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Author Walter Mosley on Writing Mystery Novels, Political Revelation, Racism and Pushing Obama

StoryFebruary 27, 2012
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Today in a Black History Month special, we spend the hour with the award-winning author Walter Mosley, who many people were introduced to when Bill Clinton praised his book while running for president. Mosley has published 37 books, including a series of bestselling mysteries featuring the private investigator Easy Rawlins. The first novel in this series, set in 1948 and called “Devil in a Blue Dress,” was made into a film starring Denzel Washington. Mosley has been hailed for his use of the popular detective novel as a vehicle for confronting racism across multiple decades. “When I started writing Easy Rawlins … I was trying to talk about my father’s generation, black men and women who moved from the deep South to different parts of the world,” Mosley says. “Here’s these wonderful stories about these people who have moved here and who make a big difference here. Let’s include them in the literature.” Mosley’s latest novel, “All I Did Was Shoot My Man,” follows the modern-day private eye Leonid McGill as he navigates a world filled with corporate wealth, armed assassins and family drama. His writing has spanned many genres, from young adult to science fiction, but he is less known for his non-fiction works that address the pressing political issues of our time. Mosley’s most recent work of non-fiction, “Twelve Steps Toward Political Revelation,” starts on a deeply personal note, then expands to a call of action for people to organize against wealth inequality. Regarding his continued support of President Barack Obama, Mosley notes, “We can’t blame a guy who, you know, got elected, and he’s sitting there alone in the White House… I agree, he has a lot of power, but he doesn’t have enough power without us.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, in a Black History Month special, we spend the hour with the award-winning author Walter Mosley. He has published 37 books, though written many others, including a series of bestselling mysteries featuring the private investigator Easy Rawlins. The first novel in this series, set in 1948, called Devil in a Blue Dress, was made into a film starring Denzel Washington.

Mosley has been hailed for his use of the popular detective novel as a vehicle for confronting racism across multiple decades. But he is less known for his non-fiction works that address the pressing political issues of our time. He wrote What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace, covering the U.S. war on terror for an African-American audience.

Mosley’s writing has spanned many genres, from young adult to science fiction. He has written for TV, for theater and film. His honors include an O. Henry Award, a Grammy and PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Walter Mosley’s latest novel, All I Did Was Shoot My Man, follows the modern-day private eye Leonid McGill as he navigates a world filled with corporate wealth, armed assassins and family drama.

Last week I sat down with Walter Mosley and began by asking him to talk about his most recent work of nonfiction, Twelve Steps Toward Political Revelation. The book starts on a deeply personal note, then expands to a call of action for people to organize against wealth inequality.

WALTER MOSLEY: You know, I think that people are addicted to their own oppressor like people are addicted to alcohol or tobacco or opium or whatever. It’s the same kind of thing. And how do you wean yourself off of something that’s so deleterious to your emotional, physical and spiritual health?

AMY GOODMAN: So how do you wean yourself off it?

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know, the book is an—for me, it was interesting to—when I put it together. I give 12 steps. You know, I talk about education. I talk about understanding what cost is. You know, I try to talk about all the various things. I talk about psychoanalysis. But I don’t do it to say, “Well, you need to do these things.” What I do say is, “Well, you need to think about these things and see if they’re your steps. If the issues I’m bringing up make sense, and if they’re your steps, well, take them. And if they’re not your steps, well, then you need to come up with your steps and make those.” I mean, it’s just—it’s a monograph, so what I want to do is open a discussion. I don’t want to, you know, start telling people this is how the world is structured. But I’ll say, “Well, let’s talk,” because I think that’s the biggest problem we have: people don’t talk.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell me the joke you told me just before we went on air.

WALTER MOSLEY: Oh, it was a joke I saw on a documentary at Sundance a few years ago. A guy who works on this ship, this luxury ship in China, goes down the river saying that there’s a limousine driving down the highway. The president of the United States, the premier of China are in the back seat. They get to a fork in the road: to the left is socialism, to the right is capitalism. The driver says, “Which way should I go?” The American president says immediately, “To the right, capitalism.” And the Chinese premier takes more time. He looks, he thinks, he considers. He says, “Yes, that is the right direction. But put on the left blinker.” And I thought it was a wonderful joke, and it’s, you know—

AMY GOODMAN: Is President Obama the left blinker?

