MICHEL MARTIN, host:
Now, its time for our Wisdom Watch, that's the time in the program when we hear from those who have made an impact through their work. Today, we're speaking with author Walter Mosley. With more than two dozen books to his credit, he's placed unforgettable black characters at the center of American fiction, as lovers, as thugs, as bad guys, and good guys, and guys who are a little of each. Mosley's latest work, "Known to Evil," is just out. It is the second novel starring private eye Leonid McGill, chasing a killer in contemporary New York City.
Currently, Mosley's also lending his voice to an effort by the American Library Association to introduce young people to books with a diverse range of characters and writers. And Walter Mosley joins us now.
Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
Mr. WALTER MOSLEY (Author): Oh, thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Well, let's talk about your hero. And how do you pronounce his name, Leonid? Leonid?
Mr. MOSLEY: Leonid McGill.
MARTIN: Leonid McGill. Okay.
Mr. MOSLEY: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: In the novel, McGill often refers to himself as a bad guy trying to turn over a new leaf and become a better man. And I was just wondering, you know, why that is? You know, bad guys dont do so bad in our fiction generally, you know?
Mr. MOSLEY: Well, yeah, but he isn't thinking of himself as being a fictional character. He thinks he's for real. And in his for real world he realizes that he's hurt a lot of people. And when this became very apparent to him, he had no other choice than to turn around and try to be a different kind of guy, to be, as he says, above board.
MARTIN: Now is redemption inherently interesting to you?
Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah, I think that redemption is the history of the Western world starting with Christianity and going before it. I mean we're all seeking redemption. That's the weight that's put on every single human being.
MARTIN: And the love relationships are complicated in this one. Let me just try to unpack it: Leonid, who is black is married to Katrina, who's white. They haven't been faithful to each other for years and, in fact, as the novel opens, I dont think I'm giving too much away, but Leonid is nursing a broken heart because his girlfriend, whos another kind of interesting mix, has dumped him for another man and he realizes, you know...
Mr. MOSLEY: Well, she hasnt dumped him.
MARTIN: Kind of.
Mr. MOSLEY: He stopped being with her when his wife came back because he felt that's what he should be doing, this whole notion of redemption.
MARTIN: The other piece - and I mentioned the race of each of these characters just because I just think its so interesting. I mean and a lot people, as I mentioned in the introduction, you really created these unforgettable characters in some of these earlier series whose African-Americanness is central in some ways, not so central in some ways, but you just enlarged this kind of scope of characters and what they're allowed to do and be and think about.
But in this series and in this novel in particular, the relationships, the identities are all over the place. And I'm just wondering, what's that like? Is it easier in a way emotionally to kind of open up the spectrum? Is it harder in some ways?
Mr. MOSLEY: Well, you know, the other day I was asked by a journalist about a black writer's conference. I was asked is it valuable to have a black writer's conference in post-racial America? And, you know, my response, of course, well we dont live in post-racial America or a post-racial anything else. But it is true that we kind of live in a meta-racial state where race is kind of raised up kind of ethereally above the clay of our bodies and blended and enmeshed in itself and that there's things are so complex and culture is so complex and how we deal with each other is so complex that its hard to tell who is who and what is what so, but in everyday talk it all comes out.
You know, one of the things you didnt say is that of the three children that Leonid and Katrina have, two of them were not fathered by Leonid. She says they were but they weren't. One is the daughter of a Burmese jeweler and one is the daughter of some African that she had an affair with. They're not his kids. You could look at them and see they're not his kids. But they are his kids. Twill is his favorite son.
MARTIN: Well, I didnt want to give it all away, you know, I'm trying to leave something, you know.
Mr. MOSLEY: There's a lot in that book.
MARTIN: There's a lot in there.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOSLEY: I could talk about it for the next three hours and still be a lot in that book.
MARTIN: One of the things I'm curious about is I was raised in New York and these kind of relationships with people from all over the world who are kind of all mixed up is very normal to me, and I'm just wondering how people in other parts of the country are seeing that. Does that sound real to them too or...
Mr. MOSLEY: It's very normal to everybody. You know, no matter where you are the mixtures are extraordinary. I mean the designation octoroon, meaning one-eighth black, came in Louisiana 200 years ago. The notion of the mixtures of people in the United States is just its always been here.
MARTIN: But that might be historically true but that doesnt mean that it's historically understood. One of the reasons I'm thinking about it is that, you know, the immigration issue is once again coming to the fore. A lot of people are very upset about it and a lot of people are saying well, I dont want the country to change and so youre hearing some, you know, there's that piece.
Mr. MOSLEY: Well, yeah, but that doesnt mean you deny what's happening. It just means you could say what you want and what you dont want and people get upset when the Polish to America or the Jews come to America or the Irish come to America or the, you know, the Swahilis come to America. I mean we know that this is the world that we live in. Whether we like it or not is another question, but we know.
MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask, how are African-American writers - members of your African-American audience reacting to the direction in which your work has moved?
