The award-winning writer discusses his recent text Charcoal Joe.
Author Walter Mosley
Tavis: Good news, great news for Walter Mosley fans. Our favorite detective, Easy Rawlins, is back. The new book from the award-winning author is called “Charcoal Joe” and is the 14th in the Easy Rawlins mystery series. Walter, as always, sir, good to see you.
Walter Mosley: You too, Tavis.
Tavis: The first thing I noticed was that Easy has cut down on his smoking.
Mosley: Yeah. One cigarette a day. You know, that’s the only good cigarette, right? The only good cigarette is the first one…
Tavis: The first one, yeah.
Mosley: And the rest of them is just compulsion. So like if you could cut it down to just one cigarette a day, I had a friend actually whose father did that. One cigarette a day. So Easy’s trying.
Tavis: I’m always fascinated about how any fiction writer’s mind works, particularly one as successful as you are. Where do you get the notion of make that part of the story? I’m gonna cut him down to one cigarette a day.
Mosley: You know, somebody was talking to me this morning. They said, “Well, how do you think about that?” I go, “I try my best not to think. The unconscious knows things that I don’t know.” So I’m writing. It was actually in the first chapter, he’s talking to his new assistant at this detective agency, Niska. She said, “How you doing?” He said, “Well, you know, I’m down to one cigarette a day.” I had no idea he was going to say that. But once he did, then I had to work it into the novel.
Tavis: All right. So without giving it away, tell me a bit about Charcoal Joe.
Mosley: Well, Charcoal Joe, you know, Easy at one point talks to John, the bartender. He says, “You ever hear of this guy, Charcoal Joe?” He said, “Well, yeah, he was Mouse before there was a Mouse.” Easy says, “Oh, you should leave him alone.”
He said, “Well, I can’t, man, ’cause Mouse told me to go to talk to him.” So he goes to him. Charcoal Joe knows a woman who has a son who’s been falsely accused of a murder and he says, “I need you to help this young man get out from under this crime.”
So Easy finds that everybody’s against him. Charcoal Joe is lying to him. The guy probably didn’t commit the murder, but the police said, “We don’t really care that he didn’t. We’re gonna convict him anyway” because, you know, he’s a Black man found with these white dead people.
So Easy has to work through it. And in this book, like I said, he started a detective agency, so he’s working with these other two guys, but also Fearless Jones is a part of the novel. So to have Fearless anywhere is always a good time.
Tavis: Whenever you say Mouse, I think Don Cheadle.
Mosley: And you got to.
Tavis: You have to. He was so amazing in that film. Don was here just not too long ago for his Miles project.
Mosley: Great movie.
Tavis: For those of us who are diehard Easy fans, why haven’t there been–“Devil in a Blue Dress” was such a great movie. Why haven’t there been more of these turned into movies?
Mosley: Oh, come on now. You know the answer to that question. You ask me a question you know the answer to?
Tavis: I want your take on it. I want your take on it.
Mosley: Well, you know, I mean, number one, it costs a lot of money to make a movie. Number two, when you talk about the unconscious, the unconscious center in America about racism is that racism is the same everywhere, and really it’s different everywhere.
So when people in Europe and Asia and India say they’re not interested in a movie about the hood, distributors in America say, “Oh, people in the rest of the world don’t want to see movies about Black people.” They say, “Well, no, they don’t want to see movies about the hood.”
But there’s all kinds of other movies that could be made, so whenever I say, well, I want to do this movie, somebody comes up to me and says, “Well, you know, we can’t sell it in England.” I say, “Well, the English came up to me last month and said can we make an Easy Rawlins movie, so how can that be true?” They just don’t talk about it.
Tavis: It’s that global box office they think that Easy can’t pull.
Mosley: Yeah, but it’s a very local notion imposed on a global stage. So that’s one thing. You know, I mean, I’m not that unhappy about it because movies are actually kind of less interesting nowadays than television.