WALTER MOSLEY: You know, that could—you know, I don’t—well, that’s an interesting question, because I think that a lot of people think so, that—and also, they think he intends to turn to the left. I don’t—I don’t think that he has a left blinker on, and I don’t think he intends to turn to the left. I think, you know, he’s the American president. He’s saying, “Let’s go to the right.” But a lot of people—I know when I was in Arizona, there was a lot of, you know, “Commissar Obama, premier of the U.S.S.A.” you know, kind of bumper stickers on cars and stuff. You know, he’s a very middle-of-the-road guy, does middle-of-the-road things, you know? I mean, you could only elect a president like that. I mean, I would want to elect somebody who’s much more to the left, but that’s not going to happen in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Twelve steps to recovery, the idea of your book, Twelve Steps Toward Political Revelation, that’s a metaphor in your own life that’s been very important. You talk about your addiction to—

WALTER MOSLEY: Yeah, well—yeah, I was really like an alcoholic, and I—you know, I guess there’s no word somebody who’s addicted to cigarettes, but yeah, I smoked all the time and drank all the time. And I realized that I was like kind of killing myself with that involvement and that I had to stop or I was going to die. I realized that, you know, the connection is that we’re addicted to these habits that we have—the way that we think, the things that we do, what we’re relying upon, you know, like cars or fast food or whatever it is, and that it’s better to look at our relationship to the government and to the society as an addiction, because that’s truly what it is. And if we can pull ourselves away from that, if we can take a couple of steps back and wean ourselves from things that we think are necessary, and that aren’t, then we can begin to make changes in our life and also in this, you know, crazy world that we’re living in.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your latest novel, All I Did Was Shoot My Man.

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know, the Leonid McGill series is interesting. The Easy Rawlins, when I started writing Easy Rawlins, which is the first character I ever really wrote about, I was trying to talk about my father’s generation, you know, black men and women who moved from the deep South to different parts of the world, but this is to California, who have made a big impact but weren’t part of the literature. I just wanted to say, well, here’s these wonderful stories about these people who have moved here and who make a big difference here. Let’s include them in the literature. And I wrote about that for a long time, and I intend to write another Easy novel next year. But the—

AMY GOODMAN: So he’s not dead.

WALTER MOSLEY: No, he’s not dead. But the problem is that it—we moved into the 21st century. My understanding of the 21st century is this. In the 20th century, I go to Detroit, and I see a young black man. I say, “What’s happening, man?” And he says, “Well, you know, it’s hard on a brother in Detroit.” And I say, “Hey, I know what you’re talking about.” In the 21st century, I go to Detroit, see a young black man. I say, “Well, how’s it going?” He says, “Well, you know, it’s hard on a brother in Detroit.” And I say, “Hey, I know what you’re talking about. But you know something, man. There’s somebody in Kandahar right now who will be happy to do an apartment swap with either one of us.” Right? We’re in an international world. We’ve entered the international arena, where we were kind of isolationists, 20th century and before, you know, every time we go out and fight a war. But now we’re actually really involved, really dependent upon the rest of the world.

Leonid is a guy who, in the 20th century, committed all these crimes. He was a criminal. He did all these awful things. And now, in the 21st century, he realized that he was wrong, and now he’s trying to do what’s right. And doing what’s right is incredibly difficult for him, you know, because he’s—everybody knows him as this bad guy—the police, the criminals, everybody else. And also, everything he knows has to do with this criminal life he lived. And so, for me, it’s an incredibly political novel, though I never overtly talk about politics at all. I just talk about this guy who was one way in the 20th century, and he’s another way in the 21st.

AMY GOODMAN: So you don’t talk about politics. Leonid McGill, how did you get his name?

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know, his father was an anarchist, who mistakenly thought he was a communist, who was involved in—you know, in all kinds of political movements. He goes down to South America to fight in the revolution and never comes back. Leonid’s mother, you know, trained Leonid at home 'til he age of 12. You know, at the age of 12, he's reading Hegel. You know, he’s reading Emma Goldman. And he knows that stuff. He knows it even still today. But his mother dies. His father is gone. He lives on the street. He becomes a criminal. He uses this knowledge to inform his criminal life, rather than to inform any kind of political life.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you get the title, All I Did Was Shoot My Man?

WALTER MOSLEY: Oh, I took—you know, all that thing, you know. One of the most interesting things in—that you can do in literature, I find, in America today is just turn sexism around, and works perfectly fine. You know, there’s the blues song from the mid-'20s—the mid-20th century. “They have me here in Clarksville Jail. All I did was shoot my wife.” You know, you can't use that title. But I just turned it around: All I Did Was Shoot My Man. It works perfectly.

AMY GOODMAN: Award-winning author Walter Mosley. His latest novel, All I Did Was Shoot My Man. When we come back, Walter Mosley, the son of an African-American father and Jewish mother, talks about his upbringing and also growing up in Watts in Los Angeles. This is Democracy Now! Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return now to my conversation with the award-winning author Walter Mosley. His honors include an O. Henry Award, a Grammy and PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The son of an African-American father from the South and a Jewish mother, Mosley talks about his upbringing.

WALTER MOSLEY: My father’s a black man from southern Louisiana. He lost his father when he was eight years old. His mother died when he was seven. He was on his own, on his own from the age of eight, and lived a very difficult life. And even when life got better for him and he made it, it was still difficult. My mother is a Jew from New York, who—you know, whose family came from Russia originally, at the very beginning of the century. She was very, you know, political, very much of the left.

They got married when—you know, in the middle of the century, in 1950, I guess. And they got together then, anyway, got married later. But their—they had a very, you know, tight life together, you know, but informed by the insanities.

