March 24, 2010
Sponsored by The Harvard Bookstore, Mass. Ave., Cambridge,MA
Walter Mosley's got game. He’s in the first inning of a coast-to-coast book tour promoting his detective fiction novel “Known To Evil” and Boston’s one of his first stops. He’s smart, spontaneous, energetic, funny, and candid.Listen to him when he gets rolling and you see where his characters come from. One minute he’s talking about Balzac and Zola, the next he’s riffing mile-a-minute street smack. The man straddles two worlds, white and black. Mosley could mix company in a cocktail party on the Upper East Side or in a sweaty gym in Harlem. He’s used to being the only black man in the room.
Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins, the character he invented for “Devil In A Blue Dress,” knew how to make his way through both worlds in post World War II America. The black private investigator was a WW II veteran who lived in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles (where Mosley was born in 1952). The book was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington. Mosley’s books, including ten more Easy Rawlins stories, have perched on the NY Times Best Seller list since then.
Those early novels were homage to his father's life in post World War II Los Angeles. “Black men have no history in literature and I wanted to write about them because their lives deserve discussion,” he says.
"In post WW II America, Easy Rawlins knew what was behind every door," Mosley says. "Black men knew where they fit in and where they did not. After writing eleven books in the Rawlins series, I said all I could say about him. He became anachronistic in the 21st century, ” he says about beginning a new series.
That’s where Mosley’s new character Leonid McGill got created. “I needed a 21st century hero. Leonid is like me. He’s built like me, he thinks like me. He doesn’t know what’s behind every door. The world of possibilities is more complex than Easy Rawlins’ world. I think we’re living in meta-racial America and don’t know it yet.”
By the time Mosley’s read the first two chapters of his latest book “Known To Evil,” the second book featuring his new hero Leonid McGill, we see exactly what he means.
Complex personal relationships, family constellations tied together by blood and circumstance, mixed racial marriages and affairs, plot lines including a younger generation with Leonid’s 17 year old step-son, and the New York underworld - we can see this is going to take a score card to follow - and be worth it.
Publisher’s Weekly said this about Known To Evil:
"Bestseller Mosley scores a clean knockout in his excellent second mystery featuring New York City PI Leonid McGill. Still striving to atone for some of the lives he’s ruined, the 54-year-old McGill laments that there are ’no straight lines in the life or labors of the private detective.’ Instead, crises crowd him at every turn. A powerful, shadowy city hall official wants McGill to locate and protect a young woman named Tara Lear, a task complicated by a murder. Older son Dimitri is involved with a Russian hooker whose pimp doesn’t want to let her go. Younger son Twill, trying to help his brother, risks violating parole restrictions. Relations with wife Katrina and lover Aura Ullman, ’with her Aryan eyes and Ethiopian skin,’ are in flux. The ex-boxer has an eclectic group in his corner, including computer whiz Tiny "Bug" Bateman, but McGill is the one taking the blows and meting out punishment in this contemporary noir gem."
Here comes the Q and A part of the reading. This might not be every writer’s idea of a good time but Walter’s up to it. "I love to expound,"he quips.
“Leonid’s living in the 21st century, the world is changing and how we live in it interests me,” he says. Those first two chapters show that Mosley's absorbing the change like a sponge and wringing it out on every page.
‘When authors tell you who their influences are, I guarantee you they’re lying. It’s hard to be honest and be a writer," he says with a twinkle in his eyes. "You pay them to make stuff up."
Then he gives you his fictitious list of influences, naming “dead writers, you have to have some of them, like Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, and a few established live ones like Alice Walker and Tony Morrison, and a few younger ones like Zadie Smith, maybe Kevin Powell.” The beauty of it is, we don’t know whether he’s fibbing or not.Mosley says he doesn’t do research. He writes three hours a day. “The other 21 hours the story is percolating and when I come to it the next day it’s more shaped and I rewrite and keep writing. Somewhere around the 8th or 9th draft I read the story into a tape recorder so I can hear what I really wrote.”
Mosley knows something about a meta-racial life. His father Leroy was an African American school librarian who worked as a clerk in the segregated U.S. Army during WW II. His mother was a Polish Jew who worked as a personnel clerk. He attributes his philosophical and story-telling bent to his father and his love of literature to his mother, who introduced him to Zola, Dickens, and Camus.
He writes to give African Americans a place in literature and to give others “outside the community” a window into understanding the complexity of African American life. Mosley matter-of-factly weaves the role of racial inequalities in America through the story lines in the entire Easy Rawlins series.
His manner onstage tonight is totally assured. His middle class background notwithstanding, you get the feeling Mosley could live on the streets packing his high caliber brain and trash-talking mouth.
Don’t fence him in. He won’t like it. He poked fun at a recent New York Times story leading with “Crime fiction writer Walter Mosley…”
“I’m a writer, period!” he says with mock irritation. He cites 34 books - non-fiction, mysteries, science fiction, a young adult novel, a recently completed play, and screen plays for TV and films he’s been cranking out for years. He won an O. Henry Award, a Grammy, and a PEN America Lifetime Achievement Award and has been translated into 21 languages. He’s got a point about being pigeon holed.
When he was a 34 year-old bored computer programmer, he wrote a sentence on his screen, and read it aloud. “'Hey, that sounds good', I said to myself, and, since Californians have no sense of their limitations, I decided I’d become a writer and published my first book at age 38.”
Meta-racial America is all the better for it.
Photo top by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr. , bottom by Mr. Mosley's press agent.