In some ways, the novel coronavirus has upended everything for bestselling author Don Winslow. This month, he was supposed to be on a 21-city tour of the country with his new book, “Broken,” out today. Instead, he’s home in Southern California conducting a virtual tour, including a Zoom conversation today with fellow crime writer Lee Child via Brooklyn’s Center for Fiction.
On the other hand, the 66-year-old crime novelist’s daily life “hasn’t changed much,” Winslow said during a phone interview last week. “Before coronavirus, I got up in the morning and spent all day making [stuff] up. Now, I get up in the morning and spend all day making [stuff] up. … Social distancing is good for writers.”
“Broken,” a collection of six thematically connected crime novellas, comes at a time when the whole world seems broken — with the country in lockdown and more than 10,000 dead from COVID-19 in the U.S. alone.
“I think Donald Trump is directly responsible for the death of thousands of Americans and potentially tens of thousands of Americans over the next month or two because of his failure to act back in January and for calling the virus a hoax and saying it would magically go away,” said Winslow. “He is criminally liable, in my opinion.”
Winslow knows a little about crime and punishment, having made it his turf in most of his previous 21 novels. “Broken” introduces new characters and revisits many from the past, including hitman Frankie Machine, surfer-detective Boone Daniels, leader of the Dawn Patrol, as well as surfer-smuggler Bobby Z.
“All the stories are about characters that have experienced a broken society that in one way or another has left them a little broken,” Winslow said of the book’s title, “and are trying to deal with that.”
“Broken” is Winslow’s third book for William Morrow, a division of HarperCollins, after spending most of his career with Knopf, where the late Sonny Mehta was his editor on “The Cartel.” The new book serves a practical as well as literary purpose — namely allowing Winslow to reclaim the rights on a few beloved characters for future novels and TV or movie deals.
In the novella “Paradise,” Chon, an ex-Navy SEAL turned pot dealer, Ben, his botanist partner, and Ophelia, their free-spirited girlfriend, go to Kauai to scout new frontiers for their business.
Introduced to readers in 2010’s “Savages,” Winslow’s first New York Times bestseller, they were played by Taylor Kitsch, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Blake Lively in the the 2012 movie “Savages” directed by Oliver Stone.
“He’s an interesting cat. He drove me nuts,” Winslow said of the iconic filmmaker. “Location scouting with Oliver is crazy. He’d say, ‘What would a marijuana dealer’s house look like?’ I’d drive him out in front of one and he’d go, ‘No, that’s not what it looks like.’”
A co-screenwriter on “Savages” with his rep Shane Salerno of the Story Factory, Winslow recently completed a screenplay adaptation of the nonfiction book “The Last Good Heist,” also for the Story Factory. It’s the true tale of a 1975 fur heist in Providence, R.I., written by Tim White, Randall Richard and Wayne Worcester. Otherwise, Winslow prefers to leave the screenwriting and dealmaking to Salerno (the two met while co-creating the FX series “UC: Undercover,” which ran for two seasons in the early 2000s).
“The idea is to sell multiple stories in the collection or to sell the collection as an anthology,” said Salerno, listing three novellas from “Broken” that have drawn interest from producers. The title story chronicles a New Orleans detective’s felonious efforts to bring justice to his kid brother’s killers. “Crime 101” presents a game of cat and mouse between a jewel thief and a San Diego cop. And “The Last Ride,” the book’s final chapter, is about a border patrol agent bent on returning a caged child to her Salvadoran mother.
Born in New York City, Winslow is the son of a librarian and a noncommissioned officer in the Navy. He grew up in Perryville, a Rhode Island beach town where he took up surfing as a teen, but in the late 1970s returned to New York and took a job as a private investigator. His beat was in and around Times Square movie theaters, where he worked pickpockets and low-level drug buys. “Hookers used to give me their cards. For a while there was this guy who was dropping cinder blocks off the tops of buildings,” he said with a laugh. “It was the wild, wild West.”
In recent years, Winslow returned to the city to research his 2017 novel, “The Force,” about corruption in the NYPD. Matt Damon is set to star in a film adaptation with James Mangold directing from a script by Scott Frank. Winslow’s 2011 novel, “Satori,” about an undercover CIA assassin in the Far East, is in development with Leonardo DiCaprio at Warner Bros.
Salerno is currently meeting with actors to play Frankie Machine (also in the new book), in a limited series. The character first appeared in the 2006 novel “The Winter of Frankie Machine,” which was in development at Paramount to be a film starring Robert De Niro and directed by Martin Scorsese. When an executive gave De Niro a book for research called “I Heard You Paint Houses,” about real-life hitman Frank Sheeran, the actor took it to Scorsese and the two decided to make “The Irishman” instead.
“Sure it was,” Winslow answered when asked if the pivot was a disappointment. “But I’ve been so lucky in my life and my career, I can’t take any of these as crushers.” Also not a crusher is the $6-million deal he signed with Fox for his “Cartel” trilogy — “The Power of the Dog,” “The Cartel” and “The Border.” A combined 2,000 pages covering 50 years of America’s war on drugs, the trilogy was to be the basis of a film directed by Ridley Scott. According to Salerno, the budget ballooned to more than $100 million, and when Disney acquired Fox in 2019, the project was turned over to FX, where a multi-year series is in the works.
“I think Hollywood, like everyone else, is just trying to responsibly figure out how to proceed when things get better,” Winslow said of the industry-wide production stoppage. “When this is over and everything is safe, I hope people return to movie theaters.”
Winslow keeps a rigid schedule turning out new books at regular intervals. But with all his success, he still recalls the lean 1990s, when he put out a book a year that readers barely noticed. Still, he found support from independent bookstore owners, the same owners affected by his tour cancellation.
“These stores were behind me when I sold two books. Increasingly, independent bookstores rely on these evenings,” he said of his canceled tour dates. “Without those bookstores and without those readers, I don’t have this work. I don’t have this job that I love. It feels almost egotistical to be talking about the book. In some ways, it feels strange. But hopefully people are getting something out of reading while all this is going on.”