Walter Mosley Thinks America Is Getting Dumber
“Walter Mosley is best known as one of contemporary literature’s pre-eminent crime novelists, but he’s actually four or five different writers rolled into one. Famous for his Easy Rawlins series of novels, Mosley has also written sci-fi (“Blue Light”), existential erotica (“Killing Johnny Fry”), parables about race (“Fortunate Son”), political monographs (“Life Out of Context”) and writing guides (“This Year You Write Your Novel”), to cite just a few of the 50 or so books he has published. He’s an altogether thornier, more idiosyncratic writer than readers may know, an inveterate investigator and chronicler of his own heart, mind and soul. “Art itself, like psychoanalysis, comes from deep inside you, somewhere where all of these things are roiling around, coming together, falling apart,” says the 71-year-old Mosley, whose new novel, “Every Man a King,” the second to feature his ex-N.Y.P.D.-investigator-turned-private-eye protagonist, Joe King Oliver, will be published on Feb. 21. “I write seven days a week, usually three hours a day, and when I’m writing, things come up. I say, here’s something! I like finding out what I’m about.”
When I was reading old articles about you, especially from around the time of a lot of them talked about how your work brought a new kind of representation to the detective genre. All these years later, are there any ways in which you see the publishing world’s idea of “representation” as also carrying any limiting expectations? Here’s the thing: When I first got published, there weren’t a lot of Black people being published. The amount of work that you had to do to be out there in the world was amazing. That’s no longer true. But publishing has remained incredibly white. Because it’s been so white, and because it’s the kind of business where you hire your friends, you also hire people who tell stories that you’re interested in. It’s not like, “I don’t want to hire that Black person.” It’s more like, “I don’t know what he’s talking about, and he’s not my friend.” So that’s one thing. But the reason publishers started publishing more books by Black people is that Black people buy books in which they see themselves. There are a lot of books out there that do represent who Black people are and what we think about. It’s not that only white people read the books, and so we have to create books that white people will feel somehow satisfied by.
So representation doesn’t present any potential pitfalls? Explain what you mean.
I’ll try by analogy. If Jewish American novelists could only get work published that was still responding to the mid-20th-century pressures of assimilation or was all written in the shadow of mainstream successes like Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, that, to me, would be a limiting kind of representation. Similarly, I wonder if the mainstream publishing industry is still mostly interested in a narrow slice of Black experience. Does that make any sense? I just want to say, before we get into answering that question, that are Jewish, and they weren’t writing about being Jewish. They were writing stories. When you talk about Saul Bellow and Roth, there’s a certain really small group of people who think that they’re really important in their lives. I’m not one of those people. There’s some good writing in there, but if you write what is essentially memoir, you have to be writing about a period of time, not about yourself. Once you start talking about the girls you banged and the people who mistreated you, then it’s like, man, this is not interesting; it should be a Wikipedia page. But Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I’ve been reading them since I was a kid, and there’s nothing Jewish in it at all. Stan and Jack said: “This is fun! We can express ourselves and make money and have an audience.” And they did. I think there are a lot of so-called white people who don’t feel represented in literature. If you’re in the South, how many people are writing about the problems of your life? Bellow and Roth, they’re writing a very particular kind of story, but they don’t represent America. The only people who write about them are people who have degrees in literature.
This is only tangentially related, but I was reading about “Herzog” the other day, and did you know that the year it came out, The literary culture was so different 60 or so years ago. But wait a second. Who’s the guy? He was a crime writer. He’d write a line like “She came in the door packing a pair of .38s.” He said, “This writer came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Spillane, don’t you think it’s a tragedy that seven out of the 10 best-selling books last year were your books?’” And he said, “Shut up, or I’ll write three more.” People read books looking for what’s missing in their lives, looking for action and adventure. Really, I don’t even know what Bellow’s talking about. Honestly, I don’t. I mean, I like his writing. I’m happy that he won a Nobel Prize. I’m also happy that Roth didn’t. But what are the problems that we face when you start dealing with capitalism, existentialism, when you start living with sexism? How do we deal with these things? With identity politics? You have to tell stories about real people experiencing it and not real people with a Ph.D. People who are not stupid but ignorant, who don’t know things about the world. So then they’re trying to figure out what’s right and wrong according to what they do know. Which is why I bring up Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. When I was a kid, I learned from comic books. You see the Sub-Mariner in a comic book. You say, here is a supervillain, but he’s a supervillain because the surface dwellers destroyed his people. He’s more like a guerrilla fighter. As a kid, you read that, and you think about it naturally. You don’t even think about thinking about it, but you’re thinking about it!
