Walter Mosley: Talking it All: From Dementia to Pornography, From Polish Roots to Science Fiction, From Obama to Novel Writing Tips

Walter Mosley is a celebrated African-American author of Jewish descent. He wrote in various genres, from science fiction to erotica, from political memoirs to existentialist novels, but he is mainly known as a mystery writer.
The launching of his latest books, The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray, a novel, and All I Did Was Shoot My Man, a mystery, prompted this interview, but we didn’t limit our conversation to them. We had to talk about living the dream: being a successful author. Since Mr. Mosley likes conversation, there are quite a few interviews with him, but what is unique about this one, is my Eastern European perspective. Which, besides some unexpected angles, caused some merriment in Mr. Mosley. So be it.

Ella Veres: The Last Days of Ptolemy Gray: What alchemy transformed your mother’s Jewish-American reality into the story of an African-American man?
Walter Mosley: Well, it’s interesting the… My mother was experiencing dementia and I learned the ever changing language of dementia, trying to help her, make sure that she was happy and safe, and of course she was married to my father who was a Black man and for a variety of reasons I am a Black man in America, regardless of my Jewish heritage which I don’t deny at all, so for me it was a very easy transition into what I was experiencing with my mother and what I know, and knew, about my father and this book appeared. But I don’t know more than that about it, you know what I’m sayin’?
EV: I’m curious how the experience of a White woman turned into the experience of a Black man.
WM: If you’d ask me what’s the difference between a man and a woman, I’d say 99% of what they experience is the same. Everybody gets hungry, everybody gets cold, everybody gets hot, everybody grows older, most of the experiences are the same. Dementia, yeah. Well, I never heard anybody say there’s a male dementia and there’s a female dementia ‘cause there isn’t. I don’t think there’s much of a translation there. That experience is pretty much universal. It was not a problem for me.
EV: How was your trip to Europe back in your youth? Why did you take it? Were you hoping to live there? Where did you go? How did you find it?
WM: Well, I’ve been there quite a few times. If you count England, I’ve been to Europe maybe 12, 15 times. Mostly in the West. I’ve been to Czechoslovakia but not Romania. I kinda stopped going, I’m going to France at the end of March there’s gonna be a festival of noir literature, but I usually don’t... You know, you go places you don’t really know anything about in the end. You go to places where tourists go, the experience of Europe I don’t think is deep inside me. I love Rome, didn’t like Paris very much, had a lot of fun in London with various different people, but I don’t really… I guess, I now really want to go places where I’m actually doing something, where I actually learn something about the place, the people, and I don’t think all the times I’ve been to Europe, if I learned things I don’t know what they are. They are unconscious, you know…
EV: So you didn’t go to Poland at all? I thought it was a trip to search for your Polish roots. Visiting relatives?
WM: Nah, ‘cause I didn’t go to Poland. Or Russia. Nah, I didn’t. I don’t do things like that. I don’t even think like that. The notion of finding yourself for me—I am very influenced by psychoanalysis—I think the self is inside, but it comes out. It went there and it got lost, and you gonna find it.
Historically, I know a lot of people put a lot of store in history. I put store in history as it impacts me today, impacts people I see today, so you know, Jews from around the world suffer from a variety of issues of people hating us and self-hatred at the same time, Black people in America dealing with slavery, also dealing with people hating us and us hating ourselves at the same time, those are very interesting issues to me, but they’re not… I don’t get on a plane and find that issue.
EV: So many skin shades. It was startling the first thing you mention about an African-American character is skin tone. Is that still defining? I seem to live in a different world than yours…
WM: Where do you live?
EV: In my Little Eastern Europe, I guess.
WM: No, you don’t live in Eastern Europe. Where do you live?
EV: Physically?
WM: Yeah.
EV: In East Harlem.
WM: You live in East Harlem. So, you could ignore the people you live around or you could ignore how they see each other, or how they define each other….
EV: I’m not aware of skin tones.
WM: Right. But it is where you live, ‘cause you don’t live in Romania, or Berlin, or wherever else. I think what is so interesting about… you know a lot of people say Black people, or African-American, as if that’s a term that fits everybody. Well, Leonid says… I don’t know how many of my books you read?
EV: Ten, since December.
WM: Did you read the first one, Long Fall?
EV: Not yet.
