A novel that features Rag and Bone, Skull and Bones, global conspiracy and a falcon named Sting is worthy of its own category – and claims it! The Union Club: A Subversive Thriller is exactly that: a thriller that makes its own rules. I love it.
The Union Club actually exists in San Francisco; high on Nob Hill, it is a bastion of prestige and status. Author Don Winston has imagined inside its walls a secret cabal that plans to manipulate and eventually govern the world – a better and more perfect world. The Club acts in concert with others around the globe. Or does it? It’s possible this is all in Claire’s head based on a few unusual things she’s overheard and observed, including the rantings of an artist who may or may not be sane.
Claire is a likeable heroine – smart, well-meaning, optimistic. She and her husband Clay met at Yale and when the book opens are living in New Mexico, where she teaches elementary school and he is an artist. After his older brother is murdered, Clay and Claire move to San Francisco to be with his parents. Clay is brought into the family business and affairs – including the Union Club. Things start to get creepy fast.
The Union Club has an Alice in Wonderland quality: Claire has gone down the rabbit hole and must navigate the madness she’s found herself in. The novel has a lovely light touch; it moves along with suspense and some humor, and though we’re talking about global conspiracy and world domination, it doesn’t feel too heavy or dark. A provocative and uncertain end leaves you guessing – and thinking.
I had the chance to talk to Don Winston recently and ask him a few questions about himself and his writing. His first novel, S’wanee: A Paranoid Thriller, came out in 2012 and skyrocketed up the Kindle charts. It’s now in print as well. A young man arrives on campus, and classmates around him start dying. He’s either got to figure out the mysterious and possibly generational conspiracy or die trying. S’wanee has caused a bit of controversy among some alums, Don says: they don’t like dark deeds imagined at their beloved alma mater. He meant no offense! He was inspired by the gorgeous campus and wanted to set a novel there. The Union Club followed in 2013, and a third novel, The Gristmill Playhouse: A Nightmare in Three Acts, hits the bookstores this fall.
Don, you might know, is a former and honorary local, having grown up here and graduated from MBA. Following college at Princeton, he worked at Ralph Lauren in New York. He’s now in Hollywood writing screenplays and novels, but Nashville will always be home. He’s back frequently to see family and will definitely be here the second weekend of October as one of the featured authors at the Southern Festival of Books.
Don writes most mornings, through about lunchtime, and then maybe again at night. “I’m not a binge writer,” he says; he keeps to his schedule. Someone once gave him some great advice about writing: if you don’t write when you don’t have time, you won’t write when you do have time. I think that’s pretty brilliant and applies to just about anything, whether it’s exercise, reading, or calling your mom.
Don also received some great advice from an acting teacher. (Don acted in All My Children in New York for several years and has acted in Hollywood as well.) “Mind your own business,” the teacher said – but he didn’t mean back off. He meant don’t compare your journey to anyone else’s. Stay focused on your own journey to stay centered and sane. It seems to me that Don is a magnet for exceptionally good advice.
Don writes screenplays in addition to novels and recently sold a mini-series. He says that writing a novel is a completely different experience. A screenplay goes through a series of editors and revisions that can feel like an assembly line. A novel gives the author a far more direct and immediate connection with readers. Don loves that. He says it feels great to have “tackled the beast” of writing a novel, and he hopes to keep writing one every year or so.
I wondered what a boy from Nashville makes of Hollywood. “I was surprised by how well-behaved it is,” he said, laughing. “It’s pretty ethical and honest. Not a den of iniquity.” That may be Hollywood, or that may just be Don. He’s from Nashville, after all. He complains that it never rains in Los Angeles. When it does, he puts on a raincoat and goes on a hike. You might find him exercising or enjoying a martini in his spare time. Right now, you might find him reading Neal Gabler’s 800-page biography, Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination. His all-time favorite authors are John Irving, John Cheever, and Ira Levin.
As my conversation with Don wrapped up, I have to confess that I pressed him on the ending of The Union Club. It must have left some readers agitated, I said, because Claire’s choice is ambiguous. I asked him what he thought Claire would do next. I could feel him smiling over the phone. “I left it hanging for myself,” he said. “I wanted it to linger.” He thinks a book has a happy ending if the protagonist gets what she (or he) wants, whether it’s a good thing or a bad. I found that a provocative and possibly subversive answer.