Up Close: Walter Mosley

Mosley Returns to Beloved PI After 15 Years

By Dawn Ius

Walter Mosley didn’t set out to be a Renaissance Man—but over the years, he’s emerged as one of the most versatile writers in the business. He’s the author of more than 43 critically acclaimed and award-winning books that span the literary landscape of everything from sci-fi, mystery, and even one young adult novel, to writing plays, political monographs, and scripts—his latest venture in that regard being the just-announced adaptation of 2005’s The Man in My Basement.

Mosley admits his skilled fingers are knuckle-deep in a lot of pies, but his diverse portfolio is more a function of passion than part of any sort of career success formula.

“If anyone wants to make money, they shouldn’t go into writing,” he says. “Real estate is so much better. There are a lot of careers so much better suited for that. But if you’re going to have a creative career—any type of creative career—you should do what you have to do, what you love to do, regardless of how much money you made on it. And that way, you’ll create a body of work that represents you as an artist, and has projects that speak to your heart.”

While Mosley’s current passion project is the adaptation of The Man in My Basement, he’s also getting ready to celebrate the release of TROUBLE IS WHAT I DO, a short, but effective, book that reacquaints readers with his morally ambiguous private investigator, Leonid McGill.

Walter Mosley
Photo credit: Marcia Wilson

It’s been about 15 years since Mosley last wrote about McGill, but slipping back into his skin wasn’t difficult—with a body of work as diverse and wide-spanning as Mosley’s, selecting a “favorite character” would be impossible, but he holds McGill in high regard.

“He’s a fun character to write,” Mosley says. “I love his son, Twill, and the receptionist, Marty. McGill is this guy who’s always been a criminal…up until now. But when you think about it, his life is kind of wonderful.”

For those unfamiliar with McGill’s past, Mosley offers a quick refresher—his father called himself a communist, but was more like an anarchist. One day he left for a fight—and never came back. McGill’s mother died of a broken heart, leaving McGill and his brother to fend for themselves on the streets. Both became criminals.

“One of the things Leonid had to do was work on his strength and his ability to defend himself,” Mosley says. Which led to him joining a gym where he learned to box. And he’s really good at it. “He could have been a contender…but he’s too busy keeping himself alive so he never became that person.”

Mosley is interviewed by host Greta Brawner on a 2018 episode of C-SPAN Book TV’s In Depth.

He turned to private investigation instead, and in TROUBLE IS WHAT I DO, he goes up against some very dangerous people when he’s asked by a 92-year-old Mississippi bluesman who goes by the name “Catfish” to do what appears to be a very simple task: deliver a letter revealing the black lineage of a wealthy heiress and her corrupt father.

Of course, it’s not a simple task—and it leads to dangerous consequences for both McGill and his client.

It’s the kind of book you can read on a quick flight, or cart around without weighing down your bag—but it effectively re-introduces a beloved character and addresses some important issues, such as racial identity.

Mosley participates in the “Murdertown, USA” crime writers panel at the 2019 New Yorker Festival. Also pictured, from left: panel moderator David Grann, Lisa Scottoline, George Pelecanos, and Laura Lippman.

“I think if you look at the history of America, there’s this image of a ship full of Puritans coming to America and you imagine the future of the country is in that boat—and it’s also in the wake of that boat. Slavery. I think that’s a good image and it’s what this book is about,” Mosley says.

And it’s also about McGill taking time to reflect on where he’s come from—and where he might be going. But fans shouldn’t read too much into that. Mosley is confident he will write another McGill book—perhaps sooner than 15 years from now—but it’s not the next project on his docket.

In addition to the screenplay he’s working on, Mosley has just finished the next Easy Rawlins novel and is doing copy edits for a book of short stories scheduled to come out next year called The Awkward Black Man.

Mosley in conversation with Laurie R. King at the 2017 Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, Calif.

There’s more, too, but Mosley says for now, he’s tackling projects in order of priority, and keeping those fingers on the keyboard—which is just where he likes them. Doing the work.

“I love writing,” he says, careful to acknowledge that it’s in the act itself he finds the most joy. “It’s hard to be a writer if you don’t write every day. So much of art comes from the unconscious, and if you’re not always reaching for that state, you lose it and it takes so much time to get it done. I don’t want to lose it—writing is the best thing that I do.”

 

Dawn Ius
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