AMY GOODMAN: How did they meet?

WALTER MOSLEY: They both worked in a school. My mother had been married to a very rich man and decided to leave him. And so, when she left him, she got a job as a clerk in a school, and my father was a janitor in the same school. They met. That was it. They were together.

AMY GOODMAN: That was history. And—

WALTER MOSLEY: Yeah, and in itself—

AMY GOODMAN: There you were.

WALTER MOSLEY: —much like my writing, it’s very political, but it wasn’t. It was just—it was just their lives. You know, one of the interesting things you find about writing fiction is that any fiction you write has to be political. Otherwise, it goes into the realm of fantasy. So like, if you write about a woman in America in 1910, if you don’t write that she can’t really control her property, that she can’t—doesn’t have any say over her children, that she can’t vote—if you don’t put that in it, then it’s a fantasy. Like, well, how is her life informed? That’s true about everybody. If you write about black people, you write about white men, I mean, it has to be political. A lot of people don’t realize that, it seems.

AMY GOODMAN: You write in The Nation magazine about being black and Jewish. Where was it that you were asked to sum up your life in five words? Or was it seven?

WALTER MOSLEY: They wanted me to talk about being Jewish, and, you know, kind of put that thing together being black and Jewish. One of the funny things about being black and Jewish, people are always saying, “Well, what does it feel like being both African American and Caucasian, white?” And I go, “No, I’m not white. I’ve got a black father and a Jewish mother. There’s no white in that.” You know, but people are actually thinking that features define race, when they don’t. History defines race. And a particular interpretation of history defines race, because, you know, we’re all mixed race in America, but no one admits it, for some reason.

AMY GOODMAN: You wrote, “Black, Jew. Both outsiders, even here.”

WALTER MOSLEY: Yeah, yeah. And that had a lot of meanings: even here in America, even here at the 92nd Street Y, you know, anywhere that you find yourself, that you’re just kind of pressed out. But that’s OK, because, you know, the outsider, like in 12 steps, gets the ability to step back and take a look. And if you really look, you begin to understand things. Like, so when people ask me, they say, “Well, how come blacks and Jews don’t get along? Why are they fighting?” I say, “I don’t know about what you’re saying.” A woman asked me that on this radio once, and I went, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, because I’m the—I’m the product of the relationship between blacks and Jews.”

AMY GOODMAN: One of your books, What Next: A Memoir Toward World Peace.

WALTER MOSLEY: Yeah, I wrote that, published that with Black Classic Press, Paul Coates, a wonderful guy, wonderful guy.

AMY GOODMAN: Black Classic Press, Baltimore?

WALTER MOSLEY: Yeah, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that for a minute, before we talk about the book, the publishing of the book and why you went with an independent black press.

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know, one of the things—you know, there’s a lot of ways that one can complain about capitalism. But indeed, as long as you have printed money, you’re going to have capitalism, to one degree or another. So at some point or another, you have to worry about what your involvement is. When I publish a book with a mainstream press, they make, you know, anywhere between 80 and 90 percent of the profit from that book, you know. And then—and they share that with other, you know, in quotes, “white” institutions. So, but if I gave it to a black press, the book being sold would make money for that press and in that community. And so, I would be helping by working there. So every once in a while, I publish a book with Paul at Black Classic Press, and it’s kind of a wonderful thing.

But I wrote the book—you know, I wrote the book because, you know, I was listening to America, you know, lying. And they said, “We’re going to have a war on terrorism, and we’re going to kill all terrorists.” OK, fine, look, what I said in the book, I said, “I accept that.” I accept it. You say you’re going to kill all terrorists, fine. But then you have to kill all terrorists. You have to kill the people who are terrorists in the Middle East. You also have to kill the people who are terrorists at the Pentagon. You have to kill people who are your allies who are terrorists, like in Cuba, and you have to, you know, kill other terrorists. OK, if you agree to kill all terrorists, fine. But if you just—if it’s just the people you don’t like that you’re killing, and then you’re calling them terrorists, then I have a much bigger problem with that, because we’re not doing what we’re saying. And if we don’t do what we say, there’s no way for us to move forward. If we’re lying about our actions, there’s no way to move forward. If we recognize our actions, we might say, “Well, maybe we don’t want to do that.” We wouldn’t want to kill our terrorists in the Pentagon. So, well, then there must be another answer. So, you know, it was just a thing. I was happy about that book, because it came out the day we invaded Iraq, which was like, you know, the second time. And I was very, very pleased about it. But, you know, I couldn’t get any traction, because the argument actually made so much sense that nobody in Bush’s White House even ever mentioned it.

AMY GOODMAN: You were also addressing it to the African-American community—

WALTER MOSLEY: Absolutely, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: —the U.S. war on terror.

WALTER MOSLEY: And I think that a lot of people understood it. A lot of African Americans are in the Army, of course, and didn’t understand it. But a lot did, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about your father’s experiences in World War II.

