City Paper is not for tourists
The smell of blood drove lawyer-author Douglas Winter to the edge—and brought him back again.
Douglas E. Winter should have been ecstatic. He and two colleagues at the law firm Bryan Cave had just spent the better part of three years defending airplane manufacturer McDonnell Douglas in a lawsuit stemming from a 1987 Northwest Airlines crash near Detroit. All 156 people on board were killed. The courtroom battle was, in Winter’s words, “warlike” and “savage.” It lasted a grueling 19 months, four times as long as O.J. Simpson’s criminal trial. Winter’s team had prevailed, and the judgment later withstood two more years of legal assaults on appeal. “It was, in professional terms, a complete and ultimate victory,” Winter recalls. “It’s everything one might ask for as a litigator.”
But despite that professional triumph, something was deeply wrong with Winter. The lawsuit had been devastating. “For three years, I had lived on the road without family and friends, without any life other than the lawsuit,” he says. “As it ended, I found myself becoming very sick. I suffered from a very severe sleep disorder and a very severe sense of withdrawal and dissociation from anything that might bring people happiness in life.” In retrospect, he considers himself to have been among the “walking dead.” Ultimately, he sought medical help; he was diagnosed with severe depression.
“It was a depression that no one seemed to understand,” he says. “My law firm, despite its best intentions, didn’t. No one did, except my wife. It was at that point that I began to feel that the only way to emerge from that darkness was to write—to actually take that huge risk of spending months and years working in the dark, on spec, hoping someone might be interested in publishing a first novel.”
Starting a high-risk writing project was an unusual form of therapy, but Winter’s doctor agreed that it would do him good. Odder still was the topic Winter chose: the tragedies related to illegal guns. The result, a hard-boiled thriller called Run, set in Washington and suburban Virginia, was shipped to bookstores last month.
Writing about weaponry and death might not seem the most obvious way to brighten a darkened outlook on life. But, says Winter, the topic enabled him to come to grips emotionally with a form of mass carnage—without being forced to relive the brutal air-disaster case that had leveled him in the first place.
“In the Northwest crash, so many people had died in a way the media would describe as senseless,” Winter says. “In fact, being on the inside, I knew there was a very complete explanation of the tragedy. But there was no way to write about air disasters after what I had been through. So I decided to bring the same perspective to another tragedy, one that is ongoing.”
Winter labored on Run over the course of three years, visiting gun shops and ranges, talking to law enforcement sources, and chatting up “special-weapons” experts. The book is told in the first person, with a stream-of-consciousness narrative and no direct quotations. Its protagonist is Burdon Lane, a thoroughly unlikable suburban lowlife who operates a gun-running ring out of a legitimate corporate shell—an arms dealership on the Alexandria waterfront. The book chronicles the shipment of illegal arms from D.C.—or “Dirty City,” as the characters refer to it—along the gun-runners’ “iron highway” to Manhattan. To handle the assignment, Burdon and his white-collar gang enlist the assistance of a fictional D.C. drug gang.
If Run represents Winter’s psychological cri de coeur, it is also a political one. “It was a far different kind of tragedy than the ones I was used to, and one that was, to my mind, far more menacing and destructive,” he says. “I [tried] to imagine a tragedy that might actually require intervention on a national level.”
Winter decided to write about gun-running in part to articulate the shame he feels about his home state’s role as a leader in that particular field: Virginia is generally credited with supplying more guns to criminals in New York City and Washington than any other state. And he worries that his son, an FBI agent, is at risk from people who have more firepower than law enforcement agents.
Run marks an unexpected plot twist in Winter’s life. But neither his life nor his art has followed an obvious narrative. Consider the subject for which he is best known: During the pre-John Grisham era, before lawyer-authors began popping up on bookshelves everywhere, Winter managed to write two books and edit two others about horror literature.
Winter’s interest in horror began innocently enough, when he published a review of Stephen King’s 1980 book, Firestarter. King, who wasn’t yet a publishing behemoth, wrote Winter a letter. “It was longer than the review itself,” Winter recalls. “He explained how well he thought I had read the book and understood his intentions.” By 1984, Winter had published his first book: the only authorized biography of King, Stephen King: The Art of Darkness.
“[King] has a remarkable ability,” says Winter, “to tune into the fears and foibles of Americans, but to do so in a very avuncular way, very much as a hand-holding storyteller, even at his most dire….He addresses very difficult issues about what death is, what life after death might be like, and what lies at the bottom of the grave.”
After his King book appeared, Winter continued to surf the rising tide of horror fiction while toiling at the law firm by day. In 1985, Winter published Faces of Fear: Encounters With the Creators of Modern Horror, an oral history of horror and suspense fiction and film as told by 17 leading practitioners. Next came Prime Evil, a book-length argument in favor of the literary legitimacy of horror stories. (More recently, Winter has published two other books on the subject, including a forthcoming biography/critique of novelist-playwright-artist Clive Barker.)
In person, Winter looks and sounds normal enough, but scratch the surface and his fascination with the mysterious and ghoulish side of literature seems almost predestined. He bears the name of the year’s coldest season, and he was born in Granite City, Ill., a steel-mill town that is just as dreary as its name suggests. His habits, too, suggest a gothic streak. After working long days litigating air-crash tragedies, Winter would come home and write for hours at a time, batlike, into the late-night quiet. Even his book-jacket photo, which casts his goateed visage in high-contrast lighting, makes him look a little devilish.
Winter learned reading, writing, and storytelling from his mother, a schoolteacher. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. During the Vietnam War, Winter served as a stateside officer, thanks to a low draft number. He then matriculated at Harvard Law School “in pursuit,” he says, “of vague ideals.”
When Winter published his first horror books, he was working for the Washington law firm of Covington & Burling as a litigation associate. Today, Covington’s roster includes several accomplished writers, but at the time, Winter says, many of the firm’s partners expressed antipathy toward his off-hours pursuits. “There were occasions of definite animosity by partners to the idea of my having a career as a writer,” he recalls. “It was expressed to me that they were concerned that my heart might not be devoted to the practice of law.”
It is hard to avoid the resonance between Winter’s sometimes grotesque literary fascinations and his primary vocation, litigating air tragedies. He agrees that there is a connection—but only up to a point. His artistic orientation, he suggests, may have played a role in his difficulty handling the emotional stress of the Northwest case.
“One of the problems my doctor told me about is that people who have a creative bent are sometimes wired a little differently. They see the world in a slightly more personalized way, so they sometimes take things more personally,” Winter says. “As a result, people like me may have fewer built-in defenses. That can be good when you’re depicting the world on paper, but it also means you’re also responding more emotionally to events.” CP