JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
In his latest novel, "All I Did Was Shoot My Man," Walter Mosley tells the tale of a woman, Zella Grisham, who just served an eight-year prison term for grand larceny. The protagonist of the novel, Leonid McGill, is a private investigator who is certain Zella's innocent. He planted the evidence that help land her in jail. Now, propelled partly by pay and partly by guilt, he's trying to help her get her life back on track. The book follows Leonid McGill as he tries to atone for his past and navigate his messy personal life in a city full of vibrant, unforgettable characters.
If you read Walter Mosley and have questions for him, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Walter Mosley's new book is called "All I Did Was Shoot My Man," and he joins us from our bureau in New York. Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.
WALTER MOSLEY: Thanks a lot. It's great to be here.
LUDDEN: So Leonid McGill, this is the fourth in the series about him. He lives a bit on the edge of the law. He wants to make up for some past crimes, but he finds it's not so easy.
MOSLEY: Yeah. Well, he's - most of his life he's been a criminal, a criminal detective but a criminal. He would set up people. If you robbed a bank and then police were after you, he would take some of that evidence, plant it on another bank robber, let's say, and then the police would be stuck. They would say, well, you know, the lawyer could say, well, the other guy had the money on him, not my client. So that's kind of how he works. He framed Zella Grisham. Zella had already shot her boyfriend.
But it was, you know, a sort of a crime of passion. She didn't know what she was doing. She was so upset. But then there was a big heist. Leonid put some money on her. And when the police find out about that, then they think completely differently about her and sent her to prison for 16 years.
LUDDEN: This heist involves a large insurance company, and I found it interesting to read that you worked at a series of insurance companies at one point.
MOSLEY: Yeah, I did. I was a computer programmer, and I worked for various insurance companies. Those are not exactly an insurance company. They call themselves an assurance company. What they do is they assure international transactions. You're going to sell a tanker full of oil, you know, from, you know, that you own in Saudi Arabia to somebody in New Jersey. Well, somebody has to cover that in case it doesn't come through. So money has to be put up by the seller so that the buyer doesn't get cheated. This company does that kind of - it's kind of quasi-legal and a great deal of money.
LUDDEN: Yeah. I didn't - I couldn't quite figure out - it did not sound completely legitimate when you read about it.
MOSLEY: Well, it's not illegal. It's quasi-legal. And...
LUDDEN: Kind of like Leonid McGill.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOSLEY: Exactly. And it's a world, but it sees very, very, very, very rich people dealing with a great deal of money. And somebody steals that money, or, actually, a few different people steal that money. And when Zella gets out of prison, people start getting killed all over the place, and then Zella almost gets killed, and then Leonid almost gets killed. And he has to get involved. So, the novel more is about his personal life than it is about the crime itself.
There's a few crimes in the book. But he's trying to - after being a bad guy for so long and trying to do right, which, I kind of, think of America traveling from the 20th to the 21st century. I think Leonid McGill is a good representation of my country. It's a difficult thing to do.
LUDDEN: And tell me more about that. How does he represent our travels, this guy?
MOSLEY: Well, I think for the, you know, since the late '50s, early '60s, America has gotten into one international fiasco after another, and internally has, you know, taken the limits off of things like banks and insurance companies and all these things. And it's only been recently that we - that we're beginning to understand that our relationship to the world has to change, that we've done some things wrong and we have to try to be better. It's a very difficult thing to do. It's very difficult to leave your past and to redeem your future. It might even be impossible. Leonid thinks it's impossible, but, you know, you have to try.
LUDDEN: Well, he's trying. You've said that you'd like to write about characters who do really extraordinary heroic things and yet live very pedestrian lives like everyone else.
MOSLEY: Well, I think that is our life. A lot of people live, you know, we kind of make heroes that are separate from us, people who are, you know, like, you know, people like John Wayne and Errol Flynn and, you know, Denzel Washington, whatever, you know, people who are different, who are larger than life. But there are people who live everyday lives who live incredibly heroic lives, and they really stand up for other people, for their children, for life itself. And in Leonid's case, it's very important because he was a criminal before, and the idea of him trying to clean that up, that's really hard. And it's really a laudable thing.
LUDDEN: We're talking with Walter Mosley about his latest crime novel. If you've got a question, you're a fan, call us, 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com. Let's take a call from William in Jacksonville, Florida. Hi there.
WILLIAM: Yes, ma'am. Good afternoon.
LUDDEN: Go right ahead.
WILLIAM: Yeah, listen, I'm really glad you mentioned McGill (unintelligible) William Brown - I'm a big fan. This guy - this (unintelligible) character, why hasn't he - you had him make like (unintelligible) sound more exciting than a "Devil in a Blue Dress."
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WILLIAM: And the next question is (unintelligible) - are you thinking about bringing him back like some kind of private detective also?
MOSLEY: Bringing who back? I didn't hear the name.