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know, my—you know, I don’t know. That’s such a broad term. You don’t want to make that any more specific, do you? It’s like, my father, you know, he never wanted to go to the war. He didn’t really feel that he was representative of America, and that even that he wasn’t American. And one of the things that he thought, he told me. I said, “Dad, were you afraid when you went to World War II, the biggest war in the history of the world?” And he goes, “No, not really.” And I said, “Why not?” He said, “Well, you know, I thought it was the Germans against the Americans.” And I said, “Well, it was.” He said, “Yeah, but I didn’t realize that I was an American.” He said, “The first day I ever truly realized that I was an American was when the Germans started shooting at me.” You know? And that realization wasn’t just my father; it was all African Americans. And the idea of equality and liberation comes from that experience and talking to people who had that experience. I think that was my father’s biggest thing, was World War II.

AMY GOODMAN: And he served in a segregated unit.

WALTER MOSLEY: Oh, of course, yeah. I mean, everybody served in a segregated unit, except at the very, very end of that war. But another kind of like side story, which is, like, very interesting, he went over with like 30 guys. Twenty-five of those guys came back. But everybody he was friends with in Fifth Ward, Houston, Texas, were dead. See, everybody had been killed, like—

AMY GOODMAN: When he came home.

WALTER MOSLEY: Yeah. It was safer for my father in the middle of World War II than it was for him back home in Texas. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to the writer Walter Mosley. I want to turn to a clip from the 1995 film, Devil in a Blue Dress, which is based on your novel—


AMY GOODMAN: —of the same name. The film stars Denzel Washington, playing your notorious protagonist, private investigator Easy Rawlins. In this clip, a bar owner named Joppy introduces Rawlins to a man named Albright.

DeWITT ALBRIGHT: So I hear you need a job.

JOPPY: Oh, yeah. Easy always trying to do better. He’s one of the few colored men around here who own his own house. Shoot, he’s paying the mortgage every month, just like y’all folks.

DeWITT ALBRIGHT: Property owner, huh? These big companies don’t give a damn, do they, Easy? Got out of that racket a long time ago. Look, if you do need a job, you drop by this address, 7:00, tonight.

EASY RAWLINS: What kind of work you do?

DeWITT ALBRIGHT: I do favors. I do favors for friends. Drop by.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip from Devil in a Blue Dress, where Easy Rawlins meets the man who introduces him to a world of crime and mystery. Elaborate on this.

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know, in that book, DeWitt Albright represents whiteness. And for Easy, this is two things. It’s something that’s very threatening and very dangerous, but also it’s something that he has to accept and deal with to work his way out of trouble. Now, there’s very specific troubles that he’s having right then, but it’s a larger thing. And in getting involved in that, he begins to understand his equality. And this is really very much an African-American experience in the middle of the 20th century: people beginning slowly to understand and to be able to express who they are in a world that doesn’t want to accept them. You know, for Easy, you know, it’s crime and people getting killed, and people avoiding who they are, people being kidnapped, all kinds of stuff. But you could break it down to like, when my father was a janitor at a school in Los Angeles, they got a nickel-an-hour raise at one point.

AMY GOODMAN: You grew up in Watts.

WALTER MOSLEY: I grew up in Watts, yeah. And the boss is a white guy, and everybody else is black. The boss, a white guy, says, “Well, the board has decided to give you this raise. And this means that you have to work harder, because they’re paying you better.” And my father says, “Excuse me, sir. They gave me a raise because that’s what I’m worth. They gave me a raise because my labor is worth that to them. I don’t have to work any harder.” But this is a moment of real realization for him. And my father, telling me story, saying, you know, it’s like, “I was courageous then, because that man hated me from then on. You know, my ability to grow was limited by my expression of who I was. But my expression of who I was opened doors that accepting it never would.”

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the '50s in Los Angeles. It's also the setting for the film.

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, L.A. is such an interesting place, because, you know, in the '50s in L.A., from a racial point of view, there were only two races: white people and everybody else. You know, before the riots of the mid-'60s, people of color identified with each other, at least on the West Coast, where I was. And so, and because you had a city that was growing 100,000 people a year, every year, from 1945 'til the present, you're always building—new highways, new sidewalks, new shopping centers, new houses. And you didn’t have, like you had in the South and the East, the issue of, “Well, we’re not growing that much, so we’re only going to hire our white friends.” They had to hire everybody. And so, we were very much thrown together. The working class is very much thrown together and understands each other in ways that I don’t think existed anywhere else in the country. You didn’t have any other place—until later, Las Vegas—growing that quickly. And so, if like a white guy said, “Well, I don’t want to work with these people,” you just said, “Well, OK, fine. Don’t work. But we’re hiring all the black people and the Mexicans that come to us, because we need to build this road now. We have an issue.” And that made a kind of equality in a place that didn’t exist anywhere else. And it’s not that it was completely equal, but it gestured in that direction.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the ’65 riots in L.A. to—what were you, like—


AMY GOODMAN: Thirteen.

