Walter Mosley on Writing Awkward Black Nerds
The author of "The Awkward Black Man" on cowboys, real heroes, and making money in publishing
Three decades ago, Walter Mosley published Devil in a Blue Dress, his first novel, a mystery featuring the now-famous private investigator Easy Rawlins. Almost 60 books (including 15 staring Easy Rawlins) and several awards later, Mosley has earned an imposing place in Black literature. Last week, he was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation. The first Black man to achieve that high honor. His oeuvre spans time and genre. From the Post-WWII Los Angeles of Easy Rawlins to dystopian futures, there exist few subjects Mosley hasn’t touched.
His latest project, The Awkward Black Man, is a wide-ranging story collection and meditation on Black life, where quiet and odd protagonists struggle for purpose and acceptance. In one story, a teenage modern-day cowboy moves to Harlem with his mother. “Showdown on the Hudson” exemplifies Mosley’s ability to balance heroics, sensitivity, empathy, beauty, humor, and style. There’s a murder. There’s shame. There’s raw awkward emotion. At the center: a loving friendship.
Before the world locked down and caught fire, Mosley was writing for Snowfall, a series about crack and Los Angeles in the ‘80s. On an afternoon in late July, I spoke with Mosley on the phone about his new collection, America’s current unrest, hope, and much more. I was in Buffalo, New York. He was in Los Angeles.
Gabriel Bump: In previous interviews, you’ve discussed a desire and need to depict Black heroes in fiction. The characters in The Awkward Black Man are woefully unheroic.
Walter Mosley: In what way?
GB: They’re bumbling. They’re unspectacular.
WM: That’s the heroes. The real heroes are those people. You have heroes like Captain America, right? There really are no Captain Americas. You have them, but they don’t exist. What people are looking for, I think—people who reflect them. Most of us are kind of bumbling, right?
Some of them do extraordinary things, but other ones are just normal people. I want to write about them. So often Black male characters fall into five or six characterizations and that’s it.
GB: Tell me more about those characterizations.
WM: Well, you have the sidekick, the pimp, the craven criminal, the sex machine. They’re people. They exist too. And a lot of people want to be some of those people. The thing is: what about the guy that’s the bookkeeper, who’s raising a koala bear in his attic? Those kinds of people. If you’re not talking about it, if you’re not thinking about it, then we lose the benefit of literature.
GB: You have an Easy Rowlins novel coming out in January. These characters are inhabiting a different world. And right now you’re writing for Snowfall. How is it placing people in these different aspects of Black life?
WM: It’s the way I think. We have such extraordinary people, who are so complex in their way of thinking, in their way of acting. And, indeed, the world around them is really complex.
One of the stories, called “Haunted”, it’s about a guy who’s 68. He’s married. He’s written a thousand stories, none of them have been published. And he’s just full of bile and bitterness. He has a heart attack. He ends up being haunted by his own inability, his own commitment to himself, which was so misplaced. Rather than the ghost haunting the people. The people are haunting the ghosts, which is the way I see it happening. Of course, I’m a writer. I’ve written a whole lot. I’ve been rejected all over the place for all kinds of books, for all kinds of reasons. So, THAT’S ME. That character is me. And not just me in my writer’s life. But me all through life: trying to imagine being someone and not being that perfect cutout person that we all want to be.
GB: But none of us are.
WM: Very few. Even the people who are, aren’t, you know?
GB: “Showdown on the Hudson” was my favorite story in this collection because you are able to combine this Western-feel in this urban environment. It’s also touching, especially at the end where we have these letters exchanged.
WM: This was a story I wanted to write. I always wanted to write a Western. It was the only genre that I haven’t written. I really wanted to. Because so many Black people, especially from Texas, you say “what are you?” and they say “Well, I’m a cowboy.” Because everybody from Texas is a cowboy.
GB: Even in LA, there are famous cowboys.
WM: Listen, they all came from Texas. They came up here. In many ways, Billy (a protagonist) can do everything. He can ride a horse. He can shoot a gun, seduce the girl. He does everything.
GB: Even talk to police.
WM: He approaches everybody as an individual because he’s a cowboy and individualism is a big part of that. He also has a creed. There are things he won’t do. There are things that are wrong. The killing that he does is wrong. He knows it’s wrong. That’s what fun about doing this. Even though he’s so perfect in some ways, in others he’s not. He’s so different from everybody. But everybody understands exactly what he’s doing.