WILLIAM: Tempest – the book you wrote. Tempest Bledsoe.
WILLIAM: (Unintelligible) guy who was an angel and he was up in heaven.
MOSLEY: I've written another book about "The Tempest Tales." I've written a second series of stories about them. It hasn't come out yet, but it will, I promise.
WILLIAM: Just before I go. My kids are not going to believe I talked to you, man.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LUDDEN: Thanks so much, William.
MOSLEY: I - HBO and I have a deal to at least try to make a television series from the Leonid McGill stories. We're going to start with the first novel, "The Long Fall". That would be the first season. I've finished outlining not only the pilot, but the whole season, and I'm going to have a meeting with them next week about it. So, you know, maybe it'll happen. We'll see.
LUDDEN: And are you allowed to say who you'd like to see play the role?
MOSLEY: Oh, you know, there are a lot of people - there are a lot of great actors out there, you know? Jeffrey Wright would be wonderful. But you know, there are a lot of great actors out there.
LUDDEN: He is quite a character, though.
LUDDEN: Thomas is in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Hi, Thomas.
THOMAS: Yes. How are you?
THOMAS: Yes. My question is for Walter. I'm a huge of yours. I've read the majority of your books, and the first book I ever read was "Futureland." And then after that was "Blue Light," and I just love that science fiction aspect of it. And I was wondering, why don't you go back to those type of books? They were so great. I'll take the call - I'll take the answer off air. Thank you.
LUDDEN: All right. Thank you, Thomas.
MOSLEY: I wrote a collection of six novellas three or four years ago. I called it the "Cross Town Omnibus to Oblivion." The six novellas, the only thing that they have in common is in each one a black man destroys the world, either for better or for worse. And I was told I shouldn't publish that book while Obama's president, but I figure it's OK, you know? He's running now. But Tor bought the books, and it's going to come out in three volumes. And they're going to be those flip books, so like if you look on one side, it's one book, and if you turn it over, it's another book.
LUDDEN: I think my kids have some of those, right? Batman and Superman.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOSLEY: But, yes, except for these would be novels and, you know, and there'll be hardbacks. Those three books will come out starting in May in an 18-month period. So I am putting out some more science fiction.
LUDDEN: Excellent. You have - well, actually, no, you - reviews, The Washington Post, I believe, and its review of your latest book, called Leonid McGill a post-black hero.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
LUDDEN: But is he?
MOSLEY: You know, that's - it's an interesting notion. You know, he gets that from a part of the book, on page 316, two paragraphs. I'll read them to you so you can hear it and you can make up your own mind.
I'm a 21st - this is Leonid talking - I'm a 21st century New Yorker, and therefore have little time to contemplate race. It's not that racism doesn't exist. Lots of people in New York and elsewhere hate because of color and gender, religion and national origin. It's just that I rarely worry about those things because there's a real world underneath all that nonsense, a world that demands my attention almost every moment of every day.
Racism is a luxury in a world where resources are scarce, where economic competition is an armed sport, in a world where even the atmosphere is plotting against you. In an arena like that, racism is more like a halftime entertainment, a favorite sitcom when the day is done. He's - Leonid is recognizing the fact that even though race is vey important to him and his history and his - who he is, how he got made, that this is a very big world and that that's not the only issue. There are other really major issues that we all have to pay attention to.
This is the 21st century. To say post-black, no way. Leonid is a black male hero. That's - there's no question about that. But he lives in a world where he has to deal with everything, and he can't put his own issues out there upfront when so many other things are going on that could kill him any minute.
LUDDEN: I believe you've said that in some way - you have written about characters back in the '50s, when maybe the race issue was bigger and more prominent. But you said in some ways Leonid McGill's world is more complex.
MOSLEY: Oh, it's much more complex because every door he walks into, he doesn't know what it is. It's like I always say, I say if I meet a young black man in Detroit in the 20th century and I say, how are you doing, he says, well, you know, it's tough on a brother in Detroit. I say, I know what you're talking about. In the 21st century, I ask the same and say, how are you doing? You know, it's tough on a brother in Detroit, and I say, I know what you mean, but you know, man, there's somebody in Kandahar who would do an apartment swap with either one of us.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOSLEY: You know? So it's recognizing the issues of the world in general. But it's not saying that, you know, it's post-black. It's that maybe black is not the only question.
LUDDEN: All right. Let's take a call from Nadia in Columbus, Ohio. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.
NADIA: Hi. Thank you. Mr. Mosley, I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your book "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey." It was such a fascinating story, and I think it's one of those stories that anyone could relate to. Just in that whole concept of all the choices that you make in life and the impact that those choices have in your life, so I just wanted to let you know that.
MOSLEY: Well, thank you so much. I appreciate that.
LUDDEN: Thank you. What was - tell us about your inspiration for Ptolemy Grey.
