California Book Club: Walter Mosley Transcript

Read a lightly-edited transcript of author Walter Mosley's conversation with California Book Club host John Freeman.

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David Ulin: Hello everybody, I am David Ulin. I'm the books' editor at Alta Journal. And I want to welcome you to the third meeting of the California Book Club. It's been a long year and a hard one, and I can't think of any better way to send it out than to sit and listen to a discussion of literature. Tonight's book is Walter Mosley's 1990 novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, which introduced the character of Easy Rawlins and in many ways changed the way mysteries and crime fiction were written in the United States. I want to open with a few sort of general notes. I want to tell you a little bit about Alta and the California Book Club. If you're not already familiar, Alta Journal is a quarterly journal published in San Francisco that focuses on the culture and life and arts of the west.

We also are publishing weekly online book reviews and author interviews, and we are sponsoring the California Book Club. California Book Club is an online club. We do a book a month, California books, both contemporary and going back. And as I said, this is our third. We will be continuing next year in January with three more books, I'll get to that in a moment. We're really committed to book coverage and literary coverage here at Alta as a significant factor in the way that we operate in the world. And we take it on faith that California is a center of literary production in the United States. I want to just first thank our partners. We are partnering with a number of bookstores and libraries, and cultural institutions, which include Book Passage, Books Inc., Book Souk, BookShop, DIESEL, A Bookstore, the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West, the Los Angeles Public Library, the San Francisco Public Library, Narrative Magazine, Vroman's Bookstore, and Zyzzyva.

We want to thank all our partners and hope that you will do business with them, subscribe to publications. They are all well worth your attention. And while I have your attention, I want to discuss briefly the bundle that you can get if you sign up for the California Book Club. You will get the three winter books, which are, Elaine Castillo's novel, America Is Not the Heart. That book club presentation will be January 21st. Paul Beatty's novel, The Sellout. That book club meeting will be on February 18th. And Nina Revoyr's novel, Southland, which we'll be discussing on March 18th. You will also receive one year of Alta and this awesome tote bag, nicely made. As a connoisseur of tote bags, I like a good, thick canvas tote bag with a lot of pockets, and this has that, for a total of $75. Makes a great gift. Makes a great gift for yourself, makes a great gift for others.

I'll be back at the end to sort of wrap things up. But for the moment, let me turn things over to John Freeman, who will be interviewing Walter Mosley. John, welcome, and welcome everyone.

John Freeman:
Thank you, David, very much. It's nice to be here. Very nice to be here at the end of the year with all 332 and counting of you who've come here tonight to listen to us talk to Walter Mosley, and a state lousy with crime writers from Cain, and Chandler, and Hammett, and Grafton. I think the name Mosley will stand out for a very long time even with this exciting new wave of Steph Char and Ivy Pochoda. Because with Walter Mosley in this book, Devil in a Blue Dress, as David mentioned, first published in 1990, his first novel, California crime writing began to sound a lot more like it felt like to live in California. The characters changed. The frame changed. This book begins with two black men in a bar and a white man comes in and interrupts them.

It's an exciting updating of the form. It's a beautiful novel. It's full of sound and excellent one-liners the way all good crime novels should be. Opens in 1948. Easy, Ezekiel Rawlins, born in Louisiana, sometime of Houston's Fifth Ward, but also Dallas, has come home from World War II where he fought with distinction and has just recently lost his job at a machine plant where he's making aircrafts. And he basically needs a job and he's offered one to look for a white woman who's gone missing. And thus, we began this extraordinary novel as it fans out across the city. And Walter shows us so much about Los Angeles in that time. Over the next 20, 30 years, Walter wrote another 12 to 14 books about Easy Rawlins. And if he had just done that, I think we would also be here because it's an extraordinary achievement, this series.

But there are two other series that Walter wrote. He's also the author of some pretty extraordinary science fiction, political essays, literary fiction. He's a first [inaudible 00:05:57] short story writer. He's been in Best American Short Stories. And there's a new collection out this year called Awkward Black Man. He is a brave and daring writer of what he calls sexistential models, which is another way of saying erotica. He's written plays, he's written books about how to write. He's a great mentor to writers. And this year he's been honored by two lifetime achievement awards, one from the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and another one just recently from the National Book Foundation.

We could be here all night talking about what he's done already, but we're going to talk about this book. So please join me in welcoming with a big hands up or just woo-woo from wherever you are, Walter Mosley. It's such a pleasure to have you Walter.

Walter Mosley:
Hello. Hey. Thank you. Thank you very much. It's great doing it and being here in this California twilight. I'm very happy. I'm very happy. Thank you.

John Freeman:
That's a very yellow shirt. I'm-

Walter Mosley:
Is it too yellow?

John Freeman:
No, it's great. It actually matches the painting behind you. I want to jump right in with just a big question I've always had for you, which is, this book came out in 1990, you were 38, I think you maybe were working in IT. When you started, did you think, I know I'm going to write a crime series? You've written so many different types of novels, why did you start with this series, and how did it come to you?

