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'Easy' Writer: Walter Mosley's Passion For Bringing Black LA Stories To Life

Author Walter Mosley with his father, Leroy Mosley.
Courtesy of Walter Mosley
Author Walter Mosley with his father, Leroy Mosley.

Ask Walter Mosley what he does, and he'll say, simply, "I'm a writer." And he's written a lot: 52 books, about 30 short stories and another 30 or 40 articles, he says. While most writers specialize in one or two types of books, Mosley refuses to be constrained. He has written mysteries, science fiction, erotica, young adult fiction, plays, opinion pieces and essays. He has even penned a slim book that instructs would-be fiction writers on how to get started.

"I have all these things, I'm continually writing them, and people say, 'Well I can't sell that,' " Mosley says. "And I say, 'Well that's OK, we'll just publish it, don't give me any advance and we'll see where it goes.' You know, because the idea of writing ... if you want to get rich, you go into real estate."

But it's his Easy Rawlins series that made Walter Mosley famous.

The most recent book in the series, Charcoal Joe, was released this summer. The first book in the Rawlins series, Devil in a Blue Dress, was written in 1990. That story is set in 1948, when Los Angeles was adjusting to its new population of black migrants from the South, who came to work in war-related industries. Those experiences were vividly portrayed in that novel, which later became a movie starring Denzel Washington. Mosley's tale of love, political corruption and racial intrigue became a best-seller. Former President Bill Clinton famously became one of his biggest fans.

The Easy Rawlins series has also brought Mosley honors: He was chosen as the 2016 Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, its highest honor. The lifetime achievement award puts him in the company of past Grand Masters like John le Carré, Ross Macdonald and Agatha Christie.

David L. Ulin, a former book critic for the Los Angeles Times, says the Rawlins novels are fine mysteries, but that Mosley goes beyond the genre. "I think he's operating in the tradition of Balzac or Dickens, who wrote sort of broad social novels with large casts of characters, moving across a variety of classes and social spheres, and also in which the city — Paris or London, in Walter's case, Los Angeles — becomes a character in its own right," Ulin says.

In the Easy novels, the city is important, the people even more so. Mosley says he had a very specific objective: He wanted to write about the lives he saw around him growing up in Los Angeles. It was part passion, part mission: "One of the things that I understood was that you don't exist unless you're in the literature. And that doesn't include the history books. And the black people in California, they just weren't remembered. Nobody was telling their stories."

Fortunately, there were stories aplenty. As a boy, Mosley listened to his father and his father's friends talk over backyard beers about politics, music and finessing the city's notoriously racist police. Those stories helped shape the Easy novels and enabled Mosley to paint a vivid portrait of LA's evolving black community.

Ulin says the books span a critical period in the city's evolution. "Many, many things change from '48 to '68 in Los Angeles, particularly in terms of race relations, racial culture, racial divisions, etc., which are at the essence of what the Rawlins books are tracing."

The novels move from the pre-civil rights era to the late '60s, when Easy has a steady day job but still occupies much of his time seeking answers for people who can't or won't go to the police. By Little Scarlet, the ninth book, Easy has become a private eye, and the Watts riots have reduced his old neighborhood to ash. But after Blonde Faith, the 11th book, Mosley was stuck. The novel ended with Easy driving off a Malibu cliff.

Fans were devastated, but Mosley didn't see a way around it. "I had no future for Easy," Mosley says. "And so I decided I was going to stop writing him. I didn't think he was dead, but I did think I was going to stop writing him."

And he did. For six years, Easy was just ... gone. Then, Walter Mosley had an epiphany:

"My father and his family story had kind of come to an end at that point for me. And it was now my story. And if Easy was going to go on, I was going to have to put down these other people's interpretations of the world and use my own."

Which is exactly what he did.

In 2013, Easy returns in Little Green, a story about a black teen who disappears into a hippie commune after a bad acid trip. It was 1967; the setting was the legendary Sunset Strip. It was a time when disaffected youth — activists, runaways and dropouts — turned Sunset Boulevard into a roiling scene each night. Mosley saw it all with his own eager, teenage eyes:

"Ten thousand hippies every night are marching barefoot down the street," he remembers, "getting high, talking about new philosophies and religions and notions and trying to create a new culture ... as they say, a counterculture."

Author Walter Mosley.
Marcia E. Wilson / Karen Grigsby Bates
Karen Grigsby Bates
Author Walter Mosley.

In this latest book, Charcoal Joe, Easy has settled into life: He's the co-owner of a detective agency, his two adopted children are doing well, and he has a fiancee — a beautiful flight attendant. But when a black Stanford graduate student goes into hiding to avoid being tagged for a crime he did not commit, the kid's uncle — a feared gangster known as Charcoal Joe — asks Easy for help. Of course, complications ensue.

Part of Easy's attraction is his humanity. Old-school private eyes did what they wanted, consequences be damned. Mosley says Easy doesn't have that option. "You arrest Sam Spade and he just says, 'You know, I'll just stay in jail. I don't have to answer you,' " he says. "But if you have a child at home that needs to be fed and protected, you have to figure a way to answer that policeman's question and also get yourself out of jail."

Mosley says the next Easy installment will probably focus on the aftermath of the Vietnam War. It shouldn't be long. Mosley is quick — and prolific. "I only write three hours a day," he says, "but I write three hours a day, every day, 365 days a year. I just write and write and write."

That makes Walter Mosley's legion of fans happy, because now they can just read and read and read.

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Karen Grigsby Bates
Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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