Walter Mosley, best-selling author of more than 29 critically acclaimed books, presents his latest in the Leonid McGill series, “Known to Evil” (released Tuesday). He is the winner of numerous awards, including an O. Henry Award, a Grammy and PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Most recently, he received the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work – Fiction and was nominated for the International Association of Crime Writers Hammett Prize for “The Long Fall,” the debut novel in the Leonid McGill series.
As McGill has learned when he’s found himself in a bit of a pickle: Mosley advises PopMatters that sometimes, it’s best to just turn heel and run. Mosley, of course, has the will to stay put and continue creating – fiction and non-fiction books, and plays – from his home in New York City.
Q: The latest book or movie that made you cry?
A: I don’t often cry over books or movies. It’s usually things in life that make me sad. Recently, for instance, a friend told me that she and her granddaughter were feeding half-starved deer in the woods around her Berkshire home. They’d leave seed and grain for the yearlings. The deer were in a herd, but they fought for dominance over the food. The weakest member was kept completely out of the feeding by its siblings. Stories like this, of the flawed nature of life and survival, bring me to tears. This is the drama of life; my own failings reflected in nature.
That said – the last book I read that brought tears was the biography of Albert Einstein. In that book there was the story of Mahalia Jackson when she was invited to Princeton because of her talent and standing, but she was refused a place to stay because of her skin color. When Einstein heard about this injustice he invited Ms. Jackson to stay with him. From that point on, whenever Jackson came to Princeton she’d only stay at Einstein’s home. Again, the tears come from personal identification; the generosity between these two echo the connection between my Jewish mother and African-American father.
Q: The fictional character most like you?
A: I’m a little embarrassed by this question because the galaxy of stars in the fictional universe are so diverse and spectacular that comparing myself to any one of them would be an insult to the author and millions of readers who claim connection through their own imaginations. Therefore, I have to choose one of my own creations, not out of high self-esteem but because I put myself into my creations.
The character I’m the closest to in my own work has to be Paris Minton, the frightened bookseller who would rather be lost in a book than on the trail of a killer. Paris’ heroism comes from unavoidable necessity and friendship, never from courage or even a sense of morality.
I, too, might do what’s right but rarely for the best reasons. I might speak up but inside, I’m wanting to run.
Q: The greatest album, ever?
A: For me the greatest album has been the collected recordings of Robert Johnson – the blues master. The blues is my history, my people’s history from Africa through Europe and into the broken-promise land of the New World. Robert Johnson was the informant for the pop generation of my youth. Through him my world was re-formed.
Q: “Star Trek” or “Star Wars”?
A: Wow. What a question. Apple pie or baked chicken? How do you make a choice and still survive? Movies or TV? You can’t have one without the other. The way to break a man’s heart and a mother’s soul would be to ask them to choose between their children.
Q: Your ideal brain food?
A: Gadgets. Little tools, preferably with computer chips inside, that help me to navigate the world I live in. With anything from rock tumblers to PDAs I find a new gadget in my life changes the way I see things and therefore increases the mass of my thinking.
Q: You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
A: In the last year I’ve lost something more than a hundred pounds – of fat. That is, for me, a monumental accomplishment. For nearly my whole life I’ve been overweight, and as the years have advanced the pounds have, too. A year ago I decided to make up a diet and stick to it no matter the buffeting of my desires.
Q: You want to be remembered for ...?
A: I can’t consider being remembered without thinking about being dead. Death is the end of memory and so the question what do you want to be remembered for feels, oddly, like a contradiction in terms.
Q: Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
A: Before and after are moments that, for the most part, don’t exist. There is now and now and now. Every once in a while there’s a then or back when, but those notions, in my opinion, are interpretations of stories that are told, retold, and lost in the time of our history. Even a documentary made by a living being that died is not complete enough to vie with now.
I am influenced by the people that touch me, walk by me, regale me, never knew and cannot know me.
Q: The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
A: “Dead Souls” by Gogol.
Q: Your hidden talents ...?
A: I give pretty good massages and I know more about comic books than most. I refuse to understand why it is important to be the best in your class, and I understand that external structures are just that.
Q: The best piece of advice you actually followed?
A: I know this truism: The older you are, the more you live in the past. This means that experience turns from nectar to vinegar in the gut of memory and knowledge becomes a lie. We live through the Great Depression and come out the other side thinking we know how things work because we survived. Things change, however, and so do the practicalities of survival. The older generation is always more articulate, usually wealthier, but the young know this world the way they know love: instinctually.
Q: The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed
A: I once bought an old African ring. It’s beautiful but also powerful.
I once had a neighbor in an apartment building who never spoke to me. If I’d say “hello” he’d turn a deaf ear. This went on for years. Then, after I acquired my ring, I got into an elevator, a few floors later this unfriendly neighbor got on. Five seconds later he said, “What a beautiful ring!”
Q: You feel best in Armani or Levis or ...?
A: Armani, but I’d rather a compromise between the two. I don’t like the blue of blue jeans nor do I like the smug indifference of wealth. I guess I’m an American down to my skin – and, come to think of it, skin trumps Levis and Armani.
Q: Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
A: Forgetting loved ones and friends, relatives (living and dead), I think it’s always someone who I’ve just met and hope to get to know better. The restaurant, no matter how fancy, is a good neutral ground that allows individuals to intermingle – and run if necessary.
Q: Time travel: where, when and why?
A: I’ve always wanted to see herds that consist of thousands of 10 ton dinosaurs. Just the rumble and roar would make the trip worthwhile.
Q: Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
A: Change is the only way to avoid stress. The final chapter of that change is probably death, but not the death of someone else. The Buddhist notion of acceptance comes the closest to my philosophy about dealing with stress. Drugs, vacations, meditation and revenge may play a part in one’s revival but faith in the self, and a convenient back door, are the best cures.
Q: Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ...?
A: The opposite. Doing without those things we use to survive makes life more interesting.
Q: Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
A: I live in New York City. There is no greater place. It saddens me that I’m not in the country, some days. Nature is, after all, our mirror. The city, however, sings and dances and carries you beyond the notions that clamor from a distant, ill-remembered past.
Q: What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
A: Better you than me.
Q: Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
A: I’m writing the third novel in the Leonid McGill mystery series, working on the pilot for HBO about the same character, enjoying the aftermath of the production of my first play, “The Fall of Heaven,” and getting ready to go to the reading of my second play, “Lift.”
My rock tumblers are rolling in the laundry room and spring is coming.
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