A conversation
with Walter Mosley

By John Orr
April 2006

Walter MosleyWe aren't yet halfway through 2006 and the talented Walter Mosley has already published four books -- "The Wave" (science-fiction), "Life Out of Context" (political meditations), "Cinnamon Kiss" (an Easy Rawlings mystery) and his latest, "Fortunate Son," which is literary fiction, a beautiful, involving and touching parable about blacks and whites in America.

Don't blink, he has a Fearless Jones novel coming out in September. There are 83 books by Walter Mosley -- mysteries, literary fiction, science-fiction, fiction for young adults, collections of short stories and political essays -- listed at

And he is not publishing hackwork. He has been called "brilliant" by the Washington Post and other newspapers; the Associated Press has said about him "only Mosley has employed detective fiction as a vehicle for a thoughtful, textured examination of race relations in the United States. Only Mosley puts white readers, if just for a few hundred pages at a time, in a black man's shoes."

His prose is so well crafted he crowds the top of the pyramid with Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow and John Steinbeck.

We spoke with him recently by phone about his latest novel, "Fortunate Son," and other matters.

Q. Do you ever sleep?

A. You know, I only write about three or four hours a day, so but I do it every day -- and that seems to be enough. Balzac in the 40 or 50 years of his writing, wrote 180 novels with a pen -- a quill pen -- I figure he wrote between three and four novels a year. I was married, not anymore, we didn't have children.

Q. What do you do the other 20 hours a day?

A. What do I do? I belong to political organizations, give talks, give readings, I talk to other writers about their writing. The kinds of things that people do. I enjoy New York, wonderful city.

Q. When I read ''Fortunate Son,'' I thought: Parable.

A. Well, listen, what else can you think? My publisher told me, I said, ''Well you know, it's a parable.'' He said ''Don't say that!" (Laughs.) He said, ''Don't say that, people won't want to read it!" I go, ''What am I gonna say? It seems like a parable to me.''

Though, not a parable in such a way where at the end of it you're going to say, ''Well, this is right and that's wrong." It's the kind of parable where you'd say there's possibility and there's choice. And there's probability. There's possibility, probability and choice. And that's the world you live in.

Q. According to Milton, that's what God gave us, choice. Correct me if I'm wrong about ''Fortunate Son'': Black man and white man in the United States are bonded and even though sometimes the results of that bond in this culture leads to danger for both of them, they have to stick together to survive. Is that too simple? Am I misreading?

A. When you say ''have to" you know, I wish that were true, that people had to. They don't have to. They can choose to, but they don't have to. There's a bond of love between the two brothers, Eric and Tommy, and that's what they want, they want that love, they want each other in their lives. They love each other. That could not be.

And so I wouldn't want to say that their relationship is inescapable; that would be a little too optimistic, actually.

But, I do think that a lot of it is the way we see the world. A lot of the work is the way in which we see the world. The world that we live in, what we see and what we don't see.

Tommy is this great example of somebody who really sees deeply into the world. He's an unbelievably unlucky person he has really bad luck. But he's also incredibly fortunate because he's able to take actions into his life and to see things, and to see beauty in life, no matter how bad things go, he's able to see and understand beauty, and he's able to maintain a certain innocence; whereas his brother Eric, who is so lucky that it really, you know, it strains the imagination to believe in his luck -- but then when you see it, you see, well, this is not helping him. This does not give him a better life, that fact that he's bigger, stronger, smarter, more beautiful, more talented and luckier than everybody else doesn't give him a good life. And in a great way which is why I called him Eric, which is that name that is embedded in our nation's name, the name we call ourselves, America, because even with all that, without that ability, without the beauty that Tommy brings to life, his life is nothing.

And that's certainly a direct criticism of the country. But, you know, hey, listen, you know, you can have everything, it doesn't mean anything.

Q. Again, parable. I've come to think there's no difference between the races, but in America, because of color of skin -- and in other countries -- people have been forced to be raised in different cultures. It's the cultural differences that make the difference.

A. Yeah, it's what people believe. If you believe it, in your mind and in your heart, there's a certain truth to it. Whether or not there's any kind of objective truth to it in the world in general, well, no. There's no kind of way you could think or accept that.

Except -- if you're a poor kid raised in South Central -- some of that area is nasty, it's really tough. It's a hard life to be start out in, and you don't get the breaks if you're raised up in Sherman Oaks and get to go to a nicer public school, or you're raised up in Beverly Hills and have a lot of money, like Eric.

