“[Easy]’s an American. He’s a man. He’s a Black man…. And I think being a war veteran makes him belong to yet another group that he feels strongly about…. He’s actually a real detective, and also Easy has a lot of trouble maintaining relationships…. If you see Easy’s life, you see something human.” Walter Mosley discusses Easy Rawlins novel Blood Grove with Alka Joshi on NPT’s A Word on Words.
Alka Joshi: Walter Mosley, thank you so much for being with us at A Word on Words. It’s so exciting that you are continuing the Easy Rawlins series, which I have loved since the 1990s. You created a Black male hero at a time when few such heroes existed. Tell us What makes Easy so unique, so likable, that I fall in love with him every time I read one of your Easy Rawlins mysteries.
Walter Mosley: Yeah. It’s interesting. I think that what makes Easy attractive to people is that I love him. I think that he comes out of my love for my father. Easy is not my dad. But he comes out of my love for my father. And for all those Black men who were so important to me when I was a child. I’m supposing that because I like him so much and because I feel so deeply about him and he feels so deeply about the people in his world, that other people might like him.
Novels are such large creatures. I think what Blood Grove is doing is connecting one of the many groups that Easy belongs to. He’s an American, he’s a man, he’s a Black man, he’s a war veteran. And I think being a war veteran makes him belong to yet another group that he feels strongly about. His understanding of his belonging has to do with World War II and anybody who’s had to go through a war.
Black people are everywhere. Easy is dealing with Black people in their lives. And he’s trying to protect them. He’s trying to represent them. He’s trying to live a different life, one in which he and his brethren are equals.
Joshi: That’s the most beautiful thing about the Easy Rawlins mysteries. Through Easy’s experiences, you tell us what has changed and what hasn’t changed in a Black man’s life in 1969. Tell us about what Easy keeps encountering when he’s driving his Rolls, when he is in any kind of public situation and how he is treated as a Black man in 1969, versus when he first started the series.
Mosley: Race in America is a constant. Racism in America is a constant. But it’s like COVID-19. It changes into different forms. It mutates. First it’s the alpha. And then, it’s the Delta. And then, it’s the Omicron. Racism is like that. It always, in the end, expresses itself in the same way. For instance, Easy has done a job for a man–a very rich man–but he doesn’t have the money to pay Easy because it’s all tied up. So, he gives Easy his very expensive Rolls-Royce and he says, “You keep this. If I don’t pay you in a year, you can sell it or do whatever you want with it.” And Easy is excited. He says, “I have a Rolls-Royce.”
But then he gets stopped by the police everywhere, everywhere. He’s driving down the street and the police pull him over and say, “Is this your car?” He say, “Yes, sir. This is my car.” And that conversation goes over again and again and again in his life. It’s just one of many things. In 1948, 1952, there are parts of LA he can’t go, there are things that he can’t do. He’s not going to be in Beverly Hills. He’s not going to be in a lot of parts of the valley. He can’t because Black people can’t go there. He’s going to be in trouble if he does.
Now, it turns out that he can be everywhere, but he’s having even more trouble, as far as race is concerned. People are saying, “What’s that white woman doing in your car? What are you doing at this restaurant? What are you doing at this bank?” I mean, that’s life. So, as things get better, they also get worse.
There was one time where he was only in his own neighborhood, he never got in trouble for being in his own neighborhood, but life changes and in Los Angeles, especially, you can’t stay in one neighborhood. You get a job that might get a job 30 miles away. On the way home, you need to stop at a bodega. And who knows what’s going to happen when you go there? It’s very delicate, like you say. It’s not a big thing in Easy’s life, because it’s a constant in his life.
Joshi: It’s almost as if it’s annoying, but the way that he deals with it is very important. Because if he remains calm, then everybody else remains calm around the racism he experiences.
Mosley: Yeah. I think that not only do you have to experience racism, you have to take responsibility for it. I think that’s what you’re saying. And the problem is, at some point or another, you can’t take responsibility for it anymore. He asks, “What are you doing? What are you stopping me for? I’m just walking here.” It’s like, “I’m just here. There’s nothing special about me being here. I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m not carrying a gun. What is your problem?” And of course, the minute you do that, the problem becomes worse.
