cities, and you can look back at Troy. People fleeing their homes in the face of a relentless attack. Themes of revenge and revenge-versus-compassion. Those are themes that are, as I’ve said, as fresh today as ever.

City on Fire ends on a compelling note, especially for your fans. It seems as if you’re prepping us, in future installments of the trilogy, for a cumulative essay on the East-versus-West Coast crime novel. Is that fair?

I think that’s fair. Again, I don’t want to give much away, but Danny heads west, and in the next two books you will meet him in California, Hollywood, and Las Vegas, respectively.

I’m still struck your propulsive machine-gun prose. It just jumps off the page. I was wondering how that evolves over the course of the drafts.

Hopefully you gain skills as you move along in your career, you know, and so I think I’m better now at early drafts than I used to be, in terms of honing the prose early on. But, you know, another cliché here: good writing is re-writing. There’s this old martial arts saying that goes “How do you carve a tiger?” And the answer is you take a block of wood and you cut away everything that doesn’t look like a tiger. For me, that’s writing. I go back and try to use the fewest words possible—in most cases. There are other times when I want a sort of more lyrical feel. And then I’m not chopping it down that much, because I want it to feel a little fat.

Speaking to the lyrical effect in City on Fire, I love some of those opening pastoral passages on the beach before things go awry.

Thank you. You know I have a couple of thoughts about that. It’s funny, David Baldacci and I were talking about this last night. People have all these definitions about different classifications of crime fiction, and one of the alleged rules of the thriller that I typically ignore is that the character should be in mortal peril on page one. I think it’s more important to set character and to set scene. Then people care about it. They care about the person. They get a sense of the locale, and start caring about the locale. The other point is, if you do go back and read The Iliad, 90 percent of it takes place on the beach.

As a viewer or a reader, myself, I find scene-setting often the most pleasurable portion of narrative. Being in the stew, so to speak.

Yeah, you owe it to the reader. I think the reader comes to a book to go to a world that they otherwise couldn’t go to, or to revisit a world that they love. And you can’t take them there without some description. I’m fairly spare, I think, in my description, but you want them to be in a certain place. I think of the Spenser novels, for instance. I couldn’t tell you the plot of a single one, but I’ve read them all and I re-read them because they’re great. One of the things that make them great is the settings, you know? You want to be there and hang out in those places with those people. Same with James Lee Burke. Chandler. MacDonald. All those people.

When you talk along those lines I think of Higgins’s The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

Yeah, probably by the way the best crime novel ever written.

I recently re-read that in fact. I’m in awe of its specificity. And he was an attorney correct?

He was an attorney and a reporter, yeah, and a local New England guy. It made a great film also. I don’t know if you’ve seen it. I think it’s Robert Mitchum’s greatest performance, and I’m a big Mitchum fan. Everybody in that film is great, and they got it all right. It so actively reflected the New England that I knew.

The actors all feel like they belong there, like they’ve been there for decades. Even an icon like Mitchum.

Yeah, right? They just lived in that movie.

There’s a lot of evocative detail in City on Fire too. Like when you’re telling the backstory of Ned, the Irish enforcer. He’s beaten by his father as a child, and his teacher doesn’t call him up to the front of the class so that no one can see the blood running down his legs.

Thank you. Yeah, that’s a tough one. These are highly fictionalized characters, but I know these people, including Ned. That’s a tough story.

To piggyback on that, would you call City on Fire a kind of recontextualization of your own life in New England?

Yeah, I think that’s fair. It’s a good description. I might steal that from you.

Again, I want to be respectful of the narrative, but there’s a huge time bomb planted in this book that hasn’t detonated yet, involving the relationship between Pasco, the retired Italian patriarch, and Cassandra, the recovering alcoholic daughter of the lead Irish mobster.

Ha. Yeah. Tick. Tick. Tick.

And it interferes with your perception in a great way: Pasco would be one of the cooler, chiller, more rational guys in the book except you know this one thing.

Yeah, you’d like him right? There’s a few reasons for that revelation. One, it’s a time bomb, and wait until books two and three. It’s a long fuse, a slow burn. Also, I was researching Cassandra, a figure in The Iliad who features much more prominently later in Greek tragic drama. Cassandra was molested by the god Apollo, and what he gave her in exchange was the gift of prophecy. And so in City on Fire, Cassie is molested by Pasco Ferri and says nothing about it, but she serves as a prophet. Later in the book you might pick up on it. She’s trying to tell Danny in regard to the Trojan horse: Don’t do it, don’t do it.

Cassandra seems like a person who will arise in the future books.

You will see her again later, absolutely. You start liking characters, you find that they work and that they’re interesting, hoping, of course, that they’re interesting for the reader as well. I liked her, in kind of the way that I liked Madeleine. I think as a male that you’re always a little reluctant about writing women. Do you have the knowledge and do you have the right? I decided I did, and writing Madeleine was intriguing also.

One of the best chapters in the book is Madeleine’s origin story, for lack of a better word.

No, it’s the perfect word. What you do with a goddess? How do you make that modern? How do you make Aphrodite, the goddess of love and sex, modern and also very powerful? I didn’t want to write just symbols, characters that just stand in for these classic characters. I wanted to write fully modern, fully human people.

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

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