I want to do something meaningful to me,” Walter Mosley explained as he recounted the start of his writing career last night at the third gathering of Alta’s California Book Club. “I’m going to be writing a series of books about the different aspects of Black life on the West Coast,” the then-34-year-old Angeleno told himself. “America’s a big country. I don’t want to take the whole place but just the West Coast and talk about that life.”
Hosted by John Freeman, with writer Edwidge Danticat as a special guest, book club members came together last night via Zoom to discuss Mosley’s debut novel, Devil in a Blue Dress. While the book was an instant success, he had committed himself to writing four years earlier. However, a manuscript that later became Gone Fishin’, the sixth installment of the Easy Rawlins series, was rejected by every publisher Mosley approached: “Everybody said, ‘You’re a really good writer, but this is not a commercial book.’ ” Mosley interpreted the contradiction as “White people don’t read about Black people. Black women don’t like Black men. And Black men don’t read. So who’s going to read your book?”
It wasn’t until halfway through writing Devil in a Blue Dress that Mosley realized he was telling a mystery story. After the publication of that groundbreaking novel in 1990, things took off for Mosley and his Easy Rawlins character “because it seemed to be a great novelty that there was a Black detective, which, of course, it was not a novelty….Write a mystery about anything, and the readers will come.” The fact that it was Black Los Angeles didn’t matter, said Mosley.
Mosley’s love of the West Coast came through during Thursday’s event—perhaps aided by the sunny yellow shirt he had donned for the occasion. “I’m such a Californian that I approach things as if everything is possible. It’s not like I think everything is possible; I just approach everything as if it was possible,” he said.
In the 30 years since Easy Rawlins’s arrival, Mosley has published more than 50 titles. He has written something in every genre from science fiction to political essays, short story collections to mystery novels, and even so-called sexistential novels (otherwise known as erotica).
When asked what advice he would give his younger, aspiring-writer self, Mosley replied, “I would say, ‘Hey, man, you seem to be doing all right. Just keep on doing that, and it’ll be good.’”
The character Mouse, Easy’s unhinged and murderous friend, whom Mosley described as “the hero of Easy’s world, because he’s the person who’s brave enough to stand up for himself, no matter what,” was a fan favorite. Several members of the book club chimed in during the live event to praise him. “He’s the one friend you can call on in the worst situations. That’s real,” one member wrote in the interactive chat thread. Another kept it short and sweet: “Dig Mouse!”
Race was a central theme of the discussion, in which Mosley spent some time explaining one of the more intriguing facets of Easy’s character. “The voice” Easy hears that keeps him safe is, Mosley said, “an aspect of Black consciousness. That we’re so isolated…which is, among other things, so existential. We need help. And sometimes that help is not coming from any external source, and it’s an internal thing. It’s the way that we convince ourselves to keep on trying to survive…. It’s a survival mode for Easy.”
Mosley also described how he wrestled with the complexities of Black life in Los Angeles: “Black people always say, ‘White people understand themselves pretty well, but they don’t know [the intricacies of race] as well as we do because their lives aren’t on the line in order to understand ours.’ My life is on the line to understand that white man over there. I’ve got to understand him. I have to know what he’s doing, what he’s thinking, what she’s doing, what she’s thinking.”
Danticat, a prizewinning Haitian American writer, described working on the set of the film adaptation of Devil in a Blue Dress a few years after the infamous beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers. She described the movie as “a reclaiming of Los Angeles,” with the “re-rooting that this character [Easy] would represent” for Black Americans, and how important creating a beautiful landscape was for the film, in order to “contrast with the beauty and the ugliness.”
The evening ended with Mosley—not one to be confined to writing—reaching behind his desk to show the audience some of his artwork: “I’ve drawn my entire life since I was 12 years old. I love it. I’m still not very good at it, but I have developed a voice inside of it…. It seems much more of an internal part than the writing, which is very external, very much in the world.” He continued, “I love all the forms of expression because that’s how we deal with each other in the world.”