Walter Mosley on America ~ NYT


Walter Mosley is best known as one of contemporary literature’s pre-eminent crime novelists, but he’s actually four or five different writers rolled into one. Famous for his Easy Rawlins series of novels, Mosley has also written sci-fi (“Blue Light”), existential erotica (“Killing Johnny Fry”), parables about race (“Fortunate Son”), political monographs (“Life Out of Context”) and writing guides (“This Year You Write Your Novel”), to cite just a few of the 50 or so books he has published. He’s an altogether thornier, more idiosyncratic writer than readers may know, an inveterate investigator and chronicler of his own heart, mind and soul. “Art itself, like psychoanalysis, comes from deep inside you, somewhere where all of these things are roiling around, coming together, falling apart,” says the 71-year-old Mosley, whose new novel, “Every Man a King,” the second to feature his ex-N.Y.P.D.-investigator-turned-private-eye protagonist, Joe King Oliver, will be published on Feb. 21. “I write seven days a week, usually three hours a day, and when I’m writing, things come up. I say, here’s something! I like finding out what I’m about.”

When I was reading old articles about you, especially from around the time of 

“Devil in a Blue Dress,”1

1This 1990 novel, which introduced the Easy Rawlins character and was later adapted into a film starring Denzel Washington, was Mosley’s first published novel. Easy has been featured in 14 subsequent books. a lot of them talked about how your work brought a new kind of representation to the detective genre. All these years later, are there any ways in which you see the publishing world’s idea of “representation” as also carrying any limiting expectations? Here’s the thing: When I first got published, there weren’t a lot of Black people being published. The amount of work that you had to do to be out there in the world was amazing. That’s no longer true. But publishing has remained incredibly white. Because it’s been so white, and because it’s the kind of business where you hire your friends, you also hire people who tell stories that you’re interested in. It’s not like, “I don’t want to hire that Black person.” It’s more like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about, and he’s not my friend.” So that’s one thing. But the reason publishers started publishing more books by Black people is that Black people buy books in which they see themselves. There are a lot of books out there that do represent who Black people are and what we think about. It’s not that only white people read the books, and so we have to create books that white people will feel somehow satisfied by.

So representation doesn’t present any potential pitfalls? Explain what you mean.

I’ll try by analogy. If Jewish American novelists could only get work published that was still responding to the mid-20th-century pressures of assimilation or was all written in the shadow of mainstream successes like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, that, to me, would be a limiting kind of representation. Similarly, I wonder if the mainstream publishing industry is still mostly interested in a narrow slice of Black experience. Does that make any sense? I just want to say, before we get into answering that question, that 

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby2

2Two of Marvel Comics’ key creative figures. are Jewish, and they weren’t writing about being Jewish. They were writing stories. When you talk about Saul Bellow and Roth, there’s a certain really small group of people who think that they’re really important in their lives. I’m not one of those people. There’s some good writing in there, but if you write what is essentially memoir, you have to be writing about a period of time, not about yourself. Once you start talking about the girls you banged and the people who mistreated you, then it’s like, man, this is not interesting; it should be a Wikipedia page. But Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I’ve been reading them since I was a kid, and there’s nothing Jewish in it at all. Stan and Jack said: “This is fun! We can express ourselves and make money and have an audience.” And they did. I think there are a lot of so-called white people who don’t feel represented in literature. If you’re in the South, how many people are writing about the problems of your life? Bellow and Roth, they’re writing a very particular kind of story, but they don’t represent America. The only people who write about them are people who have degrees in literature.

Walter Mosley in 1990, the year that his first novel, “Devil in a Blue Dress,” was published.Marion Ettlinger/Contour by Getty Images

This is only tangentially related, but I was reading about “Herzog” the other day, and did you know that the year it came out, that book was a huge best seller?3Bellow’s 1964 novel about a cuckolded academic going through a midlife crisis was on best-seller lists for 42 weeks. The literary culture was so different 60 or so years ago. But wait a second. Who’s the guy? He was a crime writer. He’d write a line like “She came in the door packing a pair of .38s. The author of the almost comically hard-boiled series of detective novels featuring the aptly surnamed character Mike Hammer. He said, “This writer came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Spillane, don’t you think it’s a tragedy that seven out of the 10 best-selling books last year were your books?’” And he said, “Shut up, or I’ll write three more.” People read books looking for what’s missing in their lives, looking for action and adventure. Really, I don’t even know what Bellow’s talking about. Honestly, I don’t. I mean, I like his writing. I’m happy that he won a Nobel Prize. I’m also happy that Roth didn’t. But what are the problems that we face when you start dealing with capitalism, existentialism, when you start living with sexism? How do we deal with these things? With identity politics? You have to tell stories about real people experiencing it and not real people with a Ph.D. People who are not stupid but ignorant, who don’t know things about the world. So then they’re trying to figure out what’s right and wrong according to what they do know. Which is why I bring up Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. When I was a kid, I learned from comic books. You see the Sub-Mariner in a comic book. You say, here is a supervillain, but he’s a supervillain because the surface dwellers destroyed his people. He’s more like a guerrilla fighter. As a kid, you read that, and you think about it naturally. You don’t even think about thinking about it, but you’re thinking about it!

When you say you don’t know what Bellow is talking about, you mean the milieu of his books? The people? I guess I don’t identify with the emotional impetus of a lot of his work. I think part of me unconsciously understands what’s going on, but the stories themselves, I get a little lost. Who, what, why is this happening? When you look at his life, a lot of it is — a lot of times you tell a story, that’s wish fulfillment. OK, but what’s the real thing going on?

Isn’t wish fulfillment as valid a motivation for storytelling as any other? Writers are working out their own stuff the best way they know how, right? Yeah, but working it out and wish fulfillment are two different things. It’s OK to want to be the hero of the story, but you still have to, at some point, say what the world they’re living in is. You know, Russel Banks the novelist died at 82 in January. He was the author of, among other great works, the majestic “Cloudsplitter,” a fictional imagining of the life of John Brown. I knew Russell. He was a good guy. He wrote a lot about himself, but he was ruthless and didn’t give himself any breaks. He understood his wishes, but he also understood the underlying reality. Bellow’s a wonderful writer, but I identified more, or I felt I could understand more, about what Russell was saying than Bellow.


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