Joshi: After 9/11, Walter, I know exactly how Easy felt, because every plane I was on, I would get veered off to the immigration line. Even though I have a US passport, I was questioned. My luggage was always searched. And I just felt like, “You guys, I’m just going to Poughkeepsie, New York, it’s no big deal.”
Easy’s friends, Mouse and Jackson Blue and Fearless Jones, have been with him throughout this series and they have evolved also. Tell us a little bit about Mouse’s evolution, because I found that the most fascinating.
Mosley: Mouse is actually growing up. It’s something that you never expect out of a sociopath. You don’t expect him to change, to be different, but he is changing, he is different. Mouse is talking to Jackson Blue, the cowardly genius. He says, “Listen, I spent a lot of time planning heists in other countries. I can’t be going out. I can’t be going to bars. I can’t be getting drunk. I can’t be running around with women. I got to be serious. And I got to be concentrated.” And Jackson says, “Well, maybe you should start reading. That’s something you can be serious and concentrated about.”
And he does start to read. Not only does he start to read, because Jackson gives him books like by Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes. He’s reading these books and he realizes that those books are actually speaking from his heart and making him a different person.
Easy’s talking to him about this Italian mobster that he’s going to have to deal with. And Easy says, “What do you think I should do about him?” Mouse says, “What should you do, man? You should kill him. What you think?” And Easy feels, “Oh God, it’s so good to hear the old Mouse.” Because all these new ways actually frighten him. He says, “God, if he changes like this, but he keeps that same basic personality, who knows what he’s going to do?” So, yeah. Mouse is fun. Jackson Blue is fun.
Joshi: Mouse gets involved with a Vietnamese woman. Tell us a little bit about that. Because then I want to evolve into talking about all the other women in your novel, who are very different from the kinds of women we normally run up against.
Mosley: Vu Von has a scarred face from an explosion. She’s Vietnamese. She was a member of the Viet Cong. She’s a great mechanic. She finally decided that she was in too much trouble in Vietnam. So, she came to America. When Mouse sees her, this woman is like, she was made for Mouse. He was made for her, because these are people, they’re down to the bottom-rung, they’re ready to fight. There’s no more flummery going on in their lives.
Mouse actually feels like he loves this woman and love isn’t something Mouse talks about. But all of this is happening at the same time. If Jackson hadn’t given him books to read, if he hadn’t gotten older and been promoted in the ranks of organized crime, none of this would’ve been happening.
Joshi: We’ve got Vu Von. We have Asiette, who is very interesting as a French woman in love with Easy. And then there’s Lola. Each of your women are very strong, but in ways that we don’t usually anticipate. Tell us a little bit about how you develop this coterie of women.
Mosley: When you’re developing characters in a story where characters represent parts of the story, and that part of the story belongs to them, you try to make interesting characters. So, whatever character I’m talking about—if I’m talking about EttaMae Harris, if I’m talking about Mama Joe, if I’m talking about Asiette—I ask who is she? Asiette was a child during World War II. And her father was part of the resistance. She understands war. And this is all part of the thing I’m talking about people who’ve experienced war. She’s a white woman, French. I mean, French people could be the whitest people in the world. But she is in love with Easy. She’s too young for him, I think, to be somebody he’d want to marry and be with. Also, Easy has a lot of trouble maintaining relationships. This has been the problem his whole life. He can raise children. He can do the job. He can protect you. He can take care of you. But to have a… What would you call it? To have a-
Joshi: Committed relationship?
Mosley: Not even committed, because I don’t even think he has trouble with that, but to have a continual relationship, because of the way Easy lives his life. The interesting thing about the so-called noir genre: you have people like Hammett, and Chandler, Macdonald, extraordinary writers who come out of the movement Ernest Hemingway led. It’s very American, but it’s also existentialist at its base. THe original detectives didn’t have a wife, a child, a house, a car, a pet; they didn’t have anything. So, if you arrested them and said, “If you don’t tell me what you know, I’m going to put you in jail.” The detective would reply, “Well, put me in jail,” because he didn’t have anything that he was committed to in life.
