“Part of me gets very stubborn and thinks: I’m not going to be chased out of my own country by a neo-fascist thug and his flying monkeys, but then the other part of me thinks: man, I’m tired of what’s happening here… It’s exhausting.”
It’s shortly after 7pm and Winslow is sitting at a dining table in his home in the seaside state of Rhode Island, tucking into a plate of fish, chips and clear broth clam chowder – a Rhode Island speciality.
“It’s the only way to have clam chowder,” he says. “Everything else is an abomination.”
Meanwhile, I’m on the other side of the world, under mandatory quarantine at Sydney’s Hilton Hotel, eating a not-so-tasty breakfast of beans, toast and an over-ripe banana, served to returned travellers under two weeks of lockdown.
It’s not quite the interview we had in mind, but in an abnormal year upended by a pandemic, sharing a meal via Google Hangouts across two different time zones almost seems fitting.
The first thing that strikes you about Winslow is that he’s softly spoken, self-deprecating and extremely polite. Indeed, for a bloke whose novels are filled with profanities and laden with brutal scenes of violence and vengeance involving cops and cartels, the 66-year-old is the antithesis of what you’d expect.
Hollywood director Oliver Stone found this out several years ago when he adapted Winslow’s crime novel Savages for his 2012 movie of the same name.
“I think he thought I was going to be somebody else because I wrote a book about dope and all these marijuana growers,” Winslow says with a laugh when I ask what it was like working with the notorious film maker. “But I don’t do drugs, I’ve been married to the same woman for 36 years and I go home at night. He probably thought I was going to be partying with him all the time, but I’m pretty boring.”
Boring is hardly a word you’d use to describe a best-selling author whose early career reads like a novel in itself: leading tours in Africa; running a movie theatre chain; working as a private investigator in Times Square.
But 2020 has certainly been a change of pace for Winslow, whose busy regime has typically involved working on two books at a time, often writing from 5.30am to 10am, and then embarking on a 10-kilometre hike before returning to work again in the afternoon.
In late March, as coronavirus began surging across America, Winslow was forced to cancel plans for a 20-city tour to promote his latest book, Broken, a collection of six novellas connected by familiar themes: crime, corruption, justice and redemption.
It was a tough decision, particularly as much of the tour involved visiting some of the independent bookstores that supported Winslow during the earliest part of his career – long before he became an “overnight success” in his 50s. Winslow and his publishers decided to launch a virtual program instead, but about a week into it, his mother died, resulting in the tour being suspended.
As someone who treats every in-store appearance as a “real performance” to try to connect with his audience, Winslow says the virtual format took a while to get used to.
“It got me thinking, though: if there’s a positive side to all this, it’s that younger writers who have published books (but don’t have the kind of advertising budget that I get) can now do book appearances with just their laptop,” he says. “And each book event is now an international book event.”
The change of pace also paved the way for Winslow to shift his attention to another passion project: the demise of Trump.
Fired up by the President’s mishandling of the coronavirus, his inflammatory policies and his lack of accountability, Winslow announced on Twitter in July that he would shelve all writing plans until after the election.
From now on “I am 24/7 on beating the devil that is Donald Trump”, he declared at the time.
He wasn’t kidding. For the past few months, Winslow has been working with his friend Shane Salerno – the screenwriter whose credits include Armageddon and the new series The Comey Rule – to produce viral videos attacking everything from the President’s inherited wealth to his unkept promises.
One of his most recent videos was a collaboration with rock legend Bruce Springsteen that targeted voters in Pennsylvania just as the President headed to the critical swing state for a campaign rally earlier this month.
Set to the tune of Springsteen’s Philadelphia, the video clocked up almost 5 million views in less than a day, showcasing steelworkers and farmers hurt by Trump’s trade wars and tariffs while putting the spotlight on the White House’s inaction against COVID-19.
The response to each short film “has been mind boggling”, Winslow says.
“We’ll get a million views in the first hour, so on a pure numbers basis, it has an immense outreach. What the impact might be is another question, because in a large sense you’re preaching to the faithful, but I think that there’s a value to that – to keep people motivated.”
Using his platform to attack Trump has not been without its risks, particularly as a proportion of Winslow’s fan base are likely to be Republicans. He says he’s had his fair share of hate mail, threats and angry tweets, but he believes it’s a small price to pay for standing up for what he believes in.
After all, he says, “these are extraordinary times” and this election, in his view, is “the most important since 1860” – the presidential election that preceded America’s Civil War.
“We’re either going to try to return to our democratic ideals or we’re going to slide into the sort of shoddy criminal fascism that we’ve seen from this administration,” he says. “I can’t imagine what this country will look like if we have a couple of more years of this. I just can’t.”
‘We’re either going to try to return to our democratic ideals or we’re going to slide into a sort of shoddy criminal fascism.’
Winslow insists that he never set out to be political; he “only ever wanted to be a storyteller” – something for which he credits his mother, a librarian, and his father, a navy man.
There were never any limits on the kind of books he and his sister could read when they were growing up, and Winslow recalls hiding under the table as a child while his dad and his buddies drank beer for hours, telling tales of shipwrecks and bar-room brawls.
Perhaps politics was unavoidable given the nature of Winslow’s work over the years. His 2005 crime thriller, The Power of the Dog, was a deep dive into the DEA’s involvement with the war on drugs over three decades, published after six years of painstaking research and writing.
Its gut-wrenching sequel, The Cartel, was another stunning chronicle of the chaos at the US-Mexican border, spanning more than 600 pages.
And then there was the explosive finale to the trilogy, The Border, which includes a fictional president who campaigns on the promise of a border wall, stokes racist fears about Mexicans and is linked to a dodgy real estate deal. Sound familiar?
Not wanting to be “just a voyeur, taking advantage of the war on drugs”, Winslow decided to use his platform to take a stand.
In 2015, he took out a full page ad in the Washington Post, directed at President Obama and Congress, advocating for drug reform. In 2017, he took out another full page ad, in The New York Times, this time lashing out at Trump and his then attorney-general, Jeff Sessions, over their “woefully ignorant” approach to the drug problem, which centred on lock-’em-up policies instead of public-health strategies.
Three years later, politics is again front and centre of Winslow’s mind as America heads towards its most consequential election in decades.
After four years of division and unrest in America, does he believe that Democratic nominee Joe Biden will become the next US president?
“I’m guardedly optimistic,” he says. “This has gone beyond right and left. It’s gone beyond Republican and Democrat. These are now matters of right and wrong; these are matters of morality and ethics. Character matters – and Biden has that in spades.”
If it doesn’t work out, there’s always Perth.
Don Winslow’s latest book is Broken, published by HarperCollins Australia
706 Succotash Rd, Wakefield, Rhode Island, US
+1 (401) 789 4556
Farrah Tomazin is a senior journalist covering the 2020 US presidential election.