WM: In the Long Fall he’s knocked out and he’s just coming to consciousness and there’s three people there: there’s a big White guy who’s kinda red, he thinks he’s killed him but he’s not dead yet, then there’s a darker color Irish guy, who’s standing up big and tall, and then there’s this tiny little guy who’s the color of porcelain. And Leonid is looking at them and says in the old days in Europe these guys would have been called different races, because Europe was broken up according to races and cultures. If you saw somebody you wouldn’t say, ‘I’m related to the people down in Mediterranean.’ Those are different kind of people, a different race of people, a different tribe of people. Now, all of a sudden, everybody coming to America made a deal, “We’re White. If we all call ourselves White we’ll be the same thing,” but of course they aren’t.
So it’s not just people of color, it’s not just Black people.
Leonid talks about how everybody looks, because that’s one of the things a detective does. That’s how he sees, that’s how he perceives, that’s how he notices people.
Every good writer I’ve ever read does that, talks about exactly what they’re seeing. It’s not just people of color, it’s the plants, the sky, the trees, the smells, it’s everything.
EV: Specificity.
WM: Yeah, otherwise it’s… What were you looking at?! “Oh, it was a man!” When I talk to people about writing—every once in a while I lecture about writing—you have two people. These are the people having the major dramatic tension in the scene, two people sitting at a table. But a waitress comes up with some water. What is the waitress wearing? Is it stained? Is it neat? What does she look like? How was her day? Did she have any interaction with the people at the table? Everybody has to have a character, and the character comes partially from who you are physically, partially who you are emotionally. I think.
EV: Ok. Now, back to Polish… My question will be off now, because you…
WM: I didn’t go looking for my roots…
EV: Yeah.
WM: My God, look for my roots in anti-Semitic Poland! That would be a great thing! “Uh, did you kill my family?” What?
EV: Yeah, why not?
WM: Nah, I don’t need that. But anyway, what’s the next question?
EV: Well, I was musing… Has Polish society become aware you are of Polish descent?
WM: I’m a Jew! I’m not Polish! Listen… Well, actually I didn’t come from Poland. I came from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, that’s where I came from. But I’m not Latvian, Lithuanian or Estonian either. And I’m sure people in Poland wouldn't say, “He’s Latvian? No, no, no, he’s a Jew.” It’s a different thing! It’s a race!
EV: Yeah, but all these nations in Eastern Europe trying to find things to be proud of, they usually latch onto international cultural icons. So they start claiming…
WM: Well, nobody’s ever claimed me! Nobody’s ever claimed me. And I’m Black, I’m Jewish, I’m not anything that they’d want! They know that. They’re proud of who they have. That Polish boxer, really good, heavy weight?
EV: I’m not good with sports.
WM: Oh, but he was really good. All the Poles loved him. Room full of Poles watching him, which is great! I don’t have anything against the Poles, they’re hard working people. They came to America, they went to Pittsburgh, but it’s not… I’m Jewish. And nobody, nobody in my family was, “Oh, our great Polish heritage! Our great Estonian heritage.” They’d talk about being Jews. And communists. Jews and communists, but never anything so specific as being Polish, or Estonian, or Latvian, or Lithuanian. Never.
EV: So you’re not claiming that heritage. Have you thought you could have been a likely Eastern European immigrant spokesperson? Well, my sage African American friend Lloyd Jones from Griffin Architects said you’ll find this kind of question…
WM: Well, it’s interesting. I’m answering it with great vehemence!
EV: Well, he said he knew the answer by just looking at you. He can say why you didn’t feel inclined to claim your Polish heritage. Because you look African-American. You had no choice but write in an African-American persona/voice.
WM: Yeah. But heritage... I’m not going around sayin’ my family came from Nigeria, or from Kenya. None of that is interesting to me. It’s just not interesting to me. The whole idea to try and grab onto an identity in a place where I was oppressed, where I was murdered, where I was kidnapped! It’s like I’d go to Latvia, and “Oh, this is where they killed all the Jews!” You know, go to the West Coast of Africa and say, “Here’s the place where they loaded everybody onto the slave ships!” I can, but, and I can know that, I can identify with it, but I don’t look for culture in that. I don’t look for culture in history. I look for culture in language, I look for culture in experience, I look for culture in how history has formed the world I live in today, I look for culture in the 2 million of Black people that are in prisons in America, and the other 4 million who are getting out and getting back in again, that’s where culture lies.
And, you know, people make up history. History is all made up, as a matter of fact. None of it is really real, it’s just made up stuff. It just doesn’t interest me. So your friend might think I’m not gonna claim being Polish, because I don’t look like it, though I look more like my mother than my father, but at the same time I’m not claiming to be West African either, you know? I’m Walter, I was born in Los Angeles, I’m the victim of racism in America, and on a greater scale… I’m being clear, right? I’m a Black man in America ‘cause policemen would stop me on the streets, on the highways and places.
