I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Novelist Walter Mosley, 41, already a cult favorite among mystery readers, suddenly appeared on television and in the papers in January when newly-inaugurated President Clinton named him as his favorite writer. Mosley is the author of three novels: Devil in a Blue Dress, the tale of troubles caused by an illusory woman who forces people to cross dangerous taboos; A Red Death, which brings the ’50s McCarthy witch hunts into the churches and Africanist meetings of black L.A.; and White Butterfly, the chase for a serial killer who does not interest police until a white woman turns up among his female victims in a black neighborhood. The books incidentally chart the lives of the unseen “blues people” in L.A. in the ’50s and early ’60s.
Mosley has of late become a hot lunch ticket for movie stars happy to meet a guy who could fill a shopping bag with adventures of a free-wheeling black detective named Easy Rawlins, who lives in South Central Los Angeles, with memories roaming from Depression-era Texas to wartime Europe, and all the space between. Easy also has a seductively dangerous guardian angel, his childhood friend Raymond Alexander, better known and feared by most as “Mouse.” Mouse is a clean dresser who smiles when he kills.
Mosley was born and raised in L.A., leaving at 18 to go to Goddard College in Vermont. He dropped out and stayed in Vermont for five years, finishing his BA at Johnson State College. Mosley now lives in New York’s West Village with his wife, a choreographer.
Thulani Davis In your essay in Critical Fictions you say that you got into writing mysteries because editors didn’t respond to your other works. What other writing did you do?
Walter Mosley Oh, everything. I was writing short stories, and I was studying poetry. I don’t think you can write fiction without knowing poetry, metaphor, simile, the music of the language. I wrote a novel called, Gone Fishin’, about my two main characters, Easy and Mouse, when they were very young in the deep south of Texas. You could call it a psychological novel. Mouse was looking to steal from and kill his stepfather, and Easy was looking to remember his own father, who had abandoned him when he was eight. I sent it out to a lot of agents. They all liked it enough to send back intelligent letters. But none of them thought that a book of that sort would make it in the market. This was like ‘88,’89.
TD So, Easy and Mouse have been around a long time?
TD Why Texas?
WM Well, the books map a movement of black people from Southern Texas and Louisiana to Los Angeles. So, that’s why Texas. A lot of my family and a lot of people that I know come from there.
TD When you wrote Gone Fishin’, was your intention to write a series of books that mapped that movement?
WM Yeah. I just didn’t think they were going to be mysteries. Have you ever seen the movie, The Third Man? Great movie. I just loved Orson Welles’ character. I read the novel, and in the beginning Graham Greene says that he was hired to write the screenplay, and he wrote the novel first, to work out the kinks. I thought that was such a great idea I decided to do it myself. Of course, I got about three chapters into Devil in a Blue Dress and forgot anything about a movie. I was going to City College Graduate Program in writing, and the head of the program, Frederic Tuten, asked me if he could see the book. To abbreviate the story, I came back from a trip and he came to me and said, “Walt, my agent’s going to represent you.”
TD That was great!
WM Yep. Wonderful.
TD And now the novel, Devil in a Blue Dress is being made into a film. What about writing the screenplay?
WM I didn’t do very well at it the first time. I mean, I want to try it again sometime. Carl Franklin, who directed One False Move, is directing Devil in a Blue Dress. He called me the other day, and he’s asking all this stuff, which is nice. He certainly doesn’t have to. His first three pages are like my first three pages. But what Easy was saying, he made real. For instance, Joppy’s bar is on the second floor of a butcher’s warehouse. So in the script, Carl has a guy with an apron and blood sitting next to Easy, saying, “I gotta get back to work.” The thing is, to change everything into images. I have an idea of that now. I certainly am going to write screenplays again. It takes a long time to learn. Also there’s a different emotional relationship. I think of it as larger than possible.
TD What does that mean?
WM Most directors I’ve met, have incredibly large, irrational hearts. They believe in things passionately—did you see the movie, Hearts of Darkness, the movie about Coppola making Apocalypse Now? He explains what he did by saying, “In order to make this movie about Vietnam, we did what America did. We took too much money and too much equipment and went out into the middle of the jungle and got lost out there.” That’s what he did. That’s where that movie came from. That’s what you have to do if you’re going to do something that means something.