But you know there's another thing. Using that kind of equation doesn't cover all the bases, there's a few others to be covered. For instance, you're a poor white kid in Bellflower. You know, living in a tiny little house, or living in a trailer, let's say. Your father's gone, your mother's not treating you right, the school you're going to is filled with poor kids that are also not being treated well.

So you could say, well, the poor white kid and the poor black kid are the same. And the truth is there are lot of similarities and there are a lot of problems which either one of them might carry through their lives, but there are also racial overtones in this country.

Q. I agree.

A. It's important to remember, because you know -- a lot of times black people will say, ''Those white people, they're all rich." Well, no, they're not. A lot of them are poor. Go to Appalachia. There's some poor white people in Appalachia.

Q. If you're black or Asian or hispanic -- my wife is Asian -- and I'd never even thought about the issue of racism with Asians, but my wife says she is treated with racism every day, and now I realize, yeah, that happens all the time.

A. Well, America's a very racist country

Q. If you're Asian, Latino or black, you get the fact of your racial profile thrown in your face a lot of the time, I'm sure.

A. But, you know, Tommy in this situation, in this story, represents something other than that. Tommy doesn't pay too much attention to race. Eric is his brother, Eric's father is his father. He has friends who are black, he has friends who are white, he lives in a world where there's all kinds of people and he deals with people individually, which you have to do. And when Eric finally says to Tommy on the train, or in the plane (it was the train), ''You wouldn't understand, you know, because these things happen to me, where everything happens for me -- all I have to do is walk into the room and people can die.'' And Tommy says to him, yeah, but if it was important to you that the tide doesn't rise tomorrow, would it hold back?''

There's an understanding that Tommy has of being in the world, the greatness and the beauty and the excellence of being alive. And how small we are in relation to the rest of the world.

Q. Do you think Eric lacks that?

A. He doesn't understand it because his mind has been made small. I think he has an inkling of it, which is why he always wants to get back to Branwyn, and he always wants to get back to Tommy, because they showed him a larger world. But in his own world, he's the best -- everything happens for him, nothing happens for anybody else, you know until he meets his girlfriend. There's nobody who can stand in his way. And so his world, kind of contradictorially, becomes smaller.

Q. Like the top of a pyramid

A. But a really tiny pyramid. He doesn't see the whole world around him.

Q. Race is not an issue to either of the brothers, in the book.

A. But there's tons of racism in the book.

Q. Certainly. Tommy's father. There's an angry guy for you.

A. Yeah.

Q. A few years ago a reporter I knew, a black man, was telling me that he thought racism was worse in the United States today than it had ever been. He was in his middle 20s, maybe his late 20s, I think, at the time. I thought, oh, man, you don't know your history.

A. (Laughs)

Q. But, since I have you on the phone, tell me where you think we are in our history, regarding racism.

A. An interesting notion, really. If you look in South Carolina in 1805 and you see 60 percent of the population black and in chains, with a life expectancy of 40 years old, you say, ''Oh my God, I was wrong!" You know, if I thought what I was living in today was worse than then.

That's one way to look at it. I'm going to give you a few different ways to look at it.

If you look at, for instance, the 1970s and '80s, and the impetus for opening up race relations and making more things possible for more people, today, for instance, schools are more segrated than they were in the '70s and '80s. -- More separation inside of schools. A lot having to do with private schools, a lot having to do with income, a lot having to do with kind of unconscious, unexposed racism.

You can say, ''Well, what does that mean?" Then you can say, ''There are more black people making money, more black people and other races, doing better."

It's not an easy thing. We have a million black men in prison, two million black men on their way back to prison, three million young black men being groomed for prison.

This is like, an extraordinary situation -- is it better or worse than it was 30 or 40 years ago? I'm not quite sure about that. I know it was really bad right during reconstruction -- lots of black people were just put to prison and kept there, in order to work on the chain gangs, to kind of continue slavery.

However, the big problem with looking at it this way is to look at in terms of America. Because we live in a global world. Our economy, our lives, our decisions, our money, not only influences our nation, it influences a whole nation ... tens of thousands of black people die every week in Africa, from disease, from war, from famine and from neglect.

Is that worse than it was? Absolutely. Is it because of racism? At least in part. Because I know, and everybody else knows, that if this was happening in Europe, we'd be doing something about it. When you have 5,000 people a day -- that's an upper number, but not an impossible one -- dying of malaria, hey, there's no way we'd let that happen in France. Or Germany, or England or Italy. But it's fine to happen in Central Africa, so, the guy who made the statement, I'm not sure how informed he was, and what he was speaking about --

Q. He was talking about the way black people are treated in public in the United States.

A. Well, if you've got that all by itself, that alone, it would still be difficult to answer, depending on what black person you were and in what part of the country you are.

