Christian Niedan’s Hollywood Interviews — Part Six: The Novelist

by: Christian Niedan

Part six of an eight part series, recounting and expanding upon an array of interviews with an assemblage of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers and cult figures. The series continues with novelist Walter Mosley…

Long before I met novelist Walter Mosley for coffee and a conversation in New York City, I was captivated by his words and the Los Angeles he portrays in his stories. My entree into Walter’s world was via private eye Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, the focal point of Mosley’s long-running series of Los Angeles-set novels, beginning with 1990’s Devil in a Blue Dress. However, I didn’t discover Mosley’s talents through his novels, but rather from the film adaptations of his crime fiction. In 1995, director/screenwriter Carl Franklin channeled Mosley’s words via Denzel Washington as Rawlins in Devil in a Blue Dress’s pitch-perfect noir film adaptation. Three years later, another of Mosley’s creations was released when he served as a screenwriter for HBO’s adaptation of his 1997 novel, Always Outnumbered Always Outgunned, directed by Michael Apted. In that adaptation, Laurence Fishburne plays a modern era ex-convict named Socrates Fortlow who spends his days rolling a shopping cart around L.A., collecting bottles and cans, and solving neighborhood problems that come his way — be it intimidating a violent thief, evicting a predatory crack addict, or helping a guilt-ridden boy who witnessed a murder. The film opens as Fortlow slowly wakes to start another day, and his elderly friend Right Burke’s narration tells us exactly what makes this ex-con so worth watching:

Burke: “Socrates Fortlow. His mother named him Socrates, because it was a wise man’s name. She couldn’t teach him how to write, but she could give him the name of someone smart. He was a violent man. He’d come up hard, but gave as good as he got. The rage he carried brought him to prison, but the Indiana Correctional Authority wasn’t able to stem his anger. Socrates was a solitary man. He kept his own company with nothing but hurt in his pockets and half-forgotten memories for family and friends.”

Coffee works wonders for interviews, since it helps make half-memories whole again and this was surely the case when I interviewed Mosley in 2012 at a Manhattan cafe for my film website, Camera In The Sun. At the time, he was editing the twelfth story in the Rawlins series, set in 1967, and titled Little Green. With caffeine fueling our discussion, Mosley reminisced about the stories revolving around Rawlins and Fortlow, and their film adaptations:

Walter Mosley: “Devil was a great movie, and it really showed Los Angeles at that time of transition in 1948. And Always Outnumbered I think was just beautiful. I love Always Outnumbered. Especially because it’s so much itself, that you really can’t compare it to another American movie. And I keep trying, but I can’t think of another movie that looks like it — or even dramatically, a movie that arcs like it. On one hand, it’s really gritty and urban. And on the other hand, it’s very romantic.”

Mosley also expounded on the different cultural sides of Los Angeles, and its portrayal within film and literature:

Walter Mosley: “One of the things that’s so interesting to me is that you have this incredible city of Los Angeles that has a deep, deep, deep Chicano history. Some of the first inhabitants of old Los Angeles were black people. And then you have Japanese, Korean, Chinese — all these people who have a deep and very important part of the history of Los Angeles, but don’t appear anywhere in the literature. And because they don’t appear in the literature, they don’t appear in movies, or they appear like caricatures.”

“Los Angeles is really well done in [Raymond] Chandler’s books, and also in the films of his books. They covered L.A. very well. The Long Goodbye is Chandler’s best book, I think. And I think later on, [James] Ellroy does a really good job, and the movies are really well done. I’m not unhappy about how L.A. is depicted as a rule, except for when it’s “white L.A.”, and so it’s a made-up L.A. It’s like these films where they say well, ‘L.A. was a white place.’ Well, no, it wasn’t a white place. It never was a white place ever. And as it grew, it grew evenly among the cultures. So you see these wonderful films, and you get a great feeling for L.A. — like Chinatown, which is just gorgeous. You get a feeling for the place that’s wonderful, but it’s not accurate. You just kind of feel bad about that. Like, ‘Come on now. This was never true.’”

Ellroy published L.A. Confidential the same year that Mosley debuted with Devil in a Blue Dress, and the former’s cultural depiction of post-war Los Angeles within a noir mystery setting makes for an intriguing comparison, which Mosley described:

Walter Mosley: “Ellroy’s a wonderful writer. And I like Ellroy, because I see us as counterparts. You know, like we’re at the opposite ends of the bookshelf. But we’re supporting all these things in between us. And the movie, L.A. Confidential is really very good. You know, it’s wild like Ellroy is wild. And that’s not me. I don’t think that way. It’s not that I’m domestic. It’s just that the wildness gets located in specific places, like [Rawlins friend] Mouse. Mouse comes from the Fifth Ward of Houston, Texas, which is really tough. You know, Mouse could be the whole landscape of Ellroy’s books. And I like to leave in just one or two of those characters.”

Even though Rawlins put Mosley on the literary map, the author had plenty of other characters to chronicle within a variety of genres and formats. By the time we spoke, it had been five years since the publication of 2007’s Blonde Faith (ending with Rawlins driving off a cliff), and Mosley was prepping the detective’s return in what would become 2013’s Little Green:

Walter Mosley: “I didn’t want to be defined by Easy Rawlins. So I needed to do some other books. And since then, I’ve published between fifteen and twenty books that are not Easy Rawlins, and I’m happy about that. I’m happy about doing the work. And also, it was getting stale. I’m editing the new book now, and really liking it, because it’s very different. He’s grown, and going through this near-death experience has really changed him. And so I’m able to talk about a new era in America, and also in his life. It wasn’t that I was always planning to get back to it, or not. It’s just that I had stopped for however long. The latest case is the Sunset Strip. Young Black man, who Mouse has some relationship to, goes up to the strip. He goes to the Strip, does some LSD — to be specific, Orange Speckled Barrel — with a young woman, and gets into trouble. And Easy first has to find him, then get him out of trouble. It takes place in 1967. And it was nice because I was a teenager then, so I kind of start remembering.”

Author’s Note (Update): Mosley published his fourteenth Rawlins mystery, Charcoal Joe in 2016. He currently works as a screenwriter for Snowfall on FX. Set in 1983 L.A., the television series follows the impact of crack cocaine on different cultures within the city. In advance of the second season premiere on July 19th 2018, Mosley was interviewed by Vulture, and described the dynamic of a TV writing team:

Walter Mosley: “When you write for television, you really are writing as a group. You’re all together working it out. Everybody’s in a room together talking about the episodes, about the season, and trying to figure out where things are going to go and how you need to get there. A lot of your time is spent on stuff that’s not writing — the planning, the structure, figuring out what’s coming up. ‘What happens next? What happens next?’ That’s the question that you constantly deal with.”


Part Seven: The Collaborator!

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