TD That’s what he does anyway.
WM Yeah, but a lot of good directors do this.
TD So, you’re going to have a film noir?
WM I don’t think so. The one thing I love about Carl is that he understands what I am saying. My novel is about a man who is facing his fear and his ambition in a new world after passing through two very strange worlds. The first, you know, is the deep South. He was completely convinced that was reality. And then World War II, which totally blew everything asunder, and then didn’t put anything back together. Now, here he is in California with a chance, with all that baggage. He’s trying to face those fears. The novel is about that. The language is the noir language, part of it anyway, and certainly the time and the place—the fact that Easy is a reluctant detective. But, it’s not really that. Carl’s talent is character development—One False Move is a movie about characters.
TD I thought that film was brilliant. I had never seen a black director deal with race from any number of points of view, and yet not make race the subject. Everyone had a way of dealing with it. So, with very few characters, he covered the spectrum of what a lot of us do: from using race, to being flexible about it, to responding to it. For me, as a writer, it felt liberating.
WM One of the problems with talking about racism, the relation between whites and blacks, is that it eclipses what real life is for black people, which is just life among each other. But so much of our intellectual heritage, which is good on one hand, but baggage on the other, is the discussion being in racial/political terms.
TD And whites frequently have the feeling that is what black people are doing all the time—relating to the world through race, if not actively protesting and complaining about it.
WM And with very severe lines drawn. The thing that I really like about the genre of mysteries is that they’re exotic, and you can write about things which are unknown. One of the things I adore writing about is the black community. This guy’s a carpenter, this guy’s the head chef of this place, and they all get together in this park or on that corner because it’s sunny. They all have a drink together and they like each other. They’re all middle-class working men, as opposed to whatever other image people, black or white, may have of them.
TD The people who are in the periphery in a lot of movies—it is as though we are looking at those people. If there was a Chandler or a Hammett or a James M. Cain story and suddenly we see what was going on on the other side of town, in the same space of time. Easy does work for this police station with one black cop in it. Is that one of the reasons you picked the ’50s? Because it was a time when the police really would have needed an outsider to go into this black world with which they had only superficial interaction?
WM That’s interesting. It happens to work out like that.
TD It wasn’t intentional?
WM No. I mean, you still have the same problem. Black people are not going to talk to a police detective even if he’s black. He’s still a policeman, which means he’s an enemy.
TD It seems like an exotic world in ‘52,’53. The assumptions that the white characters make about blacks go unchallenged. And by having Easy do the detective work, they don’t have to find out anything about that community. They’re not concerned with the particulars, they just want the results. So it remains his turf.
WM The way police treat black people in the community is not like, “I need your help.” They’re like, “C’mere nigger, I want to know something.” We instantly don’t want to respond to that. And as Easy says, the people they want to talk to are “the element.” They don’t want to know about the churchgoers; they want to know about the people who are out there in the street, who know what’s going on, who might be doing something. These people don’t talk to the police. But they do talk to Easy, because Easy’s okay.
TD Easy doesn’t appraise the police of the black nationalist Garveyite’s activities. He’s a fairly amoral character in conventional terms. His principle is to leave black people alone who aren’t interfering with the FBI or the police or whoever is important in the power structure. He doesn’t expose them to a certain extent.
WM Many people think the noir genre is simply a mood. But there’s a lot of elements to it. The noir genre is like the white hope in a world that has lost its hold on the string that ties it to morality and goodness. It’s a man in his 40s who knows the ropes and is ethically defined. He has no mother, no father, no wife, no children, no property. He doesn’t owe anything to anybody. If the police say, “We’re going to put you in jail until you talk,” he can go to jail. He doesn’t have any kid out there he needs to feed. He doesn’t have any wife that’s going to find a new boyfriend because he’s a damn fool. You know, he can do anything.
TD This is emblematic of Western culture as well. The rootless man is on a quest for truth …
WM … And for justice in an unjust world. Which Easy does do. But, Easy is so practical, and he’s so pragmatic. He’s always changing. My essay in Critical Fictions starts off talking about what you learn from poverty. My father told me this: you learn how to cook, how to sew, how to build things out of wood, how to wire things, how to plumb things. He only had a sixth grade education, but he could do anything he needed to do in this world. If his car broke down he could fix it, because that’s the only way it got fixed. That’s much more what the books are about.
