The Sunday Conversation: Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley, 58, the prolific L.A.-born, Brooklyn-based crime novelist, has a lot to say about pop culture — but it isn’t about books. His latest is “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.”

What were your favorite books this year?

That should be an easy question, although I didn’t read a whole bunch of new books this year. I was reading “V.” by [ Thomas] Pynchon and old Roger Zelazny, books that I had read before. . … My problem is … the industry publishes 150,000 books a year, and you get overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of it.

Are there any new writers you’re watching?

I’m really happy with Chris Abani and Junot Diaz, who are younger writers than me, but they’re not new writers. I’m very interested to see where they’re going to go … , and I’m hearing about young writers. I just haven’t read them yet.

Do you watch TV?

Yeah. I loved “Memphis Beat.” … I loved “Burn Notice.” I think it’s lots and lots of fun. Even though I haven’t been made into an AMC follower, I love “The Walking Dead.” And what’s that television show with [ Timothy] Olyphant? [“Justified”] I really enjoyed a lot. To make a modern-day western is the perfect thing. Westerns worked because they were metaphorical about, in quotes, man against nature, man against laws and structure. It’s really a very American form in many ways — good and bad. These people who are doing really good and really bad things. But the westerns lost their connection because you had to believe in something else, and people stopped believing in that inexplicable thing. But the Olyphant western, that was modern — he’s just a guy; he’s in trouble — I think it hit us. We can’t control anything. We can’t control our passions, our government, our legal system. We can’t protect ourselves, and we need that hero.

Do you think television is getting better?

Television is 10 times better than movies. One of the interesting things in pop culture is just the idea of the economy, how many people you can get into seats has made people make movies dumber and dumber and dumber. That’s the big problem.


You’re developing a show with Gary Goetzman and Tom Hanks and Jonathan Demme for HBO [based on Mosley’s detective novel series “The Long Fall.”] What made you want to go into TV?

I like all kinds of writing. For example, I did a play [“The Fall of Heaven”] in Cincinnati last January. This January, I’m doing it in St. Louis.... So writing for television is just another way of writing. It’s also another job, another way to make money.... I’ve always watched television, always always always. When I was 7 years old, I lived in Watts. I had my own room and my parents got me a television. I was the only kid within a mile of my house that had that.

What do you think about the nature of pop culture stardom these days?

I wonder if it’s any different. When I was a kid, we studied yellow journalism — murders and crazy people. Abraham Lincoln, his son died from dysentery living in the White House, and Lincoln had him disinterred three times and brought back into the White House. He missed his son. People did all kinds of crazy stuff, and people read newspapers and talked about them. They had heroes like John Dillinger and Billy the Kid and Al Capone.... What’s different now is our technology. So you can get more information and more erroneous information faster.

It used to be, for better or worse, you had to actually do something to be famous.

Except for in fictional things. Sometimes people have talent and sometimes they don’t. Bob Denver. He had no talent. ... He was a made-up star. They made up a show called “Gilligan’s Island” or “Dobie Gillis.” They make up these other shows and call them reality shows, and we believe in them, but indeed they’re fictional characters. What we’re seeing, what’s presented to us is all done in the same system that other television shows are done. They have scripts, they have editing.... They’re fiction, but there’s a twist to it. We want to believe that it’s real.

What do you think our pop culture heroes tell us about ourselves?

This is the deep question of fiction. A real hero of fiction — let’s start with the first guy, Homer in the west and Achilles in “The Iliad,” you want a hero who’s flawed; you want a hero whom you could be; you want to see yourself in a world. For instance, “Justified.” You want to see somebody who’s fighting against their own flaws, and you can identify with that. So you see those housewives of here and there and the other place, and you can say they’re like me, only they’re doing a little better. They’re braver; they go out and say it....

You can no longer be a real person in life. Can you imagine if one of our presidents disinterred his son? It might be something you want to do. We’re so aware we’ve been lied to that we want to see ourselves in a way that just basically bolsters our notion that we’re not insane. I think that’s what all those shows do, but I still don’t think they represent the real thing.

So where do we go from here?

As long as you can see pop culture as something ethereal and passing and not that important, then it’s fun. Today it will be like this, and tomorrow it will be somebody else and something else. And that’s the way life goes.