It's a worn-out Saturday in a Mobil Oil office, and a 33-year-old computer programmer has grown tired of typing in code. He starts thinking about various stories that he's heard from his father about his childhood in New Iberia. He types in a new sentence.
"On hot sticky days in southern Louisiana, the fire ants swarmed."
He regards the screen. The sentence looks pretty good. And although Walter Mosley will never complete the story about the fire ants, he still identifies that moment of corporate distraction as the beginning of a new career. "It never went into a book," he now says, "but it went on to me becoming a writer."
A decade and a half after his errant weekend in the office, Mosley is one of the country's most acclaimed writers of fiction, especially mysteries. "To the African-American community, he was the leader in the mystery genre, he opened the doors," says Michele Lewis, owner of the Afro-American Book Stop, where Mosley will appear Monday, June 18, to read and sign his latest book, Fearless Jones (for a total list of events, see below).
Mosley is much lauded for energizing the mystery genre; the first published of his 12 books was Devil in a Blue Dress, which introduced the popular recurring hero Easy Rawlins, portrayed by Denzel Washington in a 1995 film adaptation of the book. A south Texan, Rawlins is just one of many of Mosley's characters to have ties to the Gulf South. In fact, although Mosley was born in Los Angeles and lives in New York, many of his characters are shadowed by memories of south Louisiana and east Texas.
This includes Fearless Jones, in which a bookshop owner named Paris Minton recalls his love for his boyhood home in New Iberia. "I loved the little shack I shared with my mother," Paris recounts. "I'd have still been there if it wasn't for one terrible event. That event was learning to read."
In a memorable passage, Paris goes on to remember how he'd linger outside the local whites-only library. One day a librarian saw Paris, brought him inside, waved a hand at the towering shelves of books, and then cruelly told the boy to get out and stay out. "By the time I was seventeen I was on a train bound for San Francisco," Paris concludes. "I left because a man told me one night that in California black folks could go into any library they wanted."
In fact, Mosley says, his own father, Leroy Mosley, left New Iberia when he was 8 years old, when his family moved to Houston. Speaking by phone from a Washington, D.C., stop on his current book tour, Walter Mosley says Paris' story, while fiction, reflects the history of both his and many others' families. "It's not a specific story [my father] told me, it's a story I made up," he says. "But it's a lot of my father's experiences, in the small parishes of Louisiana and in Texas.
"Most of it he loved, and most of the things that Paris has to say about Louisiana are things that he loves," Mosley continues. "The only reason Paris left was because the culture itself didn't want to give him knowledge. My father left because he couldn't live any longer in the South, economically and I think also spiritually."
After serving in World War II, Leroy Mosley joined a massive migration of African Americans who journeyed to California to build a better world for themselves. "Growing up in California, not only was it all black people, they were black people from Texas and Louisiana," Walter Mosley says. "I had a deep Southern accent when I was a kid." Mosley also remembers that his dad, now deceased, could often be found in the kitchen making gumbos, but that he otherwise spent his time lifting his family into the middle class.
One of the first stories Mosley wrote, Gone Fishin', included the first name "Clifton" and the last name "Chenier" -- Mosley was probably thinking of the zydeco legend at the time, he acknowledges. The imprint of history on Mosley's writing is much deeper than an author's choice of character names, however. The black exodus to California is the leitmotif of the Easy Rawlins novels, and it plays a significant role in Fearless Jones, as well. Still, Mosley is wary of over-defining his characters by where they're from. Such an act skirts close to stereotyping.
"That's a delicate question," he says. "Now Easy's experience in the deep South has affected him in such a way that it's hard for him to see past racism. So his ability to function as an equal player in the business world is greatly compromised by his notion of himself as being a black person in the world. And even though he wants to overcome this, he finds this very, very difficult.
"There's all kinds of people," Mosley continues, slipping for the moment into the voice of Mouse, Easy Rawlins' at-times brutal sidekick. "Mouse comes out from Louisiana and, you know, Mouse will just kill you. He say, 'Man, people don't put me down for nothin'.' Not 'cause I'm short, not 'cause I'm black, not 'cause I talk funny.' He say, 'Man, they better not.'"
Mosley then turns to Fearless Jones' Paris Minton: "Now Paris, he really identified with his home when he was a kid. When you have old-time, 1920s, '30s, '40s rural South, there were whole black communities. The undertaker was black, and the butcher was black, and the blacksmith was black, everybody was black. So you have people who did business. So the effect on Paris is he's an entrepreneur. He wants to be like the people he saw when he was a kid."
For Walter Mosley himself, perhaps the most lasting effect from his ancestral home in the South is a love of telling stories, a trait he can actually trace to parents who came from two separate but, in this way at least, similar cultures: an African-American father and a Jewish mother. "My father's whole thing was the story of his life and other people's lives. He would tell stories about his life, about Louisiana, about Texas, about the war. It's the ability to make life into a story. It's the enjoyment of storytelling itself. That's what it's about.
"My mother's relatives are Jews from Eastern Europe, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Russia. All of these people were raised in poverty and in a technological state where there was no easy access to electronic media. Even printed media, for that matter. And so storytelling was a central part of their lives, as well."
Appropriately enough, Mosley's own storytelling takes many forms. In addition to his series of mysteries, his recent projects include works of science fiction, the essay collection Workin' on the Chain Gang, the blues novel RL's Dream, screenplays, an e-book, and a current serialization in Savoy magazine.
Yet Mosley makes it clear that he has no time for critics who say he's "transcended" the mystery genre. In fact, he embraces mysteries in a power grip. He's a past president of the Mystery Writers of America and a stated fan of the classics: Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Georges Simenon. "I think that any genre that you're going to write in you should take it seriously," he says. "I'm not very interested in rising above it or going beyond it. I'm not very interested in that approach."
And at least as telling as the geographic roots of his characters is their literary DNA as hard-boiled noir characters. Easy Rawlins is clearly a noir hero, Mosley says, while Paris Minton is more of an everyman. "Easy comes from a dramatic and a tragic world, and Paris comes from a comic world. A noir hero says, 'The man came in and put his brass knuckles on. I snickered at him.' When Paris sees someone put his brass knuckles on, he says, 'I looked for the door. And I noticed it was locked.'"