Midafternoon, and we are sailing. The wide span of Century Boulevard seems vast in its possibilities, a seductive expanse with room to roam or expand. At quick glimpse, it is sparkling, but a brief pause at a light reveals something quite different--a poorly patched facade, a wall of chain link encircling nothing, rubble from some long-lost decade left to rot or rust.
"Look at these giant streets!" Walter Mosley rides jump seat, taking in L.A. the way many Angelenos do, at 45-miles-per, the window raised, studying the blur of color and shapes skidding outside the windshield. We make a left onto Central Avenue, slowing enough to see features on figures sitting in Will Rogers Park. Picnics. A ballgame. Families, black and brown, taking advantage of the sun, the air carrying a cool mist that, with imagination, could conjure the nearby ocean. "These houses are nice--they're little, tiny," he says. "A lot of people come here and say: 'When are we gonna get to the bad community?' " The answer comes in a voice colored the softest shade of irony: "You're in it, brother."
At the tip of 76th Place and Central slumps the shell of a broken and singed mini-mall threatening complete collapse. The All-American Liquor Junior Market's marquee still advertises "Hot dogs $2.50," as if the building is only momentarily darkened, the owner under the weather or off on a brief vacation. And there are survivors--fish markets, a shoeshine parlor-cum-barbershop, a senior citizen center, the Universal Missionary Baptist Church, all grouped around empty lots strewn with trash and weeds.
Mosley grew up here, and he's been mining these broad streets, and their smaller side arteries, for stories for nearly half a dozen years. But at first, he doesn't seem to register the damaged terrain. Or doesn't speak about it. He's busier reconstructing the past, letting the vacant lots spark a fragment of a memory, reading the symbols in piles of wood and iron.
"When I was a kid along (this stretch of Central), there was a White Front, a hardware store, a liquor store, little markets and bars, a shoe store, television repair shops, a whole economic community," he recalls, his voice moving with a bit of a rhythmic lilt. In moments, he erects filling stations in empty lots, replaces the nuclear-age post office with the old Goodyear plant and a parking lot full of gleaming tail fins.
Mosley's measure of fame comes from the detective stories he's astutely woven from that vanished place. His mysteries are period works, spanning 1948-1961 on these streets--Denker and Slauson and hot-lit Central Avenue--where dreams and hard work intersect. And Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins, his reluctant private eye, navigates the hurdles of this world--the Police Department, the subtleties of discrimination, unabashed racism--with both feet planted firmly on the sidewalks banking these wide boulevards. A protagonist acutely sensitive to the mercurial nature of his world, Easy's not quite a social commentator, nor an island of a private eye like Philip Marlowe. Instead, he's at the center, struggling, hoping to make it through one day into the next.
Easy Rawlins is about to appear on film, played by Denzel Washington, as Carl Franklin ("One False Move") directs "Devil in a Blue Dress." "Devil" (1990) and Mosley's third book, "White Butterfly" (1992), were nominated for Edgar awards; "Butterfly" and his second, "A Red Death" (1991), were nominated for Golden Dagger awards ("Butterfly" won). President Bill Clinton has proclaimed Mosley his favorite mystery writer, and his works--which sell well but have not hit the bestseller charts--pop up on college reading lists with increasing frequency, surrounded by the works of Chester Himes, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, his most frequently cited literary forebears. The latest Rawlins installment, "Black Betty," set at the dawn of the '60s, four years before Watts blew, is due next month.
L.A. itself, you could say, comes to Mosley in a dream. He lives in Greenwich Village in New York, estranged from this city for more than a decade--L.A. was a claustrophobic web of the too-familiar and the unattainable, and he had to escape--but he's never stopped feeling the pull of the city's possibilities. It's a somewhat idealized L.A. that Mosley creates in his books, patterned after the close, culturally diverse South Los Angeles community of his youth, not the alienating vastness he felt navigating through the rest of the city. He re-creates that early community, those connections, those voices, with memory, history and the grand stories of his late father, Leroy Mosley. The vision of Los Angeles that persists in his writing is a clever variation on the one he remembers but is worlds apart from the one he confronts on brief visits. Though the city inhabits his heart and head, "I don't get it from L.A.," he says. "I get it from how I stand in relation to L.A."
