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Don Winslow: ‘Sometimes I’m reading Chandler and a sentence just stops me cold’

Don Winslow

Jerry Bauer/Associated Press

Don Winslow's novels include Savages, which was adapted into a film directed by Oliver Stone, and The Cartel, which is currently in production, with Ridley Scott slated to direct. Winslow's books have been published in almost 30 countries. His new novel, The Force, just arrived in bookstores; Stephen King called it "The Godfather, only with cops."

Whose sentences are your favourite?

Raymond Chandler. Sometimes I'm reading Chandler and a sentence just stops me cold. How can anyone be that good? It makes me just want to quit writing. His sentences turned noir fiction into poetry. When you read his sentences out loud – as I sometimes do – you feel the streets, the lights, the buildings, the cars. Here's my favorite opening line of any book, The Long Goodbye: 'The first time I laid eyes on Terry Lennox, he was drunk in a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith outside the terrace of the Dancers.' And check out the last two sentences. 'I never saw any of them again – except the cops. No way has yet been invented to say goodbye to them.' I wish I could write like that.

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What agreed-upon classic do you despise?

Dante's Inferno. I read it simultaneously in English and Italian and it was vile in both languages. Petty, sadistic, paranoid, pointless … did I mention sadistic? About 20 years ago, I acknowledged how ignorant I really was and put myself to reading from one of those 'Great Books' lists. It took a number of years, but I read them all and they were great. The one exception was the Inferno. I'm generally against book burning, but I wouldn't shed any tears if the Inferno were consigned to its own flames.

Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time travel?

Definitely time travel. There are so many questions I'd like answered. When was the continent of America first settled? What happened to the Anasazi culture in the American Southwest? What really happened at the Battle of the Little Bighorn? I would love to have seen Greek tragedies in the original, and Shakespeare at the Globe. I would love to have seen the Great Plains when they were covered in herds of bison. Likewise the African savannah when it had millions of animals. So many times I would love to have seen. And that's just the past – how great would it be to see the future? Go to Mars? See your own great-great grandchildren? Come on, compared to all that, being invisible is just a gimmick. And as a writer, it's pretty much my job to be invisible.

Which book do you think is underappreciated?

It's a trilogy, if that's okay. James Jones's three World War Two novels – From Here To Eternity, The Thin Red Line and Whistle. When we talk about World War Two novels – at least American ones – we usually mention [Norman] Mailer's The Naked and The Dead, but for my money Jones is vastly superior as well as vastly underrated. It's a monumental work, following three central characters across those years. It portrays American soldiers as an underclass, a subculture. Its details are so human and so striking. Jones is the forgotten writer of that era and it's a shame.

What's the best death scene in literature?

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Spoiler alert – Mercutio's death in, obviously, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. You get to like this character – he's funny, sharp, observant – and his death comes as a surprise, an unexpected moment in the central central conflict between Romeo and Tybalt. Mercutio literally gets in the middle and it kills him. Then, he has that great final speech, without doubt the best dying words in literature – profane, bitter, funny, poignant. It's by far the best moment in the play. So that's the best death scene in literature, but then again … there is the Red Wedding.

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