|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 in Devil 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 in Beloved, 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 they should 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. In Fearless 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.
From Always 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.
Well, the black man’s college is prison. It’s a sad fact in America, but it is true. So many young and not-so-young black men have to spend time in prison for a variety of reasons, not all of which I understand. Socrates is educating his community, but at the same time he’s educating himself. I call him Socrates for a good reason: He is in for the dialogue. There are a lot of things he doesn’t understand, and he wants to bring people together around these ideas. So he has a social conscience, but it’s a conscience around ideas, like a real philosopher. That was my intention, to create a black philosopher. To show how difficult it is to make decisions in everyday life in impoverished America. No one’s going to help you, because you don’t have any money, you don’t have any power, you don’t have any standing. And this is Socrates’ job. He says, “I want to find out what’s the right thing for us to do and live our lives.”
Older men have a wonderful voice in your books. How is it that your elders know what they know?
What I’m trying to talk about, and to give validity to, is the deep thinking inside the poor communities in America. People who have to figure out life, you know? They have to figure out what’s happened, what’s going to happen. How can we make it from this step to this step to this step? And of course, there’s so much youth culture in America, and there are so many movies and videos about it, and even a lot of novels about the problems of young people and how they figure out things. But there’s not that much difference between the young people and the old people; it’s just that the old people have a lot of experience and know what they’ve done, what they’ve gone through. I remember these [older] voices, these incredibly wonderful, powerful people who helped me to understand the life around me. And I know that these people have been kind of relegated to — well, you know, he’s a poor black man, he doesn’t really understand, he doesn’t this, he doesn’t that. Even Fanny in Fearless Jones, the older Jewish woman who takes in Fearless and Paris. A lot of people don’t seem to understand that an old white Jewish woman can have convictions, can have will, and can live by those convictions and will.
Who doesn’t understand that?
Some reviewers say, “An old white woman would never take in these two black people!” But if she came from poverty, from Europe, from ghettos and from being oppressed by being a different race, and these two men saved her husband’s life, what else could she do?
Now, Fanny is half of the couple, the Tannenbaums, who’ve come from Germany. And what informs at least Fanny’s willingness to deal is the fact that all of her possessions, everything, her memories, have been taken by the Nazis. It seems to me that all immigrant populations, as soon as they are taken from one place to another, the question of what a person’s right is to his own past becomes real. And so blacks and Jews becomes a subject in Fearless Jones. When I was growing up, people used to say you’re lucky to be Jewish and come from that tradition of books. I didn’t come from wealth, but I came from learning. In Fearless Jones, the first thing Paris wants to do with the little bit of money he has is open a used bookstore in Watts. So they are all people of the book in a sense.
Sure. My mother is Jewish, and there’s that notion about, well, that’s why you read books. And I try to explain: My father read all the time, and whenever we’d have a problem, my father would say, “Well, let’s go look that up and see what we can find.” Of course, that’s why I read. I mean, I read partially because of my mother, but you know, really, I was a young man, a boy, so I was looking at my father to know what I should be in the world, and that was his reading. Now, somebody would probably be right [to say] that you have a stronger and older tradition of education in the Jewish community, you’ve got 3,000 years of that. But to say that it absolutely doesn’t exist in the black community is kind of crazy.
I didn’t know your mother was Jewish. What was it like for you to be growing up with those two cultures?
For me it didn’t feel like two cultures. It was my mother and my father, and it was kind of a wonderful thing, because I had two families that reflected each other almost perfectly. They both came from poor communities, they all had an oral tradition, so you’d get around on Friday or Saturday nights and tell what it was like. And you’re telling terrible stories about terrible things happening to people, but you’re laughing. It was very funny — “Oh, and ä then he got away, they were shooting at him, and he only lost a toe!” That kind of thing. So it was kind of wonderful.
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. In Fearless 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, ä 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.
Sometimes, I suppose, violence is a necessary tool in order to effect change in your culture. And when it’s necessary, it’s necessary. When you have to fight, you fight, and that’s just true. Certainly in the books I write, my characters sometimes have to fight and sometimes have to stand up for themselves. Everybody has to learn this in their lives. But when I look at America today — no matter how much I may be writing in the ’50s or the ’30s or the ’40s or the ’60s, I’m always writing about contemporary America — we have power in ourselves to effect change, without resorting to violence.
The problem, of course, is that we’ve been fooled and befuddled by a popular culture that’s backed up by big business, and somehow we’ve gotten to think that the notion of money and capitalism is synonymous with democracy, when really it has nothing to do with democracy. For us to get together, to make changes, for us to understand that poor whites in the rural South or North or Midwest have the same problems as blacks in the inner city, you can just look at it straightforward. And say, “Our problems are the same: We’re worried about our children, we’re worried about medical care, we’re worried about the government sticking its nose in our lives and making us miserable. So maybe we should vote on the issue. We don’t have to like each other, we don’t have to deal with each other, we can just vote on the issue, and maybe our lives will get better, and maybe we’d understand more and have more, and our children will have more.” I’m not looking today at violent revolutions being a kind of an answer to problems. I think the most violent thing we can go through is a deep understanding of ourselves in this world.
In Workin’ on the Chain Gang, you say that a writer is good at utopian thought because fiction writers in particular take ideas to their maximum. By the end of the book, you’re giving a presidential platform. It’s kind of ironic and funny, but at the same time it’s taking a utopian ideal to the limit. How does that shape your consciousness?
When I give my platform for the presidency, it’s a little tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time I think that everybody should be able to think, “Well, what would you do if you were the president, or a senator, or in the House of Representatives?” If you’re in a democracy, you don’t only vote but you have to be willing to serve. And it’s not just serve to go to the Army and fight and kill, but, you know, to serve to make your country do better, to make your lives better. I’m an American citizen, you see, and what I owe things to is the people, my fellow citizens, and I have to be able to work with them and for them.