I went once to get my passport in Los Angeles, I was 16 years old, I was going to France for the first time, to some kind of summer program, my mother brought me, and the guy said, “I’m not gonna give you a passport!” My mother asked, “Why not?” “You’re not his mother.” I mean… that kinda interests me. That’s what informs my culture, my race, my history.
Sitting around with my aunt Fanny and my uncle Hiram, and my dad Leroy talking about their various histories and hear them echoing, how they were from Southern Louisiana or from Russia, that was very interesting, how they were living same lives in completely different places, and actually swapping stories back and forth, that’s interesting to me! And that’s alive!
EV: Just to get this out of my mind, so your mother came here before the Holocaust?
WM: Oh, my mother was born here. My family came over between 1908-1911, 1912. They were running from the Czars, that’s the masters they were running from, a lot of them were communists and turned out there was a difference between Jewish communism and Christian communism. Christian communists wanted to get rid of Jewish communists, so the Jewish communists ran, and came here. But it was at the beginning of the century, of the last century…
EV: Your memoir What Next: what was the effect on the African-American community? Did they follow your advice and brought out their piggy banks, about 4 million dollars gathered in penny jars?
WM: Oh, it had no impact on anybody. When I write those little political monographs, what they are meant to do is to make people read, and think, and talk about it. And I suppose people did, but it never had a big impact.
EV: You knew that when you wrote it?
WM: Of course I knew, but listen, the reason I wrote What Next was that my country was embarking on an immoral and illegal war against people who, not even on further stretch of imagination, you’d think were villains and enemies. They’re calling for war on terrorism, but only a particular terrorism, not all terrorism. I was fine, “Oh, kill all terrorists, that’s okay with me!” but not, “We gonna kill these terrorists.” If you have a war on terrorism it’s a war on the act, not on a specific kind of person. And I needed to say that mainly ‘cause later on I didn’t want somebody else to say, “What did you do?” Well, I wrote this book ‘cause it needed to be said, but nobody responded to it.
It’s like when Obama ran for president, I did a fund raiser for him and a lot of people were there, Tony Morrison and Rufus Wainwright, all these people. And I was talking, “Look, Obama is gonna get elected, we don’t need worry about that, Obama is gonna get elected, but we can’t think that us working here today will make any difference on the world that Obama is gonna inherit. We have to start working after Obama is gonna get elected. We gonna start being politically active, start speaking out. Me, as a writer, I write monographs, making suggestions on political organization and stuff, other people may do other things, writing to your congressman and to your senator, but don’t think that you just vote for him and everything is gonna change, ‘cause is not. All those lobbyists out there, those are the people with power, that’s where the power’s gonna be, so we have to fight against them using Obama as our guy.” Nobody listened, and I didn’t think they gonna listen, but I had to say it, ‘cause that’s the truth.
The truth is we don’t understand democracy. Most Americans. If you say, “What’s democracy?” “Well, it’s to vote.” No, that’s the first of 10,000 steps to democracy.
EV: Well, I’ll tell you something. When I came to this country, I first of all wanted to know how people solved their racial and ethnic differences. I’m of Romanian, Hungarian, Gypsy descent. I don’t know how much you know about Gypsies…
WM: Well, I know a lot.
EV: How come?!
WM: Well, you notice things. I know Romanian is the closest to Latin. It’s a really interesting country, Romania, and I know Gypsies are a lot there. And in Hungary.
EV: They were enslaved too, for centuries.
WM: Well, and such an Asian influence. They came from India, China, Mongolia… But anyway, what about it?
EV: So, I told people, “There is this group of people that is lynched at times, Gypsy villages are burned down…” I had high hopes African American people would get on the band wagon and rush to Europe and rescue the Gypsies. They didn’t hear me. They were distraught about the street names about to be changed up in Harlem…
WM: What year was that?
EV: Five years ago. The municipality wanted to put numbers instead of names, Malcolm X, they wanted to put Avenue 6 or 7, not to confuse tourists. And people were upset. So my plea for the plight a Gypsies fell on deaf ears.
WM: Isn’t this the case for all America?
EV: You say it, you say it!
WM: But it’s the truth of all America. One of the things that’s so interesting in the 21st century, I’ve been saying this a lot, in the 20th century I go to Detroit. I say to a young Black man, “How you doin’?” He’d say, “It’s hard on the brother in Detroit!” I’d say, “I know whatchu talkin’ about.” In the 21st century, I go to a young a man, he’s saying, “It’s hard on the brother in Detroit.” “I know exactly what you mean, but you know something? There is a brother now in Kenya who’d switch with anyone of us.”
