It's Los Angeles in 1965, and South Central is smoking. Days of rioting by angry blacks have left houses burned, stores looted, neighbors fearful, and 34 dead. Nola Payne, a young African-American woman who goes by the nickname Little Scarlet, is among those dead.
Word is that Payne helped a white man escape the riots. Word is that man murdered Payne. And word is that the killer's still out there. Best, then, to call in Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a 45-year-old black, unlicensed investigator with plenty of street cred, to locate the killer, but best to keep a lid on it. The LAPD doesn't want news of a white man killing a black woman to add to the city's high tension. Just as the LAPD didn't do a proper investigation into a series of past murders of black women.
Rawlins agrees to the job, and by the time the job's done in the Walter Mosley's new novel, Little Scarlet (Little, Brown), he's uncovered not only a killer but a good deal about race relations in mid-century America -- uneasy relations on both sides of the racial divide. It's a subject that runs throughout this latest book in Mosley's popular Easy Rawlins mystery series, but it comes to us via brisk storytelling, pinpoint characterization, and an exceptional ear for the colloquial.
But Mosley -- author of 19 books (both fiction and nonfiction), winner of a Grammy award in 2002 for his liner notes on a collection of Richard Pryor recordings, editor of The Best American Short Stories of 2003, recipient of an honorary doctorate this year from the City College of New York, winner next year of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the writers' organization PEN West -- will have to forgive me for not emphasizing his writerly skills in a recent phone interview. (He'll also have to forgive me for mistakingly calling him an hour ahead of schedule.) Our starting focus was Mosley's interview six months ago with The New York Times. Money, happiness, family, and race were the topics touched on then. American politics too. Bad politics this election year, if you ask Walter Mosley.
The Flyer: In that Q&A in the Sunday New York Times Magazine last February, you told Deborah Solomon that you are a "political writer."
Walter Mosley: That interview was based on a three-hour discussion that got crushed down into a two-minute read. Everything in there was right, but for every fact, there were a hundred others.
"I'm a political writer": Yes, but if someone came up to me and asked what kind of writer I am, I wouldn't say that. It wouldn't be my definition. I mean, I'm also a mystery writer, a literary writer, a science-fiction writer. I'm a lot of things.
But you were okay with your portrayal in Solomon's piece?
To get a one-page profile in The New York Times Magazine is an important thing, so I was happy to have it. But does it represent me? No, it doesn't.
Would you call America's history of race relations "pathological"?
That's an interesting question. I'd say yes, but it would have to be modified by a lot of things. For instance, in the case of Los Angeles in 1965, most people didn't riot. Most people stayed in their homes hoping their houses didn't burn down and wondering when all this would be over. You know, protecting their children, their property, their peace of mind.
Race and racism is an important aspect of the American psyche. But your question leads to a philosophical one: Is there such a thing as a "sane" humanity? And I would say no, there isn't. The human race spends a great deal of time dealing with its pathologies. Is race in America "pathological"? Yes, and so is eating, television, and sex.
Little Scarlet picks up in 1965 where Bad Boy Brawly Brown left off in 1964. You weren't also influenced in Little Scarlet by the Rodney King/Reginald Denny incidents and the rioting that occurred in Los Angeles in the early '90s?
No, the date was there from the beginning, but as I went over the riots in '65, I thought, This is the most important mid-century event after WWII -- more important than the JFK assassination, more important internally than the war in Vietnam. Those riots changed all of America overnight -- a group of black Americans acting with no leaders, no apologists. That's an amazing thing.
There's black leadership today in both major political parties.
The Democratic and the Republican parties are not political parties. They're interest corporations. I don't think in any serious way they represent what most Americans want. For me to talk about leadership in an interest corporation, you might as well ask me about Mobil Oil.
You can't hold onto power doing service to an interest corporation. In the end, all they need is your money. That's true for wealthy whites and poor whites and Asians and Hispanics. If all you're giving, as a group, to the Democrats or the Republicans are your votes and you don't demand anything up front, you don't get anything back. I mean, you'll "get" what they do, and if you like what they do, that's fine.
Did you admire Al Sharpton's speech at the Democratic National Convention?
It was a nice speech, very political. But I don't know what you're asking me, so I don't know how to respond.
