Big Think Interview With Walter Mosley
Walter Mosley is the author of more than 34 critically acclaimed books, including the major bestselling mystery series featuring the character Easy Rawlins. His work has been translated into 21 languages and includes literary fiction, science fiction, political monographs, and a young adult novel. His short fiction has been widely published, and his nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Nation, among other publications. He is the winner of numerous awards, including an O. Henry Award, a Grammy and PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He became a writer in his thirties, after a decade-long career as a computer programmer. He lives in New York City.
Question: Why were you inspired to write about someone suffering from dementia in Ptolemy Grey?
Walter Mosley: My mother, for many years, has been very slowly going into a state of dementia. It could be 15 years, since my father died. And, you know, it got worse and worse over the years. In the beginning I didn’t quite realize it and then it seemed more quirky than it seemed like some really somatic issue. And finally, in the last few years, four or five years of her life, it was obvious that she was suffering from dementia, a certain kind of dementia. And I had to, you know, because my mother was an only child, my father was an only child, I’m an only child. Because there’s really no family, I had to really kind of step in and try to take care of her.
And in taking care of her, I had to pay a lot of attention, I really wanted to be very clear, like a lot of people come to me and say, “Well, you should do this to her. You should make her do this. You should do this.” And I said, “Look, this is a woman who used to change my diapers. This is the person who took care of me more than I will ever take care of her. So I can’t do that. I have to respect her even if she’s having problems.” And so one of the issues was to figure out how she communicated and how I can communicate with her and how we could come to decisions together even though she was losing her ability to do that. And in the middle of doing that, I decided to write this book.
Question: What did you learn about dementia from taking care of your mother?
Walter Mosley: My experience of people in dementia is that a lot of their personality, a lot of their knowledge, a lot of their experience is still there but there’s not a direction connection that they can just reach out and get it and then bring it back. There’s a word, they know there’s a word, but they don’t remember what that is. There’s a word that describes something. There’s a thing that they have to do, there’s something that’s very important. It’s almost there within the range of their mind and they have to sit there and go through a really convoluted process of thought and memory to try to retain that—to regain it. And sometimes they can and sometimes they can’t.
As time goes on, they can less and less. Everything is still there. The person is still there, but they’re not as connected as they once were. And that’s what I was trying to talk about. That was my experience with my mother, but with a lot of other people, you know, as they get older as memories fade, as these doors start to close on parts of there lives for who knows, maybe physical and somatic reasons, maybe they’re emotional reasons.
Question: What is your writing and editing process?
Walter Mosley: The way I write is this: I write about a thousand words a day, a little bit more. The next morning, I read those thousand words and cursorily edit that. Then I write the next thousand. I do that all the way to the end of the book and then I reread the book quite a few times, editing as go through. Because you know, your book grows; the early part of your book is growing still while you are writing the later part of your book. And so all that possibility, you don’t want to do all your editing up front, because all the possibility goes through to the end of the book.
Question: Have you ever thought of writers as detectives?
Walter Mosley: I think of writers as explorers, not necessarily as detectives. So there is certainly detecting that is going on—they’re explorers. I recently wrote a short story in which a man with no family asks a man with a family, what’s it like having a family? And this guy has a... he has four kids, three of them are in trouble, he has a wife who had had an affair with his best friend while he was out having an affair with somebody else. He’s had a hard life, but he said, “If my family was perfect and my kids were perfect, they wouldn’t need me. You know? If everything was perfect, I wouldn’t have anything to do.” And he said, you know, “Life is a bitch. But what’s a boy dog gonna do without his bitch?”
When I wrote that, I understood something that I didn’t know before, it’s like I had gone into a new space and I discovered something about the possibilities. And actually the prerequisites of life and family. Something I didn’t understand before I wrote it. And so in that way I think we are – with each new character, we are exploring the possibilities for humanity.
Question: Do you feel your prior career as a computer programmer shows in your writing?
Walter Mosley: I think that computer programming shows in my writing. Often when I write about computer programmers I’ll write about the way that they see the world and they structure the world.
Question: And how is that?
Walter Mosley: In little discrete boxes of logic, you know, that the world makes sense through these little discrete boxes of logic and they kind of break down their world. Like, in that same story where the guy is talking about, you know: "What’s a boy dog gonna do without his bitch?" There’s another character who works on the 26th floor of a building. And he says, “Well, I work on the 26th floor of a building and I get an hour for lunch, but it takes five minutes for the elevator to come to my floor and its 26 floors, so it could stop on all the floors on the way down and then I have to walk across a concrete aisle to where they sell the food, but then there’s 26 floors of people so there’s a long line for food. Sometimes it takes up to 32 minutes before I get my food. And so then I sit down and eat, so how am I gonna get back to work in an hour when I’m on the 26th floor and I have all of these obstacles to go through.”
