The characters that people Walter Mosley’s books have been portrayed by Denzel Washington and Laurence Fishburne; judging by a recent Playboy Interview, Samuel L. Jackson will soon join that list. Mosley, whose roots are Jewish and African-American, is best known for Easy Rawlins, the Los Angeles private detective who was chiselled on screen in Carl Franklin’s 1995 classic Devil with a Blue Dress. Charcoal Joe sees the staunch investigator uncovering a mystery in late ‘60s L.A; it’s Easy’s fourteenth outing and Mosley’s fiftieth. It’s a fine, twisty gumbo of violence, sex and much more.
Both literary and mass-market, Mosley’s work ranges from nonfiction political polemic to sci-fi via erotica. His raw, musical voice has inspired prisoners, politicians (notably Bill Clinton, who once called Mosley his favorite writer) and athletes (like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar). Junot Diaz hails him as a master.
Mosley was in a good-humored, candid mood when he took our call from the road, on a tour promoting Charcoal Joe. Read on for his thoughts on the sex-creativity equation, the power of Ali and the myth of the white person.
The Belgian crime writer Georges Simenon boasted his productivity was due to having sex every day. Can you comment on the nexus between sex and creativity?
I love Simenon’s work. One hundred and sixty one novellas, eighty of them about Maigret. Simenon had sex every day? It’s like, what are you, a ho? It doesn’t make sense to me. Isn’t there a day that you don’t want to have sex? Or maybe there’s not somebody who you want to have sex with? The notion, it sounds masturbatory. Not if you’re 19.
Ernest Borgnine made films until the day he died in ‘94. People would ask him, “How did you live so long?” “I masturbate every day.” I always thought that was kind of wonderful. I kept thinking, maybe he’s right! Maybe masturbating every day kept him alive.
Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald romanticized the notion of the alcoholic writer when they were young. Given your struggles with alcoholism, can you relate?
I think writers, when they’re young and they have a good constitution, drinking might actually help their writing. Especially if they’re insecure about some things, they need to open up, feel more. The problem is that after a while it doesn’t help anymore and they become alcoholics and they’re not writing—they’re not doing anything.
If you go out and get in brawls in bars, you’re not going to learn anything. But if you sit in the corner and watch other people fighting, you will learn a lot.
Your work is broad, from nonfiction political polemic to sci-fi to sexy novels like Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore. Are you planning further erotic fiction?
I didn’t consider that one very erotic. It was about the sex industry, but the sex in it, I didn’t find it arousing. Not like Killing Johnny Fry, which was pretty sexy. I like writing about sex, I could see doing it again. I like to write about sex, cooking, children and labor. All of those things should be in any novel that’s about normal everyday people. If you’re talking about the royal family, maybe not.
Talking creative inspiration, you’re a particular fan of the Coppola documentary Hearts of Darkness about Apocalypse Now. Have you had any crazy creative experiences like Coppola?
If I did I would tell you. The lives of writers and painters are not terribly interesting. I remember Van Gogh was so shy that he would paint these nude figures, men or women. He would have little photographs of them and even in the photographs they were wearing underwear, and he would paint them as naked people. There are writers who are outgoing—Hemingway, Mark Twain. But I think that most writers you find are introverted.
Writers need to be perceiving things. Watching people do things. If you go out and get in brawls in bars, you’re not going to learn anything from that. But if you go and you sit in the corner of the bar and you watch other people fighting, you will learn a lot.
You grew up in LA, experienced the Watts riots in the '60s. Was that formative in terms of your political consciousness?
I was about 12 years old. We were out doing a play on the main, most violent night of the riots. Driving back from the theatre there were people lying on the ground, people had shotguns and it was really scary. So I got home, and my father was sitting alone in the living room drinking, and saw me. I said “Dad what’s wrong?” and he looked at me and started crying and he said, “Walter, I want to get out there and riot and fight and shoot and burn. But I know it’s wrong. I want to do it, but I know it’s wrong.” And he just sat there the entire night, caught between those two visions of himself. That had a big impact on me.
Muhammad Ali is another Mosley inspiration. What do you hope his legacy is?
I don’t have to hope: His legacy is his legacy. I’m 15 years old and a guy comes up to me and says, “What do you think about the war in Vietnam?” and I say “I think I’m not going because I don’t want to die, and also I don’t want to kill any Vietnamese.” That came from Muhammad Ali. He’s the one that said “No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” The thing is his power was so great that it infused all of us with knowledge that we may or may not have liked.
In his last Playboy interview, Samuel Jackson said the upcoming project he was most excited about was “a great book by Walter Mosley, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, about a 91-year-old guy with Alzheimer’s who is told by a doctor that he can give him all his cognitive functions back, but he’ll die in a week.” How’s that project going?
The script is written and Sam is on it. We haven’t been able to get enough money to produce it yet, but we keep trying.
It’s probably going to be different for different people, but is there anything you hope people take away from Charcoal Joe? I’m writing about black male heroes. I’m talking about the black migration that came from the South into Southern California and moved on. There’s a lot there; you can take what you want.
You’re half Jewish. Do you have to deal with anti-Semitic remarks?
It has happened, yes. It’s hard to be black or Jewish in the world and to be surprised by racism. You don’t go crazy about it.
Anything that would surprise people about you?
I don’t believe in the existence of white people. If somebody comes up to you and says “I’m a white person,” you say, “Well what the fuck does that mean? Are you from Whiteland?” You look at them and say, “You have black hair; does that mean you’re white? You have brown eyes; does that make you a white person?” It’s so funny—there’s no definition of a white person, other than the political definition of colonisation.
Last question: What’s your first memory of Playboy magazine?
I remember my parents went out and I snuck into my father’s room and took out his Playboy. There was a cartoon with a man sitting on a bed taking off his shoes and a woman in front of him pulling off her dress and she didn’t have anything on. There was a suitcase on the floor with a sign on it that said “Just Married.” On the girl’s butt it said “Bill and Sue.” And she was saying, “John, did I ever tell you about Bill?” [laughs]. I’m five, I’m a kid. It was the first time I ever understood a joke.