Walter Mosley

Back in 2004, Walter Mosley published one of the strangest novels ever to be set on Long Island. A departure from his hard-edged detective novels, The Man in My Basement, set in Sag Harbor, is narrated by a black man—a handsome, hard-drinking ne’er-do-well who lives alone in his family’s beautiful and spacious home in the historically African-American section of that East End village. He is approached one day by a wealthy white man seeking to rent out his basement. It turns out the white man wants to be imprisoned there as punishment for terrible crimes he says he has committed. Admired by many critics, even compared to the works of Kafka, the novel explores issues of guilt, race and possible redemption—as do nearly all of Mosley’s works. The author revealed that he hopes to make a movie of the book soon. He even has a star lined up: Anthony Mackie, the handsome stage and screen actor best known for his award-winning role in The Hurt Locker.

A Los Angeles native who lived briefly in Sag Harbor, but now calls Brooklyn home, Mosley was 38 by the time Devil in a Blue Dress, both the first of his acclaimed Easy Rawlins series and the first of his books to be published, made it into print in 1990. But he has made up for lost time, writing more than 37 books, which have been translated into 23 languages. Besides an elegant and engaging style, he’s known for his African-American crime-solving heroes.

Right now, Mosley is finishing a pilot script for HBO, with another Easy Rawlins book (his 12th) lined up after that and a few possible film projects. Earlier this year, he published All I Did Was Shoot My Man, the fourth book in his Leonid McGill series.

He’s branched beyond mysteries, into nonfiction, science fiction, erotica, plays and literary fiction. About a year ago, he published Twelve Steps Toward Political Revelation, which is his treatise on solving the major current issues of the United States.

Next month, he’s releasing more light-hearted work: Two science fiction novellas, The Gift of Fire and On the Head of a Pin, printed together as a flip book—one starts at one end, then flip the book over to start the second story. Another such double set is slated for November, with more to come in the future.

In a recent and wide-ranging conversation, Mosley talked about his books, his life and his intriguing notions about race, class and politics.

Do you have any connection to Long Island other than your book, The Man in My Basement?
There was a year I rented a house in Sag Harbor. That was some years before I wrote the book. I had it a whole year. I would go out a lot. I had a dark apartment in New York, and I couldn’t bear it, so I rented this house. If you rent it for the summer, you can rent it for the year at almost the same price.

Was the house you rented like the one you wrote about, as spacious and old?
No. It was big, but it wasn’t like that house. It was wonderful.

Then why only stay one year?
I got an apartment with sunlight. I can only really stay in one place. I can’t stay in two. So, once I got an apartment with sunlight, it was like, Aaahhh. Actually, I’ve moved since then, but I got another apartment with the same amount of sunlight.

I was fascinated to read about your background, that your mother’s family were Jewish immigrants.
My grandparents were immigrants. My mother was born in the Bronx. My parents are both deceased.

You’ve said in the past that you feel black, and not half-black, and that you feel Jews are a different race, or not white. Could you talk about that?
Some people will say, “You’re half black and you’re half white.” I’m all black, and I’m not white at all. And I’m not half Jewish, I’m all Jewish because my mother’s Jewish. You know, white is an interesting notion. White people is a notion invented in America. In Europe, there are all kinds of races. If you’re from Scandinavia or Britain, or Southern Italy—those are all different races, back in the day. White came about because of slavery in America and colonization in Africa. The idea that Jews are white people—anyone who thinks that doesn’t know European history. That’s the way I feel. My mother felt the same way, by the way.

In your recent book, Twelve Steps Toward Political Revelation, you write about categorizing people by class. How would you classify yourself in terms of how you grew up?
Like nearly everybody else in America, my parents were working-class people…toward the end, maybe the bottom of the middle class. My father kept buying apartment buildings, to the point where he didn’t have to go to work every day—he did, but he didn’t have to. Right now, I’m solidly in the middle class.

So you’re not among the wealthy?
No. There are different kinds of rich people, a couple of different levels. The highest, they own the earth. Beneath that are the people who work for them, the lawyers, the investors. They have money in great abundance. Then there’s the middle class, about five percent, maybe 10 percent of the population. Everyone else is working class. The super rich are not one percent, more like one tenth of one percent. I mean the really rich, the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, the Cabots, the Romneys.

How do you relate the book’s subject to the practical world?
I did a fundraiser for Barack Obama last time he ran, near the end of his campaign. I felt, if he gets elected I’ll be happy no matter what. But here’s the issue: We have to be working twice as hard after he gets elected to make sure that the things he said he would do get done. The electorate has to work. The question of who gets elected is meaningless unless the electorate is out there pushing to make sure that the things they voted for are done. If that doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter.

What do you feel about what Obama has done so far?
He’s very middle-of-the-road, and I’m progressive. That being said, faced with the kind of trouble that he had…it all fell apart six weeks before Barack was elected, and he’s struggling against that. If you ask me if he has succeeded, I would say, of course not. But, he’s trying to do things differently.

How could things change?
What I would love to do is set up a system of voting that is computer based, in which all people come in and say in a positive way the things that they want. For instance, a living wage, retirement with dignity, medical insurance. Or, they could say the things they disagree with. One person is for abortion, another is against abortion. And then they come together and vote on those things that they agree on. For example, a white Aryan separatist in Idaho and a Black Nationalist separatist living in Detroit, both of whom want a living wage. All those politicians are working for rich people, whether they know it or not.

How do you see your non-fiction fitting into your life as a novelist?
When I think something, I write about it. I write all different kinds of novels and nonfiction, poetry, plays, screenplays and articles.