Walter Mosley:
It's really interesting. I was writing and I really wanted to be a novelist. It started off when I was 34. I started writing and I'm thinking, I want to be a novelist. I want to do something meaningful to me. And I had read when I was, I think in my, 18, 19, 20, a whole bunch of the Rougon Macquart series of Emile Zola. And I thought, well, I'm going to be writing a series of books about the different aspects of black life on the West Coast. America's a big country, I won't take the whole place, but just the West Coast and talk about that life. And the first book I wrote was called Gone Fishin', which is Easy and Mouse going out to the swamps and doing all the stuff and nobody wanted to publish it.

Everybody said, "Hey, you're a really good writer, but this is not a saleable book. It's not a commercial book." Which they meant at that time was something that the people who were in charge of publishing believed 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? And that was okay. You don't necessarily get your first book published. So I went to the next book. And I started writing about Easy and Mouse again, that was kind of country, this was going to be in Los Angeles. So that was the difference for me. About halfway through the book, I realized, well, this is a mystery. That's what this book is. And so it was and that sold very easily because it seemed to be a great novelty that there was a black detective, which of course, it was not a novelty, but I entered into the world.

And so I entered into the world writing these books, which commercially they were wrong, but politically, it's really interesting to get people who... How do you write a book that's not about your readers but still get your readers to want to read it? And that is, well, write a mystery. Write a mystery about anything. And the readers will come because they like mysteries. And so the fact that it was in black Los Angeles, the fact that it was a black detective, it was like, okay, great. Let's see what that's like. And so I kept on doing that, but of course, my interest in literature was larger than that as you were saying. And so I write a mystery and then I write something else. I write a mystery and then I write something else.

John Freeman:
One of the things I've always loved about these books is you have those kinds of one-liners that you always get and a really good hardboiled type novel. A man once told me that you step out of your door in the morning and you are already in trouble. The only question is, are you on top of it or not? Something like that. So these all harken back to me to some of the masters of the form. And did you find when you were discovering your writing that these types of lines were already coming out or did you think, okay, this is a mystery. What are some of the notes I got to hit?

Walter Mosley:
Well, that's a really hard question to answer. And it seems like one kind of question, but I'm thinking, well, it's something else. Writing for me, the words, the language, the sentences, the phrases, the metaphors, all of that has to be interesting. It has to be something that excites you. Because you learn how to read when you're a kid, right? And the kid is reading and go, "Oh my God, look..." The way you're saying things, the way you're [inaudible 00:11:29], you may need to know that, but you're really being kind of buoyed up and then just washed away by the language. It's just, it's cool. And my interest in language has always been poetry, I guess. It's a thing that I didn't even know that in the beginning.

And so the answer to your question is no, I wasn't trying to follow the convention. The basic conventions of any genre need to be followed. Like in a mystery, well, there's a crime committed and there's somebody who's investigating the crime. Toward the end, we have to figure out who committed the crime. They may not pay for it. They may already be dead. This might mean that they've won the battle, whatever it is, like that woman in Sherlock Holmes. But you need to know toward the end what happened. It's a question of knowledge, it's a question of awareness. And that awareness is about you. And that awareness is about your world. I learned that along the way to finishing Devil in a Blue Dress. But the way people use language and how they sound, that's something very different. And it's more about characters than it is about genre.

John Freeman:
Right. Easy's got two voices. It's the one he speaks to us, and then he's got that voice in his head. And I wonder if you could talk to me a little bit about that voice, because that voice is something he relies on. But it doesn't come until midway through the novel when you realize that he's got this other voice that tells him things, that helps him stay safe really.

Walter Mosley:
Yeah. Again, a very difficult moment. I think that that Easy's voice has changed over the years. But for me, that wasn't an aspect of black consciousness that we're so isolated, we're so alone in this genre, which is among other things, existential. We need help. And sometimes that help is not, it's 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 not necessarily going to survive, but it's a survival mode. More than a technique, it's a survival mode freeze when he gets to that place that's so hard, which most people in their lives never get to. He needs something else to help him through. And that's where I came up with this voice.

And of course, when I say I came up with it, it's not like I figured that out. It's just that voice started talking to Easy and I had to deal with it as a writer.

John Freeman:
So why did you set this in 1940s to 1960 Los Angeles? You have a vast and kind of tentacular intellect. You could have gone to any part of the city's past, but why those two decades?

Walter Mosley:
1945, let's say, '39 to '45, World War II was a moment of great transformation for black people in America. A whole lot of black men went to war, some black women, but mostly black men went to war in Europe, in Asia and learned something about themselves in relationship to the world that was mostly kept a secret from you in America, in the theater houses, in the libraries, in the court systems, at work, you couldn't get anywhere. One of the guys who synthesized the birth control pill went to Harvard. I forgot his name, but he went to Harvard in the mid '30s. But Harvard told him, "Well, you can go to school here as a chemist, but you will never, you will never get a PhD from Harvard."

