Walter Mosley | Interview by Walter Mosley with Bob McCullough

This literature criticism consists of approximately 7 pages of analysis & critique of Walter Mosley.
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Interview by Walter Mosley with Bob McCullough

SOURCE: An interview in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 21, May 23, 1994, pp. 67-8.

In the following interview, Mosley and McCullough discuss the character Easy Rawlins and the author's development from his first novel through his expansion into writing outside the Rawlins series.

"I'd like to be remembered in the canon of genre writers in this field," says crime novelist Walter Mosley. "I'd like my name to be mentioned with Raymond Chandler, Hammett, Ross McDonald, people like that."

"If people mention my race, I wouldn't be unhappy," continues Mosley, author of four murder mysteries based on the character of black detective Easy Rawlins, his reluctant but always gallant sleuth. "I'd like to think that I'm breaking new ground, not doing something completely new like Hemingway or someone like that, but doing something different in an interesting new way. I'm using a wide range of black characters and trying to reflect life in America. I'm talking about black life as if it were human life in America, taking the point of view that black people are insiders rather than standing on the outside looking in."

Judging from the success of Mosley's books to date, the author seems likely to achieve most of his goals. Easy Rawlins, the laid-off aircraft worker who becomes an L.A. detective with a knack for finding some semblance of meaning behind the murder and mayhem he probes, has garnered both critical and popular acclaim. The mysteries have been praised by a wide variety of reviewers and publications; Mosley has been profiled in Vanity Fair and People; and the author's consistently high sales (particularly in paperback) are notable. Three of the titles have been nominated for Gold Dagger Awards, presented by Britain's Crime Writers' Association, including his third novel, White Butterfly, which was also nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America.

Moreover, Mosley's new book, Black Betty, out next month from Norton is one of the most eagerly awaited summer fiction titles. His first novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, is currently being made into a movie produced by Jonathan Demme and directed by Carl Franklin, with Denzel Washington starring as the laconic, perceptive sleuth. Finally, no less an authority than First Mystery Fan Bill Clinton has declared Mosley to be his favorite practitioner of the genre.

In person, Mosley is an affable, thoughtful man with an almost jovial nature. As he fields questions during an interview at the midtown office of his agent, Gloria Loomis, his expressive face frequently lights up as he considers his replies; he shifts restlessly in his chair as he reflects on the implications of his answers. Indeed, it's easy to imagine the amiable author as a more intellectual version of his fictional alter ego, pondering the literary landscape for clues about how he fits in and the meaning of the various twists and turns his career has taken. Mosley is a presence in the literary community in New York City: he turns up frequently at readings and parties; he is a member of the Executive Board of the PEN American Center, where he chairs the Open Book Committee; and he is on the Board of Directors of the National Book Awards.

Mosley's background certainly qualifies him to write about a character whose adventures both define and transcend the limits of racial boundaries. He was born in South-Central L.A. in 1952, the son of a mixed marriage between a black school custodian and his white Jewish wife, both of whom stressed the values of education. He has repeated the pattern in his own mixed marriage to dancer and choreographer Joy Kellman. In conversation, however, Mosley emphasizes his identity as that of an African American writer, discussing both himself and his character in terms of the way they reflect the black community.

"Easy's response to racism is just to work harder," Mosley comments. "He doesn't believe in justice, and he doesn't believe that the black man is ever going to get a fair shake, so he knows he's going to have to do more to overcome that. I think that Easy's attitude reflects the conditions in that neighborhood [South Central] even today. It's gotten better in some ways, but it's also gotten worse, and I believe that overall it's worse there than it ever was. There are more opportunities there, but they're for fewer people, and that translates to fewer chances."

Despite the fact that he's a relative latecomer to the writing game, Mosley has certainly capitalized on his chances. He came east to college, attending two Vermont institutions, Goddard College and Johnson State, where he earned his B.A. Mosley eventually moved to Manhattan, supporting himself for many years as a freelance computer programmer. When he enrolled in the City College writing program, he came under the tutelage of novelist Frederic Tuten. Though he worked on a novel in class, Mosley gave his mentor a copy of the already completed The Devil in a Blue Dress, and Tuten submitted it to his agent, Gloria Loomis, without telling Mosley.

Loomis then called Mosley, officially acquiring him as a client before sending the manuscript to Gerald Howard at Norton. "The funny thing about Norton taking the book is that Jerry was halfway through it before he realized it was a mystery," Mosley says. "My relationship with Norton has worked out very well," he continues. "Most people think that there's a lot of financial pressure on me to write bestsellers because of Easy's commercial success, but detective fiction isn't really something Norton does a lot of, so there's less pressure than one might expect."

Howard also expresses satisfaction, observing that the house had confidence in Mosley from the start. "We contracted for two books in the series right away," he says. "Unlike anything else I've ever experienced in publishing, it actually worked out the way we planned."