Writing about Easy, he says, "is in a way reclaiming experience." And in recasting the past, Mosley also lends a sense of clarity to the present--and possibly the future.
IT IS QUINTESSENTIAL RAYMOND CHANDLER: "I WENT ON OUT AND AMOS had the Caddy there waiting," Chandler's detective Philip Marlowe observes in "The Long Goodbye." "He drove me back to Hollywood. I offered him a buck but he wouldn't take it. I offered to buy him the poems of T.S. Eliot. He said he already had them."
Amos, Chandler's "middle-aged colored chauffeur," is a shadow figure whom Walter Mosley would eagerly give flesh and form. With lyric grace, Mosley has evoked many of those who passed through in silence, subtly sketching faces and histories for figures that have appeared as ghosts in this genre.
It's 1948 when Easy Rawlins, in Mosley's first installment, is laid off from his aerospace job in Santa Monica. World War II had created a humming assembly line of defense-industry jobs that helped fuel a mass migration west to fill them. But when an exhausted Easy refuses to put in a little overtime after a particularly hard shift, his high-strung boss fires him, leaving Easy in a spot, unsure of how he'll raise his $64 mortgage payment. As he mulls it over in a neighborhood bar owned by an ex-boxer named Joppy, his answer sidles up to him: DeWitt Albright, a white man in a flashing white suit glaringly out of place in these environs, who knows a little too much about Easy's private affairs but offers him fast money to a find a white woman who "has a predilection for the company of Negroes." It's Easy's chance out.
"Working for Joppy's friend was the only way I saw to keep my house. But there was something wrong, I could feel it in my fingertips. DeWitt Albright made me uneasy. . . . I was unhappy about going to meet Mr. Albright because I wasn't used to going into white communities like Santa Monica to conduct business," says Easy, ". . . but the idea that I'd give him the information he wanted, and that he'd give me enough money to pay the next month's mortgage, made me happy. I was dreaming about the day I'd be able to buy more houses, maybe even a duplex."
Easy is the tangible, full-coverage insurance, the safety net, for his clients, Mosley explains. "The idea about Easy is, who will be there for you when you really need it? And this is not whether you need $10, this is like when you come running and somebody's after you. Easy is not the kind of guy who figures, 'Well if I do this, I'll get killed.' He says: 'I'll do this, and I might get killed but I'm going to do it anyway, because this is where you have to stand up.' "
When Mosley speaks of Easy, it's as if he's relating the escapades of an irascible cousin or the brother with the gold tooth who always gets the barber chair with the best light--a figure he knows inside and out. In the stories, Easy emerges as the sort of black male figure that so much of popular culture has collectively erased from public consciousness or has yet to find a place for at the dinner table. There is a familiarity about him, a human softness that despite the unrelenting violence of his life allows him to be sickened by the sight of a corpse or to open his heart and arms to children, whom he takes in like strays. There are friends to answer to, comeuppance to be paid. He, unlike Chandler's Marlowe, is irrevocably tied to his world, his community, the landscape. "He has a lot of commitments in the world. These people are people he knows and he's responsible for. I don't understand how somebody like Marlowe could live," says Mosley. "He had no friends, no lovers really. No children, no parents, no job. I mean nothing."
Easy's universality, his human side, appealed to Jesse Beaton, who is producing the film version of "Devil in a Blue Dress" with Gary Goetzman; Jonathan Demme and Ed Saxon are executive producers. Browsing at a West Hollywood bookstore, Beaton, who was eager to find another project to tackle after "One False Move," pulled the book from the mystery shelves a few years back. She was taken by it for a couple of reasons. "There's so little documentation of that period in L.A. We know a lot about Harlem, what a rich, lively, vital world it was. Unfortunately, so much of that (L.A.) world is physically lost. Burned in fires, riots, rezoned, crashed down, empty lots. Very little of Central Avenue remains. The Dunbar (Hotel) is there, but what was surrounding it is not." On a personal level, she emphasizes, "I was about to lose my house. I thought, in this world we live in, people who feel that they would never have anything in common with someone like Easy Rawlins do. We all are trying to hold on to that bit of the American dream. I felt that whoever you were, you would understand this. I lost my house," she says with a chuckle, "but Easy kept his."