He went to Vienna. Now, Vienna, Vienna is like the center of racism at that time. But they said, "Oh, you're really smart. Why did you get a PhD here?" This was a world where after the World War II was over, people from Mississippi and the Central South moved to Chicago and thereabout, Detroit from the East, they moved up to New York. And from the West, Texas and Louisiana, they moved up to California, Southern California. People moved to other places, but that was it. That was an extraordinary migration. If you want respect, if you want freedom, and most importantly, if you want a job, you had to leave the old South. And people who, they'd already been to war. So packing up in Dallas and moving to the East Bay was not much of a problem. And millions of people did, and that was the beginning of a change. And so I was writing about that change.

John Freeman:
Your father was a veteran. Did he talk about going to war? Did you have family members or people that lived around you growing up that talked about it?

Walter Mosley:
He did. Almost every black male in my father's family and extended family had been to war, almost all of them. One of the stories that my father used to tell is that he lived in Fifth Ward, Houston, Texas. He would tell me, he said, "Well, on Friday night, the police would leave Fifth Ward. And on Sunday morning, they come back in to count the bodies because nobody was safe there. I don't know how many crazy people could live in Fifth Ward. My father left Fifth Ward with about 100 guys, went to war, about 90 of those guys made it back. Very few of them died in combat. And almost everybody he was friendly with in Fifth Ward before he left, they were dead. So there were stories, but the stories weren't exactly like your regular Irish family, or any so-called white family, you went to war and it was a terrible thing. It was really awful, and dah, dah, dah.

My father, there was a lot of good to it for him. His life increased. His sense of self-respect increased. His safety level increased by being in World War II.

John Freeman:
It's interesting in the novel, Easy's experience in war makes it harder for him to go back to working in this plant, this factory where he's working on airplanes and to take some of the abuse that he's expected to take. You have this quote, "A job in a factory is an awful lot like working on a plantation in the South, the bosses all see the workers like their children and everyone knows how lazy children are." And one of the reasons he loses his job is he says, "Look, I've been to war. I can stand on my own two feet. Just show me some respect." And that's not an option. And I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how Easy's experience in war affects him as a character and as a detective too.

Walter Mosley:
Well, I think my character, Easy, was a little unusual in most black men and women's experience in World War II. Easy fought in big battles. He fought in really big battles and he had learned as he says in the beginning of Devil in a Blue Dress, "I had killed enough white men to realize that they were just as afraid to die as I was." He had, in a very violent and almost negative sense, learned what equality meant. And he put his life on the line. He killed people, which is the second worst event to just dying itself in war if you're a sensitive person. He had killed people in this war, and now you're going to come back after spilling blood, after losing his innocence in a way, and you're going to have some potbelly dude come up to him and say, "Well, let me explain to you what's what," when he already knows what's what.

Because I know it and I went out there and I put my life on the line for this. And now you're going to tell me that I have to say, "Yes boss," of course you're right even though I know you are a fool. And he couldn't, he couldn't do that. And many of his friends couldn't. And that's a very modern take because there are a lot of people who, they just did their job. They went to work every day, but Easy, Mouse, Jackson Blue, a lot of these characters said, "Look, it's my way or nothing." I'd rather fail doing it myself than succeed bowing and scraping to you.

John Freeman:
The man I described earlier, if you haven't read the book yet, who comes into the bar, Joppy's bar where they're hanging out in the first scene and they do throughout the book is named Albright and he's a kind of fixer who comes to find this woman, Daphne Monet has gone missing, and she's the mistress of a wealthy white woman named Carter. And do you think that Albright knows that, what you just described, and Easy is one of his strengths and his fearlessness comes from an experience that's not containable and also, it comes from war.

Walter Mosley:
I think DeWitt Albright understands Easy, but the problem for anybody when they've perverted their own concept of history, which America has so completely with native Americans, Asians, blacks, Hispanics, women, it's just that there's so many ways that American history has left out the pillars of American history. DeWitt Albright understands Easy, he just doesn't understand himself in relation to Easy. And because he doesn't do that, he's bound to fail. But it's hard to tell that, but the idea is that this white man understands Easy pretty well, but he doesn't understand himself in relation to Easy.

John Freeman:
That seems to be a thing that recurs throughout the book when he sits down with Carter. Easy reflects, he says, "Look at us, we're two men talking and Carter's revealing emotional attachments to this woman, Daphne Monet. And the reason he can do that is not because we are the same, it's because he doesn't acknowledge me as of equal percentage. And I wonder if you can talk about that complexity of interaction. It unfolds even further when Easy has a kind of erotic relationship with Daphne Monet who reads us white first. And he asked a question whether his attraction to her is based on her whiteness. But can you talk about these complexities in the novel and what that did maybe for the challenges of making it into a film?