If you're a black kid living in South Central L.A. and you get arrested for shoplifting, and if -- all other things being equal -- you get a suspended sentence. But because your cousin across the street is a member of a gang and you were seen walking down the street with your cousin and the police said you were gang-related and you get 15 years, well, for that kid, it was hard. when I was living in South Central, I didn't have it that hard.

It's still a difficult question to answer. I'm not trying to say, ''Woe is me!" but I am trying to say, it's a very fluid situation, racism in America, and how it appears, and how people identify. A lot of people come up to me and say, ''Well, listen, that kid had a choice," you know, ''just like you did," they'll say, and what am I going to say? Well, you know what I usually say is, ''Fuck you, you don't know what you're talking about, the kid didn't have any choice. He was born on that street and his cousin lived across the street and he went over to say hi. What kind of choice was that?''

Q. What was your life like as a kid?

A. My life was actually very simple as a kid. You know, listen, I lived in the '50s and '60s in South Central, among an immigrant black class from the Western South -- from Louisiana, from Texas, some from Western Mississippi. And these people came to work! And there was lots of work! This was when America had hegemony over global politics. And so there was a lot of work. Everybody I knew worked, two, three jobs. Everybody owned their house, everybody had, like, you know, notions for the future.

There was still racism. Racism? That's why the Watts riots happened. There was more of a glass ceiling than there is today.

But you know, it's interesting. When you look at it you have to ... in the end I don't think you can make simple statements, like it's better know, it's worse then. Certainly, if you look at the slave quarters in South Carolina in 1810, yeah, we're better than that. I'm not trying to say anything about that. But there are a lot of bad times and there are people who are suffering who have become invisible and who are villified for their situation, not for their potential, characters or personality.

And so it's a hard thing to deal with, a hard thing to answer.

I think there's more opportunity today than there was, say 20, 30, 40 years ago.

Q. Did you ever read ''The Good War" by Studs Terkel?

A. I haven't read that book by Studs, although he's one of my favorite people in the world.

Q. He talks in that book about how, on American military bases during World War II, German prisoners of war had more rights and freedoms than did black American soldiers. You look at something like that --

A. The military's much better than it was then, for black people.

Q. I just read some things recently that you said about Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell which were amusing

A. You mean, "Life Out of Context"? Or maybe it was in The Nation magazine.

Q. I don't remember. From what I've seen about you, you're no fan of George W. Bush.

A. Well, listen, I don't like the Democrats, I don't like the Republicans. I don't like George Bush. But, I don't like to point to him as the one and only enemy, because if I did, then I'd bring in all these fucking Democrats who do the same goddamned thing to me, only they pretend to be my friend.

Q. (Laughs)

A. I'm no fan of Bush. Let'd be clear. No. But you know, uh, if you're a Republican or a Democrat, I'm not a fan.

Q. Look at what this country has done since Bush was elected, and elected in a very suspicious way, with Florida basically cheating that vote.

A. Not unlike John Kennedy in 1960.

Q. True, a long history --

A. A long history of stealing elections, yeah. (Laughs)

Q. So, here's one where the Republicans won, and in my view this has been the worst administration in American history, based on what they've done worldwide and what they've done to the economy, what they've done to the environment, the invasion of Iraq, the awarding of these huge contracts without bids to Bechtel, their friends, the whole thing just kind of pisses me off, and then he gets re-elected, which means most of this country wanted this. They wanted this corruption and this terrible administration, otherwise they wouldn't have re-elected him.

A. You can't assume everyone has your knowledge. I'm not disagreeing with you, but you can't assume that --

Q. My only point about this, Mr. Mosley, is that if the country is willing to accept all this other crapola, how can black Americans, African Americans get this country to do something realistic about Africa, when they won't do anything realistic about anything else?

A. I would encourage you not to ask that question.

Q. (Laughs)

A. I would encourage you not to ask that question because what it is, it is an expression of hopelessness and cynicism. Once you embrace hopelessness and cynicism, you might as well kill yourself.

And really. I don't say that to people, but I feel like saying it. ''OK, fine, listen, why don't you just go in a corner and shoot yourself?" And let the rest of us do the work.