When you say you don’t know what Bellow is talking about, you mean the milieu of his books? The people? I guess I don’t identify with the emotional impetus of a lot of his work. I think part of me unconsciously understands what’s going on, but the stories themselves, I get a little lost. Who, what, why is this happening? When you look at his life, a lot of it is — a lot of times you tell a story, that’s wish fulfillment. OK, but what’s the real thing going on?
Isn’t wish fulfillment as valid a motivation for storytelling as any other? Writers are working out their own stuff the best way they know how, right? Yeah, but working it out and wish fulfillment are two different things. It’s OK to want to be the hero of the story, but you still have to, at some point, say what the world they’re living in is. You know, I knew Russell. He was a good guy. He wrote a lot about himself, but he was ruthless and didn’t give himself any breaks. He understood his wishes, but he also understood the underlying reality. Bellow’s a wonderful writer, but I identified more, or I felt I could understand more, about what Russell was saying than Bellow.
I assume you were being playful when you said you were happy that Roth didn’t win the Nobel, but why do you say that? I think there’s a little more innocence in Bellow’s work. I’m not going to try to be a literary critic here. I just didn’t like Roth’s work. I didn’t like reading it. I didn’t like the characters, nor what the characters were telling me. You can have a character and think they’re awful and still learn something from them, and I didn’t feel that I was learning anything from Roth. I wouldn’t have given him the Nobel Prize, which, if he’d got it, would be fine.
You mentioned Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I know you’ve always been a big comic fan, but what do you make of the cultural dominance of the Marvel Universe? Because I guess one way of looking at it is that those stories constitute our modern myths. Another way is that their ubiquity is a sign of a dumbed-down culture. Yeah, that’s true, but why is it true? We’re living in a dumbed-down culture because the education of most people in America is sad and not useful. There are people who don’t know how to spell, they don’t know how to think. They don’t even teach kids how to deal with money in school — the one thing you think they would teach in America. So the fact that the people turn to comic books and pornography and other seemingly lower-level things? I’m not sure that they are lower-level, but the reason that things are selling is because of how America is dealing with its citizens. It’s a symptom: He’s sneezing. Why is he sneezing? We live next to a pepper factory. Maybe it’s the pepper!
So the implication is that cultural tastes would be different if people were educated differently? What’s the biggest problem facing almost all Americans? Money. But you go to high school, and they don’t teach you about money. They don’t tell you: You’re going to live to be 90, but you’re going to retire at 65, and the money the government gives you is not meant to be enough to take care of you. That’s a perfect example of how we educate in ignorance. You have these people coming out into the world, and they don’t know what to do. My God. Our educational system has failed 90 percent of the people.
I want to ask you about that Times guest essay you wrote about quitting a TV show after you got in trouble for saying the N-word in telling a story from your teenage years. I told that story! It was my experience. Somebody complained, for whatever reason, and then the studio called me, and said, we don’t accept this because it’s not right. And I’m sitting there like, no, you don’t accept this because you don’t want to get sued. It was crazy. I mean, so-called white people are telling me that I can’t say a word I’ve been living with and under my entire life, and my father and his father and his father? And now I can’t even use it to explain my own experience? Are you insane? But it’s like, you think it’s all one thing, political correctness, but it’s also about money. They said, look, we don’t really care, but we’re willing to destroy you if you get us into trouble here. I said, fine, I’ll quit.