Easy Rawlins has friends to spare, in more than one city. "He sort of represents that mass movement out of the South and into L.A. during the war," says David Fine, editor of the anthology "Los Angeles in Fiction" and professor of English at Cal State Long Beach. "Watts is filled with displaced Southerners. There is this sense in his novels of people living on the edge, being uprooted and displaced. I don't know anybody who writes about South-Central that way. He's got a real sense of life lived exposed, raw, right on the edge of existence."
What makes Mosley's work sound authentic to many black readers' ears is that he never uses the shorthand "South-Central" in his writings. He steers clear of sweeping generalizations, working to create an image so clear one can see its pores or recognize the voice in the dark. Many a behatted church lady will be happy to tell you that before the '70s, "L.A. Negroes" lived on the east side or the west side of a city efficiently divided by Central Avenue. "It was wonderful," says Mosley's childhood friend Kirsten Childs, "to see (in Mosley's books) this place that's not a caricature and not smaller than life. Not meaner, not nicer. People live here, grow up and die here. It was like this whole world was created as I remembered it."
Some, like Richard Yarborough, associate professor of English and Afro-American studies at UCLA, compare Mosley's simple yet vivid landscapes to those of filmmaker Charles Burnett, who directed "To Sleep With Anger" and "Killer of Sheep," both about black life in Los Angeles. Their manner of revealing the uncliched complexities of life in black L.A. is often elegant, even in its grittiness. Yarborough sees the most striking similarities in the way Burnett's and Mosley's work shows big-city life in the postwar decades merging with the superstitions and pace of the South. And Mosley, he says, "captures the oral tradition right in the movement from the one site where it grew up to the other where it is changing. Easy can speak quote-unquote, conventional English, or he can speak black English. In 'A Red Death,' he is reading about Roman history, yet he has Army experience and is part of the street."
Easy finds his surest footing as a black everyman--someone's father, brother, cousin, lover--with bills to pay, marital problems, feuding friends and an insatiable lust for a life that is seldom anything less than hard. He's not a formal detective with a license, he's a "utility man" who does favors; in his part of town, he knows where to go, what to ask and how to ask it.
"I felt a secret glee when I went into a bar and ordered a beer with money someone else had paid me," Easy confides in "Devil in a Blue Dress." "I'd ask the bartender his name and talk about anything, but really, behind my friendly talk, I was working to find something. Nobody knew what I was up to, and that made me sort of invisible; people thought that they saw me but what they really saw was an illusion of me, something that wasn't real."
THERE ARE MANY WHO MIGHT LAY CLAIM TO BEING MOSLEY'S PARADIGM for Easy. Neighborhood cronies. Back-room prophets. It's Mosley's father who's most often cited. But, says Mosley's friend Childs, "I know that Easy is based on a lot of different people, but there is a part of Easy that is definitely Walter. This major vulnerability. There were certain things that were letting you see part of Walter's soul, part of Walter's mind."
On one level, a pretty air-tight argument can be made that Easy's progenitor, a man whose favorite color is gray, is just as elliptical as the character he so impeccably created. Even though he would furiously argue the point, he, too, could meld with the shadows--if his eyes didn't skitter about so much.
"Easy isn't a shadow," Mosley maintains, and so begins the dance, the teasing smile in his voice. "You know what he's thinking, doing. . . ."
"But the people in his life don't."
"So wouldn't that make him a shadow?"
"Well . . . not exactly."
The debate is interspersed with a running commentary as we drive through vaguely familiar haunts, but if the conversation veers too close to the territory Mosley chooses not to discuss, he deflects questions with veils of jokes and riddles and anecdotes or turns inquiries inside out. The entire production is performed always with the most elated version of his smile, fully revealing a generous gap separating his front teeth. Shifting characters, maybe slipping into the voice of Easy's best friend Mouse, or giving voice to an anonymous man standing on the corner, Mosley's a mimic at the ready with quick, and many times acerbic, remarks.
