Off the Page: Walter Mosley

With Walter Mosley
Crime Novelist
Thursday, January 22, 2004; 1:00 PM

Since the character Easy Rawlins stepped jauntily out of the pages of Walter Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990, the writer has become one of the country's best known crime novelists. Mosley's books are chock full, and not just of dead bodies. He portrays an African American world that is complex and real, mixing in social commentary with entertainment.

This month, Mosley publishes The Man in My Basement, a literary novel that takes off from the mystery genre he usually uses. The review in The Washington Post's Book World this month called the book "a meditation of sorts on black and white, past and present, good and evil, crime and punishment, fathers and sons, men and women, friendship, ambition and shiftlessness."

Mosley was online Thursday, Jan. 22, at 1 p.m. ET to talk about his work.

A transcript follows.

Host Carole Burns is a fiction writer with short stories published or upcoming in Washingtonian Magazine and several literary journals. Twice a fellow at The MacDowell Colony, she's at work on a novel.

Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Carole Burns: Hello, and welcome to Off the Page! We are thrilled to have Walter Mosley as our guest today. And we'll get right to questions.


Alexandria, Va.: I was really impressed with the very different points of view you brought together in R.L's Dream (a terrific book); you really emphasized the inner lives of a number of people who had a wide variety of ages and experiences. Do you find it more challenging to "be" all of these people than when you are in the more familiar experience of telling your stories from Easy Rawlins's viewpoint?

Walter Mosley: R.L's Dream was a very difficult book to write, partially because of the different points of view. And because it was a book about an art form and it's always difficult to one art form to echo another.


Carole Burns: In your introduction to the 2003 Best American Short Stories, you compare novels to mountains and short stories to "far-flung islands" that are in fact just the tips of mountains. First, how lovely. Second, can you talk about that more? Do you think of this as you write?

Walter Mosley: The idea is that poetry and short stories are very crystalline. Each word, each idea, each movement is specific and unalterable. Whereas in novel writing, as E.M. Forster says, "it's 50,000 words more or less of spongy prose." And so when writing a short story, you have to know everything behind it--everytyhing that led up to there, everything about those characters. But you don't have the leisure to talk about it at length. You only see that very upper tip, as with an island compared to the mountain that lies underneath it.

To write a novel is more difficult than writing a short story, because of the length, but it's less difficult because of the leisure and the language.


Osaka, Japan:
Dear Mr. Mosley,
I had thought that The Best American Short Stories had been giving cold shoulder to Afro-American authors, so I'm surprised and glad at your editing its 2003 edition.
Do you enjoyed editing the book? What was different from your earlier experience of editing Black Genius?

Carole Burns: And to put you on the spot,
Do you think Best American -- and O'Henry and Pushcart, for that matter -- slight African American writers?

Walter Mosley: I don't know the answer to Carole's question. I know John Edgar Wideman edited Best American Short Stories at one point.

The difference with Black Genius was it was my idea from the start, and I got in touch with all the contributors, brought them to New York, had them give a talk at NYU, and submit that talk for publication in the book Black Genius. And so I was in control of the whole thing. When you edit Best American Short Stories, you have to sift through hundreds and hundreds of stories that have been published, written by writers who you don't necessarily know. So it's difficult in one way to compare writers who you're unfamiliar with to each other. So they were two very different processes.

And not only was there a difference in choosing me to be an editor because I'm black, but also because of my predilection for genre writing. I told them I wanted to see some genre fiction. I didn't go crazy doing that. But I definitely wanted to represent some writing outside the normal literary prejudice.


Washington, D.C.: The synopsis of your new book put "Invisible Man" immediately to my mind. Are there any allusions to it in the new book?

Walter Mosley: At one moment in the book, the hero, or anti-hero, I should say, Charles Blakey, said he realized that he is not invisible. That is the closest relation that the book bears to Invisible Man, but not a mistaken one.


Washington, D.C.: Edward Jones has noted that he did virtually no research for his recent novel, which I find amazing. My question is, do you "do research?" At what point does the research stop and the writing begins?

Walter Mosley: I was recently on a panel of advisors for new screenplay writers at the Sundance Institute in Utah. I was the only novelist among the group of ten writers. What astonished me was that the screenplay writers do a lot more research than most novelists I know, which is very interesting. Because in one aspect, screenplay writers have taken up the mantle of 19th and early 20th century writers. That is, to bring the foreign and technical world to the layman. Most current novels are about character and the psyche, and with those historical exceptions, require less specific research. The rule of thumb in writing fiction is while you're writing, if you come across some subject that you find yourself ignorant of, you better find out what that something is.

