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||It's a Tuesday evening. Another New York City day lowers to a livable pitch. Walter Mosley, the acclaimed mystery writer, sits behind a large wooden desk in a chair that resembles a medieval oak throne, talking with loud inflections that bounce off the walls. Mosley is the king of all his imagination, an imagination that has produced the vivid whiskey-laden scenes of RL's Dream and the character Socrates, and the Easy Rawlins series, which includes Black Betty and Devil in a Blue Dress. Talking with Walter Mosley is like having an afternoon conversation in a barbershop on Jefferson Street in my native Tennessee.
With Gone Fishin', Mosley switched from a large, well-known publishing house to an African American press, allowing for a non-mainstream publisher to capitalize on his loyal and diverse readership. According to Mosley, "Here is a black man, Easy Rawlins, having a whole bunch of bad experiences as a black person, but the book itself is completely framed in a white economic and cultural framework. There was no statement in that. I had to go a step further and at least try to use the power I have. I thought it was necessary."
Now, with his first science fiction book, Mosley is setting out to conquer new territory. The story, set in San Francisco during the 1960s, is about a brother named Chance and his interactions with people struck by a strange "blue light" from outer space. The book, Blue Light, will be released next month.
WALTER: Where did you grow up?
WILLIAM: In Nashville.
WALTER: In Nashville, people call Mississippi the South. [laughing] No one ever thinks of gradations of the South outside of it. "No man, he's from Texas." That man is from the South. "He's from Alabama!" That's like the deep South.
One of the things that the Easy Rawlins series is about is the migration of Black people from southern Texas and Louisiana, into Southern California after World War II.
People came back from the war and they didn't expect racism to be gone, but they expected a job. It's like: "Listen, I know you're going to hate me; that's all right, but I need a job. I just came back from the war and at least I can have a job."
WILLIAM: And this is when you were brought up?
WALTER: Yes. I'm born in 1952, and I'm aware of things from '57, '58, '59. My whole family, from Texas and Louisiana, all moved to L.A. So I'm around all these people who are in their 20s to mid-30s, who all came from the deep south.
You know, when I was a little kid, I was on the Art Linkletter Show, Kids Say the Darnedest Things. I was seven years old. I had the deepest Southern Texas drawl you could imagine. He said, "What are you going to talk about?" "I'll talk 'bout Noah and da Ark." It's like, wow. I like listening to it sometimes.
WILLIAM: You can hear it now in West coast rap. You hear it in Snoop Doggy Dog. They definitely have that twang.
WALTER: Yes, you just inherit it. Everybody I lived around was from the deep South. So it was like I was from a suburb of Los Angeles called Houston, or Galveston. That was my neighborhood. We ate soul food and barbecue, and that was it. "What you going to be cooking?" "Well, I'm cooking some gumbo. Do you want to come on over?" Nobody ever said, "I'm going to throw on some steaks." So everything I knew as a child was deep South. As far as I'm concerned, that's where I was raised, in the 1930s and 1940s, in Texas and Louisiana.
WILLIAM: And that's how you learned about the blues?
WALTER: I found the blues because I went to the Victory Baptist Day School where they sang gospel. I lived around people who had a blues sensibility. RL's Dream is not so much about the blues and music as it is about that sensibility. I was raised around that sensibility, going to church. And then I heard it again in the music in the '60s, with Jimi Hendrix.
WILLIAM: Which was coming from the blues?
WALTER: Oh yeah. I could stop on Jimi for a long time. I haven't finished with him yet. From Hendrix to Taj Mahal, who kind of reappropriated all this, they sounded like people I grew up with. And that music Blind Lemon Jefferson, Sonny Terry ... all the way back.
But in the late '60s, when I was listening to Hendrix, black kids would say, "Man, that's white music!" I said, "No, it's the blues." It comes out of that sensibility.
WILLIAM: Can you describe it?
WALTER: It's about Mavis Spivey painting her whole house white and mourning the loss of her child, you know, fifty years after the kid is dead. That sensibility, when accented with the blues, is alienation. When you start thinking about who blues singers are, people didn't like them. The church people didn't like them, nobody did.
WILLIAM: The juke joint and in the church. Those were two places to find it. When I was growing up, my dad had a 1977 Cordova and would listen to Bobby Blue Bland 8-tracks. My mom was ready to crawl out of the car. They were two different people.