"In the '40s, there was a time of great hope in Los Angeles," he says, his eyes lit with the momentum of a story. "It was a big place, it was a countrified place. It was a place where if there was a job, the job was digging ditches, it wasn't somebody saying: 'We're looking for colored people or Japanese people (to dig) ditches.' It was, 'We're looking for people to dig ditches.' So no matter what color you were, you were working there. And if you were a white man and said: 'I'm not working next to that niggah,' they'd say, 'Well, get outta here, because I got 20 niggahs working here and I need to dig my ditches.' There was hope and opportunity. And as L.A. began to redefine that hope, that possibility, the dream lost a lot of its glitter. Even though a lot of the dream came true--a lot of us who came through that time became lawyers and doctors--still, a lot of us are down in the boarded-up 'hood."
At once warm and veiled, there is the public Mosley: the raconteur, the debater, the banterer, the charmer, the wild and wide-eyed 8-year-old; there is a more contained Mosley: the thinker, the analyst, the inquisitor. He's as obsessed with the intricacies of "Married With Children" as by the stories of his orphan father's vagabond youth in Louisiana and Texas. He's a conundrum who pulls from Louis Armstrong and folk singer Mary McCaslin with equal fervor and fascination.
"There is kind of an elusiveness to his soul," says Frederic Tuten, who was Mosley's writing instructor and is now his best friend. "I can't presume to say that I know Walter." This understanding seems only to deepen their connection. "We both have this kind of strange part of us that didn't grow up, so the world is always full of surprises. It's as if the two of us have been condemned to solitary confinement, and when we're let out, we are sort of amazed by what we see."
What passes in Mosley's view this particular afternoon is not the often-resurrected image of a bombed-out war zone, although these communities and their collections of wide boulevards and tree-lined streets are struggling with their wounds.
"It's just a community of scarring," says Mosley. "It started in '65 and (then) just got more and more." We roll along, verbally sifting the remains, wondering about the cause of the damage: urban unrest of '65 or '92? Maybe a neighborhood fire or the earthquake or just plain old garden-variety urban blight?
"There's great wealth in the city, but there is a kind of disintegration going on," he says, still watching, recording the image, possibly filing it away. He readjusts himself in the seat. "You have to understand the character of these people from the inside, not from the outside. I don't know who this fellow is," he says, gesturing toward a stout man in a three-piece suit, glasses, Bible in hand, his black hair powdered with patches of silver. "He's not walking like he's nervous, you know what I mean?"
Mosley believes, as do many African-American educators and pundits, that what rests at the core of this community's unraveling has less to do with absence of monetary riches than it does with historical amnesia. "An identity has been misplaced, and that's one of the things that I'm a very small part of. Everything that happens to black people in America is not talked about. So we lose it. It's not written down." Countering this loss within popular fiction, Mosley suggests, is like chasing a remedy with that proverbial spoonful of sugar. "It's an adventure," he says with a coy laugh, "because most of the things that Easy does are kinda fun."
On this stretch of road, the juxtapositions are jarring--the crumbling detritus of some once-fetching 1940 storefront squats next to a circa-1980 convenience structure of glass and concrete. The ragtag collection plays tricks with time and place.
These darkened doorways inspire brighter memories. "Even though most of those stores were owned by white people, at least there were stores in the community where people could go shopping, where people could get jobs. There was a relationship developing with the community, and that's really what's gone. And that, I think, is analogous to a physical reflection, in a negative sense, (to) the hope that is also gone from the community." His voice goes soft, loses speed. "But a lot of the people are the same. They're still here."
And 76th Place itself pulses on. For 10 years, the Mosleys lived here, near Central, in a white wood-frame house edged in green, with a small front porch that provided a perfect stage for stories. Today, it's a street of single-family dwellings, pastel duplexes, rose bushes, birds of paradise exploding askew. A woman, on her knees, polishes the knob of her iron screen door while children, mostly Latino, command the center of the street with balls and bikes.