That's the first thing I would say. But the second thing I would say is this. How? OK, I'll answer the question: Withdraw from the Democratic party. Form a black voting bloc based on eight or nine basic principles that a large portion of the black population would agree with -- and might not only be through black people, by the way -- might be, you know, universal health care, a living wage, all kinds of stuff. Do that, and begin to have an impact. Because the biggest problem that we have today is that most people have a choice between the Democrats and the Republicans.

There is virtually no difference between them, both of them are dominated by corporate America. Both of them represent an oligarchy and don't have anything to do with true democracy in America.

And so, one of the problems that people have is that, you know, they have elitist liberals on one side, and you know, criminal, so-called conservatives on the other. Well, I say, listen, both are the same thing. I'm going to vote for George Bush, or for John Kerry, who's going to everything that Bush did, but he's not going to, you know, sound stupid doing it.

I already got a guy doing what Bush is doing, why would I get another guy who says he's going to do the same thing?

For me, it makes no sense. I was on a panel with one of the leaders of the Democratic party in New York, talking about electing Bush, and while he was saying, you know, they need the black people, I -- in front of a thousand people in an audience -- I said, well, excuse me, I'm happy to vote for you, but what can we do about all these black people we have in prison, and he turned to me and said, there's nothing we can do about them.

That was it for me and the Democrats. Really. The Republicans say that, but they don't want me to vote for them anyway. They don't ask me to vote, they don't invite me to the White House. Democrats do -- but they don't plan to help me either.

So it's time -- I think that gay Americans should withdraw, I think that real Republicans should withdraw from their party, I think that Asian Americans should do it, I certainly think that women should do it. I think that we should try to create a virtual parliament in the House of Representatives and that to start to say something in that way.

But to say that we can't do anything -- it's not true! And also, to accept it, then, one should stop talking about politics at that moment.

Q. I love what you're saying. You know that some of the questions I ask are to spur a response.

A. Oh, yeah! I'm not angry about it. I hope you talk about my book some, though. My publisher would be very mad about this conversation. This conversation is completely about my other book, "Life Out of Context," a political book that I came out with in January.

Q. Which I haven't read. There are lots of good mystery writers out there, but as far as I know, you're the only one who's writing brilliantly about what it was like to be black in L.A. in the time of Easy Rawlings.

A. I'm just writing about my character.

Q. But it's a great thing, and you're educating people, educating people who might come, you know, somebody from Iowa maybe, is going to read your book and learn something worth learning.

A. That's the wonderful thing about mysteries, you can bring in people into different worlds.

Q. Regarding "Fortunate Son," who's going to read this book? Are you preaching to the choir?

A. Anybody who likes literature, right?

Q. One of my editors wanted me to write about you because, she says, and I agree, that you are one of the most important writers working today. In that sense, I put you right up there with Toni Morrison and E.L. Doctorow.

A. Well, thank you very much, I appreciate that.

Q. And also in the terms of the beauty of your prose. You just knock me out, man. You're up there again, with Doctorow and Morrison, and John Steinbeck, who's one of my favorites who wrote about important things.

I have to ask you about Easy Rawlings. In "Cinnamon Kiss," his girlfriend goes to Europe, saves his daughter's life, but he dumps her because he thinks -- and by the way, he's had some fine sexual and emotional adventures while she's been gone -- but he dumps her because he thinks she got too close in the heart to this other guy, in Europe.

A. Hmm-Hmm.

Q. To me, that was like clay feet in my hero, man.

A. (Laughs)

Q. That he was dumping this woman for some of the same things he'd done -- the difference between them was mighty slight. What are you going to do with Easy Rawlings? And why'd you dump that woman? Freeing him up for something else?

A. No!

Q. Are you working on his emotional development?

A. He's working on his emotional development. And it's a very hard situation, you know. I don't know. When people ask me about it, I say, ''Well, you know, put yourself in that situation. He didn't leave her for being with the guy, he didn't leave her for what was happening, he left her because she was uncertain which one she wanted to be with. And the woman he is with has to be with him completely.'' Now --

Q. But he doesn't have to be with her completely?

A. He strayed from her once he understood that she was with this guy and she couldn't say she was going to be with him. It was over at that point.

Q. Is he insecure? Is our guy Easy who's so terrific --

A. Is there a human being who isn't?

Q. He's your human being, not mine. Well, interesting. Something you're going to develop further?

A. Oh, absolutely.

Q. You have another Easy coming?

A. Not soon. I have another Fearless Jones coming out in September.

Q. Have an Easy Rawlings in mind after that point?

A. Yeah, won't be long, maybe a year after that.