There is a big world out there and we have to start becoming aware of it. We are becoming aware of it, but people do things only out of self-interest as a rule. Some people care about others, but it’s so few of them. Right now you can talk to anybody who works in Detroit and they’d say, “I think the people in China, the people in India are stealing my job!” That’s how you begin to become international.
America it’s been so isolationist for most of our existence that it’s impossible. Honestly, we know hardly anything about what’s going on in other countries. We don’t know about what happens to the Armenians. They don’t know why people in ex-Yugoslavia hated each other. They don’t understand what a Muslim in Eastern Europe is. Because we don’t have that kind of education, that kind of connection. The Mormons have a little bit ‘cause they go on those missions, change people into Mormons, but most of us don’t know. And don’t care. Really, you can travel all over the world and not know. You can go to Egypt, you can go visit Romania, Czechoslovakia and have no idea what’s going on. Come home, “I had a great time! Beautiful architecture! The food was great!” but… What’s your next question?
EV: I’ll jump around.
WM: Fine.
EV: Leonid has an open marriage like our Newt Gingrich. What reactions do you get from the press, fans? Not very popular open marriages nowadays… or just prudishness? Political prudishness?
WM: Only for our political characters. Actually nobody has ever complained about it. They don’t really have an open marriage. They just have affairs. Leonid knows she’s having affairs, she knows that Leonid is having affairs, but they never said, “Okay, you can have one.” So it’s not an open marriage.
EV: It’s not declared.
WM: It’s not declared. Two of Leonid’s children are not Leonid’s children. She’s never admitted that. But he knows, he had blood tests. “He’s not my kid,” but he still takes care of them. It’s like an open secret.
I don’t know how to answer that question. I just write about it. This is Leonid leading this kind of life, people live different kinds of lives. It’s never bothered me, and there were no complaints about it.
Honestly, it’s a good question, but I have no answer.
EV: Are you in the Guinness Book of Records yet? You’re so fertile.
WM: All those babies.
EV: No, I mean, the books!
WM: I know, I know what you’re saying. No, I’m not. I do write a lot of books. I think this is my 37th. I write a lot, but a lot of people write more.
EV: Who?
WM: Balzac wrote, writing with a quill pen, wrote 180 novels.
EV: How long did he live?
WM: I don’t know, but 180 novels, he had to write 4 books a year. Zola wrote 118, I think. In the old days, Conrad, I don’t know. I had the collected Conrad, it was a lot of books.
I’m nowhere near it.
EV: So twice a year you go on book tour?
WM: Well, I’m not on book tour now. I went out to DC, this is hardly a tour. But I might write a couple of books a year, if I work really hard three a year. I try hard to write other things, I write screenplays and plays.
EV: Okay. So European characters! Well, apart from Elsa, the German nurse, we don’t seem to do very well. What have we done to you?
WM: Elsa is very wonderful!
EV: Apart from Elsa!
WM: And who else? Tell me who did badly?
EV: Well, Katrina is not someone you want to emulate, or Tatiana, the Russian…
WM: Well, Tatiana is not so bad. She’s really, really smart. There are a lot of bad people in these books ‘cause it’s a crime book. Tatiana comes to America, agrees to be a prostitute so that her mother and her brothers and sisters can live. That’s laudable to me! The idea is more laudable than being a lawyer. She came here and said, “I will sell my body, so my mother and my sister can live.” Is that bad? Her mind is a little off, but she realizes that she does love Leonid’s son, and she’s willing to have a life with him, as long as they’re in love. I like Tatiana. I don’t have anything against her. Katrina, I don’t like so much, but Leonid is no better than Katrina. He starts of, he’s framing people, he’s sending them to prison, did awful things all his life, but you’re not talking about him being bad. You just like saying, “My people, the Europeans, are not being treated well.” Well, nobody is being treated well in this novel, so you know…
EV: Is Leonid a TV series material? He’s stocky and short. Why would you, a tall man, make him short? Does that entertain you? Or you’re doing some penance to short men?
WM: Well, Mickey Rooney wasn’t tall. You’re talking about TV series, right? No problem. Humphrey Bogart was very short.
EV: Was he?!
WM: Peter Lorre was very short. Sylvester Stallone is short. Arnold Schwarzenegger is short. You probably don’t even know that but they all are.
EV: I guess they are all propped up on stools and platform shoes?
WM: Hollywood is full of short men. No problem.
