Interview: Don Winslow – Author of City on Fire

I had the opportunity the last week of April 2022 to see author Don Winslow in person at Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee. It was an interesting experience; different than I was expecting, but certainly enlightening. The author has become a social media firebrand in the past few years as a commenter on contemporary politics and an advocate for progressive political causes. That was very much reflected in the tone of his in-person speech, where he discussed his disregard for anti-abortion activists, anti-immigration activists, and even the current administration which he believes isn’t going far enough in addressing human rights issues.

I was there primarily interested in Winslow for his newest crime novel. Winslow released his newest book City on Fire on April 26, the first volume of a new trilogy of crime thrillers set against the 1980s New England wars between the Irish and Italian mob. The New York Times bestselling author of The Cartel Trilogy and Savages chose to adapt the stories from the classical poems The Illiad and The Aeneid to tell a contemporary story about loyalty, honor, and corruption, with the backdrop of a crime story.

I don’t know if Winslow is personally religious. He didn’t speak to it and his priorities seem to be politics and writing. The publisher was even somewhat confused that a Christian website would want to speak to him, given its apparent depictions of violence and sex. Being a student of the classics though, City on Fire piqued my interest.

Mr. Winslow told Geeks Under Grace that he was inspired by his experience growing up in New England during the time of the mob wars, which he remembers well. The classical poems he draws influence from reminded him thematically of crime stories, so he sought to see if he could adapt stories to a setting he was familiar with. 

Homeric poems remain relevant because classics speak to timeless, eternal human conditions. Mr. Winslow sees that as the point of writing this new trilogy. The core themes he explores in his crime novels — honor, dishonor, betrayal, power, lust,  greed, oppression, murder, revenge, and mercy — are the same things Homer explored nearly three thousand years ago. These works remain contemporary and relevant. The Aeneid alone was translated from Latin twice in the past two years by contemporary authors — Len Krisak in September 2020 and Shadi Bartsch in February 2021. The number of translations of Homer is similarly countless and it isn’t hard to see how they can be interpreted in light of modern issues. These are stories that equally empathize with its refugees while it lionizes nationalism and empire-building, capturing all-too modern tensions.

City on Fire opens with a quote from Book II of The Aeneid, recalling the brutal destruction of Troy. “Then at last I saw it all, all Ilium settling into her embers…” This foreshadows a story of destruction, violence, and eventual renewal through loyalty and honor reflected in the book’s title, capturing the brutality and senseless violence of conflict between the two mob factions. 

The lead character of City on Fire, Danny Ryan, is inspired by Aeneas. Mr. Winslow sees Danny as an “outsider,” “a loyal husband,” and an occasional “muscle for the Irish crime syndicate.” Mr. Winslow told Geeks Under Grace the first volume of the trilogy will primarily be adapted from the events of The Illiad, while its sequels follow Danny Ryan in stories adapted from The Aeneid, following his journey over fifteen years wandering from Rhode Island to Hollywood to Las Vegas.

“He has to leave, he has to find a place to settle and he builds an empire. It’s the story of Rome,” he said.

Bringing the story into a contemporary setting creates fascinating problems to solve. The parallels you can make between ancient times and now and how to substitute elements from the story like the Trojan Horse create opportunities for creativity. Mr. Winslow found the themes echoed recent events. He told Geeks Under Grace the last few years have created many opportunities for corruption, but also for honor and loyalty. He even compared the plight of Ukraine in its war against Russia to that of Troy.  

Writing the trilogy was a personal experience for Mr. Winslow, who has been working on the story for over 25 years. The first novel of the trilogy, “City on Fire,” is set in his hometown. He is excited to finally get the book in the hands of his readers. By embracing these classics as his inspiration, it gives fresh eyes to parts of the human experience that remain as relevant now as they did in the bronze age. 

The film rights to City on Fire and its sequels, City of Dreams and City in Ashes, have already been acquired by Sony Pictures. The book sequels are completed and scheduled to release in the coming year and a half or so.

Full Interview with author Don Winslow

What are your thoughts on the launch of your new book City on Fire and the fact its already being picked up for a film adaptation? 

Of course, I’m excited.  I’ve been working on this book (off and on) for over twenty-five years, so it means a lot to me.  It’s also the first time I’ve set a novel in my hometown, so that makes it very personal. I’m excited I can finally get out to meet readers, to thank them.  Yes, this book and its two sequels have been purchased for a film or films.  So, yeah, very exciting.

What is the inspiration for your story about Irish and Italian mob violence? Where does this story come from for you? 

A couple of sources. One, I grew up in New England during the time of mob wars, which I remember well. Second, stories in the Iliad, Aeneid, and other classics reminded me so much of real-life crime stories.  So I wanted to see if I could write a novel that was a contemporary crime story while borrowing themes from those classics.

How and why did you decide to adapt the story from Virgil’s Aeneid? 

Well, this first volume is more a modern retelling of the Iliad, actually, although it features a character named Danny Ryan, who is inspired by Aeneas. I used him because he’s a bit of an outsider, and I like that outsider slant.  He’s involved in everything, but can also comment on what he’s seeing. I wanted to do it because again, the tales from the Aeneid reminded me so much of modern crime stories.

There were at least two prominent new translations of The Aeneid in the past two years; what makes this story relevant now? 

It’s always been relevant.  I think the classics are the classics because they’re timeless, they speak to eternal human conditions. That’s sort of my point in writing these books.  Every theme we deal with in modern crime fiction – honor, dishonor, betrayal, power, lust,  greed, oppression, murder, revenge, and mercy – are found in the Greek and Roman classics.

How does the process of adapting a classic work of poetry into a modern novel work? There are prominent examples of this such as War Music and The Song of Achilles. What is the process like? 

It’s both fun and challenging.  The issue is to find legitimate, realistic parallels between ancient times and now.  What, for instance, would a Trojan Horse be in 1987?   Who would a goddess be? A god?  Solving those problems was fascinating.

What are your hopes for City of Fire? Do you have sequels in mind? If so, where does the story go from there? 

Well, my hopes are that people enjoy it.  I not only have sequels in mind, I’ve already written them.  The story goes on to Danny and all the other characters through about the next fifteen years. The next two volumes follow more of the Aeneid, as Danny wanders from Rhode Island to Hollywood to Las Vegas.  

Is there something eternal about the themes of loyalty, honor, and corruption that they can be just as fresh in a 2000-year-old poem as they can be in a novel in 2022? 

As I mentioned above, absolutely. I mean, haven’t we seen ample examples of corruption in the past few years?  I wish we would have seen more honor and loyalty, actually. These works are totally fresh if we’re willing to see them with fresh eyes, to relate them to our own lives and experiences. We can see, for instance, Ukraine as Troy.

Which of your books if your favorite that you’ve written? 

It’s always the one I’m working on.  You should always dance with the woman you’re in love with.

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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