WALTER MOSLEY: Yeah, I was 13 years old. Well, you know, there are a couple of stories to tell about. Number one, I was in a group called the Afro-American Traveling Actors Association. And, you know, the play—our play was playing on Santa Barbara, now Martin Luther King, that night. And so, you know, we went down to perform, but there was a riot going on, so nobody came to our play. And when we drove back, because, you know, it was an inter-racial cast, the white people all had to lie on the floor, you know, and I was a little kid watching the riots happen outside the window. I thought it was a—it was really a very interesting and worried time.

I got home, and my father was drinking and almost crying. And I said, “Dad, what’s wrong?” He said, “You know, the people are out there. They’re fighting. They’re shooting. They’re burning places down.” And he says, “Walter, I want to be with them, because I understand that rage. But I can’t go, because I know it’s wrong.” You know, the individual actions are wrong, you know.

And I—my feelings from the riots were so strong after that, because, you know, what you did was you saw a group of angry people who actually changed all of America in one action. You know, like before that day—and in a couple of other places—before that day, everybody thought that the civil rights movement was a peaceful, nonviolent, marching, getting beaten and bitten movement, you know? And then the question comes out after that, that says, “Well, these people are very angry. How many black people feel like that?” And he goes, “99 out of 100 black people feel like that. And the last 1 percent is really angry.” You know? And so, that was a—so, and again, you know, like so much political and social change comes out of California, that was one of the big things that came out of California.

AMY GOODMAN: What was your mother’s reaction to the riots?

WALTER MOSLEY: You know, my mother just accepted it. She was worried, you know, that—you know, about our house, about the neighborhood, about our friends in the neighborhood. But, you know, she was a communist from New York. You know, she understood the moment of revolution and really didn’t even talk about it very much.

AMY GOODMAN: So now I want to move forward to the 1998 film, Always Outnumbered


AMY GOODMAN: —which is based on your novel, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned


AMY GOODMAN: —and for which you actually wrote the screenplay.


AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another clip, this one from 1998, the film Always Outnumbered, which is based on Walter Mosley’s novel, Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned. He actually wrote the screenplay for this one, in addition to writing the book. In this scene, the main character, Socrates Fortlow, goes to a supermarket to apply for a job.

ANTON CRIER: Can I help you?

SOCRATES FORTLOW: I came for an application.

ANTON CRIER: An application for what?


ANTON CRIER: Oh. How old are you, sir?

SOCRATES FORTLOW: That’s against the law.


SOCRATES FORTLOW: Asking my age. You can’t discriminate against color or sex or religion or infirmity or against age. That’s the law.

ANTON CRIER: I know that. I’m not discriminating. There’s just no jobs. Why—why don’t you come back in the fall, when the kids are all in school?

SOCRATES FORTLOW: Hey, hold on. I came for an application.

ANTON CRIER: I told you, we don’t—

SOCRATES FORTLOW: It don’t matter. You’ve got to give me an application regardless. That’s the law, too.

ANTON CRIER: Wait here.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s from Always Outnumbered, the film that’s based on Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, and Walter Mosley wrote the screenplay for that. Tell us about Socrates.

WALTER MOSLEY: You know, for me, it was an interesting thing. I was at a publisher, and they had sent me on a tour. They said, “Well, you’re black, and you’re Jewish, so we’re going to send you on a tour of Southern Jewish book festivals.” I was like, “Great, that’s wonderful,” you know? I know I’ll sell a lot of books, and so I went. But one thing happened. At every festival, I would run across three little old ladies. They were different, but they were the same. And they would always say, “But where does Easy’s reading happen?” because Easy reads all this—you know, all this stuff from all over the place. And I said, “Well, you know, black people read.” And they said, “No, no, no. That’s your Jewish side.” And it was—here’s the thing. I said, so, like—if you’re going to be—and I said, “But black people think, you know?” But they wouldn’t listen, because they knew who my mother was.

And so, I decided I was going to write a black philosopher who these three ladies wouldn’t appropriate. And, you know, I went through a lot of things. And, you know, he’s a guy. He’s murdered some people. He was really a criminal. He got out of prison. And now he’s trying to make a life for himself. And it’s that guy’s life which is the most interesting. I mean, you know, my problem is a lot of people will talk about, you know, the Obama, you know, presidency and stuff like that. Once he got elected, that was fine with me. He didn’t have to do anything else. But the thing that upsets me the most that isn’t being done is, you know, black men and women, women of color, and poor whites, who are in prison, you know, basically because they’re uneducated and were unable to work their way out of a life of crime. And here’s a man who’s actually working his way out, and then, once he gets out, he doesn’t leave. He starts to get together a group of people and says, “Well, let’s ask—let’s figure out how this works, how our life works, because if we don’t figure that out, we’re never going to be able to change.”