Mr. MOSLEY: It's very rare that I try to kind of underscore who I am. But in one respect, I'm one of the only writers in the history of America - possibly the world - who writes about black male heroes. And I mean heroes. I'm not talking about protagonists and I'm not talking about cartoon characters like Shaft. I'm talking about black male heroes, you know, real people who are real heroes like Achilles is a real hero.
And black people love that. They love to have heroes that they can identify with, from all different kinds. From, you know, Easy, to Mouse to Leonid to Socrates, to Fearless Jones, to Paris, any of these characters are people that you can identify with and agree with their vision of the world and even their experience of the world. So, I haven't had any problems at all.
MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our guest is Walter Mosley. We're talking about his latest novel, "Known to Evil," and whatever else is on his mind.
I want to take a look back for a moment at one of the characters you just mentioned, your very famous Easy Rawlins. He was the star of 11 of your earlier books, 10 novels and one short story collection and Oscar-winning actor Denzel Washington portrayed him, for example in the 1995 film version of "Devil in a Blue Dress." I just thought we play a short clip, just because, you know, its Walter Mosley and Denzel. What the heck. Here it is.
(Soundbite of movie, "Devil in a Blue Dress")
Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON (Actor): (as Easy Rawlins): For example, one of the white guys pulls a double shift, says he's too tired to work overtime, you dont fire them.
Mr. STEVEN RANDAZZO (Actor): (as Benny Giacomo) Is that all you have to say?
Mr. WASHINGTON: (as Easy Rawlins) No. No. That's not all. I need - I need to pay my mortgage and eat. I need a house to live in. I need to put clothes on my back Mr. Giacomo. I need the job.
Mr. RANDAZZO: (as Benny Giacomo) I'm sorry fella, but I got to get back to work.
Mr. WASHINGTON: (as Easy Rawlins) My name is not fella.
Mr. RANDAZZO: (as Benny Giacomo) Huh?
Mr. WASHINGTON: (as Easy Rawlins) My name's not fella. My name is Ezekiel Rawlins.
MARTIN: There you go. There he is. So, he's a fictional character, of course, but very, very much loved by many, many people. And let me just say, I'm not going to give it away, you decided to retire him in "Blonde Faith."
Mr. MOSLEY: Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: And I'm not going to tell it, but do you miss him or are you tired of people like me asking about him?
Mr. MOSLEY: I'm glad to hear you ask me anything. And, you know, I dont miss Easy. He's not gone. I mean and when you have 11 books he's always going to be there. So I'm happy about Easy. I just have to move on in my writing, that's all.
MARTIN: And one of his biggest fans was former President Bill Clinton. Do you know whether your - our current president has given you any love?
Mr. MOSLEY: I have no idea.
MARTIN: Well, should we do something about that? I mean should we send him a care package, dont you think?
Mr. MOSLEY: Mr. Obama's a very busy man. He has a lot of things that he's doing. I dont need to get in his way with my books. I'm very lucky to have one sitting president like my book. You know, I think I'd be testing fate to try to get two of them to do that.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MOSLEY: I'm happy with the new, you know, medical bill and okay, he doesnt have to read my books.
MARTIN: Well, you had mentioned earlier that youve done so much to challenge the notion that, you know, black men dont read, that they're not interested in fiction, and I remember thinking about a number of authors who've literally had publishers say well, you know, black folks dont buy books. They dont read. And you...
Mr. MOSLEY: They dont say that anymore.
MARTIN: They dont say that anymore in part, because of you, in part because of Terry McMillan, in part because of a number of developments across fiction. So they dont say that anymore, but what do they say? Is there anymore work that needs to be done in that area in terms of changing perceptions?
Mr. MOSLEY: Well, the works that needs to be done is that the publishing industry itself needs to integrate itself. It would be nice if the peoples of color of America were represented in the halls of publishing. That isn't true at this moment and I would like it to be true because what matters is the future. And its important because black and Latino and Native American and Asian cultures understand things in the world that maybe somebody else might not understand and so its good to have those people editing and marketing and publicizing work.
MARTIN: Let's talk a little bit about your work with the American Library Association. Youre an honorary co-chair of that group, Spectrum Presidential Initiative. Would you tell us a little bit about that?
Mr. MOSLEY: I think that the idea is that they want to move the libraries into the 21st century and get a broader representation into the halls of the library. And also to begin to understand what exactly it is that the libraries are doing for people in the world. But what's more interesting to me is how they can make libraries work, especially in the inner city.
MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, and we certainly appreciate your stopping by, do you have any wisdom to share?
Mr. MOSLEY: Wisdom. The older you are the more you live in the past. This is true. And if you accept it as true you can gain a great deal of respect for young people and young people can have a greater voice in the forming and the organization of their world.
MARTIN: Were you prepared for that? My goodness. You just had that ready?
Mr. MOSLEY: No it's just something I think.
Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah.
MARTIN: I'm going to think about that. Walter Mosley is an award-winning novelist. His latest book, "Known to Evil," is available now and he joined us from NPR West.
Mr. Mosley, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. MOSLEY: Ah, thanks for having me. It was great.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.
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