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Walter Mosley: Reflections on Writing
(excerpts from a seminar Mosley held during his last visit to the Writers Institute on April 22, 2010)

Writing fiction and poetry and writing anything is really non-hierarchal. It’s like one of the most democratic things that you can do in life. It’s so funny, because most people read genre books and so genre, to a great degree, has marginalized, quote, literary writing. I mean, I write literary books but it’s kind of marginalized literary writing. In turn, literary writing marginalizes genre writing. They kind of dislike each other. I don’t know why. I find myself caught between that, because I like both things. I love both forms. It’s not both. It’s like all dozen or twenty forms. I like all that writing—science fiction and literary and short story and erotica, you know, nonfiction, political writing, how-to books. I love all that stuff.

The Easy Rawlins series is a series of eleven books—ten mysteries, eleven books—that I wrote in homage to my father and my father’s generation. You know, you have all these black people who left the Deep South after World War II. My father had this story. I asked my father—I said, Dad, were you afraid when you went to World War II? And he said, No, I wasn’t. I said, Really? He goes, No, I wasn’t afraid. I said, Why not? He said, Well, I thought it was America fighting the Germans. I said, Well, it was. He said, Yeah, I know that, but I didn’t know I was an American. I was a Negro. So when I went over there I figured if the Germans came and said, Where are the Americans? I would just point over at the white soldiers, and they would go fight them. I would hope that my guys won, but you know. He said, then one day the Germans attacked the camp that he was in and they were shooting at him, and he realized that because the Germans were shooting at him—hey, I must be an American! A lot of black people decided this. They said, you know, if I’m an American, that means I should have what America has to offer, and you know, you’re never going to get that in the South, so people left it. A lot of people came to California, Los Angeles . . . you know, they had Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, and all those things, but they also had Central, and Central Avenue was, you know, where Jelly Roll Morton was, was where Lightnin’ Hopkins and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee were . . . it was where jazz and blues did a turn. Blues just grew . . . rhythm blues, rock and roll. Jazz just learned all these new things out there—the whole form itself.

Also, the Watts Riots were so interesting, because before the Watts Riots most people in America were kind of aware of Martin Luther King—you know, non-violent protesting and stuff—but the Watts Riots closed down Los Angeles, closed down the airports, closed down things that white people did. So white people were like, well, do all black people feel like this? And the answer came, 99% of black people feel like this, and 1% are really angry. So what you have is this incredible change that these black people wrought not only in their own neighborhood and their own culture but in culture in general—of Los Angeles, and America, and even of the world. It’s an incredible impact worldwide from these people acting, and there’s nothing in literature about it—I mean, nothing. Yeah, there are a few books in history, but you know, the truth is, and I hope there are no history majors in here—nobody reads history books except history majors. Even there, there isn’t much. If you want to enter history, you have to enter it through literature, through other forms, like movies, etc. I want to write a series of books about these black people and the lives they live to say, hey, we were here. I was hoping people would get mad about it and say, you’re wrong, and then they would write other books and we’d have an argument, but that never happened.

Things have kind of changed. Any book you write, no matter what epoch or what history you’re talking about, you have to be writing to the people who are reading books today, and those books have to have something to do with those people’s lives.

Well, Los Angeles is also very, very diverse as far as culture is concerned. People from all over the world live in L.A. and it’s interesting but L.A., like most cities in the United States, is segregated by class. In your neighborhood, everybody is like you. They have the same job: one’s a policeman, one’s a fireman, one’s a plumber, one’s a schoolteacher—but it’s all the same class. In the rich neighborhoods, and the great thing about Los Angeles, is that in rich neighborhoods they don’t have sidewalks, so you can’t walk there. It’s too far away to walk there, but if you got there, you can’t walk anyway, because there are no sidewalks. You have to know where you’re going in the car and if they see you walking, the police will stop you. They’ll be like, uh, what are you doing here? I’m- I’m walking. Do you need some help? Uh-walking? But the thing about New York is that New York is completely integrated partially because of the subway system. Everybody’s in those subways, because you really can’t drive anywhere. If you do, you can’t park because it’s too expensive. Most people ride the subways. You might have a rich neighborhood here and a poor neighborhood here, but there are only three blocks separating them. It works for that reason, for the odd kind of economic integration.

