PW met with Walter Mosley, host of this year's National Book Awards ceremony, days before the event at a downtown Manhattan restaurant. As Mosley dined on sweetbreads ("these are thoraxes, you know"), we talked of many matters, including the Stephen King controversy and Mosley's new novel, The Man in My Basement.
PW: Why were you chosen to host the National Book Awards?
Walter Mosley: I didn't really ask. Neil Baldwin [executive director of the National Book Foundation] called me. I'm a literary writer who writes in genre often, unapologetically—not trying to say that I've gone beyond the genre, not trying to make the genre belong to some kind of literary convention. If I write a mystery, it's a mystery. If I write science fiction, it's science fiction. So I would be a good choice to introduce King.
PW: What do you mean by "a literary writer who writes in genre"?
WM: It's possible for everybody in any genre, including the literary one, to write a bad book. It's also possible to write a book that is entertaining but has no deeper political, philosophical or linguistic qualities. But it can be a wonderful story. There are tons of space cowboy novels like that, that you read for the adventure of it or the romance of it. Westerns, mysteries, romance novels. But books that have a deeper resonance with the language or the culture—those are the kind of books that I'd call literary. "Literary" is not a scientific term, but when you pay attention to it, you'll find that some people's writing takes you to another level.
Yet almost all great writing in the history of the West was at one time popular fiction. You start with Homer, you go through the Greek tragedies, you come up to books that don't really have writers, like Beowulf and Gilgamesh, and then you have Shakespeare and more modern writers like Dickens, Twain, Balzac, Alexander Dumas. I think a lot of criticism I've heard about King is that he is a popular writer, and some literary writers get unhappy at that.
PW: You were born of a Jewish mother and a black father. So much of your work is identified with being black. Why do you identify with being black rather than white?
WM: There actually are quite a few Jewish characters sprinkled throughout the novels. But I'm an American, and in America until very recently and still today, you're black if any part of you is not white. If your baby toe on your left foot is black, then you're black. My life has been structured around that fact, and not by me. When I was 16, I needed a passport and I was with my Jewish mother and they wouldn't give me the passport. I had to go home and get my father and bring him in, in order to get the passport. That's kind of a metaphor, isn't it?
When I was a kid, there weren't a whole bunch of black writers who were writing stories which, though having certain political aspects, were entertainments. I love Richard Wright, I love James Baldwin, but a lot of times the characters in these books start to have a political agenda kind of stitched into their characters. With Easy [Rawlins, Mosley's best-known and bestselling series hero], it's very hard to tell that. With Mouse [Rawlins's dangerous acquaintance], it's impossible to tell that. Even with Blakey [protagonist of The Man in My Basement].
PW: A white guy locked into a black guy's basement sounds political to me.
WM: There's no question that it's a political novel, but it's a story first. And it's a book about characters, and I was very happy to be able to do it. It's easy being a writer if you don't get published much or very deeply. When there are certain expectations from your publisher and your audience, to be able to turn around and write a book like The Man in My Basement.... When I'm writing, ideas come to me. Writing this book wasn't a problem. It was exciting, it was fun.
PW: What idea came to you first?
WM: I had the idea that the best thing you can do for a black man is to have a white man stuck in his basement. My writing: I start with the first sentence, and I discover the book as I go along. A man locked in the basement. And they're going to have an intellectual argument. One could call it a literary novel, but it's actually an intellectual novel.
The most difficult thing about writing this book—it's not all that difficult to write intellectual, philosophical or literary novels. There's a kind of a form. But I don't like most of them, because I don't like the way language is used. I don't like when you start talking about something in New York in 2003, and then you start talking about the East River when mastodons roamed. But if you get rid of the pretentiousness, that language, all you have left is the story. Then you can still write a novel of ideas. And that becomes really, really, really difficult. This is a novel about ideas and a novel about the world, and how the world works for different people.
PW: The world as described by Anniston Bennet [the power-broker locked in Blakey's basement] is very dark—there are people pulling strings that affect millions of lives.
WM: I know that if I had a billion dollars and very few rules governing me, and I had somebody in my life who I loved, who needed a kidney, there would be a way to buy one. On the front page of the New York Times today, it was reported that somebody sold a child—in this case, for a television set. I can understand how somebody could say, "You have 12 kids and you ain't got no money and you can't feed those kids, but I know a guy who will give $100,000 for a baby. You have a baby, and the baby's probably going to die, but your other 11 children will live." What are you going to do?
I gave a talk the other day in Chicago, and one of the things I said was that every person in the room has on their body some piece of clothing that was sweated over by a slave, or at least by somebody in a sweatshop. That we're a society not only of victims but of victimizers. There's no getting away from that. The idea isn't even to wear clothes that no slave sweated over. It's to realize that it's an unavoidable reality in our economy. So when you start making decisions about the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq, and this and that, to understand that you yourself are deeply involved in this worldwide economy. Just like Anniston Bennet.
PW: So what does one do?
WM: A good question, "What does one do?" I think it's nearly always—and believe me, I ask it often enough so it's not a criticism—an attempt to abrogate responsibility. The truth is, you have to live with it. The truth is, yes, my shoes were made by slaves. All right. What can I do about that? Well, really, and immediately, nothing. In the long run, maybe a little something, which is what Charles Blakey does.