AMY GOODMAN: Award-winning author Walter Mosley. His latest novel, All I Did Was Shoot My Man. His latest non-fiction book is Twelve Steps [Toward] Political Revelation. When we come back, we’ll talk about one of his biggest fans, former President Bill Clinton. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue our Black History Month special with Walter Mosley, the award-winning author.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Walter Mosley. There’s an article from 2006—


AMY GOODMAN: —called “Walter Mosley on a New Black Power.” And it begins: “Most black Americans have been Democrats for at least the fifty-three years that I’ve been alive. What have the Democrats done for us in all that time? We have the lowest average income of any large racial group in the nation. We’re incarcerated at an alarmingly high rate. We are still segregated and profiled.”

WALTER MOSLEY: Mm-hmm, yeah. Well, that was—that was the beginning of a long arc of thought for me. At that time, I was saying, well, we should just have a black party and get all these black people together and tell whoever’s running for office what we want. And you say, “You get our vote, and we’ll be an interest group, rather than, you know, a Democrat or a Republican.” But later on, as I worked on it, I kept thinking, well, really, the problem with America is its inaccurate interpretation of democracy. We go out and say, well, you vote, and then things happen, you know?

And so, later on, I actually wrote a book that I haven’t published. I just give it to people. It’s called Making Democracy in America, in which you get people to vote blind, meaning to say, vote for what’s good for you, never for things you don’t like. And in order to—if you could get people to do that, everybody in America thinks the same thing, because everybody in America is in the working class. Everybody in America wants a living wage, wants to retire comfortably, wants education for their children. You know, if you only voted for the things that were important to you, we would all vote together. And that’s what democracy is about. It’s not whether I like you or not, or I agree with your lifestyle or not. It’s what’s important for me in my life. And so, I’ve been trying to work out a way to create a blind democracy, completely ignoring the—you know, basically, the self-interests, corporations of the Democrats and the Republicans.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s stay on electoral politics. You recently wrote a piece, an opinion piece, for CNN called “'Food Stamp President': Gingrich’s Poetry of Hate.” I want to play a clip from the January Republican debate, when Fox News moderator Juan Williams questioned Newt Gingrich about his food stamp comment.

JUAN WILLIAMS: And I’ve got to tell you, my email account, my Twitter account, has been inundated with people of all races who are asking if your comments are not intended to belittle the poor and racial minorities. You saw some of this reaction during your visit to a black church in South Carolina. You saw some of this during your visit to a black church in South Carolina, where a woman asked you why you refer to President Obama as “the food stamp president”? It sounds as if you are seeking to belittle people.

NEWT GINGRICH: Well, first of all, Juan, the fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history. Now, I know among the politically correct you’re not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Newt Gingrich being questioned by Fox News’s Juan Williams at a Republican presidential debate. Walter Mosley, your response? “The food stamp president.”

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know—you know, it’s so interesting. You know, I had to struggle with CNN a little bit, because I had written it about the poetry of the statement. “Food stamp president,” it’s a brilliant—I mean, like, it’s like a whole book of things in three words, you know, that he’s—you know, and he implies them, so he’s not really saying it, you know? And then, you—and when you watch the clip, it’s the same thing. He goes, “Well, Juan,” and he stops, because he wants you to understand, “I’m talking to somebody of color.” You know, I mean, it’s like the way he does it is so—he’s really a master at that.

And I wanted to talk about how that’s the kind of useless—useless, if brilliant—American politics. We’re talking about things which don’t matter. You know, what matters is people being able to afford their own lives. What matters is, is people saying whether or not they think the rich should be taxed. What matters is, really, what the issue is in American politics. And Newt is so brilliant at getting around that, you know? Luckily, people see through it, which is good, but I just—I’m kind of amazed by him. And I’m not bothered or even frightened of him. What I’m frightened of is people who don’t understand their own system.

I spoke at a fundraiser for Obama, you know, back before he got elected. And the only thing I said was, “Look, we’re working really hard now to get him elected. We have to work twice as hard after he gets elected to make sure what we voted for actually happens.” And like, it was like I was speaking to the deaf. They just looked at me, like, “What are you talking about? He’s going to be elected.” You know, because that’s—you know, it doesn’t make any difference who’s president, if the people who make up the polity aren’t working just as hard to make things happen.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did happen in this three years, do you think? I mean, you wrote this—

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, I think that most people in America just sat back and—you know, and started criticizing, you know, and forgot what the issues were, like forgot, you know, when the economy fell apart. And I think that, you know, there are things that Obama hasn’t done. I think there are things that Obama can’t get done. But I can’t blame him. You know, it’s like that old Bobcat Goldthwait joke, when he says—he says, “I don’t like Ronald Reagan,” he said, “but I can’t blame Ronald Reagan for my problems. Blaming Ronald Reagan for my problems is like blaming Ronald McDonald if you get a bad cheeseburger,” you know? And that’s really the best political joke I’ve ever heard. And it makes so much sense. It’s my fault. It’s our fault. You know, if we’re not working every day to make it happen, then we have to blame ourselves. We can’t blame a guy who, you know, got elected, and he’s sitting there alone in the White House, you know? I mean, it’s—I agree, he has a lot of power, but he doesn’t have enough power without us.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from Always Outnumbered, which is set in Los Angeles, where the protagonist, Socrates, is talking to a young boy named Darryl. Darryl has just stood up to some gang members with Socrates’ help.

