Book: “The Cartel”

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Bestselling author Don Winslow has spent a decade of his life writing about the War on Drugs. His latest book is “The Cartel,” a true-to-life epic about the past decade of the Mexican-American drug wars. Winslow will discuss his book.

TED SIMONS: Best selling author Don Winslow is out with a new novel that focuses on the war on drugs. The book is titled the cartel, and it's a true to life epic about the past deck ate of the Mexican American drug wars. Don Winslow joins us now to talk about his new work. Great to have you here.

DON WINSLOW: thanks for having me.

TED SIMONS: this is quite the page Turner as I'm sure you're aware, but it's a sequel written to a book that was written ten years ago.

DON WINSLOW: Ten years ago I wrote the power of the dog which followed about 30 years of the drug wars through the eyes mostly of two characters, a DEA agent and drug lord. When I was done with that book I thought I was done with this topic. I didn't want to revisit it. But as I watched the evolution of the Mexican drug conflicts spiral into violence that we had not dreamed about in our worst nightmares, I finally decided albeit reluctantly to write the sequel.

TED SIMONS: was it difficult to write the sequel considering all that had happened over the years?

DON WINSLOW: it was organizationally difficult. The story really follows this sort of blood vendetta between two men. That's the spine of the story. I think I have written about art Keller for about 45 years of his life, more than my wife or my son I think I have spent time with art Keller. Organizationally it was difficult because there's so many events in the Mexican drug conflict over such a broad territory. That was hard to bring together.

TED SIMONS: How do you research something like this? How do you -- I mean some of the stories coming out of Mexico were absolutely horrific and gruesome. How do you weave that into character studies of a cartel leader and a DEA argument?

DON WINSLOW: You know, it's easy to sort of look at a drug lord, cartel leader and say that's an evil person. By any objective standard he is. No question about about that. They do horrible things. For a novelist I don't think that's good enough. I think that you have to try to tell human stories and you have to let "The Reader" at least try to see the world through that person's point of view.

TED SIMONS: the characters are very well rounded. The drug lord at times you wonder, is this the same guy that's having all these other folks killed, but when you do characters like this, did you have them in mind? Did they surprise you? Do they grow out of whole cloth? How do you -- does the character come first or the plot?

DON WINSLOW: Character always comes first I think. Now, there's an exception to that with a book like this which is very, very close to the bone. Very close to the facts. There's very little that happens in the cartel that didn't actually happen in one form or another. Of course I have moved it around for dramatic purposes in a -- and have fictionalized characters. Some are drawn from real life people and anyone familiar with the drug scene would go that's sort of him and this guy did that. Others were whole cloth. There's a journalist character that for me started as a way to introduce us into Juarez. But I liked him so much and liked hanging out with him so much that he became a major character. I enjoyed his point of view. That was surprising to me.

TED SIMONS: how many surprises do you have when you write a novel? The creative process fascinates me. It's just you and a blank page or computer screen. It's your world yet you're basing your world on a very real world.

DON WINSLOW: you know, there's an old saying if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. Which I think means you have to look at real life events or iconic crime stories like the Godfather, other ones, and acknowledge the realty but then once you've nodded to that mile post, if you will, you have to walk your own road. That can be quite surprising in the way that some of these incidents impact you or things you didn't think you were going to write about you found so amazing you had to write about them.

TED SIMONS: Did you start this novel with a theme in mind, a message in mind?

DON WINSLOW: No. No. I think the story is the message. Lord knows I can get preachy, I try to avoid it, but I'm a novelist. My job is to interest you and entertain you and bring you into a world that you may be otherwise couldn't experience and bring it through those characters. So I didn't have a message in mind. I have some opinions. But no real Meteorologist Joe Haynes in minds.

TED SIMONS: because of the serious nature of the novel I was wondering why not go nonfiction? Obviously you know your business here. This is not some guy sitting out there making stuff up. You've been around the block. Obviously you've talked to a lot of folks. Why fiction.