So what I do is I write every day. I liken writing to the process of psychoanalysis. Every day, I spend a few hours writing. 7 days a week 365 days a year, I write. I find that when I write one day and I finish, the next day there’s something new there. It’s this basket that’s full of fruit every morning. You just never know why. That’s where I find all this material. Writing is re-writing, of course. I come to it and then I go back to it and I say, is this working? Is this clear? I don’t know if that addresses the statement about what you see and how you put things down. I’m not sure about that. I think people have different talents and different abilities. I mean, Toni Morrison’s narrative voice is extraordinary. She’s less interested in other elements of writing. For instance, she’s less interested in character development. She’s less interested in plot. This isn’t to say that she doesn’t have character development or plot, but her narrative voice is so powerful and so overwhelming, I think, even for her, that you wouldn’t want to start to mess around with her paragraphs. You could do this, or you could do that. Well, yeah, you could shoot me in the head, too, but it’s not a good thing.

I think that we all have different talents and that we have to follow that. The thing is that the continual work at it hones those talents. One thing that I always do, not always, but very often, is I read a book that I’ve written. Somewhere in the middle of the drafts I read it out loud to a tape recorder so I can hear it, so it’s like me talking to me and then me correcting me. So I’m like, oh, yeah but you didn’t do that right. You didn’t do this. Don’t you remember you saw this? Don’t you remember you felt that? I fix things in that way. Still that’s kind of the unconscious. …

I think that it’s really funny that a lot of people complain to me about how many characters I have in my novels. They just complain. They say, you have too many characters. I say,hHave you read One Hundred Years of Solitude? Not only are there a hundred characters, they all have the same goddamn name. I didn’t hear you say that Marquez has too many characters. One after another, after another, after another . . . it’s so funny you read that chart he has in the beginning, right? And they all have the same name—Jose Arcadio, Jose Arcadio. They don’t have ‘Jr.’, no. He just has the same name.

My understanding of life is just . . . I mean, I pattern my novels after like a day living in that place. How many people do you meet in a day? Twenty? Thirty? You go out, you walk outside and there’s a guy standing in front of your building you see every day. Then you go to the store and there’s somebody you know but maybe you haven’t seen them in a week so you talk to them. Then you have to call somebody but your boss calls you in and says you’re not doing right. The secretary says on the way out that you’re doing okay, that he’s just saying that because he’s having trouble with his wife. You’re dealing with all kinds of people. There are all kinds of major things. If you don’t do that, it’s not like a real thing.

Another thing is the difference between men and women. Young men and all women-- young men have a very linear way of thinking about things: I go to work, I do the work, I get the money, I take it home. Saturday, I go bowling, and then I come home. They got this thing. Sunday, I got this girlfriend, and my wife goes to church. It’s very linear. They go and they do it and then they come back. Now women, that’s another thing. Call waiting is the way to do it. You’re on the phone and you’re talking to your mother, but on hold is your girlfriend who’s having trouble with her husband. The kids are here and they’re hungry.

You’re late going to work. You’re juggling. Life is all juggling. You’re doing it all the time. As men get older, they kind of get into that. They say, my life is like that too. You don’t have an excuse anymore. Nobody likes you that much anymore. When you’re younger, they like you. The man is pretty and they say, oh, we like him. This old guy, did you do this? Did you do that? Yeah, yeah, I did that stuff.

The thing about Leonid [the main character in Mosley’s Leonid McGill Mysteries series]  is that he has all this stuff. He has his favorite son who he didn’t father but his wife says he did. Then he has his real son who doesn’t like him. He has his daughter who he doesn’t have anything in common with but he really loves. Then he has a whole history of things that he’s done wrong that he has to make up for but in the meanwhile he has to do jobs to make money. He has this moral compass going on where he’s going to try not to do the wrong thing, but he does the wrong thing a lot. Then there’s always somebody from his past getting in his way. So that’s the way I see his life. That’s the way he’s decided to live. Once you accept that, once you know that, that this is it, then writing those complex plots is easy. It’s like waking up in the morning and going off into your day—going off into the market and seeing the guy and seeing your boss and doing all that stuff, while at the same time doing all that linear stuff. You’re still expected to do the linear: go to work, make the money, bring it home. I may not get home until two in the morning, but I’ll bring it home.