Near the corner, a large wood-frame court of bungalows painted crisp white, its property line marked off by a tall iron fence, sparks something. Mosley leans forward in his seat to frame the picture better. "Right here is the court--Poinsettia Court--they're all over L.A.," he says, finger jabbing at the glass. "That's where I imagined Easy living."
It all comes back in a flood. An easy smile moves across his sand-colored face and large, sad eyes.
"My father raised me in this neighborhood and he had high hopes for me. It wasn't: 'Walter can get a job at the garage, maybe, if he's lucky.' He was saying, 'My son is going to make it, 'cause I'm going to make something out of my son,' which he did."
What might be absent physically is made up for by what has failed to dissipate spiritually, Mosley notes. "This community is still really kind of wonderful because when you really look directly at people, people are kind of smiling a lot and telling each other stories. (But) it's kind of a funny (feeling). It's not like what I remember physically, but then again, it is what I remember physically."
The unfolding scene plays tricks with one's memory. With the notion of memory itself. Vaguely familiar backdrops, partly familiar players. This lively tree-banked street next to Central Avenue, where life persists despite its new ghost-town feel. Beauty parlors specializing in a "Texas press and curl" and soul food cafes now coexist with discotecas and mariscos and taco stands. And behind it all, lending a somewhat surreal backdrop, the downtown skyline hovers like Oz.
Down the block a little farther, Mosley points out a house stripped, he says, of its former character. His full lips return to a gentle pout. "That's my house right there, but it's not the same anymore."
This little strip of small homes, duplexes and bungalow courts was, Mosley believes, much more of a neighborhood than could be found elsewhere in the basin. He remembers a community that often disregarded color, religion and ethnicity, possibly important for a child whose father was black and whose mother was white and also Jewish. He grew up relating the struggles of his black forebears to those of his mother's Eastern European lineage. He speaks of fleeting crushes on the Mexican girls who lived nearby and was fascinated by them because they were "so Catholic." This community that "got along" was perhaps a built-in comfort zone for Mosley.
"Everybody knew one another. People are still living there who lived there when I was a little kid, and that's not the way you think of L.A. The real Los Angeles, the Los Angeles I lived in, there was no Hollywood. One thing," says Mosley, his voice drifting like a whisper, "even though you couldn't find a way out, there was a great sense of possibility."
ELLA MOSLEY ADMITS SHE KEPT a sentinel's watch on her only child. She and her husband met at a local school (she was an elementary school clerk, he was a plant manager), and Walter Ellis Mosley was born in 1952. "I always worried about him, and you don't want to be that way, but you can't help it," she says. "Walter wanted to walk down the street one time to the store, he was 6 maybe, he had never done that before. There was nothing that could have happened to him, so we let him, but I'm walking on the other side, trying to keep out of sight."
About the time Walter was ready for junior high, the family moved across town to a comfortable four-plex just off the western stretch of Pico, a new retreat that Leroy Mosley, who collected property as others do stamps, made a hideaway by planting an exotic array of vegetables, fruits and flowers.
Drifting back to his adolescent years, Mosley recalls most clearly the ache at the pit of his lungs from the air that so often smudged the skies ocher. He remembers feeling trapped within the flat, hot vastness.
He read voraciously. "I'm not sure that it was traveling through books. I love to read. I was reading Dickens, Hesse, that kinda brooding youth stuff. I was reading whatever I got introduced to in school that I liked, and stuff my parents had just read. My first favorite book was 'Treasure Island.' "
His intake later increased to include a steady diet of comic books and paperback sci-fi. Mysteries didn't enter into the picture until his 20s, and the only writing he was flirting with at the time didn't venture further than poetry.
"I was very unhappy," he says. "It seems to me like I wanted something, but the something was intangible; I didn't know how to get it. In L.A., that big middle portion of L.A., people don't walk on the streets, people don't come from the same background or the same area, so your connection with people is very tenuous at best." Once out of his little neighborhood, the connection was gone.