Walter Mosley:
One of the things that I really wanted to talk about was the complexities of black life. And even as short as the 30 years ago when I started, a lot of that had not reached the surface of consciousness in America period. Certainly not in our library, certainly not in our schools, certainly not in our enjoyments, our novels, our movies, but it's so complex. Black people always say, well, white people understand themselves pretty well, but they don't know it as well as we do because their lines aren't on the line in order to understand that. My life is on the line, I understand that white man over there, I got to understand him. I have to know what he's doing, what he's thinking, what she's doing, what she's thinking.

And even in myself, even the complex identity of Daphne Monet is so much more complex than most people who just wake up in the morning and they are themselves. But it's life. And a lot of it is like, when I got the medal for the National Book Award just a few weeks ago, it wasn't a simple thing like I'm going to get up there and say, "Well, I'd like to thank my mother and my father, and my dog who was always with me. I want to thank me or my children or whatever." The fact is I was the first black man ever to get this award. And there're some people, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, Ralph Ellison, Iceberg Slim, by the by, meet me writing the first black detective is silly. And I have to know all of that and also bring all of that into the discussion in order to allow most people who have no knowledge of this to say, "Oh, right. This is a momentous occasion. Not necessarily for him, but for people."

And I like having those kinds of conversations, most black people like having those kind of conversations because they're important for us to understand our survival. I hope I answered your question with that, I think I did.

John Freeman:
Yeah, you absolutely did. I'm sort of trying to move us towards thinking a little bit about the movie briefly because we have as a guest, someone who, and a very much long ago, previous life worked on the set of the film. And just to set us up here, I wonder if you can talk about the challenges of representation and fiction and what that means, and the challenges of representation in a film, because... I wonder, I guess if you could assess if that's possible in 1992, or whenever the film came out, how the films were doing versus novels in terms of catching up with how life was actually lived.

Walter Mosley:
So are we talking more about... we're talking about film now, right?

John Freeman:
Yes.

Walter Mosley:
A little bit. The other night I re-watched what I think was a great American film, Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, right? Was it late '60, '68, '69? Something like that. Melvin Van Peebles made this extraordinary film and I watched it the other night and was like, I watched it for the first time ever. Because as long as you were looking at it, like let's say you're looking at it and saying, "Well, this is a race film. It's a film about these black people, these criminal, crazy, oversexed, whatever black people." And it's not, it's a surrealist film. Melvin, who made his first movie learned how to make film in France, was making a film that was telling a truth and then laying upon that another truth and another and another. So you could do it.

You can make a film that's going to be absolutely who you are, what you are, where you are. And magically, most people around you won't see it because they've been trained not to think of you in any complex aesthetic or psychological way. And it's just, and I was really, I learned something about myself because we're all victims of racism in America and we're all racist in America. And so we have to... I'm looking at that and said, "Wow, I watched the song before and I loved it, but I was blind. I didn't see what the song was." And there are great thinkers who, if you just sit down and say what you see, say what you experienced, say in this situation what somebody else would experience. If you just do that, you're going to catch that human's life, because that's what it is. It's about human lives.

John Freeman:
Well, I'm going to bring on our guest at this point who we know now as the author of more than, almost two dozen books for adults and children, for Breath, Eyes, Memory, her debut novel, which was an Oprah selection choice to Crick crack, her first collection of stories, which were finalists for the National Book Award, to many, many books for children. The Dew Breaker, which won the National Book Critics Circle, as well as her most recent book, Everything Inside, a collection of stories which won the Story Prize. She's also won a MacArthur genius grant. But back in 1992, '91, she was recently just out of Bard College. And so one of her jobs was to work on the set of Devil in a Blue Dress. Please join me in welcoming Edwidge Danticat.

Edwidge Danticat:
Hello.

John Freeman:
Edwidge.

Edwidge Danticat:
Hi. Hi everybody. Hi Walter. Hi John. Well, I don't want to-

Walter Mosley:
Hi Edwidge.

Edwidge Danticat:
Actually, this is a kind of full circle moment in the sense that when Walter received his medal, I got the honor of presenting it to him virtually as we're doing now, but actually I met Walter through a film and Easy Rawlins through film. I was working for Jonathan Demme and they had optioned Devil in a Blue Dress for the great wonderful director called Franklin. And so I read the book working in the office. And there's so much power to it, the one-liners you mentioned, but in a way that it's like it's such an extraordinary coming of age story that then we get to live with Walter and with Easy Rawlins over the decades from Devil in a Blue Dress to Little Scarlet. And we watched Easy and Mouse and everybody grow and go through their trouble. In that width, it was a genre breaking book.

And then Walter went back with Gone Fishin'. And I think in the way that Walter's project with Easy and a lot of his other books, but particularly with Easy, it's similar to August Wilson's project, I think with Fences in that which rival through this more great African-American experience with African American males in his case through this experience. I don't want to overstate my work on the set. I worked in the office and I actually worked when... I met Walter when he came to the office when they were talking about the book. And I got to go on set with one of the producers, Diana Choi, for a couple of days, and they were shooting in the hills of Los Angeles and it was just stunning.

