“The Heart of a Writer” by Charles L.P. Silet
Walter Mosley won instant acclaim for his first Easy Rawlins book, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990). The critics loved his historical re-creation of post-war Los Angeles, and the unique voice he had captured with his characters. His second novel, A Red Death (1991), was also well-received by the critics. With the publication of White Butterfly (1992), Mosley arrived. It did not hurt his sales or recognition when the then presidential candidate Bill Clinton was seen carrying copies of his books on the campaign trail or when he told reporters that Mosley was his one of his favorite mystery writers.
The fact that Devil in a Blue Dress was made into a well-received, major Hollywood motion picture, starring Denzel Washington, didn’t hurt his reader recognition or sales either. Black Betty (1994), A Little Yellow Dog (1996), and Gone Fishin’ (1997), a prequel about Easy’s early years, have continued the series.
Mosley has also published two non-series books: RL’S Dream (1995), about the legendary Mississippi blues guitarist Robert (RL) Johnson, and Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned (1998), a loosely connected set of stories featuring Socrates Fortlow, ex-con and philosopher of the violence and anarchy of life.
In the following interview, Walter Mosley discusses various aspects of his writing, his approach to crime fiction, the critics, and his place as America’s most famous black writer of crime fiction.
MysteryNet: Obviously you don’t see much distinction between what we would describe as genre or crime fiction and straight fiction or literature.
Mosley: No, I don’t see any difference in it. Of course, in the genre there are certain kinds of things that you have to do, but it’s the same in a coming-of-age novel, somebody has to come of age. So you have to follow the conventions. Good fiction is in the sentence and in the character and in the heart of the writer. If the writer is committed to and in love with what he or she is doing, then that’s good fiction.
MysteryNet: Who have you read both in crime fiction and in regular fiction that’s had an influence on you?
Mosley: In crime fiction, I’ve read lots and lots of people. Charles Willeford, I just adore. Every one of his books is so deeply flawed plot-wise, but it matters nothing to me because he’s such a wonderful writer. I was reading one of his books the other day about some old guy and his wife; he was seventy-two but looked older and she was sixty-three and looked older than him. It was so funny; just the way he wrote it. My God, this guy is fantastic! Hoke Mosley is a real guy. It’s so right. I’ve read everybody–Gregory MacDonald–I’ve read all the Fletch books. I thought they were wonderful. Parker, of course. Vachss, who I adore, because I think that he is so deeply committed to what he believes in. I feel the heart coming through it, and I compare him to Dickens. Rex Stout. I’ve read almost everything Simenon ever wrote. The people I love for writing are the French: Malraux, Camus, Gide, for just the style of writing. It is almost the heart of fiction for me. Then the older guys like Proust, and tons of black poets: Gwendolyn Brooks, Derek Walcott, Amiri Baraka. It doesn’t matter who writes it, no matter their sex or their race or what period of time they lived in. I mean when you read Shakespeare, it’s still alive today. It’s amazing what a wonderful writer he was, or whoever wrote that stuff.
MysteryNet: You’ve been treated very well by the critics. How do you respond to critics?
Mosley: When they treat me well, I love them. I have been treated very well in two ways. Number one, I’ve been reviewed a lot therefore a lot of people knew my name, whether it’s good or bad. I’ve also gotten a lot of very good reviews, and I’m very happy about that. I try really hard to write well; I think I know my limitations. I’m a new writer, really. I’m not young anymore, but I’m a new writer. There’s a lot more that I could do a lot better, and so the fact that people overlook my flaws to see what’s good about my fiction, I’m very happy about. I don’t mind people criticizing, but it doesn’t seem worthwhile to me to trash anybody in public no matter how successful they are. But I’ve been very happy about the criticism.
MysteryNet: What are the positive and negative things about doing a series?
Mosley: It is a very difficult question to answer. There are only possibilities. It’s possible for a series to be bad if you end up writing about the same character who doesn’t change over time. You write your best stories about him in the beginning and after awhile the stories get weaker and weaker. It’s like the next wash, the next wash, until the color fades to water. That can be a problem. But the way I approach him that hasn’t been a problem for me with Easy. For instance, Rex Stout wrote what I call romances. Not romances in the sexual way or love stories. They are comical romances narrated by Archie Goodwin. It doesn’t matter that Archie doesn’t change because the stories are not about Archie and character development. The same is true for Simenon and his character Maigret or Sherlock Holmes. The character is set, and the stories are not about character development. But the hard-boiled genre and those genres related to the hard-boiled genre–and I think I’m in one of those–is about character development, and so you have to have the character move forward. The wonderful thing about doing a series is you have a cast of characters that you can refer to because you’ve already done a lot of the work. Somebody reading the whole series can find each book more satisfying, because they already know these characters and this world very well. So when they come to a new story, they find out new things. They knew a lot of things from the previous six or seven novels and here comes another one to take them deeper and deeper.
MysteryNet: What genre do you think you are working in?
Mosley: It’s like a subset of the hard-boiled genre, but it’s not exactly hard-boiled. As Lawrence Block says, “The hard-boiled genre is typified by the line in one of the Continental Op stories by Dashiell Hammett where the guy says, ‘I hit him with the door. (Pause.) Repeatedly’.” That’s hard-boiled. My stories are different. I don’t adhere to the blunt irony of the hard-boiled .
MysteryNet: Because of your success, you’re breaking new ground as a black crime writer. How do you feel about that?
Mosley: I feel comfortable, to tell you the truth, with myself which is a nice place to be in. I don’t think that I’m the last word. I’m the first one who could give you a whole bunch of criticism of my work; what it does and what it doesn’t do. One of the things that I understand, like understanding Easy, I can’t do everything. I think that I have a good ear for black language, not slang because slang is something that lasts for about six months and is gone. Black dialect has been with us forever. I feel like I’m doing something that’s good and I guess important. It’s important for me and my sense is that it’s important for a lot of black people in America and also a lot of white people who are interested in hearing and thinking and opening their minds to different things. So I guess the answer is that I feel comfortable with it.
MysteryNet: You’re opening up a whole view of a black community that largely has not been accessible in large measure before.
Mosley: My favorite novelists are Charles Dickens and Mark Twain and the reason is they are completely open to the reader and that’s really the thing I want to be. I’m not going to shirk from saying what I think my character is or what I think my character’s world is like, but I want to write fiction that’s really embracing, that will bring in people and people will want to read it. Like E. M. Forster said in his book, Aspects of the Novel, the main thing about a novel is the story and the story is what happens next. I want my readers to say, “Oh, wow, and then what?” and I want them to turn the page because that’s what is most important about writing. It just so happens that because I’m writing about black characters and black people, the thing that I’m most interested in, that they’ll be wondering what happens next in these black lives, whether it’s a white reader or whether it’s the President, or some black person who really knows this life and is happy to read about it.
MysteryNet: So engaging your readers is very important to you.
Mosley: I met a guy in LA–I’ll never forget this–and he came to me and said, “I read your first book and I’m going to read the next, too, because I want to figure out why Easy’s such a jerk!” His personal thing about what Easy did with a woman was unacceptable to him. That’s real! Easy is a real character for this guy! It’s very funny, but I really like it that. My characters, I hope, are real enough for people to respond to. My dream is to write the series and have it treated as one of those series in crime fiction which mean something. I would love to do that.
Buy Walter Mosley Mystery Books at MysteryBookstore.com
Charles L.P. Silet teaches courses in film and contemporary literature at Iowa State University and writes extensively on the mystery field. He is currently working on a collection of his interviews with major contemporary writers