He cut it completely when he decided to attend Goddard, a "radical" arts college in Vermont. "I thought I really had to go someplace where people will be like me. Things that I will say, they will understand." But upon his arrival, Mosley wasn't sure he understood them. "They had a large black population . . . and they were all living in the same dorm, except me. It wasn't that the school wanted them to live there, it was the decision on their part. I thought, 'I'm going to search out a ghetto to live in? Nuh uh.' "
He drifted from one campus to another and from one set of adventures to still others without a goal, with not even the essence of direction. "I think I was informed by like the Kerouac and Ginsberg sensibility, and also by L.A. and the hippie movement," he explains. And what was he studying? Mosley pauses, then lets out an explosion that doubles as a laugh--"Who knows?"
Writing came a little later, like a storm out of nowhere. After receiving a BA in political science from Vermont's Johnson State College in 1977, he met Joy Kellman, a dancer-choreographer, while he was working on a Ph.D at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. They married in 1988. He'd shown talent as a potter and painter and some aptitude for computers. "I was sitting in a room, and I was working as a consultant programmer. It was a Saturday, and nobody else was there. I was writing programs. I got tired of it, so I started typing on the computer," he says. "I typed: 'On hot sticky days in southern Louisiana, the fire ants swarmed. . . .' I said--'Hey, this is cool. This means I could be a writer.' So I start writing."
In a few months, a manuscript, "Gone Fishin'," under his belt, he enrolled in a graduate creative writing program at City College of New York. It was 1986. "He was writing these wonderful, beautiful stories," says Mosley's onetime instructor Tuten, author of "Tallien: A Brief Romance." "The vividness of the characterizations, the very simple, elegant beauty of the prose. And there is a lyricism there that you don't find in much American writing today."
After Mosley had completed his instruction with Tuten and won CCNY's De Jur Award, he asked Tuten to critique a new manuscript. Excited by the power of the work, Tuten took it to his agent, who promised to sell the book--and did, six weeks later.
"He didn't give it to me with that kind of anticipation," Tuten says. Since then Mosley has weathered the blizzard of events, Tuten believes, with ego safely in check. "He's had plenty of occasions to play a big shot. He's never done it with anybody. I can't say that he's humble. He knows the value of this work, but he didn't become a writer to become famous. He didn't become a writer to become a celebrity. That happened, and I've never seen anyone else handle it so well as he."
Walter happy at last? Well, happy would seem a stretch. Contented but busy seems to sum up his demeanor, which at moments makes him appear as if he is leaning on a gilded railing of some grand balcony, watching it all unfold. Lately, his thoughts center more on the final tinkerings on his blues novel, "RL's Dream" (due next year) and testing his chops with a screenplay, his own take on the relatively nascent 'hood-film genre that he's been banging out on his laptop in his Santa Monica hotel room. With all the clamor surrounding him of late, Mosley seems to fly from vague disinterest to a quiet merriment when talk of his success rises in conversation. "He's very controlled," his mother confides later. "But being too controlled is not good. I always thought that his head would get too big, but he is just as easygoing. (He) never lets on that everything is great."
AT ITS DOWNTOWN source, Pico Boulevard, crowded with life, noisy with enterprise, serves as the vivid bridge, the wide road to the Westside. It's the bridge from Central Avenue to Mosley's teen years, the period in which he planned his grand escape.
"This is so L.A., these palm trees standing here, big wide streets and all these completely innocuous cinder-block buildings. It seems like this place where nothing real is going on, which is why you can really write crime fiction about L.A.--because really behind all these things, there is all this weird stuff, and strange people who come from all over the place . . . and you don't know where they went after they left here.
"When you see something like this," he gestures toward the boulevard, "this isn't as real as what's in your head. In your head, you have the details," says Mosley. His gestures are careful, understated. His hands are reserved only for the most dramatic moment in the action, a crescendo. "When I was a kid, and this was before cable, black people got together and told stories. And storytelling is its own fuel. All you have to do is evoke a feeling. Sometimes it's just a word. A sentence."