DON WINSLOW: Couple of reasons. First, I'm a novelist. I think that's what I do best. There's some great journalism out there on this subject. I could name you the names. I acknowledge them in the book. I'm better as a fiction writer but also in some ways journalists can give facts, fiction can tell truth. We're allowed to imagine the inner lives of characters. You guys, you know, unless someone says something you can't put that dialogue in their mouth or you shouldn't. I can. I can go into their heads and make things up and imagine how they might be feeling. What they might be thinking and hopefully realistically so. So I love that novel is tick license to do that. I think I can bring "The Reader" closer to this world through fiction than I could through nonfiction.

TED SIMONS: with the war on drugs, obviously you're very steeped in research on this and it's such a major part obviously the complete part of this novel, your thoughts on the war on drugs and what has transpired in the last ten years.

DON WINSLOW: you know, I wish it were the last ten years. It's the last 45 years. We have been fighting this war in the same way for 45 years. The results are drugs are more potent, more plentiful and less expensive than ever. So without disrespecting the very brave people who fought this war, DEA personnel, ICE personnel, customs, police, have great respect forethem but I think if something hasn't worked for 40-some-odd years it's time to try something else.

TED SIMONS: What would that be?

DON WINSLOW: Basically legalization or decriminalization.

TED SIMONS: What do you think would happen?

DON WINSLOW: I don't have a crystal ball. Nobody does. There are a lot of models that I think you would see a spike in drug use but it would quickly go down. That was Portugal's experience for instance when they legalized everything. What I do know would happies that we would save something like $89 billion a year and we could use that money to do other things. You just have some people prosecute on education. We could improve schools, pay for programs like the very interesting program you were just talking about. We could use that money to address the root causes of the drug problem.

TED SIMONS: So again, back to the novel itself, what reaction have you heard from DEA folks, from the folks on the other side?

DON WINSLOW: With this novel it's only been out a few days. I have heard from DEA folks already.


DON WINSLOW: mixed. They loved the novel. They didn't necessarily -- one of them liked the take, another one very privately told me I agree with you. Another one was very against legalization. I haven't heard from the other side as you call it.

TED SIMONS:Did you hear or did word get to you that this was considered real life or this was not a very good thing that you did?

DON WINSLOW: I have heard from all facets of the drug war about power of the dog. There are police departments that used it as a textbook. I have had DEA people say to me, who are you talking to? I have had people from the darker side of this say, you know, you got it right.

TED SIMONS: Hollywood calling?

DON WINSLOW: Hollywood has called. We're in the late screenplay phase of power of the dog now to be followed by the cartel.

TED SIMONS: so you got power of the dog, srceen play happening. This one obviously something has to happen here because going through -- every page is a Turner. You set things up very well. It's not too complicated and it's interesting, the violence is there. I'm sure you've heard there's a little bit of Godfather going on here.

DON WINSLOW: I have heard that. I think Esquire called it the Godfather of the Mexican drugs wars. It's almost unavoidable. When I wrote power of the dog I based it on a certain family. In realty they were so like the family in the Godfather. There was the cerebral son, there was the rash, violent son, and there was the screw-up that I couldn't write it the real way because it was so close to Michael, Sonny and Fredo from the Godfather. Any time you're writing about organized crime there are certain similarities there.

TED SIMONS: Last question. Ten years for the sequel to happen. Wait another ten for a sequel? Are you ever going back to these people?


TED SIMONS: You're not?

DON WINSLOW: I don't think so. I said that we have quality conviction after power of the dog. I went back on it. So I guess you learn never say never. Right now I have no plans to do that.

TED SIMONS: What are your other subjects?

DON WINSLOW: I'm not going to tell you. I want to keep it a surprise.

TED SIMONS: Oh, come on now.

DON WINSLOW: I don't think I have written my best book yet.

TED SIMONS: that's the way to think. Congratulations. It really is quite a read. You have had quite a career. A lot of successful novels and I'm sure more in the future. Thanks for joining us.

DON WINSLOW: Thursday on "Arizona Horizon," Phoenix city manager Ed Zuercher responds to city officials knew about flight path changes but did nothing about it, and what record low levels at Lake Mead mean to the state. That's at 5:30 and 10:00 on the next "Arizona Horizon."

That is it for now. I'm Ted Simons. Thank you so much for joining us. You have a great evening.

VIDEO: "Arizona Horizon" ID made possible by contributions from the friends of 8, members of your Arizona PBS station. Thank you.

Don Winslow: Bestselling author "The Cartel"

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