TD You say also that people knew what everything cost.
WM Yeah. In both senses. They know how much beans cost, how much pants cost; they also know how much, at what point, they will give up their own dignity, their sense of right and wrong. And then they’re always aware of things: when somebody’s door is unlocked, or when it’s quiet next door, or who’s on the corner. These are manifestations, awarenesses of someone who lives in poverty.
TD All of your characters have that—they don’t miss anything. And they never volunteer what they know about anything.
WM What they think.
TD Because frequently, when we tell what we know, we learn nothing.
WM Right. You can’t give away anything.
TD It’s a blues sensibility. The characters in the book come out of a construction that is a blues world. Their codes of conduct are like the wisdom that is dished out in a blues song—the vision that you might not be alive tomorrow.
WM The relationship in a black world, or a non-white world, to the whole world is so complex. I’ve heard Taj Mahal sing this lyric, “I woke up this morning/With the blues three different ways/One said go/And the other two said stay.” That’s the problem, you don’t know what to say, you don’t know what to do. You know what you’re going to do, but it’s going to break your heart to do that.
TD Most of your characters are very rooted in the now. Easy stands out for continually attempting to make long range plans. By the second book, he is protecting his stash: his land, his house, and everything that it has produced. He’ll say in relationship to Mofass, “Oh he doesn’t have the big picture that I have.” Yet he’s prepared, in the samurai sense, to go down at any time.
WM He has to be, because that’s his life. That’s what he’s learned. He’s seen people die all around him. The one constant in every manifestation of life is that people keep dying. He can never be confident of having what he wants, but he wants it anyway. It’s like that blues concept you were talking about, “I know I’m not going to get it but I’m still going to try.” One of the ways he does it is by incorporating different kinds of people in his life. One of the beauties about fiction is that the world is filled with so many different kinds of people, and we can talk about those people. So you have someone like Jackson Blue, who is the smartest person Easy has ever met in his life, but he’s also small-minded, a coward, emotionally very unstable and irresponsible. Once you have a character like that, or you have a character like Mofass, or Odell, or Dupree, who ends up taking Easy’s wife at the end of the third book, then you have an interesting world. My novels are really about these people. Each one of my novels has some subject other than the subject of the mystery. Devil [in a Blue Dress] is a man coming to know himself, and in Red Death it was the relationship between the oppression of white people throughout the McCarthy period, and what the oppression of black people is about. The discussion at the end between Easy and Jackson Blue, when Jackson explains, “Easy, you don’t understand. You’d be better off on the black list, because if you were on the black list then you could get off the black list.” Then you have White Butterfly, which is the conflict between men and women. Of course I realized early on that I couldn’t write about the conflict between black men and black women because it’s too complex an issue for a small novel to take on. But to write about a whole bunch of black women, therefore, all kinds of women, like Etta Mae, who are so rooted to the earth that they can lift boulders and trees grow out of their ears and stuff. Or the Caribbean woman, mother of the murderer, Saunders. She’s a very strong and powerful woman who scares the shit out of Mouse, but doesn’t have the strength to deal with her son, and is somehow afraid of him. It’s so easy to choose sides in the fiction, but I don’t want to, I’m writing about these characters that I love to death.
TD A couple of people have told me they find Mouse fascinating. They love Mouse. In Red Death when he seems to be coming apart at the seams, he’s completely scary, because you already know he’ll do anything. But then you see Etta so glad to have him back. Why did you make him attractive?
WM Because I love my father so much. My father just died on January 1st, which is the worst thing that happened to me. My father gave me the feeling, when I was a kid, that nothing bad would ever happen to me. I knew that if the police came to get me that he would protect me. I knew that if somebody was trying to kill me, he would be out there with a gun, because that’s just the way it is. In Easy’s world, this is really necessary, because Mouse says, “listen man, them white guys got people on their side, man, you’d be a fool not to have me.”
TD And you have that feeling about Mouse?
