Walter Mosley Talks About 47
Among the various members of this audience there are many, many historical
cultures represented. Irish Catholics, Russians, Chinese. There might be some
Scandinavians or English, Japanese or Mexicans. For every group there's a
culture and a history. Some of you might be well versed in the history of your
people or your particular family trees. But even if the specifics of your
cultural and historical heritage are not at your fingertips you know that they
exist: you could call a family member or a take a class in the language that
your ancestors spoke. You could get into a plane and fly to the country of your
forbears' birth and find out where you came from and what impact your culture
has had on the world.
Most of you take these truths for granted. Yes I'm Irish, Jewish, Norwegian, French. Now and then you see a movie like Braveheart or Mozart and have a moment of nostalgic realization. Maybe you descend from some great scientist or warlord. Maybe your great, great grandfather witnessed some important historical event.
If you're like most modern day folks you don't think about it all that much. You live today in this world. You work and love, raise children and vote for dubious leaders.
But the underlying confidence and pride you have in your historical identity is an unseen foundation for your cultural, political, and social identity. It's not only that you are a citizen of your country today but your racial history has played a part in the development of that world in which you are, hopefully, a productive and respectable member.
Now imagine all of that history washed away. No homeland or old country, no language spoken by an aged aunt who died some years ago. No history or historical significance in the lives of your people. No people really in the sense that they came from a specific group that formed over the millennia of human history.
There are people who look like you and talk like you. But those people, on the whole, do not appear in history books and literary fiction, on governing commissions or in halls such as this one.
Instead of an old country there is a continent made up of lands that were divvied up and named by European and Middle Eastern conquerors. The nation of your ancestors' birth was long ago wiped away. And even if your land was still there you would have no way of knowing that you were from there. This because your nameless ancestors were ripped from their lands, robbed of their languages, separated from anyone who shared their historical knowledge, and punished, sometimes killed, for being devil worshippers when they practiced old religious rites.
If in the modern day you become curious and want to know where you come from the only information available to you would be about the torture, degradation, and enslavement of a section of humanity that suffered from morning to night every single day of their short and, on the whole, joyless lives.
Imagine that the only photographs left of your ancestors were people in chains with scars writhing across their backs like fat serpents. Imagine that your people were property like cows or chickens or dogs.
As you find out more you know even less. Because even when these brutalized ancestors were freed they still were not equal to other people who had a past. They couldn't vote or demand justice or even hold their head high when other real citizens walked by.
Imagine that your people spoke the language of the people that enslaved them, that you spoke this language with no other viable alternative.
Imagine what tomorrow would be like without a yesterday to inform it.
Now imagine being asked to study this negative space that is your past. Imagine re-experiencing generation after generation of humiliation and misery; of looking at this tragedy and saying, "You see that? That's what I come from."
This is the problem that my new young adult novel - 47 - takes on. My project is to inform young people about the only history that they can claim, with all the terror and hopeless that attends that history, while, at the same time, trying to present hope and the possibility of love of self and self-respect.
Many black people in America shy away from reading about slavery, lynchings, Jim Crow, and racism. The ugliness and the pain seem unremitting. Why do you ask me to identify with these pitiful and wretched lives? They silently ask.
It's a good question.
The answer is, of course, that one must embrace her past in order to create her future. How else can we make moral decisions? How else can we resist becoming the very scum that made us?
To overcome the resistance that many young and old blacks have of looking deeply into our past I have come up with a creation: A historical novel that uses the tools of mythology and science fiction to create a scenario that allows the reader to identify with a main character who will rise above all others; a character who will be a triumphant hero amidst the travesty of slavery.
I have created a suitable companion for my slaveboy protagonist - a boy named Tall John who is really an alien being who has come to understand that his star-flung fate is inextricably intertwined with the destiny of our hero. Tall John himself is a reflection of an old slave myth about a spirit named High John the Conqueror. High John, the myth goes, came from Africa to confound the white masters and to ultimately free the slaves.
By blending these various genres I am able to create a compelling boy's adventure story that forces our boy hero to confront the terms of his life: These terms are manifest in three words - master, freedom, and nigger.
This YA novel is a story about overcoming the impossible odds stacked against the slave and realizing that who I am and what I am is for me and only me to decide.
This book is not only written for the young black reader. The history it reveals is the history of all young English speaking North Americans. This history allows all of us to deal with the holocaust of our past and the hope of our future.
Originally delivered at the 2005 American Library Association conference.
Walter Mosley Discusses Fearless Jones and Paris Minton
When I began writing the novel Fearless Jones, it was simply to get involved once again with the characters Paris Minton and Fearless Jones. I've always been interested in those two amateur sleuths because of what their characters reveal about intelligence. Paris is a voracious reader and a logical thinker. There aren't many chess players that can best Paris. In school he would be a top ranked student but on the street he has serious limitations. That's because Paris is a normal every day kind of Joe. He's afraid of violence and trouble. He yearns to live the safe and conservative life of a bookworm.
