Celebrity Guest at the Literary Walk in Chelsea

Bestselling Novelist Don Winslow is one of the guests at April 23’s Midwest Literary Walk in Chelsea

Don Winslow always wanted to be a novelist. 

“My parents were inveterate readers, there were always books around the house, and were allowed to read anything we wanted at any age. So, I always thought that if my life turned out the way I wanted, I’d be a novelist. Now it took the world a long time to agree with that assessment,” said Winslow, 68, an award-winning, internationally bestselling novelist, who lives in Rhode Island and California. 

Winslow, a two-time alumnus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, will speak and sign copies of his latest novel, City on Fire (Morrow $28.99), at the 14th annual Midwest Literary Walk in Chelsea from 1-5 p.m. on Saturday, April 23. He will speak at 1 p.m. at the Main Street Church, located at 320 N. Main St. in Chelsea (Other speakers include Ashley C. Ford and Billy Collins). This marks his second time in Michigan.

“I’ve only been there for one evening a number of years ago to have dinner with people from Borders,” recalled Winslow. “I’m excited about coming to the home of Elmore Leonard, Jim Harrison, Steve Hamilton, Loren D. Estleman, Donald Goines, Joyce Carol Oates, Marcus Sakey, and my other literary heroes. Oh, yeah, and I think Ernest Hemingway – or at least Nick Adams – spent a little time there?”

Hamilton, a University of Michigan alumnus and bestselling author of the Alex McKnight series, is a fan of Winslow’s work. 

Don was already among a small handful of writers that I really looked up to back when I was first starting out,” said Hamilton. “California Fire and Life was the first book of his I read, if I remember, and it was just this blast of direct electric current, unlike anything I’d ever read before. I’ve since gotten to know him, and my admiration for the way he goes about his craft has only increased. On top of him being just one great guy.”

Separating Fact from Fiction as a PI

Winslow once worked as a private investigator before breaking into print. 

“I needed to make a living. I was in New York City as a starving writer and got a job managing movie theaters,” he recalled. “Later, a friend who managed a chain of theaters needed someone to investigate theft in his chain and I did that. Afterward, I stayed in that kind of work until deciding that graduate school was probably a better idea.” 

Winslow continued: “In my New York days, it was street work – chasing pickpockets in the theaters, trolling for muggers – I was literally bait – making low-level drug buys, looking for runaways. Years later, I mostly worked for law firms getting ready for trials, helping to investigate homicides, arson, insurance fraud, malpractice, child sexual abuse…”

A PI for 15 years, Winslow separated fact from fiction, stating it’s nothing like Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. 

“After I got off the street, most of it was paperwork and interviewing witnesses.  Comparing witness testimony against documents, looking for contradictions, that sort of thing. Never once was I sitting in my office when a long-legged blonde walked into a background of trumpet music – well, unless it was my wife and I had jazz on,” he said. “Listen, I love Parker – great writer, great guy – and I worship (Raymond) Chandler’s Marlowe, but they don’t reflect my experience as a PI. But, you know… I think there are similarities between fiction and real life in terms of attitude. You do get cynical, you do get jaded, you start to think everyone’s lying all the time. Maybe you see a little more of human behavior than is good for you.”

Decades in the Making

Winslow’s first novel was A Cool Breeze on the Underground, which was nominated for Edgar and Shamus Awards. This introduced Neal Carey, the protagonist of four more novels. A prolific author, Winslow wrote the Cartel series, the Boone Daniels series, the Savages series, the Frank Decker series, as well as several standalones. He co-created the 2001-22 NBC series UC: Undercover. He co-wrote the screenplay to 2012’s Savages (based on his novel), directed by Oliver Stone (Platoon) and starring Oscar nominee John Travolta (Pulp Fiction) and Oscar winner Benicio del Toro (Traffic). 

Winslow stated he’s been writing City on Fire – his first book in a new trilogy – for decades. It’s also his most personal as it’s set in the beach town of Perryville, RI, where he grew up. 

“A number of years ago, I started reading the Greek and Roman classics and was struck by how so many of the themes and stories had parallels in real-life modern crime incidents,” explained Winslow. “You can read The Iliad, for instance, as Greeks and Romans squaring off against each other in a war begun over jealousy of a woman, but I also read it as two criminal mobs fighting for turf. In fact, one of the New England crime wars began with a Helen of Troy-like incident over a woman.” 

He continued: “So, I started with that incident and imagined it as happening between Irish and Italians on the beach near where I grew up. But I wasn’t confident as I was about writing other things, so I’d set it down and pick it up as I had more ideas and saw more parallels between the classical stories and real-life crime. I spent 23 years writing a trilogy about the Mexican drug wars, then a major project on New York cops, then a volume of novellas, and then it finally felt like the time to sit down and write this trilogy.”

Melding the Modern and the Ancient

In City on Fire, two criminal empires together control all of New England until a beautiful, modern-day Helen of Troy comes between the Irish and the Italians, launching an all-out war. Danny Ryan yearns for a more “legit” life and a place in the sun. But as the bloody conflict escalates and brother turns against brother, Danny must rise above himself, becoming a leader, a ruthless strategist, and a master of a treacherous game in which the winners live and the losers die.

“I’ve known Danny my whole life,” said Winslow. “I grew up with him.  When I started to write this trilogy, I wanted a character that I could follow for years – through an epic – and also one that was slightly outside of things, that could provide that slightly off-center perspective. So, I chose to follow Aeneas and made Danny a modern-day representation of him. Of course, in writing the character, I had to follow Aeneas’ actions but then forget about him and write Danny, a fully modern character who stands in his own right.”

For Winslow, the biggest challenge of writing City on Fire was making the ancient modern.

“(It) can be read as a straight-up crime story, without reference to any of the classics at all. That was my goal, to see if I could seamlessly meld those two worlds.  I hope that I have,” he said. “Having said that, almost every character in the novel and its sequels has an analogous character in the classics. Every incident has an analogous incident. You don’t need to know that to enjoy the read, but perhaps it might enhance the experience.” 

Winslow doesn’t outline his books. 

“I don’t outline because I want to be open to the possibility of surprises,” he said. “Having said that, the stories themselves provide a rough plan… With City on Fire, I knew I was going to hit certain events in The Iliad, so they were sort of a road map. But, no, I pretty much make it up as I go along.”

City on Fire has already been optioned for a movie adaptation. It’s received acclaim from critics and authors alike. Horror maestro Stephen King called it “superb.”

“After writing the Cartel trilogy, I can’t believe he’s reaching for yet another epic in City on Fire and the two books that will follow,” said Hamilton. “People are already comparing it to The Godfather and I can understand why. He’s creating a legacy of crime fiction that I think will stand for a long time.”

Midwest Literary Walk midwestliterarywalk.org/ happening at various locations in Chelsea April 23, 2022 from 1pm – 5pm.


Author, Don Winslow will be attending the Midwest Literary Walk in Chelsea on April 23. Photo courtesy of William Morrow Publishing.

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