WM Yeah. When the guy is about to kill Easy, and Mouse enters with a, “Good evenin’ Frank.” He says, “Oh shit, Mouse is here!” and then everything changes. When you live that kind of life, everybody’s sad and depressed, and all of a sudden that person is there and everybody’s happy.
TD Is that really why so many readers like him too?
WM One, he loves himself. One of the most constant problems in the black community is that there are so many names for black people: colored, negro, Afro-American, black, African-American— now those are the official ones. There’s also brother, blood, soul, soul brother. Then there are the slurs, the slang: nigger, coon, jigaboo, but all used by black people, all of them. “Yeah, I saw that nigger came up here, I saw him.” That means something. The Eskimos have 37 names for snow. The names are always changing, and control over what we are named is important, which is why you can have a political leader who wants to change the name.
TD But Mouse?
WM Mouse is Mouse. He’s not looking for a new identity; he’s not wondering; he doesn’t want to read about slave history or African history. He doesn’t feel bad about white people. He doesn’t feel inferior to them; he doesn’t feel afraid of them. Easy says, “This white man got trouble.” Mouse will say, “Where does he live?” But if it was a black man it would be the same thing. “I don’t care. It’s either him or me, and you know it ain’t gonna be me.” And that “you know it ain’t gonna be me” is a rock solid certainty that most black people don’t have… . Poverty brings up all those moral questions. “I know just how far you have to push me before I will go into that drawer and pull out my gun. I know just how far.” Most people in the middle class, black or white, don’t think about that. But ask a young black man in a working class on down community, “What would it take for you to kill somebody.” He says, “I’ll tell you. You mess with my sister, you mess with my mother, you offer me a thousand dollars.” There’s a whole list of things where “I will go get the gun.”
TD If you asked me that, I would say you would have to try to kill me.
WM And that proves that you thought about it.
TD I have thought about it. I’ve had somebody try to kill me, that’s why I’ve thought about it.
WM That’s too bad.
TD Yeah, it is. I think if you’ve had the experience of coming in contact with your feeling or desire to kill somebody, then you don’t have to think about it anymore. It’s an experience you’ve had.
WM And if you face it everyday …
TD Chester Himes, did you ever read him?
WM Uh-huh. That’s so funny—there’re people I like, black male writers, mostly they’re poets, it turns out. Somebody like Etheridge Knight makes me so happy I can’t stand it. But it’s more than just that. I try to think of what lineage is. It seems that so many black writers are always creating who they are in the world, because there isn’t the kind of lineage that you have in Eurocentric white male literature, where people actually do come out of each other. You have a great poet and he has a great poet who studies under him.
TD But the critics who write about us are not familiar enough with the tradition to pick some people to say we came out of.
WM People say Chester Himes about me.
TD Do they?
WM They do. But, you see, I don’t feel like I came out of Himes. He comes from a very angry, a very disenfranchised place. Life was very hard for him and he needed to get away from it. People didn’t pay any attention to him. I don’t live under the kind of racism that he lived under. And even though I think it made decisions much clearer for him, which in some ways makes things easier, I wouldn’t want to trade it. I learned more from Chandler.
TD Who was the first mystery writer you read?
WM Ross McDonald. I loved him. I still love him, as flawed as he is.
TD How do you see yourself fitting in with your contemporaries among black writers?
WM I was in Philadelphia a couple of years ago. Quincy Troupe was teaching a poetry workshop. I was just sitting in the back listening. It was a black crowd of people. Quincy was saying, “I want everybody to write poetry. I want all black people to be writing poetry and making poetry and living poetry and … ” You know how Quincy is, he said that again. He said, “In order to write poetry, you gotta write good poetry, you gotta write real poetry. You can’t just be writing something and say it’s poetry. Just because you have the right politics, doesn’t mean that you’re writing poetry.” He said, “I hate Bush.” He said, “That’s right, but it isn’t poetry.” And it was wonderful. ’Cause, you know, Quincy is such a powerful guy. Everybody was looking up at him and they were very serious and he was saying the truth. And very often in black art and literature, the mistake is made that the correct political stance makes good art, when indeed the correct political stance has nothing to do with good art. Nothing. The only issue for me is good writing. The job of writing is to hold, somehow, in a crystalline form, the language of the time. When, a hundred years from now, someone reads this, they will know what life was like at the time. They won’t need to look at a history book to understand what life was like. They can see it and feel it through the language and description of life in that book. The contract of telling a story is that the reader has to wonder, what’s happening next? And then there has to be a subtext, there always has to be a subtext. I think I’m writing good fiction. I mean, I’m not saying I’m the greatest writer in the world.
