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Bestselling novelist Don Winslow pivots from writing to politics

Ahead of his final book tour, the South Kingstown writer talk about “City on Fire,” his first crime novel set in Rhode Island, and his newest project, Don Winslow Films.

"City on Fire" by Don WinslowWilliam Morrow - handout

Don Winslow is currently on a whirlwind tour that’s taken him from the Los Angeles Festival of Books to the Dallas Museum of Art to discuss his first-ever set-in-Rhode-Island crime novel, “City on Fire.”

But as with any great story, there’s a twist: the South Kingston, R.I., novelist recently announced he will retire from writing to focus on another project: Don Winslow Films.

“I love writing and do not make this decision lightly, but I’m going to pick a fight,” he said in his announcement, posted on April 23. “Democrats don’t yell loud enough… We need more than outrage. We need action. … I’m going to create a series of political videos that hit hard, create change, and help win key races across the country.”


This book tour he’s on will be his last, he told the Globe.

“Listen, this career’s been really good to me, as the old cliche goes,” he said in a phone interview from New York.

“I’ve had a much bigger career than I ever dreamed, and probably than I ever deserved. But I just think we’re at a crisis point, an existential moment in American democracy. I’ve thought that for several years — certainly with the 2020 election and the events of Jan. 6. I think we’re going to have a tough fight ahead of us. I feel at this point, whatever talents I have, whatever platform I have, I should use.”

“The best form of defense is a counter-attack,” he added. “I think we need to be tougher and stop bringing spoons to a knife fight.”

The 1971 South Kingstown High School alum has made a name for himself as a chart-topping crime novelist and cinematic writer.

His first novel “Savages” was adapted into a 2012 feature film by Oliver Stone; Winslow was also a screenwriter. His 1997 novel “The Life and Death of Bobby Z” became a movie starring Laurence Fishburne, Olivia Wilde and Paul Walker. Other works are optioned for TV or film.


“City of Fire” — think “Goodfellas” with more sex, set in 1986 Providence — is the first book of a new crime trilogy. The two others, “City of Dreams” and “City in Ashes,” will be published in April 2023 and April 2024. The trilogy has already been optioned by Sony 3000.

Winslow splits his time between South Kingston and San Diego. He’ll be reading from his latest book in Boston on May 10, in Providence on May 13, and in Westerly, R.I., on May 14. He talked to the Globe about his upcoming retirement, and his Rhode Island roots.

Q: What inspired you to focus on short films for social media?

Winslow: The events of Jan. 6 were a heavy motivation. I just think we’re in a moment, where we’re [either] going to save our democracy or slip into a shoddy fascism.

So what sparked the idea for “City on Fire”?

Well, the idea had sort of a double-spark, if that’s a thing. One were real-life incidents that occurred in the world of crime from the 1960s to the present. They reminded me of stories and themes from the Greek and Roman classics — or maybe it was the other way around. I wanted to see if I could meld those two worlds in a contemporary crime trilogy.


It read to me a bit like “Goodfellas.” What were some influences going in?

You know, it would be disingenuous to see that we’re not all influenced by iconic works like “Goodfellas,” “The Godfather,” “The Sopranos.” They’re part of our culture and to a greater or lesser extent reflect a reality. Having said that, you have to forget about those influences when you’re writing and just write your own book.

This is your first Rhode Island-set book. What drew you to use Providence as the backdrop?

I grew up in Rhode Island and live there half the year. Also, the history of organized crime in Rhode Island matched up pretty well with what I wanted to write.

...This is the first book I’ve set at home, and it’s significant to me for that reason. I left here when I was 17 to see the world and started to come back here over [in recent] years to help look after my mother. The more time we spent here, the more affection I began to recover for the place. I really love it now. I think I needed to get the distance to be able to write about it.

You earned your degree in African Studies. What was your initial plan?

There was no plan. [Writing] novels [is] what I’ve always wanted to do, since I was a kid. My dad was an inveterate reader, my mom a librarian, so we always had books around the house. Now, the world didn’t agree with my ambition for quite some time, so I had to do other tings to make a living.


You worked as a private investigator in Times Square. What was that like?

That’s a three-hour answer [laughs]. I just needed to make a living. I was in New York being a starving writer, and I had a chance to do low-level street work in Times Square and Hell’s Kitchen, and at a later point in my career, I went out to California, did much higher-level work, basically helping to get lawyers prepared for trial, doing the investigative end of various trials — whether arson, homicide, insurance fraud.

You also worked on a safari tour in Africa.

It was great. I chased leopards and elephants around with cameras. What was not to like? I did that about five years, proposed to my wife in Africa. It was a good job. I was living part of the year in England, part in Africa, part in California. We lived in Connecticut for while. I only really started to come back to Rhode Island seven or eight years ago.

What do you miss about Rhode Island when you’re not here?

A lot. East Matunuck Beach. Jim’s Dock, which serves actual legitimate clam chowder and not that milky baby vomit [they serve] in Boston, which is an abomination under the lord for which capital punishment should be reinstituted.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Lauren Daley can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @laurendaley1.