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

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, writer Walter Mosley, is best known for his private eye series about the character Easy Rawlins. The novels are set in African-American neighborhoods in L.A. and span the years 1948 to 1967.

Mosley wrote his new novel after watching his mother transformed by Alzheimer's disease. The novel is called "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey," and it's about a 91-year-old man who's in the early stages of dementia and has no one to take care of him now that his grandnephew was shot and killed. The rest of his extended family has virtually abandoned him. He is living alone in chaos and filth. He makes a deal with the doctor to try a new experimental drug that will restore his memory for three months but will kill him after that. Ptolemy hopes the drug will restore his memory long enough to investigate who killed his grandnephew.

Walter Mosley, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like you to do a short reading from "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey" and I'm going to ask you to introduce it for us.

Mr. WALTER MOSELY (Author, "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey"): Well, Ptolemy has been in his house for three days so he believes it's been a week and a half. He hasn't seen his caretaker, Reggie, who is his great grandnephew for that time and he's worried. He's very nervous. He sits in his house listening all day to the radio and the television and he's a little lost between what was and what is. He's just entering dementia. Reggie's cousin, Hilly Brown(ph), has called Ptolemy and said I'm coming over but Ptolemy's been very confused about it. But finally he opens the door and the reading starts from there.

Hilly Brown approached. He was quite large. Much taller than Ptolemy and almost as wide as the door. Can I come in Papa Grey? Do I know you? I'm your great grandnephew, he said again, June's grandson. Too many names were moving around in Ptolemy's mind. Hilly sound familiar and June too had a place behind the door that kept many of his memories alive but mostly unavailable. That's how Ptolemy imagined the disposition of his memories, his thoughts. They were still his, still in the range of his thinking but they were, many and most of them, locked on the other side of a closed door that he'd lost the key for. So his memory became like secrets held away from his own mind. But these secrets were noisy things. They babbled and muttered behind the door. And so if he listened closely, her might catch a snatch of something he once knew well.

June. June was my niece, he said. Yeah, the boy said smiling. Can I come in, Uncle?

GROSS: That's Walter Mosley reading from his new novel "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey." Would you describe the home that Ptolemy Grey is living in and the state of disrepair that has entered because of his dementia?

Mr. MOSLEY: He's been living in this apartment for maybe 60 years. He's 91 years old. He's been living there since, you know, he turned 30. Everything that's ever come into that house is still there: old pizza cartons, all clothes, newspapers, every toothbrush he ever owned. It's really like a hoard of a house, but it's also everything. It's his family. It's all of his memories just jumbled up together, piled so high that it almost looks like a storage unit. And 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.

GROSS: Now he sleeps in a thin mattress under a desk, and describe his bathroom for us.

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, his bathroom, the toilet is all stopped up; everything is dirty and has black mold growing over it. There is, you know, trash kind of everywhere. It just doesn't work anymore. And, but that's OK for him because, you know, he uses a lard can for number one and every three days when Reggie comes, he takes him to a coffee shop where he can have his bowel movement. He's learned how to live in this very, very limited life. The bedroom has been completely blocked off. He doesn't even go in there. Bathroom is blocked off. The kitchen is mostly a mess. But it's OK for him because he's holding on. He's holding on to his consciousness, partially by listening to the radio and television all day long.

GROSS: Now is his apartment based on an apartment that you've seen?

Mr. MOSLEY: It's not based on apartment that I've seen. But, you know, my mother went through dementia for many years but in the last three or four it was very, very serious and that's the way my mother was. She would turn on the television and she had to keep it on because she could never figure out how to turn it back on. She would - sometimes she'd turn the television off with the remote control and then try to use the telephone to turn it back on again with the buttons on the phone because she'd gotten confused. She didn't exactly - she knew what she wanted but she didn't exactly know how to get there.

GROSS: What was it like for you to try to imagine what was going on in her mind because that's certainly what you've tried to do in your new novel is try to understand what's going on in the mind of your main character who has dementia?

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, you know, when you deal very closely, you know, with a person who is experiencing, you know, dementia or Alzheimer's or whatever, you can see where they are struggling with knowledge. You can experience that. You can see how - what they forget completely, what they forget but they know that they once knew. You can tell how they're trying to remember.

There's a scene in here where Ptolemy goes into a bank and he keeps on looking at everybody's face because he wants to know every face. But every time he looks at a face and he goes to another one he forgets the one that he just saw. So he goes back over and over and over, and I watched my mother do, you know, very similar things. Also, you know, getting angry because people don't understand what you're trying to say even though it seems very clear to you. And a lot of that understanding is very clear inside their mind but it's just not being communicated in the correct way.

GROSS: And what your character does is take an experimental drug. I'll ask you to explain what the drug is.

Mr. MOSLEY: You know, one of the big issues about the brain and how it works is the electronic connections, how the brain is firing and how the - how what is there is, you know, connected to the ability to think, to manipulate it. I came up with - you know, it's just a notion, of course, it's a fictional notion that there's doctors - even though I actually believe it must be true somewhere - that they are doctors doing illegal medical research in Mumbai and studying on people with new medicines they're coming up with trying to increase these electronic connections. They've done it to some degree, only they haven't isolated it to the brain.