But it’s the kind of logical way that a programmer would think and explain his or her world. I don’t always do that, but often I do.
Question: What are the biggest misconceptions people have about a writer’s life?
Walter Mosley: The biggest misconception that people have about the literary life is the romance of it. That, you know, that a writer has this large world available to him or her of people, of ideas, of experiences, of interchange of ideas; that they don’t understand really, not how isolated the life of that person is because the life of that person is dependent on who they are, but the literary life of that person. How hard it is to get recognized, how hard it is to get people to read your books. How hard it is to get people to even to understand what they’re reading when they’re talking to you about their books. The idea is... and a lot of people who think about writers actually think about reading. They’ll say, you know, they’ll think about the great novels, this oh, you must have read you know, Albert Camus and Virginia Wolff and Shakespeare, when really you know, the books that made you become a writer was "Tom Swift" and the "Hardy Boys" and "Nancy Drew." That the love of writing comes at a very early age, you know, like for me for instance, comic books so affected me. And you know, a lot of people who come up to me and start talking about writing, when I start talking to them about the "Fantastic Four," they look at me aghast. They say, “'The Fantastic Four?' That’s not literature.” I say, “Yeah, but it was when I was 11 years old.” This was literature. This was telling me what life was about. This was how I kind of entered life, through fiction. And you know.
I think that that’s a big, you know. I always tell people, well you know, if a young girl read "Beloved" as her first novel, she’d have to kill either herself or her mother, you know, because in "Beloved" you have a mother killing their children. This is not something a child would accept very easily. You know, and would never understand. And so "Nancy Drew" is much more suited for a eight-, nine- or 10-year-old girl.
Question: Why do some people disregard popular forms of writing as being less worthy of attention than what we’ve dubbed “the classics”?
Walter Mosley: Now the interesting question about people going to the classics when they think about books is that because people don’t understand what the classics are. Like for instance, William Shakespeare was a popular writer, he was a writer who wrote for everybody, you know from the lowest drunk down in the pit to the kind and the queen sitting up in the high seats.
Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, you know, Victor Hugo. I mean all of these people, they’re popular writers. They’re writing to the broadest range of people. Later on, those writings became codified and boy, this is great literature. Well, yeah, it’s great literature, but it was popular literature when it was written. And that’s almost all of literature that survives starting from Homer. You know? It’s the adventure. It’s the story, it’s the fight, it’s people falling in love, it’s people with deep you know, personality disorders who succeed anyway, you know, beyond themselves. That’s what great literature is.
And the problem is, is that once we have made it, we call it great literature, we look at it in a different way. So when that literature exists today, you know all great popular literature today one day will be seen as great literature and will no longer be seen as popular literature.
So you know, it’s just a problem. The thing is, writers have to remember that. Writers have to remember it. This is my job. My job is writing for people to enjoy and then writing about a broader and a deeper world.
Question: Once you started writing full-time, did you find it freeing? Or is harder than your previous job?
Walter Mosley: Well, I love writing and I... like you said, I write every day and I just love doing it. It’s just... it’s just a wonderful thing. Some of my stories work, some of them don’t work. some of them are wild and I love them, but they certainly don’t fit into any kind of a normal system that I know about. Some of them are like, you know, fit perfectly into you know, like a structure that somebody would want to publish and deal with. It doesn’t matter to me because I’m writing, I’m using language, I’m using that language to tell stories and even more so to get ideas across. And I just love that, and I’ve always loved that.
And the fact, but you know, I tell people, when people come to me and say, “So when you started writing, you were trying to become a successful writer,” and I said, “No, when I became a writer... I started studying writing, what I wanted to do was to write a short story that worked.” And I never really thought I’d be successful. I never though I’d get books published, but this was something completely beyond me. You know, the fact that it happened is wonderful, but it is not something that I was aiming for.
Question: What have you had to sacrifice to be a writer?
Walter Mosley: I have never thought that I have sacrificed anything being a writer. That might not be true, maybe I have sacrificed something. Maybe I’ve given something up, but I can’t think of it. One of the things that I love about being a writer is this. I wake up every day and I write for three hours. I wake up early. So like, you know, 6:00, 7:00 in the morning, I write till 9:00 or 10:00. I live in New York, nobody even like you know, is breathing until 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning. So, it’s like my writing life is completely removed from the rest of my life.
