Speaking of the devil

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Walter Mosley, author of fiction and commentary, the man behind the Easy Rawlins mystery series (which includes the international bestseller Devil in a Blue Dress) spoke to Metro Times recently about some of the issues facing a committed writer today.

Metro Times: Like so many of your books, the new one, Fearless Jones, is set in the 1950s. How did you find out so much about that period? What did you do to give it an authentic quality?
Walter Mosley:
I was born in Los Angeles in 1952. When I was raised in the early ’60s, when I was aware and I could talk to people, they told me stories of the world I lived in, the Los Angeles I lived in and the times before I was born. Those stories are the most important things in the world to me, and they mainly inform the world that I talk about. I know the kind of clubs people went to and the kind of dancing they did and the kind of fights that they got into. I know where everybody was from in the deep South, in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas and Mississippi. I know that very well, so I’m able to talk about it.

Metro Times: So you didn’t comb back issues of the Los Angeles Times or stuff like that?
I did it once. The only thing I got was a terrible headache. I went to UCLA and spent a week going through old newspapers and got this terrible, terrible headache. In the end, I wrote the whole novel and put one little sentence of research in it, and I decided it was not worth it.

Metro Times: One of your goals seems to be to tell a good story. Yet you also want to write things beyond the story itself — the relationships between people of different groups, the experience of Americans and how it relates to today. Is there ever a tension between what you’re trying to say and how you’re trying to say it? Political fiction can get to be pasteboard at times, so isn’t including the political dimension a difficult task?
The truth is, you can’t write about people living in the world and not write about politics. You can’t write about somebody living in a world where there are limitations on that person or the people that person interacts with. So you have to talk about those limitations, but you have to watch out not to underscore them.

When you have Huckleberry Finn thinking to himself on the raft going up the river with Jim that he’s decided that he’s going to be an evil person because he’s not going to turn Jim in to the people hunting the slave down, because he loves his friend, that’s a very political statement. But it doesn’t sound like a political statement. It sounds like, hey, this is a person who’s a little confused, but he loves his friend and he’s not going to turn him in. But if you had read that book when it was written, this would be a slap in the face to the South. You’d be saying, “What, you think that blacks and whites are equal?” And Huckleberry Finn would say, “Jim is my friend.” The point is to be able to tell a story about people and their lives the way they experience it emotionally, not abstractly, not as a philosophy or political tract, but as you would live your life every day — when you realize something. I wrote in one story where Easy Rawlins was blamed for raping his wife, forcing her to have sex with him. That was a tough thing to write about, but when I went around the country, I saw a lot of young couples who came up and said, “You know, we read that and we had a big talk about it.” Because the husband said, “Well, you know a man can’t rape his wife,” and the wife would say, “Yes, you can, and it’s wrong.” So even to bring up the discussion, that’s certainly political, and it’s certainly a contemporary topic. But it’s what we should be doing.

Peter Werbe is the host of "Night Call," Sunday at 11 p.m. on 101.1 FM, WRIF. Send comments to [email protected]
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