WALTER: Even though you can hear the similarity of the music, or even the similarity of spirit, it's the specific content in it. So you didn't think God said it to you, you said the whiskey said it to you. [laughing]
WILLIAM: How would you say this blues sensibility influenced your writing?
WALTER: It depends on what I'm writing. You know, it's so hard to be raised in a ghetto, any kind of ghetto, because you start to define yourself by the ghetto. Do you know that incredible skit where Eddie Murphy dressed up like a white guy?
WILLIAM: On the bus?
WALTER: Yes. And when all the black people get off, they start serving cocktails, talking about philosophy, and listening to classical music.
WALTER: In the ghetto you think you're stuck because you don't realize that everyone has their ghettos. When people introduce me they say, "This is Walter Mosley, the mystery writer." And I'll say, "Well, I'm a writer." But once I'd written some stuff that wasn't mystery, they'd introduce me as "Walter Mosley, the mystery writer who is also very good at writing urban, gritty ..." blah, blah, blah. So now they can say I'm the one who does that so well that it sometimes transcends the mystery.
WILLIAM: And now you've just written your first science fiction novel.
WALTER: Yes, and I had all kind of troubles. I sent it to all these publishers, and they said, "There are black people in it, but it's not urban, it's not gritty." I think the first line is: "A streak of blue light barely 15 seconds long hurdles a deep silence into the den of radiance from Uranus."
Now, that's a line I wrote, but there is no blues sensibility in that line. I think that parts of my work are very much influenced by that sensibility. Certainly Easy Rawlins and the sad life around him. Certainly the little book in RL's Dream, Always Outnumbered Always Outdone ... Maybe even the science fiction novel.
WILLIAM: Whatever the genre may be, is there something that you're always aiming for?
WALTER: The idea is to talk about the highest form of human art, and this is my opinion the highest form of human art is tragedy.
WALTER: Because we are, maybe, the only creatures who are intimately aware of the fact that we're going to die, even when death is not imminent. We know death is waiting for us, and death is a fearful thing. But other creatures fear it when it's there; a big gaping jaw is about to eat them. Us humans will just be sitting there, and all of a sudden you might go, "Oh shit, I'm going to die."
In every century you find it in opera and in theater and sometimes it's in music, but certainly in the 20th Century, the blues is the apex of the appreciation of tragedy, of loss. That's what the blues is about. You know, I'm going to get up this morning, and I'm going to put on my shoes. [humming] The idea that I put on my shoes in the morning is the hardest thing in the world.
WILLIAM: Having to deal with another day ... again.
WALTER: Right. The sun could be up, but if you had to pick cotton ...
WILLIAM: Yeah, it had to be like the worst shit.
WALTER: But blues musicians had dignity. In a way and not to speak overly highly of myself R.L.'s Dream is a reclamation. Although I'm not reclaiming something in the form, I'm not picking up a guitar, because that doesn't work anymore. That's other music and we want to move on to James Brown, Snoop Doggy Dog, Tupac. To have someone talk about his life, which is disintegrating, which is just being lost all around him and there's nothing he can do about it that's the blues. And I just love it. The blues has changed the world.
WILLIAM: Did you do a lot of research for RL's Dream?
WALTER: I had been living in New York for about 15 years. So I knew where every place was, but I had only been to Mississippi once before. I remember I wrote a thing, it was about a guy at a barber shop that was also a juke joint. It had a barber shop in the back and there was a one-eyed cat out front.
After I had written the book, I went down to Mississippi. I went to a juke joint and they had a barber shop in the back and a one-eyed cat in the front. According to the story, there was supposed to be a train, and there I was and a train was passing by. I was going, "My God!" So there are things you know, and you have to rely on your self knowledge.
WILLIAM: Did you always know you were going to be a writer?
Mosely: I only started when I was about 33 or 34.
WILLIAM: What did you do before then?
WALTER: I was in computer programming for 15 years, on and off. It wasn't interesting, necessarily. It wasn't like, my heart. You know, that idea of becoming a lawyer or a doctor meant that I would have to put my whole heart into it. I thought I would rather get a trade or a craft than a profession. See, you can apply your trade. You don't have to be married to it.
WILLIAM: And what prompted you to start writing?
WALTER: I wanted to go back to something that I really liked, and I always loved literature, reading, philosophy. So I just started writing. I wrote a line: "On hot, sticky days in southern Louisiana, the fire ants swarm." I love that. I thought, this could be a book, and then I started writing on that.