And I think this film, and I think Walter, you might've been hinting at that maybe not many people saw it, but it's a very, it's a wonderful film. It's literary in the way that the book is as well. It's just a scrumptious film. But I wanted to ask you Walter to transition us back to... I remember when people would ask Walter about his, like what does he think about the films have done to his book? He's like, "My book is still right there on the shelf." So I've always kind of borrowed this idea that the film doesn't change the book, but I think this film is certainly a wonderful compliment, supplement to the book. I was always curious, I don't think I've ever asked you about your use of colors in these books. How did that come about and how did you make that decision?

Walter Mosley:
Well, I think there's a couple of things, a couple of answers to those questions. Number one, I love film. I'm out in LA now working on television and more kind of streaming kind of things. And it's lots of fun, but I've never felt, and so far, I don't think it has been, film has been on the whole as deep as literature, that when you read a book that is yours, in a way you create that book because you're using a language to transform into a three-dimensional world and also a world of consciousness that's your business. But as far as the colors are concerned, I wrote Devil in a Blue Dress, in a lot of ways, the novel was informed by popular music in jazz. Its sensibilities, not anything else. Just the sensibilities. And so I just kind of like mutated a song and created the title, Devil in a Blue Dress.

And then I wrote the next book and I was thinking, well, that's interesting, I'm I'm talking about communism a little bit, and I'm going to call this book Red Death, and it's also thinking about another genre and Edgar Allan Poe, the first real detective writer had a book, Masque of the Red Death, use that. And so then it came around to the third book and I was thinking about the title and my editor said to me, "Walter, what's the color?" And I didn't actually think about colors. I hadn't thought about them. And then I said, "Well, what do you mean, [Gerria 00:35:44]?" And he goes, "Well, there's a color, you got blue and red, what's the next color?" And I went, "Oh, okay." And I've just been writing colors for titles ever since.

John Freeman:
Walter, I'm going to come back in here on the back of Edwidge's question. One of the big debuts of that film was Don Cheadle was Mouse, literally stole the film in many ways. And I'm wondering if you could talk to us, one of the questions from the audience is about Mouse. Some people, women find him sexy. Others think he's just playing evil. What did you have in mind for him as a character?

Walter Mosley:
By the time I got to that third book, or maybe the fourth, Black Betty, I understood that I was writing about black male heroes. And there's all kinds of black male heroes. It's not just the heroes that the society is going to take. It's like Robin Hood, in his day was not a hero. Can you guys still hear me?

John Freeman:
Yeah.

Walter Mosley:
I'm blank on my screen, but it doesn't really matter. If you can hear me, that's great. I had... My God, I got lost in there. But Mouse is... The way I explain Mouse and the way I think of Mouse is that Easy is the hero of these novels, because it's from his point of view. But Mouse is the hero of Easy's world because he is the person who's brave enough to stand up for himself no matter what.

John Freeman:
Someone says, "Everyone knows a Mouse in the hood, the one who's fearless."

Walter Mosley:
When you say fearless, are you talking about my character, Fearless, or something else?

John Freeman:
No. No. It said, "Everyone knows a Mouse in the hood, someone who is fearless."

Walter Mosley:
Yeah. Everybody knows him and everybody's afraid of him. But they're more excited that he exists than that they're afraid.

John Freeman:
One of the things I love about Easy is just, you write into his vulnerabilities in very subtle ways. And so there are moments when he is getting together with Daphne, for example, she's speaking adjectivally about things that she would like him to do, and he's a bit overwhelmed. And he feels like she's taken on a masculine role in their lovemaking. And you're constantly looking at how Easy feels vis-a-vis his gender and his masculinity in ways that it's not just... There's a question that came from the audience about this before the event saying that this is not just unusual in crime writing. This is just unusual in writing in general that Easy reflects on his blackness and those moments and his damage. And normally this writer, the person who asked the question says, "You have to go to the treatises of Coates, Baldwin, and Wilkerson for that kind of analysis. Why did you decide that that sort of belonged in the story, that kind of self-reflection?

Walter Mosley:
If you're in charge, if you're the boss, if you're the cop, you're the person with the gun, you're the person with the courts, you're the person with the gang, either legal or illegal, then the way that you begin to think about things is you're just going to come in and be the hero. You're going to make this happen. Nobody's going to stand up to you. Nobody can stand up to you. But if you come from any of the so-called minorities in America, then you know that your vulnerability is in his pocket, that you have to understand where you're weak in order to make it through the finish line. You have to understand what it's like to have somebody on your side, [inaudible 00:40:23] for instance. You have to be able to sidestep the brunt of the arrogant force that runs your world and keeps you out of running your world.

It's obvious that Easy is vulnerable, and that's... it's not a common trait. It's one of the many, a common trait. But he uses that for success because you have to use everything that comprises you for success.

