Hi, Paul. Which book are we talking about?
Hey, Jason! Well, the book I most wish I’d written is The Cartel by Don Winslow – however, I feel you can’t talk about that without also talking about the first in the series, The Power Of The Dog. So, two books! Two very, very good books.
Mexican cartels, high-end prostitutes, American foreign policy – these books sound grand, epic, maybe polemical. Are they also personal?
Oh, absolutely. Art Keller is a family man. So too is Adán Barrera. Family plays a big part in the lives of most, if not all, of the characters, whether that be husbands, wives and children, or brothers and sisters. It shapes them, in some cases it motivates them. But it’s also a case of finding family that isn’t blood – Nora and Juan Parada spring to mind. But also of friendships, and what a broken or destroyed friendship can do to drive a person forward.
The growth of Art particularly is central to both books. He’s on a bleak path, and it gets bleaker the further along it he goes. Is he going to come out with his soul intact? Well…
Where does Art’s downward spiral, if that’s the right term, start from?
So, in book one he starts off as very much the good guy – he’s going to do things by the book. About halfway through, things are starting to get him down. He’s turning dark. Politics are holding him back, not to mention that most of them are on the take. It’s dawning on him he needs to turn to the dark side, to fight fire with fire. The turning point is when he gets into bed with the Mafia to rip off Adán’s cartel. After that, he’s struggling to save his soul as much as he is to bring down Adán. At the end of the book, he’s successful at both. In book two… Well, he’s a different kind of player after years spent in hiding, separated from his family. He’s dark, and he’s staying dark. Now he knows how to play the game, he won’t make the same mistakes, and he doesn’t trust anybody.
What’s Adán Barrera’s motivation as a cartel boss? Is he in it to safeguard his family’s fortune? Did he fall into this life through circumstance? Is he just bad, and enjoys being bad?
Much like Art, he starts off with decent intentions – well, semi-decent in Adán’s case – but turns bad far sooner, to the point of becoming irredeemable once he’s ordering mass executions and the murder of families. Whatever his motivations starting out, he soon becomes far more obsessed with the notions of power and control than anything else. I think Adán does enjoy being bad, although he doesn’t see himself that way. He’s the hero of his own narrative.
It makes me think of Ellroy’s American Tabloid in its scale. Does Winslow use a matter-of-fact style of prose?
Ellroy is one of my favourite authors, too. I admire authors who write such big, epic, labyrinthine novels and make it look so easy! One of the things I admire so much about the Cartel novels is their sheer ambition. It’s one of the things that really motivates me in my own work – to get better, to plot and write bigger, ambitious works.
To answer your question, yes. The style is direct, it’s straight to the point. I understand Winslow spent something like six years researching the first book, so much like American Tabloid it has some basis in fact. Scary, terrifying fact. One thing I’ll say about Winslow’s writing in particular – no one writes an action scene like him. Absolutely no one. You feel like you’re there, in it, like the bullets are whizzing past your head and you’ve got one chance to make the shot that’ll save your life. I held my breath at parts.
And the shocks! Jesus Christ, he really pulls the rug out from under you with some of the reveals, particularly in The Cartel. These are epic fucking books. I can feel myself fanboying talking about them, remembering key scenes, insisting to other people that they read it for themselves.
What is Winslow saying about the Drug War?
That it’s endless, that it’s an abyss of corruption, violence and death. That no matter who the figurehead of a particular cartel is, it’s a hydra – if you chop off one head, there’ll be another, there’ll be more, to take its place. I believe this last one particularly is going to be the theme of the forthcoming third and final part of the trilogy, The Border, out in February.
Do the novels explore possible solutions to the drug war?
It’s been a while since I read them both last, and I don’t remember if the possibility of a solution presents itself. What I remember most is the sheer nihilistic hopelessness of it all. Winslow’s quite active on Twitter, he talks about the drug war and the cartels a lot there, so perhaps he has personal solutions, but I don’t recall them in the books. Like I said, what I remember most is the never-ending bloodshed and the sense that it’s going to go on and on and somehow just keep getting worse.
How do Art and Adán, once friends, separate into opposite sides of the law?
I think there was always an understanding that they would end up on opposite sides of the law. The familial pull was too strong for Adán, and after he gives in to that, he wants the power. Then of course he dupes Art to his own ends, he kills his partner, there are threats upon his life, upon his family – things really escalate…
Is Art the protagonist and Adàn the antagonist, or is it more complex than that?
It starts out like it could go either way. Adán could be an anti-hero, but it doesn’t take long before he’s sucked into the kind of actions that make him a total villain. Whilst he does perform altruistic acts such as funding schools etc, it’s quite clear this is all a sham to curry himself some good favour with the people he’s actually exploiting.