So then, you know, I can start calling people, going out, having lunches, you know, doing things, living the life. And I’ve already done my writing. And I don’t have to think about it again until tomorrow morning at 6:00 or 7:00. So, it feels like writing is almost a place of dreams for me. And I don’t have to give up anything in order to do it.
Question: Is productivity the true currency of a writer?
Walter Mosley: You know, it’s funny. One wouldn’t want to say that what makes a good writer is the number of books that the writer wrote because you could write a whole number of bad books. Books that don’t work, mediocre books, or you know, there’s a whole bunch of people in the pulp tradition who have done that. They just wrote... and actually they didn’t write a whole bunch of books, they just wrote one book many times.
But even if she wrote a different book every time, if they’re not good books, then you can’t say this is a good writer because he or she wrote a whole lot of books. On the other hand, when you go to another form, like for instance painting, you talk about painters and you talk about painters painting masterpieces. There is no painter who painted only one painting and that was a masterpiece. You have to do a whole bunch of paintings to get to the place of mastering your craft. And so the idea of being productive, the idea of producing many books is going to lead you toward becoming a better and... can lead towards you becoming a better and better writer.
So, no, purely the idea of writing a lot of books doesn’t make you a great writer, but it might be that the process of doing a lot of writing will make you a much better writer.
Question: What is a writer’s political or moral responsibility?
Walter Mosley: I think that a writer, I believe that a writer has to tell what they think is the truth in a human experience. The truth of the human experience cannot escape the political. So for instance, if you’re going to write about a woman whose husband has died raising her two children in Cincinnati in 1905, well there’s some things that you have to know. There’s some things that you have to be able to talk about. Like this woman can’t really own property. That this woman cannot vote. That is woman doesn’t have equal rights to men. That this woman is going to be seen in certain ways inside of courts, on the street, in the kinds of jobs that she can have, in the way that she deals with money.
If you understand those things, your novel necessarily becomes political. If you don’t understand those things, your novel becomes not a fiction, but a fantasy. And that I think that it’s important to try to keep reality. Now, of course, I think that Gabriel Garcia Marquez speaks a lot about reality in his magical realism. So I don’t think we have to be hyper-realistic. But we have to understand the pressures that undergird the lives of the characters within that novel.
Question: What idea has influenced you most?
Walter Mosley: Well you know, I was thinking about big ideas because, you know, arrogantly enough I look at my own ideas as big ideas and one notion that I’ve had and I’ve been very committed to lately is: the older you are the more you live in the past. Now it struck me one day that, you know, because a lot of people get upset at young people. They say, young people aren’t living up to their potential. Young people are interested in things which are shallow, which are meaningless, which are unimportant. But the truth is, is that the older you are, the more your thinking is historical, and the more historical things become—especially in our world today where things change so quickly because of technology, the more they’re invalid.
So you find somebody who was raised in the Depression, they have notions of how economics and money works, which are no longer valid... or at least weren’t until very recently. You have people who have notions of race, have notions of gender, which once seemed true in their lives. They might not have been true even then, but they seemed true. Young people live exactly today... and they live in the immediacy of their world. And it’s important for us, people from older generations to realize that a lot of our values, a lot of our truths are no longer truths, are no longer valuable.
And so I think that one of the great notions to enact is that, hey, I have to remember that young people are living in this world today and I have to be advised by them as they are advised by me.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Walter Mosley: It’s a funny thing, the notion of what keeps me up at night no longer keeps me up at night. I think I used to worry about money and career and what was going to happen. How was I gonna succeed or fail in the world? And I thought about it enough that I’m no longer worried about it. I’m not... I don’t worry about what’s gonna happen in my life. I don’t worry, as we talked before about telling me about dying, my own mortality. That’s a given.
I don’t worry about being broke. I remember one day I was talking to Gregory Hines, we used to live in the same neighborhood. And I had gotten my first book published and I said, “You know, Gregory, before I was working really hard, man, and I was so... I wasn’t making money, I was broke often.” And before I could go on he pointed in my face and he said, “And you will be there again.” And it struck me, like "Wow! You mean it’s not over?"
And then, since then, every time I go broke I remember Gregory pointing in my face and saying, “And you will be there again.” And I laugh, that there’s a certain kind of cyclical nature to life and that I don’t have to worry because whatever isn’t there right now, it’s coming back again.
Recorded November 10, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont
Directed / Produced by Jonathan Fowler
A conversation with the novelist.
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