Just Writing Stories

Actress Demi Moore, center, rapper Sean Combs, right, and actor Ashton Kutcher arrive at The White Party benefiting Malaria No More in Los Angeles on Saturday, July 4, 2009.
"On hot sticky days in Southern Louisiana the fire ants swarm."

These are writer Walter Mosley's favorite words. Although the sentence has never been read by his fans, it is as important as any he has written - a source of self-discovery for the African-American author, a former computer programmer who didn't start writing until he was in his 30s.

"It is the first sentence I wrote. I'll never forget it. I said: 'Wow that could the beginning of a novel.' That could work, and I did it," said Mosley, who has since written about a dozen works of fiction.

He has published detective novels and science fiction, but Mosley is probably best known for his series of stories featuring Easy Rawlins, a janitor who freelances as a detective in Mosley's latest book "Bad Boy Brawly Brown."

Mosley's first published novel, released in the 1990s, was "Devil In A Blue Dress." But the author, who is also writing a screenplay for television about an African American detective in Oakland Calif., first introduced Rawlins in "Gone Fishing."

That first attempt at fiction - published only in 1997 - was set in the U.S. South and contrasts dramatically with the latest Rawlins installment, which is set in 1960s Los Angeles.

"Gone Fishing" invited readers into a magical world, an atmospheric and steamy South. But the Los Angeles of "Bad Boy Brawly Brown" is an urban climate in which Rawlins struggles with a racist police force and tries to save a friend's son.

"In L.A. the night was wrapped in silence as if there were always a predator near, waiting to pounce on some hushed victim," Mosley wrote in "Bad Boy Brawly Brown."

In his latest mystery, a younger generation of African Americans fights for civil rights and some are willing to take to arms. Rawlins admires their tenacity but he is also a little wary of the group. At the same time, the book's tone is somber because a friend of Rawlins, first introduced in "Gone Fishing," is dead.

"There has to be a kind of melancholy because he has to deal with the death of his friend," Mosley told Reuters in a recent interview as he sipped a Pepsi in his office in Manhattan's cobble-stoned Meat Packing district on a sweltering hot day.

In his 1991 novel "A Red Death," Mosley wrote "police and government officials always have contempt for innocence; they are, in some way, offended by an innocent man." But, asked about social criticism in his work, the author responds that he he is driven primarily by the story.

"I like just telling stories. If you look at a situation and tell the truth about that situation, the politics come out. You experience racism not by pointing it out or underscoring it - though Easy does a couple of times - but by showing what he has to do, what he's trying to do," he said.

"Any strong novel talking about any period of time that the readers are aware of has to be making a social commentary. If you are not, then there is something wrong with the novel."

At the same time, Mosley hopes to attract male African American readers who, he says, have not been the subject of much fiction.

"(Herman) Melville did have black people. But he was very unusual. He wrote what he saw. The thing is, a lot of black men read my books because of the black male heroes. They have flaws. They have a lot of trouble and problems in life. But they have to ignore those troubles and problems," he said.

A fan of detective fiction by Raymond Chandler, Rex Stout and Dashell Hammett, Mosley has also written science fiction like the 2001 novel "Futureland."

He finds that literary style helps him to explore social issues.

"Science fiction, when you get down to it, is possibly the most political of all literary writing. Politics are all based on the mode of production, how you are producing things, how you are making things, what are our social relations," he said, adding "our social relations, so much of them, are based on technology. It is frightening."

Mosley likes to tape record himself reading his stories. After committing them to paper, he listens to them, evaluating the sound.

"One of the big things for me is how sentences sound. If you can't read that sentence out loud, then it has to have very special purpose in your book."

Indeed, his books have a fluidity that makes them sound as if they are part of the oral tradition. Some of that may be due to the dialect his characters use and the language employed by the narrator of his fiction.

"One of the reasons I write these books is so black people can just read black language," he said.

Mosley's work has benefited from being made into films and adapted for television. Former President Bill Clinton also once declared he was a fan of the Rawlins detective stories. But, the author still wonders about his success.

"When I started there was only one other black mystery writer. There are now some 40 to 45 black mystery writers," he said.

"I think I opened the door. I am not sure what door I opened. Did I open the door that black people wanted to start writing mysteries? Or, did I open the door that publishers said 'Hey we can make money on this?"'

By Aleksandrs Rozens