Art on the other hand is much more complex. As I said earlier, his journey becomes darker. He starts out clean-cut, and by the end he’s got a lot of blood on his hands – not as much as Adán, but still more than plenty to give him some sleepless nights. He’s a pure anti-hero, very much driven to get his man any way he can.
The ending of The Power Of The Dog leads to some redemption for Art, and it is an absolutely perfect ending. So much so in fact that when I learnt of the sequel I was concerned that it would undo what had been accomplished. You know what? The ending of The Cartel manages to build upon the first’s and is still deeply satisfying. The two compliment each other very, very well to the point it’s hard to choose one as being better over the other.
Do you think there’ll be a sequel? [This is where I had a brain fart, as Paul had already talked about the sequel in an earlier question – I’ll get my coat] If you wrote it, what dark alleys would you go down?
There IS a sequel! The Border is coming in February 2019. Needless to say I’m very excited about it, and curious what’s going to happen after the ending of The Cartel.
I can’t even begin to imagine how I’d handle it. Winslow is a master and I’m nowhere near his level. I’m fully prepared to strap in and enjoy the ride!
You’ve written quite a few books now – how far are you from Winslow?
I’m still a ways off! If we go off my paperbacks, I’ve written seven books with another two coming next year, and I think he’s at nineteen? Something like that. So I’ve still got a way to go. And in terms of quality? Oh man! Most of my books, with the exception of Violent By Design, are quite short, too. This goes back to what I was saying earlier about writing being ambitious – after I wrap up work on a few shorter works, it’s time for me to get more ambitious in what I’m producing.
I outline each chapter when I write, with a brief overview of the whole thing. What do you do?
Same! I keep a reasonably detailed plan before I start – a character list, and an outline chapter by chapter. I like to have it planned out otherwise I’m liable to lose the way and end up writing myself into a corner with a Gordian knot I have no idea how to cut through. So many of my early projects stalled because I didn’t have a plan for them, because I hadn’t properly thought them out beforehand. Obviously sometimes things change on the fly, and that’s fine. You can change your plan on the go and make it work around your new ideas.
So where’s your ambition going to take you? What elements do you want to dive into for the longer form?
I have some ideas for what I’m planning to do with a longer form, but I don’t like to discuss things in great detail until they’re done. Firstly I have to make sure my talent can match up to my ambition. Either way, it’s going to be a case of writing and working through it and keeping at it until that tenacity pays off and I’m able to come out with something I can be proud of.
Your books have been very highly rated. Is your worry about the longer form more one of needing to do meticulous research than your storytelling chops?
I guess that would be part of it, yeah. The good thing about novellas is they’re quite fast to write, I usually have one written in a fortnight (obviously the editing takes a lot longer), and usually they require a small amount of research. Something bigger like I’m planning is going to require a deeper level of research and planning, but it’s been an ongoing process of books and YouTube videos now! I believe it took Winslow twenty-one years to research and write the complete Border trilogy, and I mean, man, that’s a daunting thought.
I expect yours to come out before 2039. It sounds like you’ve made a start. Is the hardest part of research not just the research, but how to implement it in your story with a light touch?
That’s exactly it! It’s easy to get pages and pages of research that you want to put into your story, it’s harder to do so in a way that isn’t heavy-handed and is going to keep people’s attention, because the things that interest you aren’t necessarily the things that interest your readers. When a person comes away having learnt something, without realising they were in the process of learning something, that’s a success.
The Power of the Dog and The Cartel: films or TV series?
It’s my understanding that some movies are going to be made, I believe either produced or directed by Ridley Scott. That’s pretty exciting. It’ll be interesting to see who’s cast to fill out the roles. Personally, no-one springs instantly to mind as to who would play Art, Adán et al.
The books however are so epic they would maybe work better as a TV series, but I think in the right hands a movie will be more than adequate. And also, in the wrong hands a TV version could suffer.
Paul, you’ve been a top guest. Any final words?
Thanks! I hope people check out Winslow’s Cartel books and see why I rate them so highly, I really don’t think I can do them justice, you just have to read them yourself! Also, for my own news, keep an eye out for two new books from me in the first half of 2019 – Bad Bastards with Fahrenheit 13, and Guillotine with All Due Respect. Guillotine actually releases the week before the final part of the Cartel trilogy comes out in February. That’s a literary battle I’ve already lost! Haha.
Paul Heatley writes hard-hitting noir, including An Eye for an Eye, Fatboy, and Violent by Design. If you go on Goodreads and check out the reviews you’ll see how highly regarded he is.
He lives in northeast England and you can find his short form work smeared across websites such as Shotgun Honey, Close to the Bone, Spelk Fiction, and The Flash Fiction Offensive.
You can buy Paul’s books HERE.
His website is HERE.
You can buy Don Winslow’s books HERE.
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