I think American film is to be precise--not necessarily Indian film, Chinese or Japanese. But an American audience demands a kind of precision out of our films.


Washington, D.C.: Man I've been aching for another Easy Rawlins film... Denzel or not. Can we expect another? It could be one great serial!

Walter Mosley: At the moment, I'm working on a Easy Rawlins television series for USA Television on cable. The pilot is written, and everybody seems to like it. That means there's one chance out of 12 that you'll see it next fall.

If someone wants to do a movie, that's great. I'd do a movie. But no one seems to be knocking down my door right now.


Carole Burns: Why do you suppose you choose the mystery genre to write in most often?

Walter Mosley: I'm not sure I write in it most often--I write in it half the time. The first book that got published was Devil in a Blue Dress. Probably I've written more books outside of mysteries than I have inside, but it is certainly the most of any one genre I have done.

The best thing politically I like about it, is that if you write a book about a Chicano farm worker in central California and his trials and tribulations, the only people who read it are people who are that or who are interested in that world. But if a person is murdered on that farm, and you have a Chicano detective coming into that world and describing that world in order to solve the crime, then you have a much broader audience willing to find out about that world because of the genre. It's one reason why I keep doing it.


Burke, Va.: "If someone wants to do a movie, that's great. I'd do a movie. But no one seems to be knocking down my door right now."

Wow. Considering all the crap that makes to the screen these days, this is one depressing statement. Good luck with the USA Series. I'll be looking for it.

Walter Mosley: Thanks a lot.


Washington, D.C.: Do you do any workshops anywhere? I'd love to shoot the breeze with you (and would pay handsomely for the opportunity!;)

Walter Mosley: I haven't done a workshop in a long time, and I have no plans to do one in the near future, so sorry.

One of the problems I have with teaching writing is it takes the same energy to teach as it does to write, and as I write every day, the notion of giving up time to teach is rarely attractive.


Washington, D.C.: One of the things I love about the Easy Rawlins novels is the elegant simplicity of the writing. Does writing a "literary novel" change your approach?

Walter Mosley: In one way, you could see a difference between genre fiction and "literary fiction." But really there's an umbrella called literary quality. Everything that falls beneath that umbrella is literary fiction. And those books that do not are not. But the books that fall under the umbrella of literary quality could be a "literary" book, or science fiction, or romance, or thriller. Because what defines literary quality is the quality of the writing, not the subject, not the genre, and not even the author.


Washington, DC: How did you come up with the character of Easy Rawlins? Did you grow up with him? Is he you?

Walter Mosley: I didn't grow up with Easy Rawlins, and I am certainly not Easy Rawlins. I once started a story from a first-person point of view, but I didn't know who the first person was. It started like this: "His name was Raymond, but we called him Mouse, because he was small and sharp-featured. We could have called him Rat, because he really wasn't very nice. But we liked him, and so the name Mouse stuck..." Later in the story, Mouse enters and seems my unknown first-person narrator, and says, "Hey, Easy, How you doin'?" That's where Easy Rawlins comes from.


Arlington, Va.: What authors do you like to read?

Walter Mosley: I like Marquez, certainly. So many of the authors I love are gone. Zola, or Langston Hughes, Chester Himes, so many of the hard-boiled writers, Dashiell Hammett, Caine. And then of course we come into the modern day, and you have people like Edna O'Brien, Toni Morrison, John Edgar Wideman. But I don't read books because of who wrote them. I begin reading and continue reading books because I enjoy the book itself. Many good authors have written many bad books. And many mediocre writers have at least one gem to their name.

You just pick up books and start reading them. See if you like them. If you don't like it, pick up another book.


Carole Burns: Walter has to take off a tiny bit early. Thanks so much for talking online today!

And thanks to our readers for their questions.

Remember, Michael Dirda's discussion starts in just a few minutes -- you can join Dirda on Books now.

And join us next week when we have Michael Cunningham, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for The Hours. Thursday, Jan. 29 is a books extravaganza online, with Off the Page with Cunningham at 2:15 and the Post's Book Club discussion on The Hours at 3. See you then!

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