I’m trying really hard to do a TV series, yeah. The guy, Josh Boone, who did “The Fault in Our Stars”, wants to do a television show with that. He’s real hot right now and he has great ideas, so maybe we’re going to do that, yeah.
Tavis: What’s been the joy for you in all of these Easy novels for writing, one, in that time period and, two, in this locale?
Mosley: Well, one, in those time periods starting in ’48 now to ’68 and, two, L.A., well, you know, the only way anyone exists, any culture exists, is if they’re in the literature. If you don’t exist in the literature, you don’t exist. People write history books, but nobody reads them. So that’s nothing.
Music doesn’t hold it, film doesn’t hold it. The only thing you can do is be in literature and I decided a long time that I wanted to kind of write about at least a part of the history of African Americans and others, you know, Japanese, Mexican Americans, in Los Angeles.
I wanted them to be in books, so I came up with these characters, you know, Easy and Mouse and Jackson Blue, Etta Mae, Jesus and Feather, all these characters who I think speak to the multi-generational and multi-racial history of Los Angeles.
So, you know, when I start talking Easy, when I start talking Miles, when I start talking Jackson Blue, all these people, I get excited because I remember these people, not them exactly, but the voices that echo them.
Tavis: I wonder how important escapism is in the culture right now? How much do we need this kind of literature if for nothing else for the escapism that it allows us from the world that we live in which can be ugly and dangerous and brutal and racist , etc., etc., etc. at times?
Mosley: Well, I think it’s an interesting question because what it is is I’m escaping to myself. Like when I first started writing, when I wrote “Gone Fishin'”, the first book that I did with Paul Coates …
Tavis: Ta-Nehisi’s daddy.
Mosley: Yeah, Ta-Nehisi’s father, the original Black Panther.
Tavis: The original Black Panther, yeah [laugh]. Everybody knows Ta-Nehisi. He has a father named Paul who’s a pretty amazing guy, but go ahead. I’m sorry .
Mosley: So when I wrote that book, you know, the first time I sent it up, people said, well, white people don’t read about Black people, Black women don’t like Black men and Black men don’t read. It was an interesting notion.
It wasn’t true, but there was a little part that’s true because most Black men who were reading a lot were reading nonfiction because they were misrepresented or not represented at all in fiction. So when I read a book like this, “Black Men And Those Who Love Them”, pick up these books and read it and it’s an escape in a way, but it’s an escape to the truth.
This is something that I’ve experienced. This is a way that I talk. This is who my grandfather was and my father was. This is who I am, you know. Oh, yeah, I know Mouse, that kind of stuff. So it’s an escape, but it’s not an escape to some kind of fantasy place. It’s an escape to a kind of reality that makes you smile.
Tavis: I did a piece for a prime time special for PBS a while ago called “Too Important to Fail”. The banks were too big to fail. This special was called “Too Important to Fail” and it was a special about the plight of young Black boys, that they are too important to fail and we got to start taking their plight a great deal more seriously.
I learned in the research and the doing of that documentary special for the network that, if Black boys don’t develop a love of reading by the third grade, it’s over for them. And most of them don’t develop a love of reading by the third grade because, to your brilliant point, they don’t see themselves in the narrative.
Tavis: I raise that to ask how important is it that we somehow start to figure that out because so much of what puts Black boys again on the wrong path where they can’t end up living lives like Easy does where he’s making some sort of meaningful contribution because they didn’t develop a love of reading early on because they just didn’t see themselves in the story line.
Mosley: I think it’s true. I think that people, when you don’t read, your life is more limited. I mean, that’s true for everybody. And there are two things. Number one, you have to see yourself in the literature. You have to understand yourself, but that’s a very broad palette there.
Very often when I go on tours and I’m talking to people, people come up to me and say, “Well, how can I get my children to read?” I say, “Well, do you read?” They go, “I’m not talking about me.”