TD OK, let me ask you in a different way: Writing mysteries has given you a wide and widely mixed audience. But has the genre restricted you at all? I’m interested in you, but I’m not interested in studying the genre. So, do you feel that there’s some other audience out there who has yet to find you?
WM I’m being slowly, though not so slowly anymore, discovered by a black audience. The mystery audience is almost exclusively a white audience. I pressured my publisher for two years to get me into the various black distributors. They wanted to do it, but it was very hard for them. There was reticence, on behalf of the black distributors, to deal with Norton. They said, “Who else do you publish who’s black? He’s the only one and you want us to do all this work?” But I think black people are happy that I’m writing.
TD Yeah, I think so. A funny thing happened. I was watching the news after the inauguration and they said that the new things that are in now that Bill Clinton is President are saxophone pins, and what I would call white soul food, and Walter Mosley. Were you surprised to hear that?
WM Some people whose bookstore I always read at had given him my books, so I knew he had them. Clinton, not at all a stupid man, wants to reach out for the black community and the Latino community and the gay community and say, “Hey listen, I’m interested.” Now, you could look at this with a questioning eye, which, of course, makes sense to do. But at the same time, I figure this: if he read my books, that means that black language and black life, at least from one point of view, entered his life. Even if it hasn’t entered his life, it entered other people’s lives who have said, “Let me take a look at this book” and “Wow, this is what he’s reading?” So I like it, I’m happy with it, and not idealistically or unrealistically, I think.
TD Well, it brought you some kind of notoriety. I read an interview with you in Vanity Fair, where you were asked a lot about being a bi-racial person. Is it a constant subject that people ask you about and therefore annoying?
WM No, actually. I enjoyed the Vanity Fair piece for a variety of reasons. My mother is Jewish, and I was raised among Jews and blacks; my father, obviously, was black. And I’m in a world today where there’s all this conflict between Jews and blacks. So, the fact that Christopher Hitchens wanted to concentrate on that, I liked, because it’s a dialogue that I don’t mind getting at. I was on the Staten Island Ferry once with a guy who I liked a lot, a Muslim, who turned to me and said, “Hitler didn’t really kill as many Jews as they said he did, and he really shoudda oughtn’t a done it, but the Jews had all the guilder and them Germans just wanted to be free.” This is like ten years ago, but I just can’t forget it. I don’t like anti-Black Jews and I don’t like anti-Jewish Blacks. It’s not that I don’t like them, I just don’t like the stance.
TD But frequently publications treat an interview with a black writer as a situation to talk about race politics, and they’ll forget to ask you about your books. There’s a point at which any writer would be annoyed at being interviewed at such length without anybody saying, by the way, you write books, don’t you? Do you get much of that?
WM Yeah, that happened, but I wanted to deal with it. I’m kind of easy going. My books came out in England. Yours did too, in fact ours came out at the same time last year.
TD They interviewed me about the L.A. riot.
WM But they needed to know, they were asking, “What’s wrong with these people?” I didn’t feel badly about answering them because I really wanted to get this other point of view.
TD But, see, no one ever asked me about craft, no one ever asked me questions about how something is made. They really were asking about narrative content and how it compares to reality.
WM I often change the subject, even when I’m talking to you I do it.
TD Let me ask you two more things. I take it Easy Rollins is going to be around.
WM He’s going to live a long time. I think I’ll keep him alive until maybe 1990, 1991.
TD There’s a lot of stuff about World War II in your books. It seems to have made a particular impression on you. And you were certainly interested in the black liberators before most people ever heard about them. Were images from the war, stories about it, vivid to you in your childhood?
WM Yeah. Everybody, every black man was in the war.
TD You knew that growing up?
WM Yeah. And they’re proud of it. They loved it ’cause this was the first time they got to do a lot of things. And it was worthwhile.
TD And did you hear about the liberation of Dachau firsthand before you read about it?