[Questioner]: Would you tell us something about the technique of your writing? I mean, for instance when you start a story, do you know where it’s going to go? Do you follow that or outline it or do your characters develop the story?

[Walter Mosley]: Well, very often I just start from a sentence. Honestly, I’ll write a sentence and I’ll like that sentence. Like Devil in a Blue Dress: I was surprised to see a white man walk into Joppy’s Bar. It’s not just that he was white but he had an off-white linen suit and shirt and it goes on and on to explain all this whiteness. By that time I had learned that white people died just as easily as me. As soon as I’d finished that, I said, hey, I know this story—I know this character, so I know this story! I can write this story now. And I did.

[Questioner]: With Devil in a Blue Dress, can you talk a little bit about the changes that came to the film?

[Walter Mosley]: What changes are you talking about? Seeing as I didn’t write the script, I have to ask.

[Questioner]: Oh, I read the DVD and it said that you fully approved of the script or something like that.

[Walter Mosley]: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! I was happy with it. I wasn’t unhappy about the script. It wasn’t a movie, but then again . . . books aren’t movies, so you have to make changes. There are certain kinds of sexual aspects to the relationship between Easy and Daphne that I would have liked that they didn’t put in there and I was never sure why. It was explained to me and I didn’t understand, but it was his movie so I said, okay, fine. I thought the sense of the time . . . he got the sense of the time, and that’s the hardest thing to do. It’s like when you’re writing a poem. You can’t really explain what it’s like to be on a battleship, but you can get the sense of it, the feeling of it, the smell of it. I think he did that. I was happy.

A lot of people say they put down genre, but there are a lot of bad literary novels. You can go to Barnes and Noble and you know, I do what everybody else does—I pull down a new book and I read the first few pages and say, man, this is really bad. Then you put it back up. Then you take the next one and you open it up and you go, oh, wow, oh my god! Any book that starts with the weather, I put it back. It was a rainy day—oh no. The wind was blowing—okay, fine. It’s like, if you can’t give me a character in the first line, I’m not interested in what you have to say. I don’t think that with English novels because if that’s all they do then I’m lucky.

The thing is that there are a lot of bad mysteries where it’s only about the case. Somebody got murdered—I’m going to find out who the murderer is. It’s not about character development. It’s not about character transition. It’s not about anybody thinking anything. Novels are about ideas. If you don’t deal with the idea, then it doesn’t work.

One of the mistakes that I think about all arts . . . but novels really specifically, is that it’s a collusion between the writer and the reader. There’s no way that you could write enough to really present a world. You have to hint at that world in such ways that the readers start making things up. They start making up what the characters look like. They start making up what the streets look like. If they’re from that place, they remember that place. If you do it right, and all you have to do is get one thing right . . . if you get that band of smog on the horizon in Los Angeles—if you get that right, they’ll make up everything for you. So that’s one of the things and one of the problems with a lot of fiction writers, I think, is that they do too much research. Page after page of meticulous writing about what the sidewalk was like and the glitter in the sidewalk was like this and the windows . . . and you get bored. You no longer think about it. Even though it’s probably better than my description, your reading of it was not giving you anything. I think that’s very true. There’s that collusion.

Think of somebody like Shakespeare. If you take everything that’s ever been written by Shakespeare, it’s not possible for him to have thought all those things. It’s just not possible. He could sit down and think all his life and not think all those things. He wouldn’t even have time to write. What’s happened is we’ve filled that in over the centuries and made it. Of course, a lot of readers are smarter than writers. They come up with things. Sometimes people come up to me and say, wow, this connection and that connection. I say, wow, you’re right. Huh . . . I didn’t mean that, but it’s obviously there. Especially once they say it.