And I have a lot of tall men in my other novels. Socrates is tall. Mouse is not, but he’s dangerous, Fearless Jones is tall. You have some tall people, some short people, some men, some women, some Black, some White. People!
EV: But this Leonid seems oversexed!
WM: Oversexed?!
EV: Yeah. People get laid all the time in your books. How come?! Does this reflect reality?
WM: People don’t do that where you live?
EV: That’s my reaction to when I read your books. Where am I living?!
WM: Well, Leonid doesn’t have a lot of sex in this book!
EV: Yeah!
WM: Not a whole lot! Once or twice.
EV: Maybe because I went through three books in two weeks.
WM: Well, in three books he has to have sex six times, that’s like six times in three years, that’s not so much!
EV: Come on, the bartender is coming onto him, the mistress, the runaway artist in Baltimore, his wife, on and on. Anyway, since we are talking about this, you wrote erotica.
WM: Yeah, yeah, Killing Johnny Fry. There’s a lot of sex. That book’s oversexed.
EV: Right, so how did that exploration change you? What did it teach you about yourself, or society? How was that book tour?
WM: That book if I compare it to anything I compare it to Albert Camus’ The Stranger. I see it as an existentialist novel. One approaches existentialism through intense emotional response to either suicide or to murder. My character’s most intense response is to sex. At a time when he happens to be most vulnerable, he sees his girlfriend having sex with some other guy, it throws him off balance and he can’t right himself. I don’t know if it changed me, I don’t think I felt any different about myself before or after it, I was just writing it.
EV: What was the reaction of the public?
WM: A lot of people thought it was pornographic. But in one of the Hannibal Lecter novels he cuts off the top of the guy’s head, and the guy’s still alive, and he’s eating his brain while alive. Now that seems to me pornographic. I think you should be able to do it, write it, ‘cause it’s an intense thing, and learn from it. I think if you see a documentary of the concentration camps, bulldozers are moving hundreds of bodies, and pushing them into mass graves, that’s pornographic! People having sex it’s not pornographic, it’s normal, it’s like sneezing. A thing you do, but it’s not pornographic.
EV: What do you mean, it’s pornographic? It’s evil?
WM: Well, pornographic is something carnal that’s wrong in some kind of way, it’s something wrong with this thing happening. It’s something that shouldn’t be shown; it’s something that should be hidden. It’s something that’s wrong in a very important way. And I don’t see sex as being wrong, so I can’t see how it would be pornographic.
EV: You said pornographic, I said erotica!
WM: Yeah, but I’m responding to some people saying it was pornographic. I don’t think it’s pornographic, I think it’s beautiful.
EV: So how do you react to how they react? It’s just water off the back of a goose?
WM: Duck. Oh, I don’t care. What am I supposed to do? People don’t like me, my writing, am I supposed to get mad? Really, if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. If you tell me you like it and you still don’t like it, I’d rather you tell me you don’t like it.
But listen, if any novel is put on the market, in the book store, and one person out of 300 people buy that book, it’s a runaway best seller. So 299 people could not like your book and one person likes it, that will make you a runway best seller. So am I gonna argue that 299 don’t like my book, or I’d be happy that one person out of 300 likes my book? I’d worry about the one out of 300.
EV: The feeling that I got from reading your books is that you are generous, Mr. Mosley. Not a competitive bone in you.
WM: I’m not sure about that… I like being me. In order to be competitive you need to want to be somebody else. I don’t want to be anybody else. I always tell people who say, “I wish I was so-and-so. I wish I had what they said.” “Yeah, but this guy has cancer. You want that too?” “No, I don’t want the cancer! I just want the good things.”
EV: I think it’s generous that you wrote a book about writing, This Year You Write Your Novel. Basically you’re teaching other people how to write, so, competition.
WM: I’m happy to. I think everybody in the world should write a novel. That would change the world. It will organize your life, your mind, your imagination, your unconscious in ways that nothing else can do. Reading changes you, writing also changes you. I’m happy to tell people how to write novels. I don’t feel at all competitive with them. If more people wrote novels, we’d live in a much better world.
EV: They’d be busy writing?
WM: Because they would discover things about themselves and their lives. Creativity, the structure of the world, the structure of language, and that’s a good thing.
EV: Do you have any other educational enterprises?
WM: No! Actually twice a year I teach at the Sundance Institute. They have this intensive screenplay writing labs, and I participate in that.
EV: Okay. So in All I Did Was Shoot My Man you put Katrina the adulterous wife in hospital, so all of us are waiting to see if she dies!
WM: Yeah.
