Welcome to Easy Rawlins' world: a Q&A with Walter Mosley

A few weeks ago, I met Walter Mosley on Pico Boulevard near Fairfax, around the corner from where he was raised. This is a neighborhood that still fuels Mosley’s imagination; it’s where his detective Easy Rawlins lives, and where a good deal of his new novel, “Little Green,” takes place.

“Little Green” marks a return to the Rawlins series, which Mosley seemed to have ended with the 2007 novel “Blonde Faith.” That book concluded with Easy’s apparent death in a car accident, but six years later, the character is back, alive if not entirely well.

Mosley and I discussed Rawlins’ re-emergence, as well as the influence of the neighborhood; his thoughts appeared in Sunday’s Arts & Books. Here is more of our conversation.

You’ve called “Little Green” a rebirth for Easy, a new beginning. Did you have a sense of that going in?

Well, actually, no. As usual, what I did is I discovered it as I was doing it. I knew there was going to be this guy, and I had the thought that he would be related to Frank Green, who appears in “Devil in a Blue Dress.” And I wanted to see Mouse again, see Mama Jo, all the characters. And work out some of the problems Easy had developed over the previous dozen books.

Early in the Rawlins series, the time frame is spread out, with several years between the action in the books. But starting with “A Little Yellow Dog,” which takes place in 1963, the chronology gets condensed.

I always planned that once I hit the 1960s, I would spend a little time there. I know a lot about it, about the things that happened, and culturally they fit into Easy’s life. The 1940s and 1950s, black people are on the side. They’re protesting, but there aren’t major changes. But now, in the 1960s, people can develop in really strange ways. Mouse becomes at least a national heist man, maybe an international heist man; Jackson Blue becomes a computer expert, working for the largest insurance company in the world. In many ways, Easy’s friends have surpassed him. And that’s kind of wonderful. But it’s only possible starting in the 1960s.

All the books do a vivid job of capturing a lost Los Angeles. Do you do research? Or does it come from memory?

I don’t do too much. There are so many details; you know, people make up their own details. If you write the book well enough, people will fill it in.

You were raised on Spaulding, just south of Pico, not far from where Easy now lives. Did you have a sense of this as a neighborhood when you were growing up?

Does anybody think about neighborhood in Los Angeles? Maybe they do now, but they didn’t when I was a kid. People moved so often, and neighborhoods changed so quickly, and the world was changing so quickly. You knew the people in your school, had two or three friends, and that was it. My parents had, after a long time, friends in the neighborhood, but not a lot. I’ve always been like that.

In the last few Rawlins books, but especially here, you trace an interesting post-Watts world, in which some of the racial barriers appear to be dropping. Was this your experience also, that things changed like that?

Oh yeah, people were changing. And not only changing but expressing themselves. They didn’t feel trapped by racism. Because white people felt trapped by racism as well as black people. And people were starting to say, “Well, what is this?”

In that sense, these novels have always had a strong social component.

In my understanding, it’s impossible to write a book that doesn’t. I mean, it is possible, but then the book tends more and more toward fantasy. I’m not trying to be political, really, but it’s like … In the book I just finished writing, Easy is driving down the Pacific Coast Highway with this white girl and the highway patrol stops him. Now, he always has to be prepared for this. Part of his plans have to be that the police are going to stop him because whenever he’s outside his environment, the police are going to wonder, “What are you doing here? Usually when your kind is here — whether or not that’s true — there’s trouble.” And his answer is: “Yeah, you the trouble. I’m just driving through.”

And yet, as the series progresses, Easy moves increasingly outside his environment. The early books unfold largely within the African American community. But then he slips into the wider world.