GB: It’s shocking that you’ve written so much and just now getting around to writing this thing you’ve really wanted to write.
WM: Well, nobody’s really interested in you writing it. It’s not a very interesting genre. I had to make money. Also, I couldn’t really figure out how to do it. I decided: I’ll just put it contemporary in Harlem, but it’ll be a cowboy from Texas. Because I had been down to Texas. Houston has this gigantic rodeo, livestock thing going on. All these people, from way out in the middle of nowhere, show up. They got the biggest pig. They got the biggest pumpkin. They ride horses. Well, these are cowboys and they’re living today. So, I can use them. I don’t have to go back to 1842. It was so different. It’s so telling that the most evocative Westerns about America are made in Italy.
GB: Why do you think that is?
WM: Because people want heroes. You’re trying to develop a hero.
GB: I guess Cowboys in real American History aren’t necessarily heroic figures.
WM: Exactly. They might have been the hero for the people there because they killed somebody. But, really, it’s so ugly and debilitating. I saw this thing the other day about this guy. He was a sheriff of some kind. But he just murdered people. They figured he murdered like 51 people.
GB: We’re living through a historic moment, in terms of Blackness. How have you been experiencing this moment? You were in LA during the ’92 riots, right?
WM: I wasn’t living here in the ’92 Riots. I did happen to be here.
GB: In the last couple months we’ve seen unrest in major cities, like LA.
WM: It’s nothing like the ’60s.
GB: Tell me about the difference. I’m 29. For young Black people, young Black artists around my age, we’re trying to process this moment. It feels huge.
WM: More people got killed in the LA Riots of ’65 than got killed over the whole country in this most recent uprising. I look at it as waves, slowly, like the tide coming in. It’s one wave at a time. There has never not been an interesting moment in Black history in America. When you look at Oklahoma. People of color lived in the Oklahoma territory. All kinds. Native Americans. Mexicans. Chinese. Blacks. When the radical Republican congress lost power, they came and killed all those people. There are moments all through history where we struggled. The great thing about today is that it’s everybody’s history. It’s not just Black people out there saying “We’re mad.” It’s all kinds of people out there saying “no, this is not right. What’s wrong with you? Killing people and sitting on a man’s neck for eight and a half minutes—what’s wrong with you?” That’s beautiful.
In order to mark your place in history, you have to be able to see where everything has come from. From the NAACP with a sign hanging out front of their offices in New York every time somebody was lynched. Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit”. All of our involvement throughout the history of America. The only people that haven’t been here as long as Black people are Native Americans. Everybody else—we’ve been here longer than everybody. The Irish and the Italians, all those people—they came later. All of this is incredibly difficult and challenging history. Today is no different.
GB: How hopeful do you feel this moment will lead to change? You say this is now our shared history. Does that make you feel hopeful? I can’t tell how I feel.
WM: Listen, great things are happening. When you have police chiefs around the country saying the guy that sat on [George] Floyd’s neck should be arrested, tried, and sentenced—when you have policemen saying that about other policemen that’s a major change. Change has already happened. When you have a country where people are saying “maybe we should defund the police department.” Just saying the words—it’s a major event.
GB: It looks like it might not happen.
WM: But it’s like those waves. It may not happen everywhere. It’s already happened in a couple places. That’s one thing. But something is going to happen. Somebody’s going to say “oh, yeah. The police are still like in the old days when they use to enforce runaway slave laws. That was their job. But it’s different now. We need people that understand people with mental problems, racial issues, sexual biases.” All that stuff is really happening. Seeing what has already happened means there’s already been a change. I don’t have to be optimistic about it because it’s happened.
GB: This idea of general progression. 1965 is different than 1992 which is different than 2015 which is different than 2020.
GB: Do you think the shifting national perspective has influenced how you approach your work?
WM: It might very well. I wouldn’t be able to tell you how. I’m just writing stories about odd Black protagonists trying to live their lives.
GB: Do you feel like your job has remained the same?
WM: When you say “job”, what do you mean exactly?
GB: Well, your goals as a writer.
WM: I’m not completely sure that I have goals.
GB: You say you want to portray a certain type of character.
WM: And I do. And that’s what that book is about. But, you know, I write different books. I wrote Blue Light. A whole bunch of science fiction stuff. I’ve written nonfiction. Books about writing. Each book has an idea. I’m not sure—it may, like waves, be generally going in that direction. That’s nothing something I feel like I need to make a decision about. Because I love writing.