EV: Yeah! And then Leonid can marry maybe Aura the mistress, and Leonid’s father shows up and then in the turmoil of things the meeting with him is forgotten! It’s a terrible thing, a cliffhanger it is. I feel like punching you in the nose for doing this to me, playing with my emotions.
WM: It’s not really a cliff hanger.
EV: But it is! What if you die and don’t get to write one more book and nicely tie up the loose ends? Why are you doing this to me? Waiting for another year for the next book! And I can’t do anything to you.
WM: I don’t care. If something happens to me I’ll worry about that, I’m not gonna worry about you. Hopefully you’ll worry about me. What you’re saying is that someone comes to you and says, “Walter Mosley fell out of the window and died!” “Oh, my God, so what am I gonna do about the Leonid mystery?” Is that what your first response is gonna be?
EV: No. I’m teasing you.
WM: And I’m teasing you back.
The main stories in the novel are solved. Who is killing these people, who is hiring the Eastern European assassins, who is doing all this stuff, at the end you know everything. The father has been missing for 42 years, he can be missing for a bit longer. And Katrina is not dead! She’s not dead right now, we’re all gonna die!
EV: She might.
WM: She’s not dead right now. If she died it would be different. She didn’t die.
EV: But you understand my point, there is playing with the readership’s emotions!
WM: Listen, if a novel reflects life, then all the ends aren’t tied up in the end. But the story is. Cliffhangers are like the story itself is not finished, and this one is satisfying, you know who did it. That’s what has to happen by the end of the novel, who did it, and you find out.
EV: Now…
WM: Yes…
EV: I live in the hood.
WM: Yes, in East Harlem.
EV: In the projects. Well, I see nothing of the crimes and brutality you perceive and present in your books. How is that possible?! It is frightening. Do you want to frighten me? What have I done to you? People share their oranges with me in the elevator. Albeit our elevator gets urine puddles daily from some homeless. That’s the closest brush with danger I get.
WM: Aha, and that goes on in these books. In this world. You have some people who are bad, people who are good, people who are nice, people who are not, you know. People who’re helping, people who don’t. His son, Twill loves him, his son is there for him all the time. Sweet Lemon Charles says, 'I heard you’re looking for someone named William William. I might be able to help you with that.' And he shows him a way to live a better life.
EV: But still there are scary, scary situations.
WM: Well, they are crime novels. But it’s not that scary. Ptolemy Gray. But you have to say it, old people get treated worse than young people. Old people are ripped off and ignored. You have to write about those things, if you don’t you’re not paying attention to the world that we’re living in.
EV: True, the scariest thing in my building, well, we had our prostitute, but she’s gone now. And a death on the 14th floor landing, but I knew nothing about until a social worker team knocked at my door to ask me if I was traumatized by it and needed help. I said “No, I slept through it. But now I’m traumatized.” Still when I hear shooting at times, I don’t get scared anymore. But the scariest thing in the projects is the elevator filth, the bacteria.
WM: And I’m really happy.
EV: But maybe your reality is the real reality. So tell me is this at least part fiction?
WM: But excuse me, I don’t write about the projects. Every once in a while Leonid goes somewhere in the projects. But he’s dealing with really rich people. He goes to a guy who has a sculpture of Rodin in one room, an unknown Picasso in another room. Leonid travels to a high level. He goes to a house in Queens where they have a lawn and a child.
EV: But he also goes to decrepit settings in Lower East Side. Why are you telling me scary stories? Am I not scared enough by media, Mr. Mosley?
WM: Well, you know, there are some decrepit sites on the Lower East Side, but most of it is okay. People are not trying to kill him at every step. Once in a while someone might confront him. And he is a guy that looks for trouble. Leonid is looking for trouble. So I don’t mean, it's not my intent to make people scared walking down the street. His apartment building is nice and friendly; nobody tries to kill him when he goes up in the elevator.
EV: He killed two people who intruded in his home!
WM: But those were from your country!
EV: You made them up! I didn’t!
WM: Those were from your country!
EV: Nooo!
WM: They’re assassins from Romania! Probably Gypsy assassins.
EV: Gypsy people are not like that!
WM: Just kidding! Just kidding!
EV: Science fiction: You’re saying that is like exploring possible realities.
WM: Yeah. I think science fiction is great for Black people in America. Because history is kinda sad for us, our history in America, so is better to think of either an alternate past or a distant future where you can have other things happen. Other kinds of events, other kinds of explorations. You can also explore your mind. Have you read any of my science fiction?
EV: Yeah. The Wave.