Easy does have things. He has a daughter, has a dog. He has a house up on top of a mountain. But there are times that he just disappears, that his whole life is committed to this profession of his. And when you’re living like that, it’s hard to have a relationship unless you have that relationship with the “housewife.” These are not people that I’m writing about and it’s not people that he knows.
Joshi: Speaking of familial relationships: Milo shows up. He turns out to be a half-brother to Feather, Easy’s adopted daughter. That gives you a chance to tell us about the hippies and the hitchhikers during 1969. Easy’s neighbor is a marijuana grower. And you incorporate the vestiges of the Vietnam War in this novel. What was important for you to convey about this point in history and politics to your readers?
Mosley: I’m not sure that I have any kind of point. It’s not like I need somebody to read it and to think what I want them to think. I just want them to experience what’s going on. Easy has an office, he has a couple of partners. He’s a real detective with a license. When he looks out the back window, he sees these hippies that have rented a house and they’re growing marijuana in a greenhouse in the backyard. But he also sees down the block that there are police watching these hippies. It’s just what’s happening. There are the hippies who are growing the dope. There are the police, who are trying to dress like hippies, but they still have black shoes and white socks. It’s that story that I’m trying to tell, I’m trying to show it’s what LA was like. It was what America was like.
I want you to read it, and I want you to experience it, I want you to feel it, but I don’t know what I want you to think. That doesn’t really matter to me. What matters to me is that they can identify with these characters, they can see these characters. No matter who you are, if you see Easy’s life or you see Jackson Blue’s life, you see something human, and something painful.
I’ve been writing recently about another character who says, “I realize that nothing that comes from your heart is made up. It’s not make-believe. It’s real. What you feel is for real.” That’s what I’d like people to know about these characters.
Joshi: And we do experience Easy’s world with him. You show it to us without proselytizing. You don’t have an agenda. Easy has a decision to make when Milo shows up: does he expose his adopted daughter to this man who might want to take her away from him? Or does he incorporate Milo into their lives? Milo is really Feather’s blood relative, and Easy is not. I think that you really did a beautiful job of conveying what family can become and what family is. Talk a little bit about what family means to you.
Mosley: It’s an interesting moment where Easy understands something that many parents don’t. Easy says, “I love my daughter a little too much. I’m trying to protect her from her own feelings. I’m trying to protect her from this larger world. And that, it’s not right.” Milo is like 18, 19, something like that. He’s hitchhiked across the country because he’s heard that he has a niece. His sister, whom his father murdered, had a child. And Milo wants to know her. Easy can’t just reject that. There may be legal reasons that he can’t reject it, but what’s most important is that he can’t do it, because it’s not right.
Milo is ignorant of who he is. He has a Black niece. She doesn’t live in the same world that he lives in. Easy tries to explain that to him and might be pretty good at explaining. What he’s doing ultimately is giving the kid a chance to be right by Easy, by his daughter. This is the kind of problem that all parents have. Some of them don’t completely solve it, but you have got to let your kids live. You’ve got to let them breathe.
Feather’s smarter than Easy. She understands how the world works in a better way, and she helps him understand it. She’s like: “No, Dad, you can’t do that. You have to ease up.” When Easy gets all upset and he’s screaming at her, she’ll say, “Dad, how was your day?” Because she knows something happened.
Joshi: I love that, because what you’re saying is parents learn from their children just as children learn from their parents.
Mosley: Right. And they don’t know it. I mean, maybe they don’t know it on either side, but it’s always true. Because you’re trying to do something that you haven’t done before. And even if you have done it before, you haven’t done it with this child. This is a different child with a different personality and a different way of seeing the world.
Joshi: There’s a passage in which Easy tries to explain to Milo the difference between the two of them. Milo’s thinking: “Hey, it’s 1969, we’re over racism and we’re all equal now, right?” And Easy says that if Milo were to cut his hair and put himself in a business suit, how he would be treated in a job interview versus how Easy would be treated. Is there anything you want to say about that or how that came to you in the writing?
Mosley: Milo is an interesting guy. He’s young, he’s inexperienced. He’s trying to make a place for himself in the world. But he’s incredibly arrogant, because he’s been raised in a world that says, “You are special.” Indeed, he is special in that world. But he doesn’t understand what it means. Easy tells him, “Look, we’re both standing across this water, there’s sharks in the water. I can’t get in it. You can’t get in it. It looks like we’re in the same place, but I’m on an island and you’re on a peninsula. Whenever you want, you can just walk up to the end of that peninsula and enjoy life. Me, I just keep walking in circles, because there’s only certain places I can go and only certain things that I can do.”