John Freeman:
There's a question from Ron Blake. In TV, generally the protagonist is given depth. In the series, you were able to give depth to Easy, Mouse, and even the bar owner, Joppy was the bar owner's name. You could see many layers of them, all of them in one book, one goddamn good book. He says... And I wonder, the genre writing is, I think broadly often uses broad characterizations. And it doesn't feel like in your, in this series especially, but in your books in general that you ever do that very much. It seems like everyone gets a kind of moment for complexity. And I wonder if that's the kind of hippocratic Mosley oath or is that... What is that decision?

Walter Mosley:
I like character development. I think that it's a big part of all of the theater arts from novels to movies to radio plays. You have to have character development. And the old detective existentialist novels, the great ones by The Maltese Falcon, The High Window, Ross McDonald's wonderful works take up a classic existentialist hero who has no money, no house, no car, no print, no parents, no children and allows that person to make decisions. Like Marisol in the The Stranger, [inaudible 00:43:03] character. And in a way, that makes it easy. If I have no connection in the world, then I can do what I want. If the police say, "I'm going to throw you in prison for 12 years," you'll go to prison because you stand up for what you believe.

Now, if you have a child at home, you can't do that. If you have a friend that you love that needs you, you can't do that. If you have a dog that needs to be fed that night and walked, you can't do that. And it makes being an existentialist hero infinitely more complex and I think interesting. So to put a regular guy in a detective's shoes, which I'm sure most real detectives are, you've taken a step forward in the genre. And this isn't saying nothing bad about the early guys, because they were great. But I think that the genre, if it's going to survive has to become more complex with the intellectual appreciation of self and culture.

John Freeman:
There's a comment I'd like to go back to because one of the questions had to do with writing Easy's sort of network of family, which is what one of the commenter's really loved about these books is that you sort of slowly get braided into Easy's extended family network. And I wonder though if you can talk a little bit about Easy's erotic relationships. There's at least two in this book, they're beautifully described, but they're quite, let's just say the women are in charge of both mostly. He kind of walks away thinking what just happened and you've gone on to write two other books of erotica, at least that I know of. Maybe you're writing under a third name, that would not surprise me. And if I'm correct, both of those are from a woman's perspective.

Walter Mosley:
Well, one is.

John Freeman:
One is, John Woman is. Right?

Walter Mosley:
Yeah. Well, no, John Woman is not really erotic. He's kind of a sociopath and talks about this sociopathy. But Debbie doesn't do it anymore. It's certainly from a woman's point of view and Killing Johnny Fry is from the guy's point of view. But I think in many ways, he's very vulnerable. Aristotle starts it off by saying, "In order to have theater that works, you need the dialect, you need both sides playing." And it's not so much that the women are in charge. It's just that they're part of the dialogue, which means there has to be an ebb and flow for the male character. And this is the only thing kind of in any way original in male heterosexual erotica that the guy in Killing Johnny Fry was actually looking for meaning in his life and dealing with really powerful characters. They gave him sex of course, but they also gave him meaning.

And I think that if you're not learning, if you're not getting from here to there in any book, then you're not taking advantage of everything that you could. I have a new Easy Rawlins novel coming out in February, Blood Growth. And Blood Growth is when he realizes that it's not just a black and white world, it is a black and white world, but it's all these other things. And he has an identity with veterans, with anybody who's ever experienced war that they have things in common that they don't have in common with other people. And that's, it's like being black. It's like being a man, being a woman, being a Serb, whatever you are, what does that put you in common with other people? And it was really fun to discover how Easy is working with this young white guy and his problems because they're both veterans and they were both whopped upside the head by war.

John Freeman:
Yeah. At one point he drinks a fifth of vodka with some grapefruit soda and walks out the door like he hasn't missed a step. And rereading it this time through, I thought, wow, Easy is putting away a lot of liquor. And it made me wonder if you thought of him from the beginning. I know some of that's the convention of the genre, but if you thought of him from the beginning as a little bit traumatized by war.

Walter Mosley:
No, he's definitely traumatized, but he's also traumatized by being black. And then he's also traumatized by being black in war. And there's a lot of trauma in the lives of black folk that has to be responded to daily. Easy thinks that he got his detective training when he was just nine, 10, 11 years old in Texas. He said, because he would never go in a door that he didn't come to and study before for a little while before passing through, because you have to be ready for anything on the other side. Most people, they're not feeling like that. They say, "Well, I will walk in the door and everything will be fine." I'm a good person. The world's a good world. I'm protected.

And now of course, slowly, we're realizing in America that we're not that. Slowly, I think even today in the politics of America, we realize that we are being limited by the forces that be. My friend, Katrina vanden Heuvel at The Nation always tells me I shouldn't say the next thing is, but I go, "Yeah, we're limited by the machinations of capitalism." Used to be black people had our nose right up against that wall, but now everybody in America does. One day very soon, everybody's going to realize that they're on the same side and they have to make decisions based on their own needs not the fallacious needs of a world that says that they're middle-class when they're not.