WM: The Wave was for me was a wonderful exploration into a notion of how small and meaningless human life might be in a universe absolutely filled with life. I don’t see the universe empty. You know how we’re looking at the universe, “Is it possible that there’s life anywhere?” In this book, is, “God, there’s life everywhere! All kinds of life and movement, and we’re so stuck on who we are and what we are we can’t even see it! There’s life under our feet, there’s life floating through the universe, and we’re thinking we’re special.” I just love that, the whole notion that we are something else.
EV: So you were a computer guy.
WM: Yeah.
EV: And then you became a famous author.
WM: Uhu.
EV: Your life changed. Are you under gold-diggers’ attack and how do you fend for yourself?
WM: Sorry, I didn’t hear that. My life changed and what?
EV: Are you under gold diggers’ attack?
WM: Oh, gold diggers’ attack? You mean like beautiful young women who want my money? That would be great! That would be so great! God! Look…
EV: Why would be so great?
WM: Well, beautiful young women coming after you? That would be wonderful! No, look, it’s like this. My life is like this: I got my first book published when I was 38 years old. Up until then my life was a failure. It wasn’t bad; I just didn’t rise above in anyway. I was indistinguishable from a million people walking down any street. I was just another number.
EV: You had a steady paycheck.
WM: Yeah, most people have a steady paycheck. There’s a lot of unemployment, but most people have a paycheck. Some people made more than me, some people made less than me, but they had money. So then I became a writer, but I was already a failure, so that was good. I never took my notoriety or so-called fame too seriously. I love writing, but I don’t feel like I’m something great or famous. If other people like to think that of me, that’s fine. But I’m too old to be fooled by my own hype. So it would be hard to gold dig me, because I wouldn’t pay attention.
EV: But still you said it would be grand.
WM: Well, it would be great! Beautiful young women throwing themselves at me. They don’t. Or if they are, I don’t notice it. Honestly. I’m just telling you the truth. When you are young and you become very famous you become very aware of yourself, how beautiful you might be and how other people might want you, but I’m old. I’m not old-old, I’m not decrepit, I’m 60. I lived a life, you know. Some people are nice to me, some people say provocative things to me, I don’t pay that much attention to it.
EV: Why?
WM: Why would you? It’s like, you’re living your life. It would be great if some beautiful young woman would throw herself at me, that would be great, I’d go home, “Wow, that’s great! A beautiful young woman threw herself at me today!” then I’d go to bed, watch television. Really, honestly. That’s the truth! Honest truth.
EV: It doesn’t agree with you in the long run. It would ruin your routine.
WM: What I love is writing. I get up in the morning and I write. Every day. Seven days a week, 365 days a year. I love it. That’s what I do!
EV: And a beautiful young woman would interfere with this routine!
WM: It’s not my goal!
EV: Yeah, but what I was saying—and I’m joking. I’m not joking—is that your life changed after you got published.
WM: It did change.
EV: Then you have gold diggers, I said it metaphorically, you have charity people, you have…
WM: They don’t bother me too much, ‘cause I’m a writer, writers are not that rich. It’s not like I’m an actor, or a sport star, making millions of millions of dollars. I do okay. Every once in a while people ask me to come to appear in a place because they can get some money, ‘cause people want to sit at my table, stuff like that, and I do that, if it’s a good cause, I do it, but it’s not day in, day out.
The other day I had lunch with a movie star, I won’t give his name, but I had lunch with a movie star and he was complaining people are always after his money, people want his time, because he’s famous. If they can get just his name on it, a million people will respond. I’m not that. I’m small, it’s nice. Most people don’t know who I am. It’s true. Most people don’t.
EV: Well, my friend Carl Selinger is gaga about you!
WM: That’s good!
EV: He loves your mysteries.
WM: Yeah, there are thousands of people who love my work.
EV: I’ll get a free lunch out of him to gab about you now!
WM: That’s good.
EV: So, okay, it’s not a clear cut love story, still we have Ptolemy, 90 something, and a teenager…
WM: It’s wonderful. It is a love story.
EV: Sort of a winter-and-spring love…
WM: Yeah, but it’s early spring and late-late winter.
EV: It’s almost a Nabokov proposition.
WM: Yeah, but, but—and I love Nabokov, and Lolita is a very important novel, a wonderful writer—but Ptolemy Gray is at odds with that concept. This is real love, Lolita is obsession. Lolita is about being self-centered in two different ways: the girl is self-centered because she is a child, she doesn’t know any better, it’s all about her, and he’s self-centered in his obsession. All he can think about is his needs, his desire, his fever for this girl. That’s Lolita. In this book you have two people who have deep, deep needs and what they really need, though they had no idea before they met is each other. He needs her to help him clean up his house, to find somebody help him with his mental thing, she needs somebody who’d say, “Here, take my money, here’s a bed, here’s a place you can sleep, I love you.” It’s the opposite of Lolita. Almost exactly the opposite of Lolita.
