Walter Mosley: By the Book
The author of the Easy Rawlins novels, most recently, “Little Green,” says that in a great mystery, “the crime being investigated reveals a deeper rot.”
When and where do you like to read?
I like to read either in motion or in water. And so I am most satisfied reading on subway cars, trains, planes, ferries, boats or floating on some kind of air-filled device or raft in a pool, pond or lake. But I am happiest reading in the bathtub; lying back with my head resting on the curved end of the tub, one leg bent and the other resting along the edge. Now and then I add a little hot water with a circular motion of my toe. I decided on my apartment because it had a deep tub with water jets to massage me while I read science fiction and magical realism.
Are you a rereader?
Reading is rereading just as writing is rewriting. Any worthwhile book took many, many drafts to reach completion, and so it would make sense that the first time the reader works her way through the volume it’s more like a first date than a one-time encounter. If the person was uninteresting (not worthwhile) there’s no need for a repeat performance, but if they have promise, good humor, hope or just good manners, you might want to have a second sit-down, a third. There might be something irksome about that rendezvous that makes you feel that you have something to work out. There might be a hint of eroticism suggesting the possibility of a tryst or even marriage.
The joy of reading is in the rereading; this is where you get to know the world and characters in deep and rewarding fashion.
What makes a good mystery novel?
This question deserves examination. I could answer by saying that in a good mystery there’s a crime and a cast of characters, any of whom may or may not have committed that crime. Readers have their suspicions, but most often they are wrong — if not about the perpetrator then about the underlying reason(s) for the commission of said crime. In a very good mystery, the detective comes into question and the investigator is forced to face his, or her, own prejudices, expectations and limitations. In a great mystery, we find that the crime being investigated reveals a deeper rot.
But this answer only addresses, finally, the technical execution of the mystery. A good mystery has to be a good novel, and any good novel takes us on a journey where we discover, on many levels, truths about ourselves and our world in ways that are, at the same time, unexpected and familiar. If the mystery writer gives us a good mystery without a good novel to back it up, then she, or he, has failed.
It once seemed the Easy Rawlins mysteries might be a thing of the past, but you decided to revisit?
This month, I have a new Easy Rawlins mystery out; the title is “Little Green.” It’s the first one since “Blonde Faith” (2007). I had to take some years away from the series because my writing about Easy was becoming, well . . . too easy. I needed to rebuild the fires under that continuing story about the black Southern migrant who recreated himself in the California sun.
There is now, I believe, something new about Easy in a world that is both familiar and transformational.
Do you plan to write more nonfiction?
Yes. The change of century is a challenging moment for the world. We have to face our deepest fears and prejudices in order to save the human race and the planet we inhabit. We have to encourage strange bedfellows and forgive many trespasses.
Science and religion, capitalism and socialism, caste and character are all on the auction block. The waters are rising while we are dreaming of dancing with the stars. We call ourselves social creatures when indeed we are pack animals. We, many of us, say that we are middle class when in reality we are salt-of-the-earth working-class drones existing at the whim of systems that distribute our life’s blood as so much spare change.
These subjects can be addressed in fiction or plays, even in poetry, but now and again the plain talk of nonfiction is preferred.
Which books might we be surprised to find on your shelves?
Because I don’t know who’s reading these words or who has asked the question, I cannot say with any accuracy what you might find surprising, but I just went to my shelf and jotted down a few titles.
There’s “The Third Policeman,” by Flann O’Brien. This writer, I believe, is one of the great 20th-century wordsmiths. He is filled with humor and insight without the slightest hint of arrogance or elevation.
The Popular Educator Library is a series of hundreds of essays in 10 volumes designed to provide the essence of a college education for those who were not able to attend college. Published in the late 1930s, this book covers everything from accounting to the principles of aviation. Cool.
Collingwood’s “Principles of History” is the quintessential book on history and perception; of how we might imagine that which is impossible to know. “The City in History,” by Lewis Mumford, shows us how human organization, technology and technique form us in ways that we are completely unaware of. “Bitch Reloaded,” by Deja King, is a perfect example of what they call street lit. I like it because it allows me to understand all the ways that people, all kinds of people, come to reading. It’s not just college professors, librarians and convicts. People on the street are reading, looking for themselves in books that want to tell the stories that history will inevitably wash over and forget.
Where do you get your books?
I find books in used-book stores, chain and independent stores, on friends’ shelves and being read by some woman sitting opposite me on the subway. I find books the way a cow finds a new pasture, by looking to see where the other cows are headed.
I find books on the Internet and in overheard conversations at restaurants. And, more and more, I find books in my memory; an author’s name that some professor (whose name I have now forgotten) mentioned in a seminar, the topic of which I no longer remember. I remember the writer’s name, and sometime later a title comes to mind. After a few days I connect the author’s name and the title. It’s a small step from there to reading happily on the Staten Island Ferry.
What were your favorite books as a child?
I know that as a working writer I should answer this question in such a way as to make me seem intelligent; maybe Twain or Dickens, even Hesse or Conrad. I should say that I read intelligent books far beyond my years. This I believe would give intelligent readers the confidence to go out and lay down hard cash for my newest, and the one after that.
But the truth is that the most beloved and the most formative books of my childhood were comic books, specifically Marvel Comics. “Fantastic Four” and “Spider-Man,” “The Mighty Thor” and “The Invincible Iron Man”; later came “Daredevil” and many others. These combinations of art and writing presented to me the complexities of character and the pure joy of imagining adventure. They taught me about writing dialect and how a monster can also be a hero. They lauded science and fostered the understanding that the world was more complex than any one mind, or indeed the history of all human minds, could comprehend.
Which novels had the most impact on you as a writer?
I am one of those rare writers (at least I believe this to be true) who do not equate reading and writing in any kind of direct way. I know for a fact that the father of the Western tradition of the novel, Homer, was illiterate. Many of the storytellers and poets of the West were not schooled in letters. The founder of one of the world’s great religions, Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, created a religion in an environment where no one wrote. The scriptures had to be submitted to memory only to be written down long after.
I’m not sure that any novels (or comic books) had an impact on me as far as me becoming a writer. I love many novels. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” is beautiful, as is “L’Assommoir,” by Émile Zola. “Cotton Comes to Harlem” is a dazzling book, and when I was very young “Winnie-the-Pooh” enchanted me.
My father once told me, when I was a child, that he had written, when he was young, a cowboy story. He sent this story to a Chicago publisher, who never responded. But a year later he saw that story, attributed to a different author, in a magazine that the same company published. He told me that he learned from this experience that he could never be a writer, at least not a published one. This was a tragic story that burrowed down into my subconscious mind. If anything, it is this story that most influenced me becoming a writer.
What does your personal book collection look like?
I am proud to say that I give away or sell at little to no profit almost all of my books. I have mentioned a few favorites earlier, but as a rule I don’t believe in keeping books. After I have read, reread and reread a book it seems sinful to keep such a reservoir of fun and knowledge fallow on a shelf. Books are meant to be read, and if I’m not reading them then someone else should get the opportunity.
What writer would you like to meet?
I mentioned him earlier — Homer. The Bard, being blind and the speaker of an ancient language, would pose a delicious challenge. This is the kind of challenge that any good novel would present. I’d love, after traversing the gulf of communication, to find out what he believed he was doing. I say this because writers, after a while, become fictions themselves. They are, at once, influential and lost to us. Meeting Homer on some Attic beach, next to an open fire, accompanied by whatever servant or wife helped him move from town to town, sounds like the ideal novelist’s vacation.
What do you plan to read next?
I’ve been thinking that it’s time to reread “The Autumn of the Patriarch.”
Source: The New York Times