Same thing we were talking about earlier with being a writer — when I write a book, I try my best to bring up dialogues. I’m not trying to tell you how to live your life, I’m not trying to say what’s right or wrong, I’m trying to say, “This is life. How do you perceive it, what do you think about it?” And you take it, and you go somewhere with it, everybody who reads the book. So I don’t see any conflict between sitting in my house reading or writing a book, or going out and making a political claim. You can’t be an expert on everything, but you have to have an opinion. I mean, 10,000 people a day are dying of AIDS in Africa, let’s have an opinion on this, right? [People say,] “Well, you can’t talk about this, you’re not an expert.” So I couldn’t talk about the Holocaust in Germany? I’m not an expert, so I should let them kill 6 million people?
One of my favorite things in Workin’ is your suggestion that people make a list of things that they would like to see changed and carry it with them in their wallet. Now, for better or worse, a writer has to be an expert in all kinds of things that he doesn’t necessarily know. I once asked Elmore Leonard where he gets the language that he uses, and he said, “Well, I subscribe to Prison Corrections Weekly.”
That’s one place. [Laughs.] I kind of feel like my life is research, I really do. For me, and I think for many writers, we’re always watching, we’re always listening, we’re always wondering. I do a lot of watching of little children and how they react, because they’re so honest. Their reactions are still alive in adults, but they’re softened.
The other thing, of course, the reason I studied poetry for so long with Bill Matthews, is that the big thing about writing is what you add. Because if any event takes 10,000 different actions, 10,000 different things you describe in a room, what a person said, how they smelled, what they did, how they turned their eyes or their head or their hand, what they were wearing — you can choose out of these 10,000 things only 20, maybe 30, to describe the scene. So you have to be able to edit out all the things that are unnecessary and leave those things in that will allow the reader to re-form the scene. It’s like it’s completely dehydrated, really, and when the reader reads it, they’re pouring water on it and the whole scene re-occurs.
But you’re writing a book taking place in the ’50s. You have a certain kind of man, a certain kind of woman, a certain kind of convict, and all three of them are carrying guns. How do you find out what kinds of guns each of these people could afford, would buy, would carry, would use?
I was very young in the ’50s, but I knew who was around me and how they talked about the kinds of guns they had. Someone like Mouse is going to carry heavy caliber, because he’s going to carry a big gun, you know. A .45 is a man’s gun; a woman would carry a .25, a .38. A woman is not going to be carrying a machine gun, because they don’t really do that, you know? I might do some reading on it, I might go out and look at guns. I did the other day, I was looking at pistols in pawnshops. But the biggest thing a writer has to worry about is the truth of the character telling the story. How real do they seem? In a novel like Fearless Jones, where it’s a first-person narrative, everything he sees reflects his vision of the world. It’s not a true vision, but it’s his vision.
A certain kind of writer, in order to let you know that he knows the world, is going to go into places where a reader doesn’t like to go. Your books contain what I call forbidden details. In several of the books, characters take each other to the bathroom. They’re practically sniffing each other’s butts, and there’s this sense that the world becomes real because the reader has been able to violate a code of discretion.
I didn’t learn a lot about fiction writing from fiction writers. It’s the storytelling you learn on your own, really. But one thing I learned was in a class I was taking from Edna O’Brien, and Edna was talking about sex. I had written a wild sex scene in Gone Fishin’ that I had presented to her class, and some of the people in the class said, “I don’t know anybody who does this . . . I didn’t like it, this didn’t . . .” Edna said, “Listen, the only true sex scene in life is the sex scene between two individuals. No one wants to be involved in somebody else’s sex scene. Whatever they’re doing that sounds exciting to them, to you some of it’s going to have to sound bad, unless you’re just creating some kind of Playboy thing, just titillation. You know, the way they smell each other or kiss each other or lick each other, or what they find exciting.” I took that, and I said, well, that’s true about everything. When you really get into people’s lives, the things they do and they feel that are real, that really define them in the world, you say, “Oh, god, what’s that?” But of course that’s what a novel’s about, a novel is supposed to take you not into a real life, but into a kind of a cartoon life, an ideal life.
Writing does allow for a lot of wish fulfillment, role creation, model making. Which of your characters are most expressive of aspects of yourself, and in what ways?
The character that has probably been the most expressive of me is Rufus Coombs, who was in a short story that I wrote for The New Yorker called “Pet Fly.” I had gotten tired of all these people writing stories about Wall Street — everybody snorting cocaine and making hundreds of thousands of dollars and having sex in their offices on these gigantic desks. I worked on Wall Street for a while, and my life was never like that, and I didn’t know anybody whose life was like that, and I didn’t know anybody who knew anybody whose life was like that. And so I decided to write about this biracial kid who is kind of isolated, living in Spanish Harlem, working this job, who falls in love with somebody, who doesn’t really know if he’s being held back, held down because of his race, or if that’s all just a fallacy. And he’s just not capable of doing things. It’s kind of a complex notion of experiences that I’ve had and feelings that I’ve had, although the character isn’t exactly me.
Many of the other characters are, for me, a celebration. I’m celebrating the language that I’ve learned, the language of my people, lives that have been relegated to some kind of unimportant file in people’s minds. Both of those I feel very strongly and am committed to, and it doesn’t really matter to me if I’m writing about me or I’m writing about you — I wouldn’t think that the character that reflected me was more important than the character that reflected you. All the characters have to have the same amount of importance in this piece of fiction. Otherwise, the fiction doesn’t hold up.
Michael Silverblatt is the host of KCRW’s Bookworm, heard Thursdays at 2:30 p.m.