Interviewed by Cesca Janece Waterfield | Twitter @cescasings
Talk about making up for lost time. Although Walter Mosley didn’t begin writing until age 34, he has written every day since and published more than 33 books that have been translated into more than 21 languages. He often publishes two books a year while refusing to be limited by genre.
Mosley was born in Watts, Los Angeles, to a Polish-Jewish mother and an African-American father from Louisiana and attended a private African-American elementary school. For college, he crossed the country to Vermont and eventually took up a doctorate in political theory. In 1980, he quit the program and moved to New York to work in computers. Soon after, he enrolled in a writing course in Harlem where his instructor encouraged him. His first published book, “Devil in a Blue Dress” was made into a film starring Denzel Washington. Racial inequality is the context of much of his fiction. Although Mosley frequently writes crime fiction, he addresses philosophical questions and locates suspense in the psychological motives of characters that grapple with heritage, history and responsibility. Mosley has won numerous awards including the prestigious Anisfield Wolf Award, which since 1935 has been bestowed annually on works that increase the appreciation and understanding of race in the U.S. A new series based on the debut novel in his Leonid McGill detective series is in development at HBO. “When the Thrill Is Gone,” a novel that offers a lucid look at race as well as gripping subplots, was released March 8 to strong reviews.
“The Thrill is Gone” focuses on a character you debuted in 2009, Leonid McGill. What’s different with this series?
When I wrote the Easy Rawlins series, it was really in deference to my father and to his generation; that group of black people who moved out of the Deep South to, among other places, Los Angeles. There’s not much literature about those people. I had written the Easy Rawlins series to celebrate that. But at the turn of the century, I realized that those books would no longer [remain current], really. America had changed from an isolationist country to an international country. We always dealt with the rest of the world, we weren’t really aware of it. To write about this new character was kind of wonderful, to talk about New York rather than Los Angeles, to talk about today rather than yesterday. I’m enjoying very much writing about Leonid McGill.
Your characters become lifelike to many readers. Do they take on a similar presence during development?
Nah, they don’t. It sounds good to say that and when writers say that, I’m impressed. But I just write stories. How do I develop them? I have no idea. I just start writing. A character comes up and I discover the character as I’m writing about him or her. I develop them while writing. When I’m doing it, I’m telling a story. Here’s a person, they’re trying to do something, they’re in trouble, whatever. As they respond to the problem that I put them in, I start to learn about them.
Who were some writers who inspired you to write?
I always worry about that question because the way I look at it, if you’re talking to a young black woman and she has a first novel, first, she’ll say Phyllis Wheatley, because [people] should know about her and probably don’t. Then, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Edwidge Danticat and Zadie Smith…We’ll just name a whole bunch of people who are like really great. They’re doing that mainly because that’s their job: the job is to get people to think that you’re great so you compare yourself to greatness. I’m not just a mystery writer but if I was talking about mysteries I should maybe talk about Dashiell Hammett and Ross MacDonald and Chester Himes, all of whom I’ve [read] and I love very much. But that woman who just said all those things, really, it’s Nancy Drew, right? Really, you learn to love books, literature and stories when you’re a child. When you’re a child, you read comic books, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys and things like that. I love comic books, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Marvel comics. That’s really where I began to be brought into story lines. Later on I read all kinds of crime writers. But really, I think the influences begin when you’re a child and they’re always the strongest influences.
You won a Grammy Award in 2002 for the liner notes for the complete recordings of Richard Pryor. How did that come about?
They had gone to a couple comedians to write [the liner notes]. Somehow that wasn’t working. I don’t know why, I never got that story. So they contacted me and I said I’d love to do that. I love Richard Pryor, I think he’s genius. I wrote these very over-the-top liner notes. ‘Over-the-top’ because you’re not supposed to say such great things about comedians. But I needed to because I thought he was wonderful. Then I found out I was nominated for a Grammy and I went out there and I won it! I was shocked.
In 2005, Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute awarded you with the Risktaker Award for your combined creative and activist work. How does it feel to be called a “risktaker”?
I’m very political and I’m very outspoken. I have a book coming out in May called “12 Steps Toward Political Revelation.” If I were going to be cautious, I’d stay pretty close to the mystery genre and kind of develop a brand so that people could like me. But instead, I’m very political. I’m very much out there. Redford and his people said, hey, this seems to be worthwhile. So they gave me that award and I was very happy about that.
Tell us about “The 12 Steps to Political Revelation.”
I think that a lot of problems that Americans have – how disenfranchised we are, how confused we are and how we’re unable to get together to work together and how we’re dominated by the structure of Capitalism – it’s problematic. But it’s a lot like alcoholism: we’re addicted to a sense of polity, a sense of politics. So I decided to say, how do we overcome the various weights upon us by the system of politics in America. If we took these 12 steps, then we could get clear.
Earlier you misspoke and called the book “The 12 Steps to Recovery.” It sounds like it’s consciously based on the structure of recovery from addiction.
It’s about my own alcoholism, because I certainly was an alcoholic and it’s just about the things that you get strung out on in America – television, alcohol, fast food, and how that stuff overwhelms you and also how our higher education makes sure that we don’t question.
You’ve addressed one issue in higher education by establishing a publishing degree program at City University of New York aimed at urban students. Why is that important to you?
Because it doesn’t get any government money or any kind of public money, publishing, it’s been separated in its hiring practices. I don’t think it was on purpose. Most of the people working in publishing are white. It’s also Ivy League. There’s a very certain kind of people there. What I wanted to do is change that. Publishing is one of the vertebrae of the cultural spine of America. It’s important that other people are in there giving their input. So that’s why I started that institute at City College.