MOSLEY: Well, for writing that book, my mother had gone through dementia for some years, and I had been taking care of her from a distance. And it was very difficult. And in order to, you know, the experts are all telling me, well, you just, you know, just tell her she has to go to a nursing home. And then I would say, well, mom, they say you should go to a nursing home. And she'll say, I don't want to do that. And I'd say, well, she doesn't want to. Say, well, she does know what she's talking about. I said, well, I understood her saying she doesn't want to go.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOSLEY: And so what I did is I had to learn my mother's language, find out exactly what she wanted. That language was ever changing. Once I understood the language of dementia, at least as it was existent in my mother, I wanted to put it in a novel. And so I created this character, Ptolemy Grey, who is experiencing the beginnings of dementia and it's how he's going to deal with it. And how this young girl comes into his life and tries to help him.
LUDDEN: You know, I actually heard you speak at a recent conference on caregiving, talking about your experience with your mother. And to bring up the race issue again - you had a very interesting saying. You said, you know, when you become old, you become black.
MOSLEY: Yeah. Well, it's true. You know, the, you know, when you become - the experience that black people have had in America forever, now anybody who's poor, anybody who gets really old, anybody who suffers some kind of a very, you know, traumatic physical ailment, they realize what it is to just be pushed aside, to be ignored, you know, to be isolated by a society that's moving ahead only with what they believe is good. And if you're old, you're not good. If you're a paraplegic, you're not good. If you're black, you're not good.
LUDDEN: So age is the equalizer?
MOSLEY: Age is one of the equalizers, yeah.
LUDDEN: Let's get another call in from Nashville. Dan.
DAN: Yes. I just want to – first thing, I'm a really big fan of all of your books and I was curious, did you have any further plans for the characters in "Fearless Jones" and also "Futureland"? Thanks.
MOSLEY: Well, "Futureland" I have no more - I think I'm going to let "Futureland" lie, you know. That's - that I think is - I finished that book. And I like when I finish a book, I don't have to write a sequel to it. "Fearless Jones," TNT has been very interested in doing a television series. They've actually, you know, given the green light to write a pilot. So we're writing a pilot for that. Once I do that series, I'll certainly write another novel in the "Fearless Jones" series.
DAN: Oh, that's excellent. Can't wait.
LUDDEN: Thanks for the call, Dan. And here is another one, Jim in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Hey, Jim.
JIM: Hello, Walter. I love your character Mouse. He did go away. How about Obama bringing him back and sending him to (unintelligible) and going on a special field mission?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
MOSLEY: Well, I don't know about that. I mean, Mouse, you know, Mouse - if Mouse lives long enough to work for Obama, he's going to be really old. But I have decided to write another Easy Rawlins novel. It's going to be called "Little Green"; it's coming out next year.
LUDDEN: All right, well...
LUDDEN: ...something to look forward to there, Jim. Thanks for the phone call.
JIM: Thank you.
LUDDEN: Walter Mosley, one of the biggest delights in reading your books are the details. And I imagine, it seems like, you know, Leonid McGill - he has a private investigator's eye for detail, maybe something like a writer's eye for detail. How do you choose which details to put in?
MOSLEY: You know, this is such a difficult thing to answer. It's more choosing which details to take out. You know, you write about a scene and Leonid may see, you know, 20 different things. And you say, well, I don't need 18 of those things. I'm going to get rid of all that stuff and I'm just going to leave these two things which are the closest.
It's like when you talk about Louis Armstrong. You know, when Louis Armstrong was young, you know, when he invented the trumpet, he was the fastest player in the world. He could play, you know, 100 notes and bring you to all these places. Now, when he got older and, you know, damaged his lip and he wasn't as fast, he'd only play three notes, but he'd do the same thing with those three notes that he used to with 100, you know.
And the thing is, is what you want to do is you want to get just the right elements that are going to tell you what's going on in Leonid's mind, maybe a little bit of what's going on in the world, and foreshadow a little bit what's going to happen in the next two chapters or maybe throughout the book.
LUDDEN: So you're really taking out. You've got so much in there and you're taking out, taking out.
MOSLEY: Yeah, it's in my head. Sometimes it makes it on the page, but you just only want to leave those things that are the most important because that way – that way you allow the reader - the greatest, I think the greatest talent of any writer is allowing the reader to have trust in the reader to create the novel that you are insinuating.
LUDDEN: Hmm. Very nice. Well, Walter Mosley's new book is "All I Did Was Shoot My Man." It was published this week. He joined us from our New York bureau. You can read about what happened when Leonid McGill went to meet Zella Grisham outside the prison. That's in an excerpt at our website, npr.org. Walter Mosley, thank you so much.
MOSLEY: Thanks. Thank you. It was great to be here.
LUDDEN: Tomorrow, TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY, Ira Flatow will be here for a look at the world where science is done without secrecy, plus embryonic stem cells restore sight. Neal Conan will be back on Monday. Have a great weekend. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Jennifer Ludden in Washington.