That’s an important moment for Milo. To understand that Easy lives in a world that doesn’t want him doing certain things, being certain things, acting in certain ways. And the only person in Easy’s world who doesn’t think like that is Mouse. Because Mouse doesn’t care. It’s like you’re talking about the honey badger: he don’t care.
Joshi: Mouse is a sociopath.
Mosley: Yeah, but maybe he’s not crazy, because the only way to respond to that kind of limitation is to say, “Back off or die.” That’s the only thing you can say.
Joshi: You know, Walter, just a little digression. In my book, The Henna Artist, there’s a 13-year old girl who gets pregnant and so many of my readers say, “That couldn’t have happened in 1955.” I always have to say: “You’re coming from a position of privilege. You’re coming from a place where maybe that didn’t happen, or maybe it did and nobody told you about it, but it still happens all over the world today, all the time.”
Mosley: And all over America, too. People want to think that they can protect themselves. They think: that wouldn’t happen to me. Or, it might happen over there. It might happen to them. But the truth is, nobody is protected. When I lived in LA, I lived in a neighborhood that was all Black and Mexican, Hispanic. There’s the whole notion of Southern, of Catholic, of South of the border—there are all kinds of different ways of thinking. Is it a beautiful thing? Is it a tragedy? What is it? I don’t know.
Dealing with life as it happens is a very difficult thing for any member of any culture that feels that they’re special and that there are rules for the good that apply to them. Of course, that’s not true. Feather’s grandfather killed her mother. Feather’s father was trying to kill her. Jesus, Feather’s older brother, the first kid that Easy adopted, was sold for sexual favors when he was three years old.
Joshi: There are so many great Black writers today, and yet you are the first black person to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Book Foundation.
Mosley: Black man. Black women got it before.
Joshi: What does that mean to you?
Mosley: Listen, I got the award. I’m happy I got the award. I think I deserve the award. However, there are so many extraordinary writers. Amiri Baraka, one of the 20th century’s greatest American writers, was never considered. Neither was Ishmael Reed, another really extraordinary and challenging writer. There are so many who could have gotten it. I feel the loss there. But at the same time, I realize Nabokov never got it either. He was another extraordinary writer. On the one hand, I can feel happy to have known how good Baraka was. I’m always going to love him and his work, and I know how important he was. But at the same time, I can say, well, this organization should have celebrated him.
The woman who was running the National Award at that time, a black woman, she called me and said, “We want to give you this award.” She said, “A guy wrote me a letter asking why a black man had never been given Lifetime Achievement of the National Book Award?” She didn’t realize it was true. That’s how we’re all kind of bamboozled. Not only are we held back, but we’re made to believe that it makes sense we’re held back because other people around us are making it.
Joshi: When you first started writing Easy, did you ever expect him to take off and see him on the big screen and write so many novels about him?
Mosley: Well, no. My hope was that I could write a novel and get it published and people would read it. That was good enough for me then. And still today, it’s the thing that I like the most. I like writing novels and putting them out in the world. Things have changed in America. Professionally, I’m in a good place to be able to do that kind of work. I’m talking to two different platforms about which one is going to do the Easy Rawlins series. I have offers from both. It looks like we’re going to write a pilot and maybe start doing a series. I’ve been working on Snowfall. I’ve been working on a thing about Louis Armstrong with Taylor Hackford. I’m doing a movie based on The Man in My Basement. On March 11th, I have a series starring Sam Jackson about The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, a six-episode thing with Apple TV+. Things have really opened up for me, that’s really great. I’m very happy about that. But still, every morning I’m working on a novel and that’s still the happiest thing.
Alka: I love that Ezekiel Rawlins is a Black male hero. We deserve more of those. And Walter Mosley, you are a hero as well for writing these stories Thank you for being with us today and thank you for watching A Word on Words. For more of our conversation, please visit awordonwords.org. I’m Alka Joshi. Keep reading.
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