DARRYL: I was scared.

SOCRATES FORTLOW: That was a good punch you gave that boy, though. Landed right on the chin. Come on, don’t be that way, Darryl. You stood up for yourself. That’s all a black man can do. Hey, you’re always outnumbered, you’re always outgunned.

DARRYL: They still will be after me.

SOCRATES FORTLOW: Yeah, but you done stood up, did your best. Now, you ain’t got nothing to be ashamed of for the rest of your life.

DARRYL: How that’s going to help me?

SOCRATES FORTLOW: Look, you done did your job, Darryl. Now it’s up to me. I’ve got to go out here and find me a job. And maybe I can help you.

AMY GOODMAN: Socrates talking to Darryl. Walter Mosley?

WALTER MOSLEY: Yeah, I think the idea that you’re always outnumbered, you’re always outgunned, is the central—you know, the central moment of the book. But it’s also—it brings to mind a discussion I had with my father when I was young. My father said, “Walter, if you want to do as well as a white man at work, you have to go in a half-hour earlier and leave a half-hour later.” And then later on, he said—he said, “Now, if you want to do better than him, you’ve got to come in an hour earlier and leave an hour later.” And I said, “But, Dad, that’s not fair.” And he goes, “That’s right.” And that was it. That was the end of our discussion.

One of the important things to learn is that, you know, if you’re fighting a war, you really have to know what your resources are and what your situation is. And then, you can’t complain about it. You can say, “Well, that’s it. I have two guns. I’ve got to make these two guns work somehow,” you know, or give up. You know, the choice is yours on that. You know, you don’t have to come in a half-hour earlier. You don’t have to stand up for yourself against odds that you can’t beat. But if you don’t, then you’re going to have lost something.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about why you decided to choose the detective novel as one way of expressing yourself.

WALTER MOSLEY: I didn’t start off writing detective novels. The first thing I wrote was Gone Fishin’, which is Easy Rawlins and Mouse, but it wasn’t a detective novel. I sent it out, and everybody said to me, “Well, it’s good writing, but who’s going to read this?” And I go, “What do you mean?” Said, “Well, you know, white people don’t read about black people. Black women don’t like black men. And black men don’t read. So who’s going to read your book?” And so, you know, I accepted it. A lot of people, their first book, don’t get published.

So I went back, and I wrote another book about Easy and Mouse, but this time it was a mystery. And everybody was like, “Wow! That’s great! A black detective!” One guy actually said, “But, you know, there already is a black detective.” And I said, “Well, you know, there’s a whole bunch of white detectives.” And he goes, “I don’t see what you mean by that.” But that worked.

And then it worked in ways that I didn’t expect, because everybody reads mysteries, and they don’t care who the detective is. They care about the mystery itself. And then a world gets revealed throughout that. You know, that starts with Sherlock Holmes. You know, he kind of reveals the whole empire through those short stories. And so, I just said, “Wow! This is really great. This is working. I’m getting all kinds of people to read this book.” And, you know, and that’s really wonderful.

AMY GOODMAN: Who influenced you, Walter Mosley? Who brought out the writing in you? How important was school for you?

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, you know, I’ve always been really bad in school. I can’t study anything I’m not interested in, or that I don’t—I can’t see a direct reason for studying it. And that was always a really bad thing. I always tell people that, you know, if you—well, if you come to, like, a young black woman and she’s going to be a writer, she’ll say—you’ll say, “Who influenced her?” And she’ll say, “Well, Phillis Wheatley and Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and Edwidge Danticat and Zadie Smith.” She’ll say names to you that will make you put her in higher esteem. You know, you’re going to be like Toni Morrison.

The truth is, you learn how to read when you’re a kid. Who influenced you was Nancy Drew, right? If you read Beloved at the age of eight, you would either kill yourself or your mother, right? You know, I mean, you’d say, “Mom, I read this book, and I don’t buy it. You know, so one of us has to go.” I mean, that’s what you would say. You have to be an adult. But when you learn how to read, you’re a child. You love literature. It’s real. You really experience it. Your imagination is the most powerful it will ever be. You’re closer to your unconscious than you will ever again be. So you read these things that are not great literature, as E.M. Forster talks about in his book about writing. But you take the things that you love, and you make them into something.

So, like I’m really influenced by the stories my father told about his childhood. I’m very influenced by comic books: Jack Kirby and Stan Lee and Marvel Comics really kind of structured my life. Later on, you know, I read Gabriel García Márquez and Albert Camus and André Malraux, and they influenced me. But the big thing was, you know, the Fantastic 4 when I was a kid.