WILLIAM: How do characters come to you?
WALTER: That's a hard question to answer. I never really know. I understood once, about two or three years ago, that I write about Black male heroes. I said, "Oh, I see" I had written about three or four books then [laughter] "I'm writing about Black male heroes. That's what I'm doing."
It seems to me the one thing that Black male heroes need to do is they need to solve problems, and the problems are very interesting.
WILLIAM: For instance?
WALTER: In one story, some white cops are rousting Socrates for no reason other than the fact that he's poor and black and walking around at night. He thinks to himself, "I can kill these motherfuckers. Grab this one, kill him; knock that one down and kill him. I could do it. I've done it before." But he doesn't do it. And that was an interesting solution to the problem. You give him the power to do something and then have him not do it.
When I'm writing, I'm just writing because it's a lot of fun. The brain is constructed in a funny way. It's not really direct. So it's fun to write.
WILLIAM: Can you talk about how you work?
WALTER: What you do is you think of doing something, and then it echoes through something else. "What is this? Oh, I see. Yeah, that sounds right." You feel like you're no longer doing what you started out to do, but it feels good. That happens a whole lot with me most of the time, actually. Which is now why I just kind of trust myself.
WILLIAM: Being from the South, when I read RL's Dream, and looking at the character, Kiki, I thought she was black.
WALTER: When I went into the South on tour for RL's Dream, it was the first time that a lot of women asked me anything, and they were all white women journalists. They all said either really meaning it, or as a kind of a blind that they knew a woman just like Kiki. They would say, "You got it!" But like, half of them, it was them, you know what I'm saying? So it's an interesting thing.
There are a lot of black women like Kiki, but there are a lot of poor white women like her too ...
WALTER: ... who live in their own little silenced ghetto where their brutalizing mothers and fathers are destroying their lives. They have no life, and they have no self-respect, and they go off trying to find it.
WILLIAM: Now, in terms of choosing to work with a black publisher, you wanted to show other writers white and black that you can be successful outside the larger mainstream?
WALTER: Yes. We can be in the mainstream. But for me, it's just not enough to say I'm black and then to put some words in a character's mouth. When you have a book, you're making 20% of the profit, and all this other money goes to the publisher. So my income is 20%, but my power is like 60%.
WILLIAM: And you can play off that.
WALTER: Yes, because if I give the book to a black publisher, they're making the profit, they're distributing to black bookstores, working with black designers not that other publishers don't, but as far as I recollect, they don't hire too many black people. So giving my book to a black publisher was important because the important thing is for us to own. We can sell. We've been selling our bodies and minds forever. But to own property, to own a business, and to control it.
WILLIAM: You must have felt like you were taking a huge chance?
WALTER: Well, I was a little nervous because I was the only one doing it. The only one. But I'm not saying that other writers shouldn't publish where they do, because most people, their business is very tight. If you make $10,000, that's what you live on. If you make $10 million, that's what you live on. So you need the next $10 million, you know what I mean? And it's true for everybody.
WILLIAM: So you were the only person saying ...
WALTER: ... that mainstream publishing is almost completely white. They don't have people of color as editors or as salespeople.
WILLIAM: Why do you think that is?
WALTER: Because it's a closed industry. It's not visible to the public. Industries that are visible to the public have to hire people who live there. But if you're behind closed doors and you're not supported by government contracts, you don't have to think about it. So people naturally and not in an avid, racist sense, but naturally hire their friends.
WILLIAM: Well, I worked in a publishing company, but of course the pay was very low. A lot of people there were trust fund babies, who could hold out until whenever ...
WALTER: The people I know in publishing, some are rich and some are not. But there are no Puerto Ricans. No Dominicans. Very few South East Asians. It's like they don't exist! There are a lot of Phillipinos living here, but how many Phillipino editors do you know? And how come the head of the division of Spanish spoken word at some publisher doesn't speak Spanish? Things like that ... Sure I left them.
WILLIAM: Didn't you help set up a program to get students into publishing?
WALTER: Yes, I went to City College and I met with the President, and I said, "Listen, let's have a program like this." I had a little bit of money, just enough to pay salaries for some people for a few months. And now they have 58 students, most of whom are people of color, all colors. And we're going to all the various publishers saying, "Give us some money and hire our people and pay them." Because who wants to struggle through that world for $16,000 a year? [laughing] They'll say, "I can work at McDonald's and get $16,000."