And so what happens is when they give the medicine to somebody, they very often get their memory back and their ability to think, but - if it's early enough in the dementia but the medicine also kills them because they get these high fevers and their whole body starts to respond to the drug in ways that are, you know, deleterious.

GROSS: And just for anybody tuning in, that's fiction. That's something Walter Mosley made up for his novel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, yes. But I'm sure there's somebody out there thinking about it, you know, because it's a very delicate thing. You know, dealing with all the different kinds of drugs and the abilities to deal with people, there's always trouble. People are always saying, well, you can't do this. You can't do that. But, you know, there are people who are, you know, having ideas all the time that are kind of outside the box of the medical institution.

GROSS: So he decides to take the medicine.

Mr. MOSLEY: Right.

GROSS: His memory is restored, and that opens up all kinds of interesting doors and mysteries solved and so....

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, he's given an offer.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MOSLEY: He's given an offer. The doctor says, look, 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. So at the end of that three months, you're - there's - it's definite you're going to be dead. If you don't take the medicine, 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. And he says I'll take the three months.

GROSS: Do you know which decision you'd make?

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah. Absolutely. I'd take the three months.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MOSLEY: You know, it's - that's the thing, you know. And, of course, you know, Ptolemy thinks that this doctor - this white doctor with his big mustache is the devil. 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?

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Walter Mosley, and he's best known for his Easy Rawlins mystery series. And his new book is called "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey."

Your father died about 14 years ago. Do I have that right?

Mr. MOSLEY: Sixteen, I think. Yeah.

GROSS: Sixteen years ago.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. And your mother died about four or five years ago?

Mr. MOSLEY: My mother died two years ago this January.

GROSS: Oh. Oh, okay.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah, two years this January. Yeah.

GROSS: Okay. Do you feel like a part of you, or at least a part of your memory, a part of your past died with your parents? Because in some ways, one of the functions that parents serve is that they're the keepers of your past. They're the ones who knew you when you were a baby, who knew you when you were three, who watched you, you know, become a teenager and become a man or a woman.

Mr. MOSLEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And, you know, so, yeah.

Mr. MOSLEY: It's even worse in my position. I'm an only child. My mother was an only child. My father was an orphan. And so...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSLEY: ...not only did I lose them, I - not completely, but I'm almost completely without family. And it's a very odd feeling, you know, in life, you know, because I have no children. And so every once in a while, I'll just be sitting there and I'll say, wow, I'm very much - I met a guy the other day. He told me, he says he has 27 brothers and sisters.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. MOSLEY: And it just struck me. I went wow, 27 brothers - he doesn't even know all their names, you know? So sometimes he, people, he runs into people and they say, oh, I'm your brother. He says, oh, I heard about you. I never met him, but I heard about you.

With me, it's like there's nobody, and it's an odd feeling. So, yes, losing my parents really kind of set me adrift in more ways than one. It's not just losing them. It's losing the possibility of family.

GROSS: I mean, the positive side of what you're saying is a sense of like you - there's the opportunity for reinvention all the time in the most positive sense, you know, but there's no anchor to the past. Were there things that really surprised you about your emotional reaction when your mother died and you had no parents anymore?

Mr. MOSLEY: Well, it's so odd, you know. My father died, I gained to like 70 pounds. And when my mother died, I lost a hundred.

GROSS: Wow. That's...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSLEY: It was - and I keep on trying to figure that out. I mean, I've tried to lose the hundred. But you know, I thought for a long time I wanted to lose it. But after my mother died, it just came right off. I said, oh, I'm doing this now, and I did it. And so that's a big change. And I think that it, you know, that it called on, in some ways, this oddly, this odd, awkward midlife crisis that hadn't struck me before, where all of a sudden, there was a life that I had to create that I didn't have to create when I still had parents. Even though - even if I wasn't communicating with them I, there was, as you said, they were holding a life. It's a past thing, a previous thing, but it was my life, and that's what I identified with.

GROSS: So what did you change in your life after they died?

Mr. MOSLEY: You know, that's still a very difficult question to answer, to be able to nail down what that experience is and what a good response to that is, either on the behalf of the person who's experiencing it or the caregiver, somebody who tried to take care of them, because that was a very big thing for me.

When my mother was suffering, I would go to bed every night worried. You know, my mother - you know, she had this job for the Board of Education in Los Angeles, and they wouldn't let her go. She - I mean, she couldn't do anything. She couldn't work. She - I mean, she didn't recognize anybody. But, you know, she had helped so many people in her job that they wouldn't let her go. So she went in.