Well, that’s how L.A. changed, right? There was a moment when you couldn’t leave your community. He says to that restaurant owner: “I get in more trouble now than I used to because now things are open and they didn’t used to be. There used to be no question; I couldn’t walk into your restaurant.” One of the things I say when I make political speeches is that the older you get, the more you live in the past. Not everybody’s living today. A lot of people live five years ago, 10 years ago, 20 years ago. And those people, they see Easy walk into the restaurant, and they say, “You know, this is a restaurant.” And he says, “Yeah, I know.” There’s no reason to tell him no, but there’s hesitation. And the hesitation brings trouble.

What’s it been like for you writing him over such a long stretch of time? You’re growing older with the character, too.

You know, it’s funny, I don’t think about that. Maybe I should. Maybe I will one day, but I’m just writing. Easy is a character I write about. Mouse and Jackson Blue and Etta Mae and Bonnie and Feather and Jesus — all these people have a life that’s much different than mine. But it’s a complex life, and a beautiful one.

You wrote your first book, “Gone Fishin’,” in the 1980s, although it wasn’t published until 1997.

Well, that was the first thing I finished. I went to graduate school at City College in New York. I was taking a class with Edna O’Brien, and Edna said, “Walter, you should write a novel.” I loved her so much, I said, “OK. Great. I’ll write one.” And I wrote “Gone Fishin’.”

The book is about Easy, but it’s not a mystery. It takes place in Texas  …

Which is where those people come from. A large part of the new black population in Southern California came from Texas, after the war.

At what point did you decide to write a mystery?

What happened was that I wrote “Gone Fishin’,” which is nowhere near a detective novel. And nobody wanted to publish it. They said, “Nobody wants to read this book. White people don’t read about black people; black women don’t like black men, and black men don’t read. So who’s going to read your book?” Now, none of that’s true, but if you believe it and don’t publish the books, it is true. So what was I going to do? I didn’t care, so I started writing a new one. And halfway through, I said, “This is kind of like a mystery.”

How has Los Angeles changed since you lived here?

It’s more or less the same. The names change, but L.A. is … there are all these beautiful parts of Los Angeles, but really, most of it is a series of bungalows. And the bungalows don’t ever change. They’re there forever. There might be a different sign in the window, but you know? This is the neighborhood I identify as the neighborhood I grew up in. I was free here to walk around, to do things. It’s not that far to get to Sunset. In 1968, boy, was that something.

How much of your experience there is reflected in “Little Green"?

What I was writing about was what I experienced. I wasn’t looking for some missing guy; I wasn’t shooting people in the foot. But there were 10,000 hippies marching up and down the streets. Barefoot hippies marching up and down Sunset. Before they made acid illegal, the Whiskey had the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. They’d put a tab of acid on your tongue as you walked in the door.

That’s a big shift from “Devil in a Blue Dress,” which takes place in 1948. It’s less than 20 years, and yet the gulf dividing them is huge.

Gigantic, yeah. But then, as I say, some things don’t change. For example, when Easy comes back home in this novel, there’s a white man living in the house. Easy keeps looking at him and thinking, I should call the police. He goes over it and over it and over it and he finally says, “That’s not going to work. I can’t do it.” And he calls Mouse. And Mouse says, “Oh yeah, yeah, you think you’re the first black man ever to worry about this? We’ll take care of it.”

Still, in 1967, this can cut both ways. The hippie kids are also targeted because of how they look.

What it does is speak to today. A lot of white people today have gotten a taste of the black experience. They may not see it as the black experience, but now they understand: Oh, we don’t get the benefit of the doubt anymore. If it says in the computer somewhere that I didn’t pay my bills three times in a row, I’m going to be out. It didn’t used to be like that. So, you one of us …

That’s a source of empathy, though. This is where your characters come together, in a way they might not have in the past.

It’s a much more complex world than it seems. And it always was. People are like: “Well, you know what black people are like.” You don’t know what black people are like. Or what white people are like. You have to take people one at a time. And Easy, because he’s a detective, literally has to do that because otherwise he’s never going to understand what’s going on. He can’t prejudge because he is trying to find out what happened. Whenever you write about a detective, that’s how it is.

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