WM You know, I don’t know. I don’t really knock myself out over historical accuracy. I knew it but I don’t know why I knew it.
TD What I’m really asking, Walter, is what kind of information makes a larger impact on you, the oral, or something you’ve read, or are they equal?
WM It’s the oral, definitely the oral. Black history is oral history. The reason black literature is the most alive in America, which I do believe, is that it comes from oral history, and oral history has always this weight. For instance, I’m telling you stories, and I want you to remember them, so I have to tell them really well. I have to tell a story that you’ll be saying when you’re talking to somebody else. And that story wants to go on and live on. You want to breathe life into your fiction, and people who read that fiction are supposed to experience that life. There’s a kind of terror or elan or whatever. Much more than political rightness or wrongness, because that’s kind of secondary really. So certainly it’s oral history. Even now, my favorite thing is to have people tell me stories.
TD I met a guy who had liberated a camp, and it was a story he had not told, not in 20 years, for some reason.
WM The concentration camps themselves, for black Americans, are so poignant, because, for black Americans in the 1940s, it was worse than America. This was a serious thing.
TD And it was a sign that things could get worse.
WM ”You mean you’re killing them ’cause they Jews? And you do this to us?” It’s incomprehensible, even for a black American. Like Mississippi. Did you see that liberator’s film? When the guy says, “What am I doing here, when people are dying all around me?” And then when he gets to the camps—he didn’t say it, but it’s like, “Once I saw that, I realized that no matter what my problems are, I have to be here, I have to be doing this. I can’t help it.” And again, that’s like a blues mentality. You have to do certain kinds of things. And of course, when I’d write about Chiam Wenzler, who can say, “Well listen, I know what it’s like to be burned and shot at and beat and killed and put in ghettos. We named ghettos.”
TD You told me you wrote another novel that’s not a mystery. What’s this other novel?
WM There’ve been a few but the book I’ve finished is called, R.L.’s Dream. Those are the initials they used to call the musician, Robert Johnson. He was Robert LeRoy until he found out his real name. And that book is a blues novel, not so much about R.L., but about a fictional character who once played with R.L. and is now dying in New York and is trying to come to grips with his life and his history.
TD You said to me something about wanting to write about the music.
WM Ah. Now I remember that discussion. The most revolutionary moment of the 20th century is black American music. I believe that it knocked down the walls of Russia. I believe that it touches and transforms everybody. It certainly starts with the blues. I’m not a musician, but I want to write about what music means. The only way I can write about it. I want to write about a black musical life. Robert Johnson’s life. A life that is so hard and painfully and specifically itself that my main character, Soupspoon Wise is his name, says that by leaving the Mississippi Delta, he abandoned the blues, because you couldn’t play the blues without a blues audience. You just can’t take the blues out of the South. That music belongs there. It belongs on the streets and the roads and the paths. It belongs to the people. He thinks that he abandoned the blues, but this is a realization much later. It’s a realization that haunted him. He didn’t realize it at the beginning, but he felt it. He felt it from the beginning. His life kind of disintegrated. Now, in his old age, when he’s dying, one of the other aspects of the blues. He is trying to come to grips with it.
TD Did you do anything in this book that you haven’t done?
WM It’s written in third person, so there’s that. That was very nice because I could deal with my female characters a lot more easily. I’m limited by Easy. Easy, I think, is a very broad big character, maybe bigger than me, in life, but not necessarily in language. In language I have to be careful how Easy talks and what he knows, whereas in third person, it depends on whose shoulder I’m on in that moment. My narrator is closely involved with the other characters, so he takes on the characteristics of whomever we’re looking at from that point of view at that moment. So the language can be much more lyrical. I can do a lot more things. The language can reflect the mood. I can get really wild, and I do. I get really wild.
TD That’s good. And what next?
WM About the near future, I have a four book contract at Norton and that’s three mysteries and this book, R.L.’s Dream. We’ll see what happens from there. So, my next four years are spoken for.
Thulani Davis is the author of the novel, 1959 (Grove-Weidenfeld) and Malcolm X: The Great Photographs (Stewart, Tabori and Chang).
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Sign up for the BOMB Retrospective newsletter to receive curated selections from each decade of the archive.