AMY GOODMAN: A lot of people were introduced to you because Bill Clinton held up your book when he was running for president.


AMY GOODMAN: Talked about his favorite writer, one of his favorite writers.


AMY GOODMAN: What was the effect of that for you? I mean, it’s not as if you’re not critical of the politics that Bill Clinton represents.

WALTER MOSLEY: No, I’m very critical of those politics. You know, I mean, he was better at satisfying the Republican agenda in economics than anybody, because he was a Democrat doing it. And so, it kind of went by, you know, even better than Reagan at it. And, you know, it’s a problem. We know that we’re facing a problem in this country because of that—of, you know, the apology for capitalism, which, you know, you can accept it without apologizing for. But, you know, I mean, I like him, and he liked my book, and that made me—that put me on the screen for all people in media, all over the world. So even today, people will say, “Well, what about Bill Clinton?” You know, and I say, “Well, you know, I haven’t talked to him lately, but yeah, he liked my books when they came out.”

AMY GOODMAN: So you had dinner at the White House under Clinton. How about with President Obama?

WALTER MOSLEY: Oh, no, no. Mr. Obama and I are not having dinner together, you know. But that’s OK. I mean—


WALTER MOSLEY: I would go, I mean, if he invited me, but I don’t—he’s not going to invite me. My politics, the things I talk about, the things I do, they’re not going to, you know, help his agenda. And, you know, he’s the president. What he needs to do is help his agenda, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: But you did it with Clinton.

WALTER MOSLEY: Yeah, well, Clinton invited me.

AMY GOODMAN: Your politics aren’t the same.

WALTER MOSLEY: I helped his agenda. I was a black man who was a writer, yeah. He liked me. He felt—you know, and he felt a kind of a largesse. You know, Obama is kind of—you know, he’s under pressure, you know? I don’t mind. I mean, he hasn’t invited me, but I don’t mind that he hasn’t. Mr. Obama has done everything for me that he ever could by getting elected, and I’m happy with that.

AMY GOODMAN: So are you one of those people that you warned an Obama fundraiser to do, and that is, go out there and do something after he gets elected? Are you one of those people who’s doing that?

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, I’m—yeah, I do things. You know, like, you know, I’m continually doing things, you know, donating to causes that I think are important, including Occupy Wall Street, writing my monographs, you know, talking about the political dialogue and then opening that dialogue. I’m on the board of The Nation, and I work there trying to say, “You know, listen, why are we bailing out corporations, when really you should be bailing out individuals?” Anybody under $40,000 should get, you know, the bailout, not me. I continually—you know, I use my efforts in a political fashion.

AMY GOODMAN: Will you fundraise for Obama again?

WALTER MOSLEY: Yeah, I would. You know, I would. But I would say the same things. I would do it mainly so I could say, “Look, we messed up the first time. Let’s try to get it right this time.” So that would be important. I mean, I think it’s important to have your voice out there, even when you don’t agree completely, you know, with the person. You know, democracy isn’t us coming into agreement. It’s us working toward a common goal.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it matters if it’s Obama or Santorum or Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney in the White House?

WALTER MOSLEY: Well, look, it matters if we don’t take action. It matters, if we don’t push to make—the electorate, push to make the changes in America that we feel are necessary for us, the positive changes that we feel are necessary for us. If we don’t do that, yes, it matters. Obama will be better than them. But if we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and do the work, whoever’s in there is going to have to do what we say. So it doesn’t matter, you know. So there’s a difference, you know, because people always say, “Well, you know, you have to worry about the Supreme Court, and you have to worry about” — you know, yeah, because you’re not doing anything. But if we’re doing stuff, none of that stuff matters, because we will be making the differences. We will be making the differences in the country. And we’re not doing that now. So we don’t live in a democracy. We live in an oligarchy. We’re ruled by corporations and the very rich. And so, you know, OK, you elect Obama, but, you know, he can’t get around those corporations and the very rich. You elect a Republican, well, you know, they like the corporations and the very rich. But it’s the same general direction. So, yes, it would make a difference, if we don’t do anything. And if we do stuff, hey, listen, it’s our country.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you proudest of?

WALTER MOSLEY: What am I most proud of? I’m proud of becoming a writer. I’m proud of becoming a writer and then staying the writer. I’m proud of becoming a writer and staying the writer that I became—not saying, well, OK, you’re a mystery writer, on that particular production line, no. I am Walter Mosley, writing the books that I believe in. And you can’t—you know, can’t argue about that, either.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Walter Mosley, happy birthday.

WALTER MOSLEY: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Award-winning author Walter Mosley turned 60 in January. He has published 37 books, including a series of bestselling mysteries featuring the private investigator Easy Rawlins. The most famous of those is Devil in a Blue Dress. But his latest novel is called All I Did Was Shoot My Man, following the modern-day private eye Leonid McGill as he navigates a world filled with corporate wealth, armed assassins and family drama. He’s also written a non-fiction book, Twelve Steps [Toward] Political Revelation.

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