It isn’t very often that a best selling writer speaks to a room filled with fans and fellow writers, yet makes the encounter feel like a one-on-one chat. Walter Mosley is that kind of writer. Speaking recently at a dinner meeting of the New York chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, he shared his thoughts about his own work and what it means to be a crime writer.
Mosley’s characters are often caught up in a tug of war between doing what’s right and doing what’s necessary to survive. “Most of my protagonists are heroes, but also criminals,” he said. Easy Rawlins, for example, is an African-American private investigator whose territory is the hardscrabble streets of L.A.‘s Watts and his best friend, Mouse, has trouble staying on the right side of the law. In Easy’s world things are rarely clear cut. “It’s the P.I.’s burden to know that he participates in a corrupt system.”
If Mosley writes about growing up on the rough side of town, that’s a territory he knows well. He was born in Watts, his mother Jewish and his father African American. For someone who began writing when he was 34, Mosley’s body of work is impressive. He has written more than 33 books and his works have been translated into 23 languages. And he is branching out into TV and theater. He has teamed up with director Jonathan Demme (Rachel Getting Married) to co-write a pilot for HBO based on Mosley’s detective novel series featuring an ex-boxer turned P.I. Demme will direct the pilot episode and will be executive producer along with Mosley, Tom Hanks, and Gary Goetzman.
In January, The Tempest Tales, based on Mosley’s novel will have its premiere at the Repertory Theatre in St. Louis. In the play, Tempest Landry, a street-wise young man living in Harlem unexpectedly and mistakenly finds himself in heaven. Refusing to go to hell, his original destination, the fast-thinking Landry takes advantage of a loophole to orchestrate his return to earth, albeit with a guardian angel in tow to keep him out of trouble. The journey teaches Landry—as well as the audience—about what it means to be a good person.
Mosley’s success is impressive, but he confessed that starting out publishers would praise his writing, yet question whether anyone would buy mysteries, let alone ones that seemed to be aimed at an African-American audience. “The literary establishment doesn’t like the genre, but they are the books that people read,” he said. Even presidents. In 1992, presidential candidate Bill Clinton, a fan of murder mysteries, singled out Mosley as one of his favorite writers. “That was a good thing,” Mosley said. His best-selling Devil in a Blue Dress was made into a feature film starring Denzel Washington as Easy and Jennifer Beals as Daphne Monet, a white woman Easy is hired to find after she disappears.
It’s a mark of Mosley’s reputation that even seasoned mystery writers asked him about his writing routine. For the record, his outlines are very general, not filled with details and he doesn’t listen to music while he works.
If Mosley seems to have a pessimistic view of justice—“Numbness is how we can go on living when so much injustice goes on around us.”—his viewpoint makes for fascinating reading that keeps us turning pages. “If you talk about people as you know them, all sides of their humanity comes up and people want to read about them.”
For more information, go to the website for Walter Mosley.
To buy his books, go to Amazon.