However, unlike Easy, who has cast his lot with Los Angeles ("He's going to live in his neighborhood. And either he is going to get killed in that neighborhood or he's going to survive in that neighborhood"), Mosley hasn't.
"I wouldn't live in Los Angeles," he says. "The center of Los Angeles, though I am moved by it aesthetically, living in it, I remember being very kind of, I (didn't) know how to get out. There were no walls, but there was great distance."
He's tiring of questions or maybe of just coming up with serious answers to them. The 8-year-old peeks from behind the hedge, the trickster upsetting the balance, toppling the status quo. With a part-dreamy, part-devilish expression inhabiting his eyes, he takes a breather.
Roaming around his hotel-room carpet on stocking feet, he finally pauses to install himself in the love seat, to take advantage of its view of the very edge--the lazy Pacific as it curls and stretches eight stories below. He sits, legs pulled beneath him, dressed entirely, once again, in black: socks, jet shirt tucked into charcoal trousers. His calf-length cashmere coat, which he wears on the dust jacket of "White Butterfly," and his Kangol hat (one of a pair he and his father purchased in London) are draped across the foot of the bed, suggesting that the pause is only temporary.
Over the course of the week, he's been busy with a varying collection of duties and diversions: lunch with his mother, a visit to his father's grave (he died of lung cancer late last year), a meeting with "the movie people," interviews, more pages filed away on the screenplay and, of course, some time set aside to catch up with his favorite TV family, the Bundys on "Married With Children." The room is cluttered with tools of his spare time: a Hilma Wolitzer novel, a copy of Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" (for an essay he's working on), a flute and sheet music. His laptop, folded away, rests on the room's only table. His morning writing ritual is a constant. With the jet-lag, it begins at 3:30; he quits at about 10.
"A novel, it seems to me, has to be larger than the mind of the writer," he says. The largeness of L.A., though daunting and "stultifying" to a younger Mosley, is now the precise dimension he seeks to replicate in his work. "The novel is based on a plot, and the best way to describe a plot to me is the structure of revelation. If you can hold it all within a small space, a space small enough for you to see and perceive, then you don't have the feeling of revelation, because it's too controlling. What you want is something big, where things surprise you, where things become."
He would like to avoid narrow pigeonholes or empty spokesman roles, despite the expectations of those of any hue.
"Well, you know if you're black and you make it, you should want to be helping other black people in ways that most people don't even help their family. And I think a lot of black people feel that responsibility. I know I do," he admits. "But at the same time, it can interfere with your work. People come up to you and say, 'Well, you have to write in African tones, my brother.'
" 'Well, you know, I'm writing the way I write.'
" 'But you see, your mind has been brainwashed by The Man, and you have to return to our true identity.' "
He tends to be more populist and universal in his thinking. "A good novel comes out into the world and grows as people read it. Other people, they see things, learn things, they get a little inkling of something that may make its way into something else (or in the) actions that they take in their own lives. I want black people to have a good time. I mean, I want black people to read the book and say, 'That's my language, that's my life. That's my history. But I want white people to say, 'Boy, you know, I feel just like that!' "
Human struggle, failure, and the occasional reward of good fortune serve as the dramatic and emotional engines for much of Mosley's work. "I'm not really happy," he says, "with political writing as political writing. That kind of sociopolitical writing they do about black life--'The Black Man, blah, blah, blah, and the Black Woman, blah, blah, blah.' And then the white this and Jim Crow and all this other stuff. I mean I like mentioning it, because I think it's a part. But it's such a small part of black life."
"Politics?" I coax him toward elaboration.
"Well, politics is a big part of our life, and so is racism. But most black people are living lives, making love, raising children, listening to music, working hard, saving money, learning new skills in order to survive, watching television, telling jokes, telling stories--so much of life is that. And black life in America is really kind of a celebration. Even when people are really sad," says Mosley, eyes wide, hands painting vast landscapes, portraits, busy triptychs.
"And when they're sad, how do they celebrate it?"
The answer is sly, trademark-simple: "That's the blues."