GB: To me, your ability to move through genres is enviable. At some point, does it get frustrating that people know you primarily for Easy Rawlins?
WM: That’s the thing. I don’t really think about it. I keep writing other books. They keep on getting published. I talk to people about them, like I’m talking to you. That’s enough for me. Literary fiction is never going to the genres anyway. I’m not trying to say “Why don’t you pay attention to this book?” People read all the books. The Socrates stories. So, no, I don’t get bothered.
Are you in LA or Chicago?
GB: I live in Buffalo now.
WM: Oh, you’re in Buffalo. My God.
GB: I like it here.
WM: Are you teaching?
GB: I was teaching. Now I’m mainly working on my second book and screenplays. The film industry is a lot different than literary publishing.
WM: It’s a lot better and a lot worse.
GB: What do you mean by that?
WM: 1. You make real money. E. L. Doctorow once suggested to the people running the writing program at NYU that they should have me in. Someone called me in. I could tell by the way they were talking to me—they weren’t very happy with me. At one point, they told me how much I’d be making, which was basically an adjunct’s salary. I said, “Listen, E.L. Doctorow told you I’d be a great addition here.” And they said, “Well, that’s what we offer.” I had a lot of friends who worked for NYU. I knew what they were making. Okay, well, no thank you. This guy I knew was making 15 times what you just offered me. You can make your career in the university.
In my book, Elements of Fiction, the penultimate chapter is an attack on universities teaching writing, which I don’t think is their province. What they do to the writing students and they writing teachers. I think they just drain away all your creativity. If that’s what you want to do: read books and talk about them, which is great, that’s a wonderful thing to do. But if you’ve going to talk about writing—writing is always changing. And the university is always looking back. In things like literature and history. Maybe even in physics and biology.
GB: Last year, you wrote about your experience in a writer’s room. That didn’t sour it for you.
WM: Listen, I live in America. Somebody comes up to me and says, “So-and-so is a racist.” And I go, “Uh-huh.”
“Isn’t that terrible?”
“Well, yeah. It’s terrible that everybody in America is a racist.”
That’s it. Everybody in America is a racist. What am I supposed to do about that? And they go, “He said that word! He did that thing! They blah-blah-blah.” This is America, man. This is where we live. The idea that you’re going to defeat this thing without completely opening the wound and airing it out. I don’t know. Anyway…
GB: That’s interesting to hear after what you said earlier about feeling hopeful.
WM: You ever watch those nature shows about the ocean?
GB: Yeah. Of course.
WM: It’s so beautiful down there, right? The coral. These creatures that are so perfect. Like sharks, for instance. But every one of them eats the rest of them. I watched this thing once where they showed this one fish that came up and ate that one. And another fish came up and ate that one. And another fish came up and ate that one. I was like, “Damn.” HBO had this great series called Rome. God, it was so good. These two guys, plebes. One guy goes up to the other one and says, “I want to join you.”
“Well, we’re doing some very dark stuff. This is going to be really bad. I don’t know where it’s going to end up.”
“Look, man. Everybody ends up in the same place.”
“Yes. You’re right about that brother.”
And I just loved it. Life is beautiful. Life is beautiful. It’s difficult. It’s hard. We’re very small. The systems we belong to are very large. That can always cause a problem. But I—I—I don’t care. I’m happy to be in the world and living in the world. The fact that everybody is a racist in America doesn’t bother me. It’s complex. It’s not an absolute thing. A lot of people are just ignorant. They have to be disabused of that ignorance.
GB: For me, it seems like the ignorance now is pretty malevolent. It seems like a lot of anger. Certainly not to the same degree as the sixties.
WM: Or the ’30s, or the ’20s, or the ’70s, or the 1840s. When you go back it gets worse. Like right now, you’re writing novels and publishing them. There was a time when that wasn’t happening. I remember when there were about ten or twelve people getting published, Black people. You could be writing all the books you wanted to write. Nobody was going to publish them. Because of unconscious racisms. Like, “Well, Black people don’t read.” “Nobody’s interested in reading Black stories.” That’s what everybody was thinking, who ran publishing. And, if you think it, it becomes true if you’re in charge… Things are getting better. It’s still hard. But things are getting better. Still, someone can sit on your neck in the middle of the day, downtown, and kill you. And nobody’s going to stop them, without becoming a murderer themselves.
GB: That’s an example of something that’s happened for centuries.
WM: Oh, sure. Every day. Every day somewhere.