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Walter Mosley: On writing, publishing and politics

Bridgit Brown
Walter Mosley: On writing, publishing and politics

In his latest thriller, Walter Mosely tells the story of Ptolemy Grey, a 91-year-old African American man who suffers from dementia.

When Reggie, his favorite great-grand nephew, is murdered in a drive-by shooting, Grey is forced to come to terms with reality.

He does so with the help of a very young woman named Robin and an anti-aging drug that he gets from a deal with a doctor whom he sees as the personification of evil.

How Grey finds out who murdered Reggie and why is at the center of “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey.”

 Mosley has written more than 34 books including the Easy Rawlins mystery series, which will soon debut on national television. His book, “Devil in a Blue Dress,” was adapted into a movie starring Denzel Washington. Having written across the literary genres, Mosley has won many awards, including an O. Henry Award, a Grammy and PEN America’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

What inspired “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey”?

My mother suffered from dementia and the book had a lot to do with her issues and writing about them made me happy. This is a book that a lot of people find accessible. It illustrates what it’s like to be someone who has dementia or to be worried about someone who has it. I enjoyed writing it.

Are you one of the few writers in America who is able to make money off of writing?

Everyone who writes and publishes makes money, but the truth is that I make enough money to live off of the writing. Even when I did work full time, I still wrote. I can’t write for more than three hours per day though. That’s not possible for me. So when I worked full time, I would write for three hours and then I would go to work. It’s the same thing now, but I don’t have to go to work.

What is happening in the publishing industry with regard to writers in general and black writers in particular?

That’s an interesting question and a hard question to answer because really the issue is more about what’s going on with publishers. Publishing has never really been a business, and so now that it kind of is and that it’s changing daily with the economy and also with technology, the publishers themselves are having a great deal of trouble identifying how to deal with what to publish, who to sell to and how to sell.

This is usually the problem that publishers have, and they haven’t really figured it out. They figured out something with 10 or 12 major writers and about 10 or 12 major subsets, which change, but other than that they’re kind of lost and so it’s kind of important for us to figure out what publishing is and how it works.

Now Amazon.com is publishing books and a lot of the big publishers are having problems. A lot of small publishers are doing really good work, but it’s hard for them to get distributed. Newspapers are closing up their book reviews, and people aren’t reading papers anyway. It’s a mess, but it has to work itself out.

Is there anything that writers can do to help work things out?

Various writers do various things. You have a guy with great marketing genius, like James Patterson, who knows how to market books. I think it helps him out.

You have a lot of self-published black writers writing street fiction and working with the smaller publishers who spend half the year or more traveling around, going to places, doing readings and starting book clubs. So there are things that one can do and those things often work.

What does it mean for black writers to narrate their own stories despite the challenges to be published?

This is a hard question and there are so many different sides to it. I’m sure that there are a lot of different books of writings about white people who feel the same way; that they can’t tell their own stories; that they aren’t being paid attention to; and then you have writers who are coming from different places and they are challenged too.

One of the things to consider is what is your goal as a writer. At the end of that, if your goal as a writer is to be able to create the best and truest piece of fiction, non-fiction or poetry that you can, then that’s the goal. The fact that other people don’t understand it, I’m not sure how to deal with that.

When I started writing, 20-something years ago, there were very few black writers getting published. I would be in a room full of 300 writers and 295 of them were not published and were never going to be. That has changed so much and when I look at the landscape I’m excited to see how successful we are being today.

There’s still a lot of struggling going on, but the problems in literature, a lot of them are shared. One of the things, even, though I understand writers of color’s frustration and how important their writing is and the need to be understood, is that a lot of people don’t understand what we are doing and don’t understand how to market it and don’t even know that they don’t understand that.  

At the same time, I want to unite with other writers, and work together with them to ask how we can make this world work.

When you were starting out, how were you able to navigate through the publishing industry?

There are two things that can happen to you and both of them are really bad. One, silence is imposed upon you: nobody wants to read it; nobody wants to publish it. The other side is that your book is successful, but people only want that art that you have been successful for and in a way you’re trapped and you’re not truly in the world. The only thing that you can do is commit yourself to the work that you’re doing and to keep doing it.

When I started writing, my thought was, ‘I would really love to be able to finish some short stories some day and maybe after some years I’ll get some of them published and maybe I’ll get a job teaching at a small college in the Midwest, and then maybe in 10 or 15 years I’ll get the Pushcart Prize.’

I used to daydream about that. I remember that, and it kept me going and it kept me happy with the work. There is no way that you can tell how the market is going to be and there is no way that you can tell who is going to publish you and who isn’t going to publish you or who’s going to buy it and who isn’t going to buy it.

All you can do is make your commitment to the work itself. If you’re a writer and you’re writing, then your life is going to get better whether or not you get recognition because writing does this.

Was your book “The Twelve Steps Towards Political Revelation” actual steps that you took?

It’s a little bit of both. I’ve kind of done most of them. It’s something that I think about, and in the end I wasn’t trying to write a book that would be the answer but a book that was going to be the beginning of a dialogue.

I’m really ecstatic about the Occupy Wall Street movement because so much of what I write about in my political writing has kind of made that activity concrete. I just want to be part of a dialogue. I’m not trying to tell people what to do. It didn’t make a lot of money. I didn’t expect it to make a lot of money. If I did make a lot of money it wouldn’t have made any difference to me. It was the idea of writing it.