Walter Mosley is known for iconic characters. From Easy Rawlins to Leonid McGill and Fearless Jones, his heroes quickly come to life on the page in a way that draws interest and empathy from readers. Their personalities are so distinct that legions of fans line up to buy his books, eager to devour a new mystery through the evolving lens of their favorite sleuth.
“They’re all getting older,” says Mosley, referring to his cast of series protagonists. “So [in each book] it’s a different time and it’s a different person having that experience.”
That nuance may seem subtle, but it’s illustrative of how deeply Mosley inhabits the minds of his characters. In a conversation with WD, he reflects on the passion and craft that inform his bestselling novels.
Devil in a Blue Dress was published almost three decades ago. How do you think your writing or your writing process has changed since that first book? Or has it?
That’s a really hard question. I’m sure that it has, but I’m not even sure how. One of the things that I’ve talked to people about, because a lot of people worry about technique…
It’s like when you talk about painters, and you’ll say, “Wow, look at that. That piece looks like you could pick it up off the canvas and eat it. It looks that real.” I say, “Uh-huh, but that doesn’t make it art.” That just [means] the craft is really excellent. But, you know, you might find somebody living on a farm in rural Tennessee who has palsy, draws a shaking outline of a peach in a couple of strokes, and that’s much more art. He has more feeling to it. There’s more the placement of it, the weight of it. When you feel what was behind the drawing even.
And I say that because I’m a much, much better writer than I was when I wrote Devil in a Blue Dress. But any book I’ve written now, Devil could stand up against critically. Because it’s actually what you put into it that makes it the art, not necessarily the craft. I mean, you can’t be completely without craft, but craft doesn’t make art. Craft just makes good sentences.
In reading Down the River Unto the Sea, it only takes three chapters to feel like you intimately know and feel empathy for your main character, Joe King Oliver. How do you manage to achieve that level of characterization so quickly into a novel?
I think you have to know your character intimately. The other thing about it is this: You’re reading this novel, right? And the notion is, well, it’s like this is the first time you’re ever reading these words. And maybe the last also. But what’s important to remember is that the writer wrote a draft of that chapter and then another and then another, you know what I mean? The writer has written a whole book and then has come back to that chapter with all this knowledge that they have from the whole book, and brings that to bear.
So even though it feels kind of like, well, he did this in the first two chapters or three chapters— really it took a whole book to be able to do that in the first two or three chapters.
How thoroughly do you outline a book prior to beginning, and do you layer in clues and foreshadowing as you go along? Or do you find that you do that more in revision after the story’s already down on the page?
Well, I think that those are two choices, but there are others also. Like, for instance, you might unconsciously put something in there.
Like you’re writing and when you come back to read it again, you go, “Oh wow, look at that. Well if that’s true, then we could do this…” and you didn’t know you were doing it. So I mean, there are a lot of ways. I don’t try to outline a mystery. I outline the story. But I don’t really outline the underlying plot. I discover that in my rewriting.
What role does setting play for you in bringing a story to life?
It’s hard to separate setting from character from the weather. All of it is in description. You’re describing things from the beginning to the end, and how much energy you put into making that feel unique is what that’s about.
Some people are less interested in the urban environment that they’re in, for instance. Honestly, I write well about New York, but I still am not quite sure of the names of the streets that intersect with my street.
I’m writing another book about writing, and one of the moments I talk about is you go into a hospital room and there’s a paraplegic man in a white bed in a coma. How long would it take you to describe that scene? And the truth is, if you did it exhaustively, it would be thousands of pages. Thousands. Because there are so many things happening, so many different elements. In a completely pristine, uninteresting, unmoving room.
So the question becomes: How do you choose what to say to explain that room in a paragraph or two? And move on? And I have an answer for that question, and you have an answer for that question, and all the other people reading this will have an answer for that question. And so partly, it’s how much you love it, but the other thing is how deeply can you feel it. And when you get to the depth of your feeling about that room, let’s say you remember an aunt who is dying, who had kind of lost consciousness lying in a bed in a room, then you can do it. And you’ll say everything: The smell, the time of day, the clock ticking on the wall. Some children out the crack in the window playing in the yard. You know what I’m saying? You decide. It either comes from your memory or your imagination, but it doesn’t come from mine.
You’ve said that in fiction, there’ve historically been black male protagonists and black male supporting characters, but nobody writes about black male heroes. In your mind, what distinguishes a protagonist from a hero?
Well you know, Richard Wright’s characters in all of his books, their main characters—their protagonists—are very serious people, but they’re deeply flawed. And they’re not people that we like or we want to be. That person isn’t representing us in the world. That person’s not our Captain America, you know what I mean? It’s like this guy and maybe he killed somebody. Because he’s completely destroyed by the system.
Now, I understand that a lot of heroes—especially for people from struggling classes in America—they’re going to have been destroyed in some kind of way. They’re going to have to then attack in some kind of way. Like King Oliver, you know. His whole life has been turned upside down and torn apart. He’s lost everything. For a long time: his daughter, his wife, his job, his belongings, everything—gone. But we still like him. He has his flaws, he’s done these things wrong. But we identify with him in a way, and we can say, “I see myself in this character, and I’d like to be able to do what he does to answer my problems.”
Easy Rawlins was like that. And that’s one of the jobs of literature. One of the jobs of literature is to show people themselves. For instance, Huckleberry Finn. That’s a character that people identify with. When he looks at the Widow and he says something like, “Well, you know, if she was going to heaven, I couldn’t see much purpose in me going there, so I guess I’ll go to the other place,” he’s talking to us. He’s talking to the working class. He’s talking to the oppressed classes, wherever he is.
Your upcoming book, John Woman, is described as a “deliciously unexpected novel about the way we tell stories and whether the stories we tell have the power to change the world.” What was your inspiration for this book?
I wanted to write a book about how impossible it is to understand history, and how impossible it is to escape history. So you’re completely controlled by something you can’t understand, even though you believe you understand. My studies in political theory led me to that belief, and just to talk about something so heady and intellectual in a very earthy and earthbound novel reminds me of one of my literary heroes, Émile Zola from France. He was so great at talking about the culture of a country and people.
And at the same time, telling a very earthy story of violence and prison and being a fugitive from justice. All that stuff, you know, is part of understanding how the stories we tell inform our lives.