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Don Winslow talks Shakespeare and Coppola, but not retirement, at Festival of Books

A portrait of a man sitting at a wooden table.
Retired novelist Don Winslow in the L.A. Times Festival of Books photo studio.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

After years as one of the bestselling crime novelists in the country, Don Winslow announced his retirement from writing a few days before taking the stage at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on Sunday for a conversation with filmmaker Michael Mann.

“I love writing,” he said in a statement released on Twitter Saturday, “and I do not make this decision lightly.” The final work in the trilogy that begins with his new book, “City on Fire,” won’t be published until 2024, but he has already written all of it.

Winslow also announced his new full-time gig: Doubling down on the videos he created to oppose Donald Trump during the 2020 election and funding a “digital army … to combat Republican lies and disinformation.” The earlier videos, which also featured Jeff Daniels and Bruce Springsteen, received 250 million views overall, according to Winslow. His new goal is to hit “one billion documented views.”

Panels, prizes and people — lots of them. Coverage of the L.A. Times’ first in-person Festival of Books since 2019 begins below.

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Curiously, Winslow brought none of this up at USC’s Bovard Auditorium in conversation with Mann; the elephant (or donkey) in the room was off in a corner. The audience of several hundred didn’t seem to mind; there was plenty more to talk about. Winslow spoke to Mann, the prolific director of crime films and TV series (“Miami Vice,” “Heat”), about the art that has inspired them — everything from Shakespeare and Tolstoy to Coppola and Kubrick — and the two told anecdotes related to their processes.

Winslow focused on “City on Fire.” Mann, too, has a novel out this year — his first ever. Co-written with Meg Gardiner, “Heat 2: A Novel” is both a prequel and sequel to his landmark film. Though the plot obviously involves crime, he bristled onstage at being called a “genre writer.”

Winslow, on the other hand, said he didn’t mind the label. In fact, a French journalist had once asked him “in a not especially friendly tone” whether he thought that, as a writer of crime fiction, he lived in “a literary ghetto.” Winslow’s response was simple: “Yes, and I like my neighborhood.”

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What did nag at Winslow, he said, was the question of whether crime writers put themselves in a bubble. He argued that they should instead “reach out to the great classics that have all the same themes as modern crime fiction: loyalty, betrayal, lust, love, murder, revenge, compassion.” Case in point: He found inspiration for “City on Fire” in the “Iliad” and “Aeneid.”

One of the highlights of the afternoon was the men’s shared enthusiasm over another artistic crime film that looked back to the classics, Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.” Mann called it “a fantastic melodrama” and “a perfect film”; Winslow offered his own intriguing analysis.

“’The Godfather’ is a retelling of Shakespeare’s ‘Henry IV,’” he said. “It’s exactly the same plot.” After explaining a few of the links between Coppola’s iconic film and Shakespeare’s play, he offered one final thread of connection: “Although I admit that Diane Keaton is an odd sort of Falstaff, that is the role she occupies.” The audience erupted in laughter.

There was time for only a few questions at the end of the panel, during which mention was finally made of Winslow’s recent and very public career swerve. A woman explained that she was part of his digital army, mentioning her work for now-Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in Georgia. Was this finally the moment? Would her question get Winslow to talk about his retirement? No. It was that classic Q&A land mine — more of a comment than a question.

Novelist Don Winslow launches a new trilogy with ‘City on Fire,’ a story inspired by his roots and Homer’s ‘Iliad.’


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