Walter Mosley on Writing Tips and the Promise of the iPad
Fiction, non-fiction, science fiction, historical fiction—Walter Mosley (of Easy Rawlins fame) has spanned just about every genre. The master storyteller produces an extraordinary quantity of work, and he didn’t even start writing seriously until his mid-30s. Mosley, whose most recent novel Known to Evil hit bookstores in March, was recently honored by the Liberty Hill Foundation for his unwavering vision at their annual Upton Sinclair gala. We caught up with Mosley about his latest projects, race in America and, of course, the iPad.
GOOD: What do you hope to achieve with your stories? Is there a call to action? Should there be?
WALTER MOSLEY: I don’t think of writers as teachers or leaders for that matter. I think we tell stories and we come into contact with readers whose reading of the work is just as important as our writing of the work. It’s not my place to educate or to guide. I write stories in which characters appear and people read them, and every person reading is going to come from a different point of view and they’re going to have a different kind of response or reaction. To make a book a political diatribe would defeat the purpose.
G: How important is it for you to include references to the social and political landscape of the time period in which your stories unravel?
WM: The landscape—period—has to be included. Every issue that’s real has to be included. For instance, if you’re writing a novel about a female protagonist in America in 1910, you have to include things like (the fact that) she can’t own property or vote … at best she’s a second- or third-class citizen in America. If you didn’t show those parts of her life, then the fiction would actually become a fantasy. Whenever you’re writing about anybody in a certain time, you have to write what it was really like for them.
G: How has being bi-racial influenced how you see the world and translate what you see to the page?
WM: There are very few people in America who are not bi-racial. To find somebody who’s pure anything in America is a really unusual thing. The idea that in order to be bi-racial you have to have parents of two different races … it’s one of the interesting notions of racism in America. (But) I don’t really know the answer to that question for myself—my father (was) black, my mother (was) Jewish—but there wasn’t a whole bunch of attention paid by me to that. I had relatives … and I loved them. And how that influenced me? I’m sure that it allowed me access to places that I might have felt excluded from otherwise.
G: What’s it like seeing your own work translated into film?
WM: I like making movies. It’s fun. I’m working right now with Jonathan Demme, trying to turn The Long Fall into a television series for HBO and it’s really been all kinds of fun talking about it [and] trying to figure out. Although it never feels like the book I wrote. Even when I’m intimately involved, it always seems like something else, but I like that.
G: You were a computer programmer for 16 years prior to becoming a writer. Did you ever imagine, back then, the effect that computer technology would have on entertainment consumption habits?
WM: There’s kind of a unity that comes with technology that I’m really interested in. One thing is that technology makes a socialist argument that young people are using and they don’t even know it. They’re saying “why isn’t all of this stuff free? Why don’t I have access to everything?” And you want to say, “Don’t you understand? We’re living in capitalism. We own things.” It’s a wild notion, and it’s a very radical notion.
G: Do you own an e-reader?
WM: I love reading things electronically. For some reason it comforts me. I just got my iPad and I love it to death. There are so many things that it can do. We’re going to save the lives of many trees. The written wisdom of Ronald Reagan doesn’t need to be on paper. Most cookbooks, self-help books, and how to books [would be] better in electronic form. Some things, like the Bible, you need both.
G: What do you think of self publishing?
WM: It works for a lot of people and it’s a very good thing. I remember when I met E. Lynn Harris. I was at some kind of book fair and E. Lynn had self published his first book and he came up to me and said, “Mr. Mosley? I’m writing my own books and publishing them and one day I’m going to be like you.” He ended up being a lot bigger than me—as far of sales of any individual book is concerned. All of the young Black people who are publishing quasi-erotic literature that they sell on the street corners here in New York, you know? It really works. I have friends who do very well with it and have big audiences and have done everything without publishers.
G: Who are some of your favorite writers of all time?
WM: People ask when I’m giving talks: “Who influenced you?” Almost every writer you ask that question lies. You know, a young black woman will tell you Toni Morrison and Zadie Smith—but really it was Nancy Drew. I’m just as influenced by Gabriel Garcia Marquez as I am by Jack Kirby from Marvel Comics. That’s a fact.
G: Any writing tips? You seem to be able to churn out an extraordinary amount of material.
WM: Well yeah, I wrote a whole book about it: This Year You Write Your Novel. It’s such a detailed kind of unraveling, or maybe a detailed raveling. You have to write every day. You don’t have to think about it. You don’t have to be good at it. It doesn’t have to work. None of those things matter. But you have to write every day.