John Freeman:
There's so much in this book about work. But I'm going to go back to something that you were just saying about Easy, because there's a question from one of the listeners about Easy and his relationship with the LAPD. He gets picked up once at least early on in this book. And he knows exactly what's going to happen with the interaction. And I wonder if you can talk about what he thinks of the police department, because he's also an unlicensed type of detective, at least at the beginning of this series.

Walter Mosley:
Yeah. The police are not necessarily to a man evil, but they are and see themselves as Easy's enemy. And Easy understands that. In my new book, at one point, Easy says, "I have spent enough time being stopped, questioned, jailed, interrogated by police and other representatives of the greater culture that I can make me a 12 year old child filled with spite and bitterness." If you're in a car driving in West Los Angeles, a black man, there's black woman sitting next to you or vice versa, the police are going to stop you and they're going to assume you're doing something wrong. In their heart, you are doing something wrong just by being in this car, but also that makes you a criminal. Whatever you do, however you express yourself, wherever you go, if it's not right in front of your own house, you're going to be in trouble. And the police bring you that trouble. So anybody who every time you see them are bringing you trouble, that's your enemy.

John Freeman:
I want to bring Edwidge back in. Edwidge, you complimented Carl Franklin on his directing of this film. I wonder, this film came out right around the Los Angeles uprising around the Rodney King beating. I wonder if you could reset the context of what it meant to have this film coming out when it did and saying some of the things it did about being black in Los Angeles in the time.

Edwidge Danticat:
Well, I think in many ways that was in the minds of at least the production team where I was working is that in a way to have a kind of reclaiming of Los Angeles, right? The rooting that this character would represent. And the fact that it was certainly the lead within Dell Washington who helped a lot. And then Jennifer Fields, and the complexity, just as what you were saying about the complexities of black lives and the kind of it was set in the past, but it felt so present because you could go to... On the set, in certain settings, you didn't have to change much in terms of just the way that in the book that the palm trees are described, and you just pull down the street and you can imagine this time of just ordinary folks trying to have an ordinary life as what they were saying like these greater forces wouldn't allow them to.

But I think it was also important in all the discussions that I was privy to to make also a really beautiful film and then it's like a film to have a beautiful landscape in the way that you could see in the book in some of the descriptions. I think beauty was very important at this contrast with the beauty and ugliness, which personally made me curious. I think there's the Los Angeles setting and the book in the setting, which I think made people very eager. And I'd love to hear Walter talk about the prequel and the whole, we call it a prequel, but you said [inaudible 00:54:44] was the first book, Gone Fishin'. Because that book sort of set up this whole theme that's in the book of the great migration, of Easy sort of being part of the great migration.

So I'd love if there's time, Walter, I would love to hear you talk about the prequel and also your relationship with Paul Coates and how that played out through the publishing of that book, Gone Fishin'.

Walter Mosley:
Oh yeah. Well, Paul Coates, he's one of those great unknown heroes of America. I guess he's not unknown known because Ta-Nehisi Coates is his son, but he did so much work when he was in the Panthers, when he started publishing books, distributing books. He's a great man. And I talked about, I did Devil, and I think that devil really was a kind of the Mardi Gras of South Central L. A. back in the day where there's lots of good and lots of bad is going on, but at least you know you're alive. And then earlier I wrote Gone Fishin', which was not a detective, but much more a coming of age novel have to young 18, 19 year old black men in Southern Texas in the mythical town of [Pariah 00:56:12], Texas.

And I'd written that book and nobody wanted to publish that book as I said before, and then Devil in a Blue Dress, people were very excited and I'm writing these mysteries, but my publisher at the time, W. W. Norton, they were not interested in publishing Gone Fishin'. And they almost convinced me that it wasn't any good until I came to the person I was working with for things other than the mysteries, [Nicola Rashi 00:56:46] at Watkins/Loomis Agency. And I gave her the book and she said, "Well, this is a really good book, why don't we publish this book?" And I thought, well, that's great, but the publisher doesn't want to do it. And then again, another person enters my life. I go to a speech and it's Max Rodriguez. Max Rodriguez says, "Well, listen, you're black, if you're successful, [inaudible 00:57:12] a whole audience."

He goes, "You're black, if you're successful, you're doing well, every once in a while, give a book to a black publisher." And that will help you and your people, and also raise everybody up. And so I went to Paul Coates. I found out who he was, I didn't know him then. I went to him. I said, "Hey, listen, Paul, you want to publish this book?" And he said, "Great, let's do it." And we had this kind of wonderful experience of a book about, it's not city Easy, it's rural Easy. And it's not an Easy who has this kind of multilevel understanding of his life, but an Easy just a black man who believes, like my father believed, that man believed. My father told me, he said when he went to World War II, he had this belief. He said, "Well, this is a war between America and Germany."