I say, “Yeah, but your kids are talking about you. If you read, then the kid is going to be watching you thinking, wow, that’s important because my mother is doing that. ” And if it goes further where you actually talk to them about it, even if there are no Black characters in what they’re reading, they’re in it because their parents are in it.
So I think that, yeah, one thing is the literature itself needs to exist for young people to be reading, but also we learn who we are from our parents. That’s just a fact, you know. If you’re like three years old and your father is reading stories to you, you can hardly wait to get in that book to do the amazing magic that he’s doing, you know.
Tavis: I asked you earlier in this conversation what the joy was all these years later of writing about this time period in Los Angeles with a character like Easy. I want to ask now how it is that you became committed to doing what you have done? You say, here’s what I wanted to do, and you did it. But where did the commitment to do that, to do this, come from?
Mosley: Well, you know, I honestly don’t know. I mean, I didn’t start writing until I was in my 30s, you know. And when I did, I just said, wow, this is it. This is what I was meant to be doing. I don’t want to do anything else. I don’t need to be a basketball player. I don’t need to be a rock star. I’m writing these books. This is a great thing. I just loved it. So I think that that’s one thing.
Also, I have a deep commitment to telling the story like from our point of view. Who are we? What are we doing? Where do we come from? How many places do we exist that nobody knows that we exist, that we don’t know that we exist? So to tell those stories is so kind of wonderful and exciting and it blossoms out over the whole world really.
Tavis: Here’s my exit question. I know what your fans, what we think, what your other fans think of this series, this 14th one now, “Charcoal Joe”. When you look back on the series, is there an over-arching theme or feeling or takeaway for you from being able to do this 14 times?
Mosley: Other than the fact that writing about a Black male hero, which is something that I think is important because, I mean, really, when you look at it, in the whole history of literature in the west, there are hardly any Black male heroes.
There’s a whole bunch of protagonists. You know, you got people like Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison and even Himes to some degree, but you don’t have a lot of people like Langston Hughes, for instance, talking about Simple.
And me, we’re talking about Easy and Mouse and Socrates and Fearless, just Black men who like not only are saying something to you, but you want to know them. You want to be them. You want them to be either your lover or your friend or your protector, you know.
When Mouse says, “Well, listen, if the IRS man come around, I just kill him. Somebody cause a problem, I burn down the IRS building. Your records be gone.” Like everybody wants that, Black or white, you know.
So I think to create those heroes, because there’s a fear of Black masculinity really, I mean, it’s not just Black men. It’s Black masculinity. There’s a fear of Black masculinity in America and it’s really ancient. It’s in our unconscious . So it exists for everybody, including Black people. My ideas, I need to break through out. I need to create these heroes because they exist.
Tavis: First of all, I want to say thank you for writing about Black male heroes. And secondly, I want to tell you that his latest novel that does that, celebrates a Black male hero, is called “Charcoal Joe”, an Easy Rawlins mystery. It’s number 14 from Walter Mosley, who I want to congratulate also for that Grand Master Award.
Mosley: Oh, yes, I got the Grand Master Award. It’s a wonderful thing. But, you know, like everything that happens in America, the Grand Master Award is the top award for a crime writer in English, anywhere. And I got it and I’m really happy. It’s been given since 1955 and, sadly, I’m the first person of color ever to have it. I was talking to a friend. He said, “Well, you know, there’s no other Black mystery writer ever did it.”
I said, “Well, there’s Chester Himes, there’s Donald Goines, there’s Iceberg Slim, there’s Ishmael Reed who’s still alive. All those people, they were never in the running. But, you know, like Goines sold more books than Spillane, you know. Iceberg Slim, like he opened up all kinds of doors. And really, Chester Himes, in my opinion, is a better writer than Ralph Ellison. So I mean, hey…
Tavis: Barroom brawl.
Mosley: Yeah, let somebody get in a fight with me now. Stanley Cross is gonna swing at me now.
Tavis: Yeah, barroom brawl on that one. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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