Now, in my family, my mother’s side moved to Queens, and when we visited my father’s side, we were going back to Brooklyn. I remember very much as a kid driving from one part of New York to another. You grew up here, what was the geography of your families?
The Jewish side of my family lived in West L.A. and Santa Monica. They were working-class people, butchers and bakers and tailors, and they worked with their hands. My father’s family was mostly in Watts, and later in Compton and parts of Pasadena. Everybody in my father’s family worked with their hands, too, but they did it a little differently. My father actually built a house in the back yard, and did painting and mechanics. My uncle Chaim, who was a tailor, would show my father how he cut a suit. And my father would show Chaim how you’d level a floor. It was an interesting kind of interaction.
The funny thing, the interesting thing, is that all my Jewish relatives are from Eastern Europe, and they’re all tiny people. Five feet tall, 5-foot-1, so their houses are actually very small. [Laughs.] I felt a little cramped when I visited them, but I knew I could walk to the beach, which was something I loved. But when I got home, I loved home, my neighborhood. This is Los Angeles, so when you get to my neighborhood, it’s not just black people but a lot of Mexican-Americans living in the neighborhood, and not that far away the Japanese, who had been there for 100 years. The multicultural effect of Los Angeles, which I hope comes through in my books, is something I was very influenced by.
Even though you moved to New York some 20 years ago, for the most part you’ve continued to center your books in Los Angeles and California. Why?
The simple answer is that I come from here. And I know the streets and the smells, and the flora and the fauna, and, you know, I just love the desert. And Los Angeles is a desert — when you turn off the water, it turns back into a desert. Also, there’s that period of time. I’m trying to write about that migration from the Deep South, from Louisiana, etc., to Los Angeles, and what that meant, how that changed people. You read the old masters of the genre — Chandler and Hammett and Ross Macdonald, for instance — and they write about Los Angeles, but there are very few black people in [their] Los Angeles, and they’re really not all that well-understood. And by leaving out black people, you’re also leaving out Chicanos and Japanese and Chinese, and these are places that I think, “God, I want to write about them. They were there, they’re important.” And really, the way you understand and celebrate your history today is through literature. Even if that literature starts in a book and it becomes a movie, you don’t want to be completely left out. You don’t want to get to the place where you make a movie like Star Wars, and there are only white people and aliens in the future, you know?
Well, absolutely. InFearless Jones, you’re dealing with the beginnings of a black entrepreneur class in Los Angeles. Where was that class located, and to what extent had it left its community at that point?
The entrepreneurial class starts in the Deep South, of course. It starts in the completely segregated communities where white people didn’t go and black people didn’t leave. So in that neighborhood, any business is going to be owned by somebody black, if it’s a blacksmith, a milkman, anybody who is going to build a fence or build a house, any kind of work. An undertaker, it’s going to be done by black people. So those people leave the Deep South, because there’s not much money, racism, whatever. They come to California, and it’s not just starting over again, because there’s no history of segregation — black people will be somewhat segregated, but white people will go down there and have businesses. You have the classic women businesses, beauty shops and some kinds of restaurants, and you have bail bondsmen, etc. All that is happening, and people are trying to make it, they’re trying hard, and people are struggling . . . It’s the same thing in the Easy Rawlins novels, where Easy in the worst way wants to be a real estate mogul, and he can’t do it. But this young girl, Jewel, she’s only 20, √§ and she’s better at real estate than Easy. Because she doesn’t have that dead hand of history on her brain. She is who she is in this world today, and she’s going to move ahead, and because she doesn’t limit herself by her memories, she’s able to move far beyond Easy.
Many people would say that the dead hand of history is antiquated moralities that hold people in their place, and that the way to shake that hand is by violation, violence, transgression of various kinds.