And you'd say, well, yeah, it was, what are you saying about that? And he goes, "Well, I'm not an American, I'm just a Negro from Texas." And it wasn't until the Germans started shooting at him that he realized, oh God, they think I'm an American. This is that transition from Gone Fishin' to Devil in a Blue Dress, oh God, I'm an American. I got to do something. I can't hide in the corners. The ramifications of what these many crazy people are doing.

John Freeman:
We're getting towards the end of this hour, which is flying by. I would love to spend several hours with you. Walter is a great company and he will make you do many things. I once bought a TV with my girlfriend because I ran into Walter and he said, "You have to buy this particular TV." And that is just the beginning of things that Walter Mosley can make you do. But one thing that Walter really does make you do is write. He's written two books about writing, which are excellent. I highly recommend them as a writer and as a teacher of writing. And I guess, Walter, I want to ask you a question. If you could go back and give 38 year old Walter some advice about writing his first book, his first... what would it be? Particularly for writing your first mystery. Is there anything that you kind of learned on the job and doing it those first couple of books where you think, wow, I wish someone had just told me that straight out?

Walter Mosley:
Okay. I'm going to answer that question. I do want to say, thank you so much for doing this today, John. I really do appreciate it. It's really wonderful and I love the way you think. And yeah, I do. I don't know, I'm such a Californian that I approach things just as if everything is possible. It's possible. It's not like I think everything is possible. I just approach everything as if it was possible. And it's kind of like when somebody once said to Sugar Ray Robinson when he was old and broke is that, "I bet you wish you lived a different life now. I bet you wish everything was different." And Sugar Ray Robinson said, "Man, if I got to live my life over again, I would do everything exactly the way I did it." He said, "Because that was a great life."

And I kind of feel like that. If somebody was to ask me what they should do, what I think people should do about becoming a writer, I have opinions about that. But if 38 year old Walter Mosley was asking me, I would say, "Hey man, you seem to be doing all right. Just keep on doing that and it'd be good." Because I write every day. And that's like 86% of being a writer is writing every day and I do that. And so the other 14%, well, you can play that the way you want.

John Freeman:
One final question which people are dying to know, Walter, as you can tell from the books he's published and the range of books he's published is a restless intellect. He's also a restless creator. I once ran into you on the street and you had just gotten a Blackberry and you'd written a novel on your Blackberry.

Walter Mosley:
Yeah. That was Killing Johnny Fry. I was doing [crosstalk 01:02:16]-

John Freeman:
And then you said in that conversation, "But I've done this before. I wrote one on my palm pilot ages ago." And I thought, okay, pretty soon there's going to be the Walter Mosley iPad novel. But behind you, there's a lot of paintings. So everyone wants to know, are you going to be spending the next part of your life painting or have you already started or is that just a backdrop?

Walter Mosley:
Well, it is a backdrop because it's behind me, but I started drawing when I was 12. I'm not very good at it. I'm really not. But like for instance, I work on things. I have this. I'm doing this drawing right now, but I do drawings every day. And 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. And so drawing has always been a part of my life. It seems much more an internal part than the writing, which is very external, very much in the world, but I love all the forms of expression because that's how we deal with each other in the world with all of these things. Through music, through plastic art, through writing, through philosophy thinking. It's just a wonderful thing. I've drawn longer than I've done any other thing. And there's always been that kind of backdrop in my life.

John Freeman:
Well, I hope there's a curator watching because it looks actually pretty amazing. At this point, we're a little bit past time and I know some people might have to get on and make dinner, or drive home, or go walk a dog that's standing at the door, or take care of [crosstalk 01:04:20]-

So I'm going to sadly, not because it's him, but end this part of our conversation and bring David Ulin back to sort of walk us out the door. Walter, it was great to see you. Thank you so much for spending this time with us. Loved re-reading this book and so excited that there is a new one coming in '21. That's great news.

Walter Mosley:
Well, thank you, John. It really has been wonderful. It's great to do this.

David Ulin:
Thanks, John. And thank you, Walter. That was a phenomenal conversation. There's so much to digest and think about. So again, thank you very much to John and to Walter. I'd like to thank Edwidge Danticat for being here as well. The interview will be available at californiabookclub.com if you want to watch it again. I know I certainly will be. A couple of points before we break, next week... Well, next week there is no book. Next month's book is America Is Not the Heart by Elaine Castillo. That book club meeting will be on Thursday, January 21st at 5:00 PM. I'd like to remind you again about the bundle, $75 for the three winter books. Elaine Castillo's, America Is Not the Heart, Paul Beatty's, The Sellout, and Nina Revoyr's Southland, along with a year's subscription to Alta and the excellent tote bag.

And I want to ask you all to please stick around for a couple minutes to do a two minute survey that will pop up as soon as we end the event. And more than anything, I want to urge everybody to stay home, read books, stay safe, see you next year and have very happy holidays, happy new year. And thank you all for being here.•

Washington Square Press
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley
Washington Square Press Bookshop.org
$17.00
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