And, you know, I had to hire a car to drive her in and drive her home. It cost more than her paycheck, but she would cash her paycheck and she had this thick, thick, thick wad of hundred dollar bills, and she would go wandering around the streets to stores with this thick wad of hundred dollar bills. I was so worried about her. But, at the same time, you know, I realized I had to, you know, I had to allow her to be who she was while slowly trying to convince her, say mom, you need to be in a different way to be safe. And it took a long time, and I was very worried.

GROSS: Well, to make matters worse, you live on the East Coast in New York, and she lived on the West Coast in L.A.

Mr. MOSLEY: She would call me up and say I don't have anything for dinner. And I had to figure out, you know, there, how to get dinner to her. Otherwise, she's going to go wandering in the streets looking for food, you know?

GROSS: So did you call a deli or something?

Mr. MOSLEY: It's very funny. A hotel I stay in in L.A., I always stay there. I called up the concierge, and they said, okay, that's fine. We'll take care of it. We'll get some food and send it over to your mom - because they knew her, and they knew me. I'd been staying there forever. It was really very nice of them. And, you know, then I hired a driver, and then finally I hired the woman who came and stayed with her, Eloise.

GROSS: My guest is Walter Mosley. His new novel is called "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Walter Mosley, and his new novel is called "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey."

You know, we're talking about losing part of your life, part of your past when your parents died. You did a lot of research into your father's life, because that's - a lot of his stories were woven into your Easy Rawlins series.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: And so I imagine you knew a lot more about your father's life than a lot of people know about their father's lives because you probably pressed him for information as a writer. Did you know as much about your mother's life as about your father's?

Mr. MOSLEY: I knew a lot about my mother's life, her history here in New York, going to Hunter College and to - and moving to Los Angeles, being a journalist, marrying a really, really rich man in Los Angeles and deciding she - that she didn't like him.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSLEY: And leaving and, you know, meeting my father - you know, my mother being a, you know, a Jewish woman from New York, my father, a black man from Louisiana and, you know, starting a life back there in 1950.

GROSS: When I interviewed you in 1994, we were talking about your Easy Rawlins series, and I asked you...

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah.

GROSS: ...if your father had told you about violence in the segregated South when he was growing up, because that's the kind of stories that you had drawn on.

Mr. MOSLEY: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I want to play back your answer.

Mr. MOSLEY: Okay.

(Soundbite of archived audio)

Mr. MOSLEY: One day, my father sat me down and explained to me - or he told me every person he'd ever seen die. It was just amazing. Little children killing each other, black children, black people killing white people, white people killing black people, black people killing - you know, I mean, everybody, everybody killing each other - people being hung, people dying because there was not proper protection on their jobs.

And then he went to World War II, and he talked about all the people that he saw die in World War II because he worked in statistics, so he typed up the names of everybody - all the Americans who had died. And finally, he came back to the South after that, and he found that all of his old friends - or most of his old friends who didn't go to war had died also in, you know, these kind of petty and stupid little fights and arguments and from disease in the South. And so he moved to Los Angeles.

And when my father - this took a long time to tell me all of these deaths. And at the end of it, he said, so then, Walter, I came to L.A., and I knew I was finally free. I was in a land where these kind of things weren't going to happen anymore. And he sits down in a diner, and the guy next to him has a heart attack, keels over and falls on my father's lap...

GROSS: Oh, no.

Mr. MOSLEY: ...and dies. And it was kind of...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MOSLEY: It was a good way to end it, because it was a funny story. But also the idea of, you know, there's segregation, there's violence because of racism and from ignorance and poverty, but also, we all die. And I think that's what he was trying to tell me.

GROSS: Okay, so that's Walter Mosley, as recorded in 1994. So, Walter Mosley, that's such a really great story.

Mr. MOSLEY: Yes. It was.

GROSS: Did you grow up expecting to confront the numbers of deaths that your father did and the kind of violence that father did?

Mr. MOSLEY: Oh, no, not at all. You know, my father - one of the things my father did was he made me feel extraordinarily safe. He just - he made me feel that I've taken care of it, nothing's going to happen to you. And I always felt like that. And, you know, things did happen. I mean, got stopped by the police. They would pull guns on me and do all kinds of things. But all through that, I was never really worried, because my father said you're going to be safe. And, you know, I believe my father. And, on the whole, it's been true.

GROSS: Now, in comparing your life to your father's life, is your version of being a man different than your father's?

Mr. MOSLEY: Yeah, it has to be. And it is, necessarily. You know, my father's life was so decimated by his earliest experiences. His mother dies when he's seven years old, which he always said was the worst experience he ever had in his life. When he was eight, his father disappeared, was probably killed. You know, he was a logger. And he was on his own from the age of eight. It's necessarily different how we face life and how we are, you know, men in life. I mean, the difference between Easy Rawlins and that series of books and my new series of mysteries, the Leonid McGill mysteries, underscores that the how -what a different world me and my father lived in.

GROSS: Walter Mosley, great to talk with you again. Thank you so much.

Mr. MOSLEY: Oh, thanks for having me. It's been great.

GROSS: Walter Mosley's new novel is called "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey." You can read an excerpt on our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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