WALTER: But even though you don't make a lot of money, you have a great deal of power. Publishing is like the cultural backbone, not only in America, but the world.
WILLIAM: So the doors open up a little ...
WALTER: The people who go into publishing and art are also going to be the people who change the world. And it's a world that needs changing. Because nobody's paying attention to the reading habits of black people.
WILLIAM: Although a lot of books have been coming out Terry McMillan, Jill Nelson, Tavis Smiley. All of a sudden, white publishers saw that black people read.
WALTER: They had no idea what they read.
WILLIAM: But they saw the money coming in.
WILLIAM: How do you think we're going to gauge this period in terms of black writers and what's being published? Is any of it good? Is some of it mediocre? What of it will last? I don't want to say there's a big canon arising from all this, but what do you think?
WALTER: I think there are a whole variety of canons that you need to pay attention to. Right now, it's an interesting time. But you have to keep in mind that publishers put out books to make money. If people are reading horror books, publishers will bring out as many as they can. But as soon as people stop buying them, it's over.
WILLIAM: That's how it works.
WALTER: Let's say black books are selling, and they feel great about it. But as soon as they think they're not selling, which has happened quite a few times, they're gone. So even though we know they don't spend money on books that aren't selling, the problem for me is that the people in publishing were never connected to it. They don't know who those writers are. They don't know if they're good or bad.
WILLIAM: They just put them out to make money.
WALTER: Yes. And if you have no black publishers, no black editors, no black sales force, nothing, then all those writers are going to be forgotten completely. That's the problem. You might have had a great writer there.
WILLIAM: They need more room to be nurtured.
WALTER: Or at least to be remembered. So it's important that we're everywhere, but we won't be everywhere if we're not in a position to make decisions. And I mean democratically, where everybody will talk and they will all be friends. The only possibility is to make history live. And the only way to make it live is to have people working.
WILLIAM: I don't know what's going to happen in the next century, but for African Americans, this was our century.
WALTER: Right, we did it. We did everything. But now it's kind of losing it. I mean, we had so many interesting heroes. A hero is not somebody you're supposed to like. It's somebody who represented you. Your father's a hero when you got a bike. The guy down the street is a hero because he saved your sister in the fire.
WILLIAM: It's someone you actually know.
WALTER: Right, and you love that man. The only reason I'm talking about this is that I think it has a lot to do with my fiction. My fiction is about people who make decisions. A lot of these people are larger-than-life characters. Just think back to Miles. There is no black man in the black community who lived at that time that you could say that about except Miles Davis. The police, if they had to go see Miles, they always called for backup. They'd say, "We're definitely going to need some backup here." "Well, what's he doing?" And they'd say, "We think he's asleep." "Then why do you need backup?" And they'd say, "Well, you never know ..." [laughter]
WILLIAM: You don't get much of that anymore.
WALTER: You know, I was in LA recently, watching television, and there was a black cop and a white reporter, and two young kids from the 'hood gang bangers, let's say. The police chief was also there, and the reporter was asking, "Well couldn't you people use the Chief here as a role model?" They said, "Shit man, how am I going to use him as a role model? Is he going to put food in my mouth? Is he going to put money in my pocket? Is he going to turn the heat on in my mama's house?"
The reporter said, "But he's a very successful man. Don't you know what's going to happen to you?" And one of the kids said, "Yeah, I know what's going to happen to me. I'm either going to be dead or in jail by the time I'm 20! But that's just the way it is." And then the kids walked away. The reporter turned to the police chief and said, "What do you think about that Chief? It's a lost generation!" I was watching this, and I was thinking, who is this for? Am I supposed to believe what they're saying? The kid was the one who told the truth.
WILLIAM: And it was based on the fact that the man couldn't or wouldn't help him.
WALTER: Yes. He wasn't even mad at the police chief. The kid could have said, "How can I have this man as a role model? He's trying to kill me." But he didn't say that. He said, "This man can't feed me. This man can't put money in my pocket. That's what I need. I need money and I need to eat." So if you want to make a change, you can't just be a role model.
WILLIAM: You really have to do something.
WALTER: The idea of saying, "I'm going to be a role model," is ridiculous. What does that mean? "I'm going to be a role model." Some kid is worried about people shooting outside his house at night, and imagine someone saying, "Think about Walter Mosley you could be like him." [laughter] And the kid saying, "I wish I could be with him right now. Is anybody shooting at Walter Mosley's house? Could I go live with him?"