Right, so in that essay, you wrote: “There’s all kinds of language that makes me uncomfortable. Half the utterances of my president, for instance. Some people’s sexual habits and desires. But I have no right whatsoever to tell anyone what they should and should not cherish or express.” Isn’t that conflating public free speech with rules of speech that a private enterprise might have? Maybe there’s a difference between what we can express at work and what we can express in our personal lives. You are you. I’m me. There are certain things that you might not like that people say, but if it’s true in the office, it’s true outside the office. I’m not different where I work and where I’m not working. That doesn’t mean I’m right, by the way. But if you’re going to take my job because I’m not being who you want me to be, that’s a very serious thing.
So where’s the line for discourse at work? If you use language aggressively and in an attacking way, that is almost the same as hitting you. You can’t work in that environment. The problem is, of course, usually people get away with the worst things. They get away with not paying you enough money. We’re limited on all sides, from the time we’re born to the time we die, but I think that we all understand, I have a right to be me, to say what I feel. That’s being threatened from all sides. It’s not just from the right; it’s also from the left. Look, the freest I’m ever going to be is equal to everybody around me. If we’re all equal, then that’s the limit of my freedom. It’s a great notion. I’ve been lucky in my life. Economically I’ve done the right things at the right time. I’m a writer in Hollywood, so I belong to a union. It’s wild. I get a pension. It’s great! But when you have that, you think: Why doesn’t everybody have that? Why are these people at 79 years old working as greeters in some big chain store? Why can’t I just live and know that my life is going to be assured as long as everybody around me is assured? That’s the equality thing. You get to eat, I get to eat. You have a place to sleep, I have a place to sleep. Except capitalism doesn’t work like that. What was it that Damon Wayans used to say?
Let me ask about the character of He’s this guy who feels this push and pull between his logical rationale for racism and his emotions about race. But do you think there’s any racism that isn’t fundamentally emotional? Oh, sure. There’s institutional racism. There are also assumptions. To give an example: My grandfather on my mother’s side, Harry Slatkin, was a Jew from Russia — or the satellites of Russia. He came to America, I think, in 1905. He was a doctor. He was talking to my mom once, and she said she was going to marry my father, and he said, “But Black people, they’re closer to the apes than we are!” But when my grandfather met my father, he fell in love with him. He was running around with a series of prejudices that didn’t make sense but he thought were true. There’s all kinds of things like that. But yeah, a lot of racism comes out of your fears, your bruises, your wounds, and this character needed to hate somebody. It wasn’t until he fell in love that he was able to question the need to hate. I think most people have these kinds of irrational angers and fears. Quiller realizes: Wait a second. This Black woman understands what I’m saying more than all these other people, and she tells me they’re idiots — and they are! How am I going to redefine myself? That’s always possible. And in this book, Joe Oliver allows for change. America is a funny place. A lot of people see what’s wrong, but a lot of it is good.
In one of your nonfiction books, you wrote that In your own life, outside your work, what’s the most recent important truth that you’ve told? You know, especially when you start to get older, as I am, you think: I really am going to die. That’s going to happen. I have to know that. I don’t have to reject it or love it or be brave in the face of it. I just have to accept it.
Do you? Yes, inasmuch as it’s a truth that I don’t try to avoid. The other day I was on YouTube, and I came across this news from Sloan Kettering where they did a test on people with rectal cancer, and It’s shocking to me. But the fact that there’s a cure for cancer somewhere, I don’t let that somehow say to me, you’re not going to die. I’m still going to die! Am I afraid of that? It doesn’t matter. The truth doesn’t mean that you won’t be afraid and you won’t be wrong. The truth won’t give you the strength to do some things that you know you should do but can’t. But as a writer, the truth is no end of help.
This interview has been edited and condensed from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and writes the Talk column. He recently interviewed Lynda Barry about the value of childlike thinking, Father Mike Schmitz about religious belief and Jerrod Carmichael on comedy and honesty.“
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