Paris is an unusual narrator for the genre because of his cautious attitudes toward violence, crime, and the law. His fears and observations, I believe, are closer to those of the average reader than the more prevalent hard-boiled narrators of the field. When Paris decides to pull out a gun or follow a criminal to his lair it is with all the fear and trepidation that you or I might experience before embarking on such a fool-hardy adventure. I hope that this type of narrator will allow the reader a different kind of entrée into this story of mayhem, doublecrosses, and corruption.
Where Paris is an intellectual, Fearless is the one with a brave and smart heart. Fearless has trouble with the logic of checkers but he can read what's going on deep in a man's soul. He's a staunch friend and absolutely unafraid of death, love, or any other kind of pain. Fearless can't follow a clue but he can make out the scent of deceit and treachery. When you have Fearless on your side there's always a chance of survival.
So that's where it began for me. Back on the streets of L.A. in the mid-fifties, talking about that chapter of American history that rarely gets mention in twentieth century literature; the lives and experiences of black men and women struggling to make it out from under the weight of history.
But as the story began to unfold I realized that there was new element of mid-century African-American life that I was getting into: the role of the black entrepreneur among African-American transplants from the south. On the first page we learn that Paris has opened a used bookstore on Central. As the story unfolds we meet beauty shop and restaurant owners, real estate managers, a bailbondsman who was once a lawyer, a woman whose dream it is to open a catering business. The struggle of Paris and Fearless to solve the mystery of the missing Swiss bond is carried out on a backdrop of the larger struggle for a disenfranchised group to become invested not only in the American experiment with freedom but also in the commerce that has made America so strong.
If I had to describe the genre of Fearless Jones I would call it comic noire with a fringe of social realism. I hope that you find it an entertaining interlude and a good read.
Source: LittleBrown 2003
An Interview With Walter Mosley
(a transcript of the original live interview) Now that Easy Rawlins is back and is haunted by the voice of Mouse throughout Bad Boy Brawly Brown, the question must be asked, is Mouse really dead?
We have yet to find out...that's my only answer. We have yet to find out.
Do you plan to write another Easy Rawlins mystery that will explain?
The next Easy Rawlins will explain.
When is it scheduled for?
So the readers don't have that long to wait.
One of the recurrent motifs in Bad Boy Brawly Brown is the complex relationship between Easy and his son, Juice. You often speak about your father in public and interview, is there any specific role in here? Why was it important for you to write about this now? Does any part of this relationship come from personal experience?
What I write about are black, male heroes. A big part of being a hero in a community is raising children from one way or another. I don't have any kids. But, I know this role from my own father. I wanted to write it specifically, which this book Bad Boy Brawly Brown does, and it talks about black men and their sons and their friends' sons.
You also often speak about your own father. Does he have a role in here?
He has a role in this just in as much as he was my father. I don't think that he has a place...he's not doing something in the book. There are some things in the book that Easy does that my father would have talked about, but I don't know if he would have.
The reason that Brawly Brown finds himself in so much trouble is the organization that he joins, the Urban Revolutionary Party. Ostensibly, this group's goal is to improve the community, but they get involved in shadier endeavors as well. What is the genesis of this group? Were groups like these common in the mid-60's in Los Angeles? Do they continue to be? Do you think they were more of a positive or negative force on the community? And in their terms of their role in the community?
When I talk about the Urban Revolutionary Party, this was a time just before the big organization started out with the Black Panthers and this was the beginning of all of those organizations. I'm not talking about so much the organizations themselves as I'm talking about the individuals that make up that organization. When you look at the people who are in the organization, there are all different kinds of people...some people who are idealistic...some people are down to earth...some people who are tired of it all...some people who are criminals...and some people like Brawly Brown who is completely confused and trying to kind of edge out emotions for himself in the world. And it's me talking about political groups and people talking about political groups today as if...everything was a monologue...everyone thought the same, acted the same and was the same, but that's not true. Part of that is not true is when Easy goes to see the group for the first time and the police say they know all about you because somebody in here is a member of the police, which almost solves the case because the police know that any organization is made up of individuals and all of those individuals have strengths and weaknesses.
And in terms of their role in the community?
Yeah, well the role in the community is very strong, but the world in the community depends on who you are talking about...it could be someone who preaches some kind of violent overthrow of the society or somebody who wants to start giving breakfast to children or somebody who says "hey, this would be a really good way to deal drugs...so the idea is to say, "what is the purpose?" Well, the purpose is for the organizations to change with time and they also change from member to member.