Is Barack Obama, who's running for the Democratic Senate seat from Illinois, the "shining knight" he's made out to be?
Look, anyone who comes to the fore in the Democratic Party represents an interest corporation. That's all I can say about that. Barack Obama seems like a great man, but he'll be one voice in the Senate representing a party that's not in power. What can he do?
In Little Scarlet, you have a minor character who's originally from Memphis.
She's a nurse.
Oh, yeah ... right.
She'd rather address a white policeman than deal directly with Easy Rawlins. Did you have Memphis in mind for a particular reason?
Not really. My grandfather migrated down to Louisiana from Tennessee. I've spent a little time in Tennessee but not enough to say I know it. I'm no expert.
Do you already have a new Rawlins novel in mind?
It's written. It takes place in 1966. I'm writing one per year.
That's a big job.
It's not a big job. I write two or three books a year. I want to go back to what we were saying.
African-Americans are the wealthiest, the most powerful, the most influential group of black people on the face of the earth. But our power is dissipated by involvement in organizations supposedly for our benefit. If I say, for instance, that blacks should vote out of self-interest, white Democrats tell me no, no, you can't do that this year. They say that every year. They say, this year you have to help us.
We have in America five million people who have been convicted of felonies who can't vote, and half of them are people of color. We have young black women in the Southeast between the ages of 13 and 16 who are in the middle of an AIDS epidemic. When do I get to worry about them? When do I get to worry about the Haitians who are kept in prisons in Florida for no reason whatsoever. You know?
There are structural issues that have to be addressed. I'm completely happy with black voters supporting the Democratic Party, but first I want their votes to be all together, in one place. And whether that vote is for Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, or Barack Obama, or anyone, I don't care! But it has to be someone who is representing a specific set of interests, not unlike the NRA.
You're asking me these questions, and I could give you the liberal answer: "Yes, the Congressional Black Caucus [calling for an investigation into Florida's recount during the last presidential election] was yelled down in the Senate in 2000." But my response is: Why are they part of the Democratic Party? If the Senate president Al Gore yells us down, why are we a part of the Democratic Party? It's our decision, not his, not the party's. If I have a leader who is a member of that party, I have to ask: Why are you in that club if they're not helping us, if they don't have an answer? If they say that's the best we can do, then I say we have to think of something better. That's true for a lot of Americans, not just black Americans.
How do you account for your success?
One has to wonder if I'm successful.
For starters, in 1992, President Clinton told a reporter you were one of his favorite writers.
That helped me very much, but it doesn't make me a success. There are different levels of success. When I look at the literary landscape, there's a lot of light, comical writing, which is "king" during the summer. Certainly not a book about race riots in South Central L.A. in 1965. But however much I'm a success, I think it's due to my storytelling ability. A lot of people are happy with my subjects, but they wouldn't be if it weren't for the story being told. When I do a reading, people talk about the characters first, how the stories work, how they're orchestrated. Any success I might have is literary, not political.
Do you have any nonfiction in the works?
I'm in the middle of writing about the black vote in America. But that first question you asked, I'll repeat: I am a very political writer. It's true. But it's not the only truth.
Most people read because they enjoy reading. Very few people read books the way they take medicine: "I'm taking this because it's good for me, not because of the way it tastes." That's not how most people approach literature.
And you asked about my success. One problem is people who keep saying "Walter Mosley is a political writer." "Walter Mosley writes about race riots." "Walter Mosley gives you a history lesson."
True enough, but it's not why people read my books. People read them because they wonder what's going to happen next to Easy Rawlins, and for three years straight, after it seemed my character Raymond "Mouse" Alexander was dead, people would come up and ask, "Why did you kill Mouse?" Not: "Why do you think it's important that the riots in Los Angeles ... blah blah blah?"
I just wanted to say that. It's an important thing to say.
Your booksigning tour for Little Scarlet: It lists 42 appearances in 36 cities in the space of one-and-a-half months. Sounds tough.
Rather than overwhelming, it's a technical thing. You say to yourself, Tomorrow morning I need to wake up at 3:30 a.m. to get to the plane at 5:30 a.m. I take it a day at a time. But I'll tell you, I haven't missed anything yet. Your phone call: I got it. I hope I haven't been too truculent.