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Walter Mosley to Talk about Writing Tomorrow

Best-selling author of Easy Rawlins mystery series at GSU

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In the latest book of his new series about African American ex-boxer Leonid McGill, Walter Mosley writes about thugs, pugilists, and six orphaned children. Mosley will speak tomorrow evening at the GSU.

Since he took up writing 20 years ago at the age of 34, Walter Mosley has written 38 books in a variety of genres, but is best known for his mysteries, which are hailed by critics as literary explorations of morality, identity, and being black in America. They can also have you laughing out loud. Hosted by the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Mosley will speak at BU tomorrow as part of the Friends of the Libraries at Boston University Speaker Series, at the George Sherman Union Metcalf Hall.

A recipient of PEN USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Mosley has published in nearly every genre, including literary fiction, nonfiction, science fiction, young adult, political essay, and erotica, in addition to his many crime novels. His popular Easy Rawlins mysteries include Devil in a Blue Dress, made into a feature film starring Denzel Washington.

A World War II veteran with a tragic past, Easy Porterhouse Rawlins is a New Orleans–born, self-taught, and for most of the series unlicensed black private eye residing in the Watts section of Los Angeles. The stories span the decades between the war and the 1960s. The Atlantic Monthly says the Rawlins novels, read together, “compose a sprawling novel of manners about twentieth-century African-American Los Angeles that owes as much to authors like Dickens and Zola as it does to the aesthetics of noir.”

Several years ago Mosley shifted gears with a new series featuring African American ex-boxer Leonid McGill, named by his communist sharecropper father, who works the streets of Manhattan, where Mosley has lived since 1981. The third and most recent book in the series, When the Thrill Is Gone (Riverhead Books) has the short, amorous, Camus-quoting McGill coping with a dying friend, a straying wife, the murder of a woman who comes to him claiming to be her sister, a reformed hit man, and a multimillionaire who lives in a house with a lawn atop a skyscraper. The book is by turns violent and tender, with Mosley writing deftly about thugs, pugilists, and six orphaned children.

BU Today spoke with Mosley recently from his New York City home.

BU Today: You’ve said that your output comes from writing three hours a day, every day. Do you take a break after you finish a book?
Mosley: No, I just keep writing. I write every day, sometimes a little less than three hours. When I wake up, I write. I like writing very much.

Leonid McGill is a wonderful character. What was the process of creating him like?
Six years ago, a publisher asked writers in the mystery and crime genre to write about dangerous women. In my story, “Karma,” Leonid McGill was almost killed by the woman who destroyed his father’s life. Leonid needed to get straight after he killed this woman. When I decided to move on from the Easy Rawlins series I had a few characters like McGill I’d created, and I asked my editor which would be best for a new series. He said Leonid, which is what I thought, but I just wanted to hear it. With each book I’m finding out more about him, and he’s finding out more about himself.

For a crime novelist, how is New York different from Los Angeles?
It’s just a place. When you’re writing, you’re always in a place; there are details that are in the place you write about. New York is a different city than Los Angeles, that’s for sure, but I’ve written about places that don’t exist. Place is always the same for me. The details have to have some kind of resonance or truth.

What about the differences between Rawlins’ and McGill’s worlds?
Easy Rawlins’ world is mid-20th century, in which rules of race are very strong and enforced. There are places he can’t go to. In Leonid’s world it’s not like that. There’s still racism but it’s not only one stripe; there are all different kinds of ways to respond. Leonid’s relationship to race is at once less strident and more complex, and that’s the biggest difference. At least Easy knows what challenges he faces.

McGill’s sleuthing is in a time of cell phones and Google. How do these affect the private detective’s craft?
This guy said to me the other day that for detectives today it’s easy, everything is online. And I said, when a woman comes into your office and she’s lying, and you know this, and you notice the way her nails are painted, you’re not going to Google that. And when a guy points a gun at you, you’re not going to take out your BlackBerry. The basic details are all the same. The way that they’re rendered is different.

Your books are packed with dialogue. Once your characters are created, do you have that sense of them conversing among themselves?
Well, I don’t know what I’m going to say, and that’s true with regular prose and the dialogue. It’s me writing, I’m always aware of that. Like an actor I take on the persona of a character and say things I wouldn’t say normally, I’m speaking from that character’s point of view. A lot of people say their characters take over. I believe them; it’s just that I don’t feel like that.

Many of your readers are women, and you seem to have respect for your female characters.
There are times when I go to colleges, and women stand up and say, you obviously don’t understand women, while others say, your women are so real. That only underscores the whole notion that everyone reads a novel with a point of view and expectations. Some react to the writing and some to their own experience of the world. I try to write about interesting characters. I write about black heroes, but I honestly don’t think anyone else is doing that. I mean a bona fide hero, the kind of people who say, call me Ishmael, and who’re black and not an appendage to something or someone else. At the same time there are a lot of women in that landscape, and with every character I try to make them as clear and as magnetic as any other character.

Who is your main audience?
I have no real sense of my audience. A lot of different kinds of people read my books, and that’s really interesting to me. I’m trying to write the best books I can write, but I’m not trying to pander to any audience. The other day a guy came to an event and said he’d been a gangbanger for years, read my book, and saw himself in it, saw his own notion of transition. Literature can last for centuries, so you never really know.

Where do you do most of your writing?
I write at a table in my living room. When I’m away I’ll write on a train, in a hotel room, or in a coffee shop.

What are you reading lately?
On my iPod Touch I have a few hundred novels, and I switch between them. There are old-time mysteries, Dante, science fiction. I want to reread Dead Souls. A Hundred Years of Solitude—that I could always reread.

What are you working on?
I’m about to start on a new McGill mystery, I have a little literary novel, Odyssey, and another mystery called Parishioner, which goes back to California. I’ve been writing a lot.

The Friends of the Libraries at Boston University Speaker Series Featuring Walter Mosley is on Wednesday, April 20, at Metcalf Hall, George Sherman Union, second floor; it begins with a reception at 5:30 p.m., followed by Mosley’s lecture at 6. The event is free to Friends of the Libraries members and BU students; admission is $25 for others. RSVP to 617-353-3697, or find more information here.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu.

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