Fresh Air Interview - Walter Mosley - 'The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey' Novelist Walter Mosley explains how watching his mother's experience with dementia helped him craft his latest novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, which asks: Would you repair your failing memory if it meant your life span would also be significantly shortened?

Mosley's 'Last Days' Restores Memory, But At A Cost

Mosley's 'Last Days' Restores Memory, But At A Cost

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Walter Mosley has written more than three dozen books, including 11 historical mysteries featuring detective Easy Rawlins. David Burnett via Riverhead Books hide caption

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David Burnett via Riverhead Books

Walter Mosley has written more than three dozen books, including 11 historical mysteries featuring detective Easy Rawlins.

David Burnett via Riverhead Books

Walter Mosley is the author of more than three dozen novels, including many mysteries featuring the L.A. detective Easy Rawlins. His latest novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, is about a 91-year-old black man entering the early stages of dementia and the last years of his life. But Grey's life changes after he meets a 17-year-old teenager named Robyn, without a family of her own.

Robyn cares for Ptolemy and introduces him to a local doctor, who invites him to join an experimental drug study that will help bring back his memory -- but will simultaneously also shorten his life span. And Ptolemy must decide what to do.

Mosley tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he wrote the novel -- and imagined what Ptolemy was thinking -- after watching his mother's mind deteriorate from the early stages of dementia.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
By Walter Mosley
Paperback, 288 pages
Riverhead Hardcover
List Price: $25.95

"When you deal with a person who's experiencing dementia, you can see where they're struggling with knowledge," he says. "You can see what they forget completely, what they forget but they know what they once knew. You can tell how they're trying to remember. ... What I saw in my mom's eyes and in some of her expressions, was her saying, 'I want to understand it; I want to understand what you're saying; I want to enter into a dialogue with you; I want things to be the way they were.' That's the crux of the novel: What would you do to have things the way they were?"

In the novel, Grey meets with a doctor who offers him a medicine that will restore the electrical connections in his brain -- and his memory -- but only for a short period of time.

"The doctor says, 'I can give you this medicine and there's a chance that for the next three months, you're going to have perfect memory. There's a chance that you're going to be able to think the way you used to. At the end of that three months, it's a definite you're going to be dead,' " says Mosley. " 'If you don't take the medication and you've got a good body, you might live another 10 years, but you won't know a thing. So you make the choice: three months aware or 10 years in a daze?' "

Mosley, like his character, says he would take the three months.

"Ptolemy thinks that this white doctor with a big white mustache is the devil," he says. "And he realizes that his only choice is to deal with the devil. And that is accepting death in a way, but what are you going to do?"

Interview Highlights

On the condition of Ptolemy Grey's house

"He's been living in this apartment for maybe 60 years. He's 91 years old. He's been living there since he turned 30. Everything that's come into that house is still there: old pizza cartons, old boxes, newspapers, every toothbrush he ever owned. It's filled with furniture and memories and the belongings of other people in his family. It's really like a hoard of a house, but it's also his family and his memories all jumbled up together, piled so high that it almost looks like a storage unit. He can't throw away anything because he's not sure what's valuable and what isn't. It's not that he wants everything; it's just that he doesn't know how to get rid of things."

On the death of his parents

"I'm almost completely without family and it's a very odd feeling in life. I have no children. ... With me, there's nobody and it's an odd feeling. Losing my parents really set me adrift in more ways than one. It's not just losing them. It's losing the possibility of family."

On the differences between his life and his father's life

"My father's life was so decimated by his earliest experiences. His mother died when he was 7 years old, which he always said was the worst experience in his life. When he was 8, his father disappeared and he was on his own from the age of 8. It's necessarily different how we face life and how we are men in life. The difference between Easy Rawlins and that series of books and my new series of mysteries, the Leonid McGill mysteries, underscores that -- what a different world me and my father lived in."

Excerpt: 'The Last Days Of Ptolemy Grey'

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
By Walter Mosley
Paperback, 288 pages
Riverhead Hardcover
List Price: $25.95

"Is that you, Reggie? Where you been, boy? I been waitin' for you to come by for a week. No, no, two weeks. I don't know exactly but it's been a long time."

"No, Papa Grey, no, it's me, Hilly."

"Who? Where's Reggie?"

Hilly went silent for two seconds and the old man said, "Is any­body there?"

"I'm here, Papa Grey," the voice assured. "I'm here."

He was certainly there, on the other end of the line, but who was it? the old man wondered. He looked around the room for a clue to his caller's identity but all he saw were piles of newspapers, boxes of every size and shape, and furniture. There were at least a dozen chairs and a big bureau that was tilted over on a broken leg; two dining tables were flush up against the south and east walls. His tattered mattress under its thin army blanket lay beneath the southern table.

