By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo by Jeffrey Scales|
Walter Mosley’s prestigious crime fiction carries inside it a history of the emigration of L.A.’s black population from the Deep South, and the emergence of the black entrepreneurial class. His profound sense of neighborhoods, his rich characterizations and a complex street philosophy of social justice make his work seem only accidentally categorizable as “mystery writing.” He is, in fact, a cultural historian. Fearless Jones, his hardboiled noir published this summer, is also a socially conscious novel that chronicles used-bookstore owner Paris Minton’s struggle to survive in the whitewashed world of 1950s Los Angeles. Mosley himself travels easily between distinctly different genres: His first nonfiction book, Workin’ on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History, appeared last year; and one of his most interesting works, Blue Light, is science fiction — a genre Mosley now returns to with his new collection, Futureland: Nine Stories of an Imminent World, which is excerpted in this issue. On a recent visit to his hometown, Mosley spoke in depth about his characters, his craft and his life in and out of L.A.
L.A. WEEKLY: When you started out with Easy Rawlins and Mouse inDevil in a Blue Dress, were you aware of writing in a genre? Was that of importance to you?
WALTER MOSLEY:The first book I wrote was Gone Fishin’, which was Easy and Mouse before any kind of a genre thing, a living-in-the-Deep-South kind of coming-of-age book that no agents were interested in representing. That didn’t bother me too much, I knew most writers didn’t get their first book published, so I started writing a second book, and that was Easy and Mouse after the war, because I was following a line of that migration from the Deep South [to L.A.]. And I wasn’t absolutely sure it was going to be a crime novel until about halfway through it. That didn’t mean much to me, but it meant a lot to the publishers at that time — “Wow, this is interesting, a black detective.” As if that’s, you know, some great thing. [Laughs.] So I kinda got dragged into it, I got a two-book contract.
I was once talking to Toni Morrison about the quilt inBeloved, and how much stress she puts on the color scheme of that quilt. And I said to her, “When people say that this novel is about color, I always think it’s the quilt they’re talking about.” And she said, “It’s the quilt theyshould be talking about!” But you start off from the very beginning with titles that have colors —Devil in a Blue Dress, A Red Death, White Butterfly, Black Betty, A Little Yellow Dog. And in the first Socrates book,Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, you’re in a room where the linoleum was once maroon but has faded to gray, and the reader is in that room because that color is accurate.
I didn’t really mean to make colors in every novel, but I did in the first two and it became a thing, and I kept doing it. The only color that I keep returning to without question is blue, as far as titles are concerned, and I think that has to do with the blues and the history of the blues. But certainly I’m very interested in sensual perception, how that informs us. Smells, colors as you say, patterns that you see maybe in cigarette ashes on the floor, or in the sky or whatever. And I do that to do exactly what you said, to bring the reader into the place.
Some of those details seem to have interesting lives of their own within the novels. InFearless Jones, there’s a woman who smells like peaches. And it’s peach that informs the sex scene with her. But another woman gives him some peach brandy, and it’s almost as if this becomes the taste and color of safety and womanliness and sexuality. How conscious is stuff like that?
It’s only conscious after the fact. I sit down and write the whole book, and of course when you write a book the first time it’s really bad, it doesn’t work. Even if it sounds good, it doesn’t hold together. And so then you start rewriting, but when you’re writing it, it’s very much an unconscious activity. I mean, I sit down every morning, I just start writing, and ideas come out of me, I don’t even know I’m having them. And so you write the whole thing, and then you come back and you say, “Oh! There’s this floral scent, there’s this peach brandy,” and you start to realize that these are the sensual themes. There are also intellectual themes and aesthetic themes that you find later, but I go through the book at least 20, 30 times before it’s a finished novel.
FromAlways Outnumbered, Always Outgunned on, you show an interest in making characters who represent a different way of thinking about justice. Socrates, a convict, teaches his community about some of the things they need to know about what life does to a black man. Even more so with Fearless Jones. It seems like your characters learn their morality in jail.