Of late, Mosley's attention has been drawn back to the West Coast of his origins-he returned to Southern California in recent weeks to watch and participate in the filming of Devil in a Blue Dress. Mosley hasn't experienced the horror stories that are frequently told by writers who must deal with the Hollywood studio system to get their work converted to film. Quite the contrary.

"I had an incredibly positive experience," he relates of his movie-making junket. "Carl Franklin [the director] came up to me and asked me questions about the script and story, and it was pretty clear to me that what I said mattered. I also talked to people like Denzel, Eddie Murphy and Wesley Snipes, who were all very encouraging and interested in the character. There's a real shortage of male role models in black culture right now, and Easy seems to have hit a bit of a nerve in that sense."

There are a number of other aspects to Easy's character and Mosley's fiction that separate his work from other books in the genre. Mosley consistently returns to what he sees as the bleak fatalism of 20th-century black life in America. He also thoroughly explores the notion of being an insider or an outsider in society, using characters of all races and social strata. This dark vision of limited opportunity, accurately reflecting the economic and social realities of black communities, especially in the decades Mosley has covered so far, has a wider relevance that does not escape Mosley's readers. By the 1990s, this urban blight extends well beyond the edges of minority neighborhoods, and Easy's struggles with forces that seem overwhelmingly ranged against him can be translated to other members of society; his resilience and his triumphs, small and compromised as they may be, can be claimed by readers of any background or circumstance.

Mosley takes pains to maintain chronological continuity in his novels, covering the late '40s, the '50s, and the early '60s to date by setting each new book approximately five years after the previous one. In Devil in a Blue Dress, Easy is an unencumbered man in his 30s. By the end of his third appearance, in A White Butterfly, he's been through a broken marriage and seen the tenuous real estate empire that he established from a windfall profit in the first book whittled down to a financial house of cards. In between, in the 1991 entry, A Red Death, Easy endures the pervasive atmosphere of fear and loathing in the McCarthy era as he grapples with the issue of betraying (to the FBI) a Jewish Communist who's working to help black people in the community. Black Betty, the new book, finds Easy confronting many of the changes ushered in during the early '60s.

While some authors might recognize a fatigue factor in spending a career with a single character, Mosley acknowledges an ongoing fascination with his protagonist. "I love writing about Easy," he says with a smile. "He's always changing-his life, his children, his friends-and I learn more about writing with each book. There are certain things I enjoy about writing mysteries, creating the tension, the idea of the first-person narrative. I think it's something I'll always do."

Working toward that end, Mosley has two more Easy Rawlins novels waiting in the wings, the just-completed The Little Yellow Dog and Bad Boy Bobby Brown, which the author intends as an homage to Malcolm X. He indicates that he has plans for as many as nine or 10 Easy books, enough to chronicle the entire spectrum of postwar urban black life in America and bring the character into his 70s. But Mosley is also branching out into a literary life beyond Easy: he has recently completed R. L.'s Dream, a novel about the blues, which Norton will issue in 1995.

"It's a modern novel in the sense that it's set in the '80s, but it's about a blues musician who played with Robert Johnson," Mosley relates. "Johnson [a legendary pioneer blues singer and composer] is someone I find tremendously intriguing. To me, he represents the negative space in the blues, and there are all these amazing similarities between Johnson and Christopher Marlowe-they both died in their 20s, they both elevated their art into a higher form and they were both murdered in bars. I'm trying to bring together different characters from different walks [of life] and describe a life informed by the blues sensibility, and to bring a sense of mystery to the blues."

Stretching out beyond the restrictions of the mystery genre has brought Mosley face-to-face with the links between music, language and character writing. "Music is fiction, and fiction is music," he says. "This isn't a music novel per se, but there's a rhythm to language and a beat to it, and there are words and passages that just invite you in, so that you get buoyed up by language. The more I go into that the farther I can work my way into the images, which in turn allows me to go deeper into the characters."

The author, who's about to undertake a 22-city tour promoting Black Betty, works for approximately three hours every morning before beginning his social rounds, which normally consist of a day full of visiting his Manhattan colleagues and friends. He remains preoccupied with the ongoing notion of self-improvement and testing his own limits as a writer, attempting to strike a balance between what must be said and what must be left unsaid.

"If you're writing a scene, you're writing about one particular thing that's going on, whether it's a conversation, a murder, sex between two characters, whatever," Mosley explains. "But to write that scene, there may be 99 other things going on at that time that are assumed, and you have to know about every one of them. I find that when I'm unhappy with what I've done, most of the time what's happened is that one or two of those things that needs to be assumed has crept into the writing."

Mosley's growth as a writer can also be measured in his determination to break more boundaries with genre-stretching future books. In addition to giving Easy Rawlins fans their near-annual fix, the author has other works in mind. He mentions a play about Mouse, Easy's violent sidekick, a coming-of-age novel about a black man living in Harlem and even a science fiction novel. Whatever the outcome of these germinating ideas, it is already clear that Mosley is a writer with a unique voice and perspective.

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This section contains 2,050 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Interview by Walter Mosley with Bob McCullough
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