Don Winslow thought he was out of the drug wars, free from the DEA agents, drug traffickers, prisoners and thugs that have been part of his world for two decades.
But, for now, the best-selling crime novelist has been pulled back into the world he’s been writing about for years, and with the publication of “The Border” last month, three acclaimed novels.
Those books — 2005’s “The Power of the Dog,” 2015’s “The Cartel” and now “The Border” — make up Winslow’s Cartel series that follows DEA agent Art Keller, who pursues Mexican drug lord Adan Barrera.
“I never wanted to write a trilogy,” he said. “After the first book, I thought ‘I’m out’. After the second book, I thought ‘I’m out.' Now I truly I’m done. I just can’t be there anymore. I’m already gone, except I’m doing this now. I’m talking about the book and everything it’s about. I’ve already got the idea for what I’m going to do next. It’s not drugs. It will be crime, that’s my world, that what I do.”
Winslow started working on the book that became “The Power of the Dog” in 2000 — “I’ve been on this beat, if you will, for 20 years. I start by reading history. I then go to journalism, then to documents and I talk to people.”
The story he crafts from that research is told through the eyes of each character — especially Keller — but it’s written in third person.
“That’s just the way I approach my job,” Winslow said. “I’m supposed to take the reader to places he or she couldn’t go, wouldn’t want to go. I just learned there was a term for it. It’s called the false third person, where you’re writing in first-person voice but using the third person. Not that I would know that, not having had a writing class other than Jim Neal’s basic reporting class.”
That would be University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism professor Jim Neal’s class — back in the early 1970s when Winslow came to the place that changed his life.
“I came to Nebraska as a 17-year-old from the East Coast, which when I was a teenager, was so different,” he said. “It was cynical, economically depressed, I think psychologically depressed. We were coming out of Vietnam and Cambodia. There were riots in my school.
“I stepped off the plane in Lincoln, back when you walked off the plane right onto the tarmac. I felt like the world, with the giant horizons, did a 180-degree turn. I show up in Abel Hall, and all of sudden, I’m with these people who are positive, who have a can-do attitude. It had a tremendous effect on me.”
At UNL, Winslow said, he had great teachers, including history professor Pete Maslowski, with whom he wrote 2004’s non-fiction “Looking for a Hero,” photography professor George Tuck and Neal, made lifelong friends, including former Lincoln Mayor Don Wesely and HobbyTown USA’s Thom Walla and, most importantly, Jean, a Nebraska girl who is his wife of 31 years.
“I don’t know what I'd be doing or who I’d be if I wouldn’t have had those years in Nebraska,” Winslow said. “They were life-forming years and, in some way, life-saving years.”
Winslow was at UNL from 1971-76, then returned in 1981 to get a master’s degree in military history. His undergraduate studies, however, were in a far different field.
“I majored in African history ... and university studies, which made me instantly unemployable,” he said. “ I did some guiding in Africa and I was a (private investigator) in New York. But that wasn’t what got me into crime fiction. I started reading those guys — Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, and I just liked it.”
Winslow wasn’t an instant success. His first novel, 1991’s “A Cool Breeze on the Underground” was turned down by 15 publishers. But once he got in print, Winslow proved to be a prolific crime-fiction master. He’s written 21 novels and has seen two of them, “The Life and Death of Bobby Z” and “Savages,” turned into movies, the latter directed by Oliver Stone.
The Cartel series is now in pre-production, optioned by Twentieth Century Fox, as is his 2017 novel about an NYPD detective, “The Force.”
“The Border,” which was released a month ago, has been on every best-seller list since it hit the shelves. It’s another compelling, highly realistic read, as Winslow composes his novels on his extensive research and models real characters. Barrera, for example, is partly based on the notorious “El Chapo,” Joaquin Guzman.
“I’m confident that everything in the book has happened in one way or another,” Winslow said. “The sad truth is it’s all very close to the bone.”
Staying close to the bone, in this case, means that Winslow included a Donald Trump-like character in “The Border” — a presidential candidate who bases his campaign on building a border wall.
“I started writing this book during the last two years of the Obama administration,” Winslow said. “I’m an Obama guy, but I think he was late coming to drug reform and criminal reform and, to some degree, immigration. I’m a crime writer. I’m a crime fiction guy. I’m just trying to write an interesting, captivating story. But you can’t ignore the world around you. ... I had to deal with the politics of it. Otherwise, it would be fantasyland, where I don’t go.”
Dealing with politics has led Winslow to challenge Trump to a debate, with Stephen King offering to put up $10,000 to make it happen.
Trump’s wall, Winslow said, cannot and will not shut down the flow of drugs into United States from Mexico. About 90 percent of the drugs coming from Mexico enter the U.S. through the 52 legal points of entry on the border — “and there are only three of those that matter.”
They come in on some of the thousands of trucks and in passenger vehicles that cross the border every day — for a reason.
“What you’re trying to do is get on the American freeway system as quickly and efficiently as you can. To get on the highway, I’m driving on I-5, or I-10 or I-40, the cocaine freeway,” Winslow said. “You’re not going to shut the gates down. The gates have to be open for commerce. A wall will not work. Even the Great Wall of China should have been called the Lousy Wall of China, it never stopped anything. It had gotten through with the commerce they were carrying.”
Winslow was on his way to a book signing as we spoke Wednesday and preparing for the next leg of his book tour that will bring him to The Bookworm in Omaha on Thursday.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever done a signing in Nebraska,” Winslow said. “I’ve never been invited to Lincoln. I guess they remember me.”
Winslow does make it back to Lincoln at least once a year, usually in the fall, to visit friends and family. And he’s thrilled to have a Nebraska connection. Told that he has to be the top-selling, most-acclaimed writer to come out of UNL in the last 25 years, he replied:
“There’s a great literary tradition in Nebraska. If I can be included in that, I’m very pleased.”