Easy says about his girlfriend, "Bonnie was in every way my equal." Although she is a strong force in the book and obviously has quite an influence over Easy, we don't see that much of her in Bad Boy Brawly Brown. Will she be returning in the future and where does she come from? Will she be any kind of help to him in solving the crimes?
Do you mean from my head or from the world?
A larger world in the next book. However, the book is about Easy...I mean Bonnie played a significant role in the previous book, A Little Yellow Dog. She's a stewardess, works for Air France, travels around the world. She has a knowledge and a view of the world above and beyond Easys'. But, the book is about Easy and about solving crimes but she's not doing that. She's not a crime solver, but she was a victim of the crime...I'm not going to do that to her again I don't think.
Will she ever be more of a help to him in solving crimes?
No, no, I'm not going to do that. Easy is a hard-boiled detective in as much as he works alone; he works by himself. Every once in a while, sure, she helped him immensely by putting a cigarette between his lips and stop smoking. But the truth is, what I do with my work is that I'm writing about black male heroes and to make a statement about that...a lot of people write about all kinds of other heroes...white male heroes, white female heroes, black female heroes...but there are not a lot of black male heroes and that's the job I'm working on and that's the genre, that's what I'm working on.
Since you do write about black male heroes, she was just an interesting character since she is such a strong person.
Well, it's not only her...Ettamae Harris is an incredibly powerful person who does things. And first, there are many women throughout Bad Boy Brawly Brown and have a very strong purpose. The only person that Easy is afraid of is a woman. Now this person can kill him and they're common in the book, but not as detectives.
So, speaking of your characters, you create such memorable characters, Easy Rawlins, Mouse, Fearless Jones, Socrates Fortlow, where do these characters come from? Are they based on people who you know? Do you find the voice before the character or vice versa? When you develop the characters, how do you work on them? Do they develop as you write or do you know how they are going to be before you start?
I don't know...I don't know the answer to that question. I do know these people, but not as individuals. You know how in your mind there are all these templates for people you have had experiences with...this kind of person...that kind of person from your whole life and these templates are in my head from the thousands of people I know in the black community. But it's not like you can go out and find Jackson Blue somewhere ...though...there are hundreds of them...or Mouse...there are thousands of them...or Easy Rawlins...there are a lot of them too...but it's a type, not a person.
And when you develop the characters, how do you work on them? Do they develop as you write? Or do you know how they're going to be before you start?
I start writing the book...I just start writing and I write till I get to the end. The characters all appear. The characters change and develop as I re-write, but it's not technical like, "Oh, here's a voice. Now let me see, is this going to be a man or a woman?"
Of all the genres that you write in, screenplays, essays, fiction, science fiction, what is your favorite?
I don't think I have a favorite...for me...it's not that all writing is the same...it's all headed toward the same place...and that place is what I love and it's when you write something that works. I wrote a letter or recommendation this weekend and I just love it...I'm so passionate about this letter. I think I said everything exactly perfect and I think you can get as much out of that as writing...
You always have so many projects going on at once. What else are you working on now? When can we expect Fearless Jones to return?
Fearless Jones will return next year. Right now, I am working on the collection of short stories on Easy Rawlins. I am re-visiting the book that Little Brown's going to put out in about a year and half called, The Man in my Basement, What Next and it's kind of questioning the black reaction on the so-called war on terrorism.
And about the screenplays, are any of them coming out in the near future?
One never knows...so one cannot say.
And is there anything in film that you have written for film that is in the pipeline?
Well, I have written a screenplay for Futureland. I wrote it for HBO, but I don't think they are going to...so we're going to go somewhere else, but I am working with Forrest Whitaker and a couple of other people.
Your books function on many levels, you're fiction in any case, they're both easy to read, page-turners, but they address serious issues and also have literary illusions varied in them. What is your primary goal when you write, is it entertainment or instruction?
Well, it's definitely not instruction. I mean, I don't see writers as teachers because books are kind of shared items because when writers write them, they are hardly anything and when people start to read them, they begin to change and grow and like that. You cannot write without some way of capturing the interest of the reader...so there are different kinds of books for different kinds of interest. You know, in writing fiction, people shouldn't enjoy reading these stories. I hope they enjoy the revelation of the characters and in their situation that will help them go further. But, I can't say that I have anything in specific that I want them to learn. Also, I am very interested in writing as well as I can...I'd like to write a really good book...and that's the other thing. And for me, when somebody says, "in order to read my writing, you're really going to have to reach to understand..." and I think that's a flaw on the side of the writer, not the reader because a writer should be able to make things as simple as possible...to flow not only into this culture, but in the future so somebody can pick up this book in the future and have an understanding of this world.
Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Time Warner.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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