Walter Mosley: from mystery to redemption

Speaking to author Walter Mosley is like encountering his books in living form. He’s as breezily philosophical as Socrates Fortlow, the murderer and rapist walking a rocky path toward redemption in his new novel, “Walkin’ the Dog,” published this month. But he can also be as engagingly down-home as the Easy Rawlins character in his mystery series.

Mosley, 47, learned to write by being an avid reader. It wasn’t until he was 34 years old with 15 years logged as a computer programmer that he finally put pen to paper and produced his first work.

From “Devil in a Blue Dress” to “A Little Yellow Dog,” Mosley’s fans watched him fine-tune Rawlins, the reluctant detective who solves crime in his Watts neighborhood. In the process, Mosley brought to life inner-city Los Angeles in the mid-20th century.

With the science-fiction “Blue Light” and “RL’s Dream,” a novel about a Mississippi Delta bluesman, Mosley broke out of the mystery mold. And there’s more to come from the author who enthusiastically calls writing “the most wonderful thing in the world; I do it every day.”

In February, Random House will publish “Working on the Chain Gang,” which Mosley says is about “the chains created by capitalism, mass media, and a miscomprehension of government.” He’s also developing his Rawlins character into a possible one-hour ABC drama.

Mosley is currently writing science fiction short stories and two screenplays for HBO. One of his television projects is a sequel to “Always Outnumbered,” the critically acclaimed 1998 TV version of his first Fortlow book, “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned.”

In rat-a-tat-tat sentences that shifted and restarted as Mosley formed his ideas, the author spoke about developing the Fortlow character and working in television.

Q. What made you decide to develop the Socrates Fortlow character?

A. I wanted to show exactly how a complex philosophical thought rose in black communities. When I talked to people [ while] traveling around the country, they never believed me when I said, “Black people think, they’re philosophical.” Because we’re so brainwashed in America to believe that the only philosophers were white Europeans and Christians for that matter.

So the notion was to take this very unlikely character, like the original Socrates: You know, a working-class kind of guy, kind of ungainly, not ostracized but not part of the center, and show what his life means.

Q. Did you always know you were going to write a second novel about him?

A. Ummm. You know that’s a hard question to answer. I knew I could have written another book about him. And I knew I would like to. For a long time, I didn’t know what I wanted to say.Q. How did you decide what you wanted to say?

A. Somebody called me from England, a writer there. He was doing a collection of stories about jazz, and he wondered if I could do something.

So I sat down one day and “Blue Lightning” [ the first chapter of “Walking the Dog”] came out. And “Blue Lightning” is the template for the whole book. Once I finished writing the story, I said, “Wow, this is the next Socrates book.”

Q. What was it about that chapter? How did you know it could turn into a novel?

A. I saw the problem. I saw the issues. Here [ Fortlow] is, he’s been offered the job making like $17,000-18,000 a year. All the other elements of his life come into play at that point.

Q. How did you develop Socrates’ character?

A. You know Socrates is a black man in America today, and the issue of self redemption is a big thing. He’s seeking to redeem himself. And it’s an impossible task. [ He chuckles.] That redemption is like the original Socrates’ truth: You don’t really get the truth but you try. You try. And some people don’t make it, as is obvious in some of the stories.

Q. You start “Walkin’ the Dog” with a jazz player blowing his horn. Does jazz influence you?

A. Oh, yeah, sure. I think “Devil in a Blue Dress” was informed by jazz. But I don’t write about music so much as I write about the sensibility that that music covers. The music is a reflection of the people.

So the blues is a reflection of the tragedy of black people in so-called freedom after 1865. Jazz is that striving for individuality, for a voice in a world that doesn’t want to hear anything.

Q. Will you return to the Socrates character soon?

A. I don’t know about soon, but I think at least there’s one more book out of Socrates. See the first book is him having that glimmer of thought, like, “Hey, I’m alive, and I can do something. I can have an effect on the world.” The second one is saying, “There is a purpose.” And the third one is, “I have a purpose.”

So at least a third [ book] and maybe even a fourth. We’ll see. I mean I love writing about Socrates. Socrates is really a wonderful character. I like him.

Q. Does he remind you of anyone you know?

A. Not at all. But he does deeply remind me of the black community where you find people who you love and the rest of the world is vilifying.

I mean, I think black men are wonderful. And I live in a world where they’re vilified all the time even by themselves. . . .

You’ve got the white community, the prison system, the police profiling us on the street. Amadou Diallo gets shot down because he pulls out,

like, a telephone. And the [ New York City] mayor comes out and says, “It’s OK. You wanted it to be crime free so we have to murder a few people.” It’s like what? Please.

And Socrates stands up against that.

Q. You’re developing a drama for ABC. Did that project happen before or after the hubbub about the lack of people of color in the new fall shows?

A. It was being worked on before. But that’s the whole thing: It’s always being worked on. I mean no one ever blamed Hollywood for not trying to develop black projects. It’s just once they develop it they don’t want to do it. [ He laughs.]

Q. How was the experience of making “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned” for HBO?

A. I liked making “Always Outnumbered.” I thought it was a really wonderful movie. I’m really looking forward to the next one I make because I know we really said something with that movie.

That unrelenting reality that Socrates had to deal with from the little boy to the dying friend. People saw it, and they had never seen that before on televison, but they see it in their lives every day. And it was kind of a shock, My God. [ He says the last two words in a hushed tone.]

Q. Won’t you also get that effect with Easy Rawlins on ABC?

A. No. No. Because it’s going to be commercial television and commercial television’s very entertaining. So you have to have the guns go off. You have to have the sexual tension. You have to have all of that stuff, which is going to make people want to watch it.

On HBO they watch it if they want to. On ABC they have to want to watch it. It’s two completely different things.

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