And the reason I have them different ages is not the reason Nabokov has it. I have them at different ages because they can’t possibly consummate a sexual relationship; all they can do in the end is be there for each other, which is what real love ends up being anyway. Why do you love that person? Because they are everything to me. In this case it’s true; they are everything to each other. And he dies. But he leaves her with something. His whole life that’s what he wanted to do, leave somebody with something. I like that book.
EV: I was thinking it’s a bit about your own fears.
WM: Of growing old? No, that was my mother.
EV: But you have no children! Whatchugonna do?!
WM: Nothing! I know all kinds of people who have children who in the end they say they wish they never did. It’s not like having children will make you happy. The great thing about Ptolemy is he decided on who his daughter is gonna be. He chose her. ‘Cause he has real children he doesn’t get along with. But this girl, he decided on her, she decided on him, it’s ideal.
EV: Okay. Well, I wanted to tease you that since you said this novel is about your mom: was your mom dating young? [WM laughs.] Okay so, Obama.
WM: Well, yeah, listen, Obama comes from many different places for me. Number one: he got elected president. That’s all he needed to do. Obama doesn’t have to do ever another thing for me. A Black man, president of the United States, that is… impossible! It’s miraculous. It’s something else! As president, I’m progressive, he’s middle of the road, so our politics don’t really jive. I don’t really know him, but it doesn’t seem like it.
On the other hand I have all these people who love, love Obama, but once he got elected, sat back, “What’s he gonna do?!” Well, what you gonna do? How you gonna make this country different? How are you gonna support his medical plan? How you gonna go to work every day and explain to people why what he’s trying to do makes sense and what they’re saying is just stupid.
You call him a socialist? My God! What’s wrong with you? You call this socialism? Where do you come from? Explain to them what socialism is; explain to them what a democratic process is.
So he’s done a lot of things that I don’t like, and he hasn’t succeeded in a lot of things I wish he would, but I blame us, not him. I blame the American electorate. Listen, if your country is not working, it’s your fault! You can’t blame the president. He works for us! I think that about all presidents! He has this special thing that he’s Black. You don’t have to do anything.
EV: Do you engage in co-writing?
WM: When I do screenplays, I do. I’m working right now on an Easy Rawlins series for NBC and I’m working with a guy named Cheo. I’m writing a Leonid series for HBO. I outlined it and sent it in. I will write it myself but I wouldn’t mind a co-writer. Film is collaborative. But theater and novels, not so collaborative.
EV: I know what I could do to you: writing my own mystery series, with a sultry Transylvanian detective in Harlem. Manipulate your emotions!
WM: Aaa, Transylvanian! That would be wonderful!
EV: I always wanted to do that. But I don’t seem to have the motivation… Why do you, one writes mysteries? Search for justice? Closure? Working out anger?
WM: Well, I mean, detectives are like every day existentialists. Rather than being some philosophers, it’s like how you work out your life. What’s right, what’s wrong, doing the right thing, representing people who feel they haven’t been represented. Also for me, if you are political at all, which I am, if you write a book about let’s say a migrant worker in California, if you write a novel, The Migrant worker in California, only people interested in migrant workers gonna read it. Probably not even migrant workers gonna read it, just people interested in them. But if you write a mystery about a migrant worker who’s been arrested for killing a plantation boss and a Chicano detective comes down from Los Angeles to investigate the case, everybody reads it. Because they are interested in the mystery. Who did it? How did they do it? And in that, you get to have your political soap box inside that, so it’s good. Right?
EV: Yeah, I have to think about it.
WM: Oh, yeah, because people love mysteries. Something bad happened, somebody is trying to find out, what are they doing, people love to read that. So when you do that, you can take your regular novel and have your migrant worker who’s suffering on the strawberry plantation north of Santa Barbara, people say, “Why am I reading that? I don’t want to know about that so bad…” But you can put all that information in a mystery, and they’ll just eat it up! No pun intended. And that’s why.
I have to go and rest. I’m doing a reading in the evening at a book store.
EV: Thank you so much.
WM: Oh, thank you, darling!
My work is cut for me. Expect the sultry Transylvanian detective to hit the crime noir market pretty soon. I’ll churn them out big time. Gotta pay the rent.
January 30, 2012
New York

Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, witnessing democracy, amassing testimonies, and engineering social change thru art being one of them, I’d be grateful.

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