"That was Etude no. 2 in A-flat Major by Chopin," the radio announcer was saying. "Now we're going to hear from . . ." "Papa Grey?" a voice said.

". . . half a dozen bombs went off in and around Baghdad today. Sixty-four people were killed . . ."

Was the voice coming from the radio or the TV? No. It was in his ear. The telephone --

"Who is this?" Ptolemy Grey asked, remembering that he was having a phone conversation.

"It's Hilly, Papa. Your great-nephew. June's daughter's son." "Who?"

"Hilly," the young man said, raising his voice slightly. "Your nephew."

"Where's Reggie?" Ptolemy asked. "Where's my son?"

"He can't come today, Uncle," Hilly said. "Mama asked me to call you to see if you needed anything."

"Heck yeah," Ptolemy said, wondering what anything the call and the caller meant.

"Do you?"

"Do I what?"

"Do you need anything?"

"Sure I do. I need all kinds of things. Reggie haven't called me in, in a week, maybe, maybe it's only three days. I still got four cans of sardines and he always buy me a box of fourteen. I eat one every day for lunch. But he haven't called and I don't know what I'm gonna eat when the fish an', an', an' cornflakes run out."

A piano sonata began.

"What do you want me to get you?" Hilly asked.

"Get me? Yeah, yeah. Come get me and we can go shoppin'. I mean me and Reggie."

"I can go with you, I guess, Uncle," Hilly said unenthusi­astically.

"Do you know where the store is?" his great-uncle asked. "Sure I do."

"I don't know. I never seen you there."

"But I do know."

"Is Reggie coming?"

"Not today."

"Why? No . . . no, don't tell me why. Don't do that. Are you comin', um, uh, Hilly?" Ptolemy smiled that he could remember the name.

"Yes, Papa Grey."


"One hour."

Ptolemy peered at the clock on top of his staggering bureau.

"My clock says quarter past four," Ptolemy told his great-nephew Hilly Brown.

"It's ten to twelve, Uncle, not four-fifteen."

"If you add forty-five minutes to that," the old man said. "I should be lookin' for you before too much after five. Anyway, it have to be before six."

"Uh, yeah, I guess."

Ptolemy could hear fire engines blaring in the distance. There were floods down south and Beethoven was deaf. Dentifrice tooth­paste was best for those hard-to-get places.

Maude Petit died in fire. Ptolemy could hear her screams along with the sirens that cried down the street outside and also in the fire bells that clanged way back then in Breland, Mississippi, when he was five and she was his best friend.

Ptolemy started to rock on his solid maple chair. One of the legs had lost its rubber stopper and so made a knocking sound on the parquet floor. He felt like he needed to do something. What? Save his little playmate, that's what. He was bigger now. He could make it through the fire, if only he could get there.

He could smell the tar roof burning and feel the heat against his face. He rubbed the tears away and then looked at his old weathered hand with its paper-thin, wrinkled skin. Black as that hot tar, black as Maude's happy little face.

Where was Reggie? Where was he?

The clock still said 4:15. It was just like when he used to work for the undertaker and he had to wait for six o'clock to come on the big black-and-silver wall clock that hovered in the hall outside from where he swept the floors around the tables that held the bodies of Maude and her whole family. They smelled like gamey meat cooking in his mother's father's deep-pit barbecue. The fire­men threw Maude's dog in the garbage. Maude loved that dog and so Ptolemy snuck around the back of the big green cans they used to throw away everything that the Petit family owned and he stole Floppy's body and buried her down by the river, where Ptolemy had shown Maude his but she was too shy to show him hers.

They were a match for each other, Earline Petit had said.

It was probably a match that started the fire that burned down the house, the fire captain said.

A woman was singing opera in a voice that made Ptolemy think of strawberry jam. He tried to get to his feet by leaning forward and pushing against the arms of the chair. He failed on the first and second tries. He made it on the third. Standing up hurt in three places: his elbow, his knee, and ankle. One, two, three places.

The short refrigerator was humming but empty.

The clock said 4:15.

The lady news announcer was talking about a white girl in Miami who was taken away by somebody that nobody knew. Ptolemy thought about the . . . what did Mama call it . . . the in­ferno of the Petit's tarpaper home; the yellow fire that waved like tall grass in the wind and the dark shadows that looked like the silhouette of a tall man moving through the rooms, searching for Maude like Ptolemy wanted to do, like he should have done.

The clock must have run down, Ptolemy thought. So how would Reggie know when to come if time had stopped? Ptolemy could be stuck there forever. But even if there was no clock, clock-time, he would still be hungry and thirsty, and how could he find the right bus to take him to the tar pit park if Reggie didn't come?

Reprinted from The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley with permission from Riverhead Books, a member of the Penguin Group (USA).  Copyright 2010 by Walter Mosley.

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