Don Winslow’s ‘City of Dreams’ brings crime boss character to Hollywood

A man wearing a black jacket stands on a beach, with a raised house behind him.
Don Winslow on a beach in Rhode Island, where he grew up and where he set his last novel, “City on Fire.”
(Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

San Diego author announced last year he’s retiring from writing after completing this book trilogy next year


On Tuesday, Don Winslow’s latest novel, “City of Dreams,” will arrive in bookstores and San Diegans will get the first crack at hearing the bestselling author talk about the second book in his “The City” trilogy.

Winslow is a longtime San Diegan and he’ll celebrate his book’s release Tuesday evening at Warwick’s bookstore in La Jolla.

Winslow is the celebrated author of 23 novels that include “The Force,” “The Kings of Cool” and “Isle of Joy.” His novel “Savages” was made into a movie by filmmaker Oliver Stone and his “Cartel” novels trilogy (“The Power of the Dog,” “The Cartel” and “The Border”) is being adapted into an FX series later this year. Earlier this month, news broke that Oscar nominee Austin Butler has been cast to play Danny Ryan in the film adaptation of “City on Fire,” the first book in Winslow’s “The City” trilogy.

“City of Dreams” picks up where last year’s “City on Fire” left off. On the run from the mob, police and FBI, Rhode Island crime boss Danny Ryan ends up in Hollywood, where he gets into into the movie business and falls for a beautiful movie star with secrets of her own.

Winslow recently talked about the new book, his passion for San Diego and his plans to retire from novel-writing after the final book in the trilogy, “City in Ruins,” is published next year.

Q: Congratulations on the success of “City on Fire.” Was it heartening to see the first book of this long-gestating project so well received by both readers and critics?

A: Thank you. Yes, as you alluded to, I’ve been working on this trilogy for decades — I think I wrote the first sentence 28 years ago. I kept picking it up and putting it down as I was working on other projects — so when I finally finished it, and it was published to a warm reception, it was especially gratifying.

Q: Did you hear from some of your fellow Rhode Island natives on how they felt about Providence being the setting of the novel?

A: Oh, yeah. Rhode island is such a small state, and I think that Rhode Islanders are always a little surprised when the state is the location of a book or a film. Almost all of the responses were really positive, and people seemed to delight in trying to name the real-life inspirations for some of the scenes. It was kind of crazy — I’d be walking down the beach where “City on Fire” opens, and people I didn’t know would come out of their houses with copies of the book to be signed. I don’t know how they knew who I was.

Thriller/crime novelist Don Winslow stands on a hilltop in San Diego County.
Thriller/crime novelist Don Winslow stands on a hilltop in San Diego County.
(Mark Boster/For the Times)

Q: I saw on Twitter that Stephen King, your early literary hero, called “City on Fire” a “crime classic” and your best book yet. What was that like to see his unsolicited post online last year?

A: Oh, man. A thrill, of course. I have so much respect for Mr. King — both as a writer and a person — that to hear that kind of praise from him is truly humbling. I’m so grateful.

Q: You wrote all three novels in the trilogy before “City on Fire” was released last year. Together, they’re a modern retelling of the “Iliad.” If book one was inspired by the cause and beginning of the Trojan War, what are the classic story parallels we will see in “City of Dreams”?

A: Well, Danny Ryan’s story arc follows Virgil’s “Aeneid,” while we track other characters through the “Odyssey” and Greek tragic dramas. I was really fascinated to learn what happened to the characters after the Trojan War ended — so many of their stories read like noir fiction. Having said that, it was important to me that “City of Dreams,” like “City on Fire,” could be read as a stand-alone crime novel, without reference to the classics at all.

Q: When last we met Danny Ryan, he and his family were on the run to California from the grisly East Coast mob war. Can you share anything about what Danny will discover when he arrives in the Golden State?

A: I don’t want to give too much away, but, you know, Danny’s been wanting to come to California since, I think, page 10 of “City on Fire.” He has an idyllic vision of the West Coast. I can say that one thing he discovers is a film being made about the events of “City on Fire.” He goes on the set, sees the film version of his old neighborhood, meets the actor playing him.

Q: Los Angeles has always been known as the “City of Dreams,” but since you often feature San Diego in your novels, will Danny be visiting the 1980s version of America’s Finest City?

A: Oh yeah. Of course. Any time I have the chance to set scenes in San Diego, I’m going to do it, because it’s been a 30-year love affair between me and S.D. I’m still excited when I drive around the San Diego area, I never get tired of it, and I love to write about it. By the way, I also love to show people around — it’s one of my favorite things to do. So yeah, expect to see Danny here.

Q: What are some of the important character developments that Danny will experience in “City of Dreams”?

A: Well, he’s now a single father of a young child. He’s caring for an aging father. So he’s simultaneously a father and a son with the responsibilities that come with it. At the same time, he’s a fugitive and a widower. So he has an entirely different world view than he did when we first met him — he’s more substantive, sadder, deeper. And, oh yeah, he falls in love.

Q: The final book of the trilogy, “City in Ruins,” will take place in Las Vegas. From its title and its location, it sounds like a gloomy future for Danny. Can you say anything about the third novel yet?

Thriller/crime novelist Don Winslow.
Thriller/crime novelist Don Winslow.
(Mark Boster/For The Times)

A: I don’t want to say too much and ruin “City of Dreams.” Let me just say that when “City in Ruins” begins, Danny’s future looks very bright indeed. The problem is his past, which he learns that he can’t outrun, no matter how hard he tries.

Q: Last year, when “City of Fire” was released, you shocked the literary world with the announcement that you’re retiring from writing to focus your energies on politics — using your storytelling skills to help the Democratic Party better market its ideas to the voting public. Can you tell me how that’s going and what you’re working on now? Will you be involved in the 2024 presidential campaign?

A: I just continue to be active, commenting on what I see and trying to be an honest voice speaking in plain, tough language. My agent/partner/friend Shane Salerno and I continue to make videos that make an impact. Of course I’ll continue this through the 2024 campaign, because it will such a critical election. I think that 2020 was an existential moment for American democracy. And then the events of and surrounding Jan. 6 happened, and the big lies continue. We have to respond.

Q: Since making that announcement, have you had any regrets about walking away from writing? And if so, is there a book in your head that still needs to be written?

A: I wouldn’t say “regrets.” Certainly it was bittersweet and a major change in my life and my daily routine. If there are any books running around up there, I haven’t heard the footsteps. But, you know, never say never.

Q: Describe your perfect day in San Diego. Where would you go, where would you eat and what would you read?

A: I only get a day?! Impossible! I could write 20 answers to this — and I agonize about when I only have a day or two to show out-of-towners around — but OK. I think I’d do something that’s only possible in San Diego — breakfast (eggs machaca, what else) in the desert. Then I’d drive through the mountains and have lunch (so many possibilities) in Julian. Then drive downtown and take a walk along the harbor. Then it’s a drive up the coast from O.B. to P.B. to La Jolla, up to Solana Beach and Encinitas, then backtrack for a sunset dinner (fish tacos) on the beach at Del Mar.

Sound good? Can we do it now? Today?

CITY OF DREAMS by Don Winslow
(William Morrow)

“City of Dreams” by Don Winslow (William Morrow, 2022; 352 pages)

Warwick’s presents: Don Winslow: “City of Dreams”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Warwick’s, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla

Tickets: $30 (includes a copy of “City of Dreams”)