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Writer Mosley wrestles with history, dead and alive

Saturday, November 18, 2000

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

He didn't start writing until his mid 30s, and now, few writers are as popular and prolific as Walter Mosley, who has written everything from colorful detective novels to essays about race relations in America.

His first novel "Devil in a Blue Dress," which was turned into a 1995 movie starring Denzel Washington, featured Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, a former aircraft worker who is hired to find Daphne Monet, a missing white woman who frequented Negro nightspots.

His latest work, "Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking off the Dead Hand of History," is a philosophical postulation that explores the shackling effects of capitalism.

"I write so much that I've come to a realization that I'm competing with myself," Mosley said recently while he was on the road in Los Angeles. "I write a new book, and everyone goes out and buys the old one."

Mosley will take a break from his daily writing routine Monday when he discusses "Contemporary Black Literature on American Culture" at the Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.

"We all have history . . . all cultures have history," said Mosley. "But not all of that history is necessarily good or of equal value. Some things are more important than others.

"As black people we are basically an unlanded culture . . . people without a real investment in owning the culture. We created the blues, but who owns Robert Johnson's records? The minute he recorded all those records, the record companies bought them. As much as he did, as brilliant as he was, he didn't own anything."

Mosley, who is biracial, grew up in south central Los Angeles, which is the setting for many of his novels. He worked as a computer programmer until his 30s, when he began to write full time.

His first five novels, "Devil in a Blue Dress," "Black Betty," "White Butterfly," "Bad Boy Brown" and "Blue Light" featured Rawlins and his sidekick, Mouse Alexander.

In 1997, Mosley finally published "Gone Fishin,' " which was the first book he wrote and is the prequel to the Rawlins series.

There's also the short-story collection, "Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned," which features Socrates Fortlow and his two-legged dog, Killer. Fortlow is a 60-year-old ex-con who has spent much of his life in prison for a double murder and rape.

"I write because I really love the stories," said the 47-year-old Mosley. "I really love writing. I write very early in the morning . . . never more than three hours."

Mosley steps away from Rawlins and Fortlow to reflect about the black experience in the South in "RL's Dreams," an account of the life of Robert Johnson, the Mississippi Delta blues legend. It is from the tragedy and celebration of the blues and other indigenous Southern Negro music that the book draws its inspiration.

"We are talking about a different time . . . a group of people living under a great deal of pressure," said Mosley. "But they were able to find life exhilarating. I could have written about the pathologies of Robert Johnson, but that would make him no different than a million other musicians. He was just a towering talent, and that's the aspect that I dealt with."

Monday, Mosley will be introducing a new series of short stories based around the narrator Tempest Landry. Mosley declined to reveal much about Landry, except to say that he grew up in Louisiana and is similar to Langston Hughes' most enduring fictional character Jesse B. Semple, commonly known as "Simple."

Both Simple and Tempest grew up in the South and lived in Harlem. And like Hughes, Mosley will convey these stories first in a series of magazine columns next year. When Hughes first wrote the "Simple" stories, they were serialized in the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper.

"There were a lot of writers to come out of the Harlem Renaissance," he said. "Some of them were more important than others, not necessarily lesser writers, but for me Zora Neale Hurston and Hughes were critical. Langston really had something special going with Simple, and I think Tempest [Landry] is an extension of that."

Mosley speaks at 7:30 p.m. Monday in the Drue Heinz Lecture Series at Carnegie Music Hall. Call 412-622-8866 for tickets.

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