Do you write every day?
Yes. I write wherever I am. Right now, I’m in my house, but this weekend I’ll be in Chicago, so I’ll be writing in Chicago. I’d like the minimum to be two hours, but I never write more than three. I’m just not creative after that. Every time I write beyond three hours, everything I wrote past the three-hour mark, I threw away.

Then, when you’re at home, what do you do the rest of the day?
Oh, I do lots of things. I draw, I talk to my friends, I get back into pottery.

Didn’t you at one point make a living as a potter?
I did. It didn’t go very well. I was in my late 20s, early 30s.

It’s interesting that you were a computer programmer, which is such an incredible skill. Did you teach yourself or get trained on the job?
I took a little class, in which I learned maybe 10 percent of what I needed to know, and then I got a job as a trainee, and I learned the rest. It was back in the early ’70s, so anybody could be a programmer back then. It was really not that hard. I did that for 15 or 16 years. Not that I was writing or anything like that, but I would have liked to have done something else. I kept thinking about it.

So, how did you start writing?
I think I was working Mobil Oil at the time, and one day I wrote a sentence: “On hot sticky days in southern Louisiana, the fire ants swarmed.” I thought, that’s really nice. I should start writing. My goals were very humble. I thought, well, if I could write a short story, I would be happy. So I kept concentrating, trying. And I took a course at City College that Edna O’Brien was teaching. One day, she said, “You should write a novel.” You know, I love her. And so I did. I wrote a novel. Then I wrote another one and became a writer. The first one was Gone Fishin’. I couldn’t get it published [but did later]. The publishing community at that time had trouble with a literary novel with two uneducated black male protagonists. They basically said to me, “Black women don’t like to read about black men, and black men don’t read, so this book won’t go anywhere.” They were right. Then I wrote Devil in a Blue Dress, and that was a mystery. And they went, “Oh, wow, a black detective. That’s something new.”

imageIt seems you were the first to do that.
In contemporary times, yes, but there was Chester Himes [1909-1984]. And Charles Chesnutt [1858-1932], from the Harlem Renaissance. And a few others.

When Bill Clinton said you were one of his favorite writers, that helped your sales a lot, I read.
Not a lot, but it helped some. It wasn’t like what JFK did for Ian Fleming, or what Reagan did for Clancy.

To get into the mysteries a little more, one thing I noticed is that our detectives Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill have sort of patched-together families that are important to them. Is that important to you, too?
Taking it out of context, it would be hard to say. The truth is this: I write novels about people. People have families. They have jobs. For most people, the center, or at the off-center, of their lives are their families and a great deal of their responsibilities.
The original noir and hardboiled detectives were kind of in an existentialist mold, like [Dashiell] Hammett and [Raymond] Chandler and [James M.] Cain, and those people created heroes who were looking to find out what is the correct action to take in a corrupt world. Existentialist heroes have no mother, no father, no sister, no brother, no pet, no car, no house. So, therefore, they have no real responsibility in the world except the truth. It’s wonderful, but it’s not very realistic. Easy or Leonid or anybody else…Easy, if a woman wants him to stay overnight, he says, “No, no, no, I have to get home. I have a four-year-old daughter at home.” It puts a different kind of pressure on him.

What about your life? Do you have a family or any kind of responsibilities?
Not at all. I am the existentialist detective.

I see from recent photos that you seem to have lost weight.
Oh yeah, I lost 100 pounds. It was one thing I could control. There are many things in my life that I like or don’t like, but almost none of them I could control. So, I thought, let me try one thing I could control. It was a couple of years ago. I put on a little more weight since then.

Are you doing more books about Easy Rawlins?
I’m writing another one. I’m going to turn it in [this] August and it will come out next year. I’ve outlined it. I’m writing a pilot script for HBO right now, based on The Long Fall, my first book in the Leonid McGill series. They want to turn it into a series.

Do you work on several projects at once or write one thing at a time?
One thing at a time, until I’m finished with it, unless there’s something else that I have to do. It’s the pilot right now. The Rawlins book is next. It’s called Little Green. All the Easy Rawlins books have a color in the title.

Is Easy Rawlins based on your father?
Not really. It’s based on my father’s world. [The first book, Devil in a Blue Dress is set in 1948 Los Angeles.]

What about your mother’s world?
There’s always something from my mother’s world inside those Easy Rawlins books. All kinds of characters who are from my mother’s [Jewish] family. There’s a shoemaker, a political activist and others. I can’t say I would never put one of them at the center of a book, but I haven’t.

You’ve also written a play.
I’ve written three plays. I’m working on a musical based on Devil in a Blue Dress. It’s pretty far along.

Do have brothers or sisters?
I’m an only child.

So, in your existentialist way, you really are alone in the world. Or do you have aunts or uncles or cousins?
No relatives. My father was an orphan. He had two half sisters, but they’re dead. There probably are a handful of people in the world somewhere who are my cousins. My mother was an only child. There’s no possibility of first cousins.

Do you have a large circle of friends?
No. I know a lot of people. I have a couple of close friends.

What about any upcoming movies?
I’m always working to do a movie. But that’s always pie in the sky. I’d like to do a movie from my Sag Harbor book, The Man in My Basement. I would produce it. If I make it, Anthony Mackie would star in it. We could be shooting it within the next year. I’ve also written a screenplay for Little Scarlet [the eighth Easy Rawlins mystery, set during the Los Angeles Watts Riots in 1965]. There are so many millions of dollars involved, so until I’m sitting in the theater and seeing it on the screen, I don’t believe it. I also wrote an Easy Rawlins pilot for John Wells, who did ER and The West Wing. NBC passed on it, but we have it now and we’re trying to sell it. Who knows? We’ll see.

aileen jacobson

Aileen Jacobson writes about the arts for the New York Times and other publications. A former arts and media writer for Newsday, she is also the author of two books.