All Things Entertaining and Cultural
All storytelling is to one degree or other a mystery, says Walter Mosley, who should know given his prolific output as a writer, his Easy Rawlins series, literally resurrected last year, being one of the most popular mystery skeins internationally since its first installment, “Devil With a Blue Dress,” more than 20 years ago.
Though the mystery genre established Mosley’s name as one of America’s foremost writers, he says he prefers to do a variety of writing and that the idea for a story and the characters involved usually dictate the form to him, not the other way around. In 2010, Mosley published one of his most moving novels, “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” a perceptively piercing fictional account of the onset of dementia. In recent weeks, Mosley has been diligently attending rehearsals for his play, “Lift,” which will have its world premiere at the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, N.J.
While speaking to me from his car en route from New York to New Brunswick, Mosley said he follows his instinct about what would make an interesting story and what interests him as a writer and as a person.
“Lift” came into being when Mosley wondered what would happen if two people were trapped in an elevator during a homeland terrorist attack.
“It was just having that thought that put the nucleus for the play into my head,” Mosley says. “I wanted to see what the common threads would be between the characters. And also the conflict.
“I always look for the common thread that binds people and situations. It occurs to you as you write. I have made outlines of books and plays from time to time, but they usually have little bearing on the finished work.
“Most art is unconscious. You have an intention. You know what you are trying to do, the story you want to express. As you write, the book or play takes on a life on its own. Characters tell you what they are going to do next and what their action triggers. Even as the author, you can’t always predict the direction a story will take.
“When I started writing, I was already 34 and looking to see what I could do, how far I could go with a new interest I was encouraged to pursue. I published my first book four years later, and it was a mystery, the first of the Easy Rawlins stories.
“I had done all kinds of writing since then, but I learned that all storytelling is to one degree or other a mystery. You read something right now or hear something right now, and you wonder how you’ll respond to it.
“That is the way a mystery works. The reader learns something and wants to see how the main character or all of the characters will respond to what happened or what was said. It’s a matter of natural curiosity. The writer has to make that wonder worthwhile, provide a response that is worth waiting for and that will trigger wonder about the next response. People want to know what’s next and how someone will handle a specific situation.
“In writing a mystery, you have to change the story and introduce a new plot twist about every two or three pages. In other forms of writing, you can introduce a new plot concept every 30 or 40 pages. It’s a matter of what the reader has to know. When I’m not writing a mystery, I have the luxury of taking time to describe and explain things and delve into intimate thoughts. In a mystery, I have to keep the curiosity going. People want clues. They crave new information. They want Easy or Leonid (Leonid McGill, another Mosley detective) to be busy and give them something new to chew on.
“Of all writing, plays are the most challenging. They are the hardest to write of all.
“In a play, you don’t have the opportunity to explain things and write a background or change the setting every half a page. You have to get people’s attention with dialogue alone, and you have to write that dialogue so it can be understood and digested in a matter of seconds.
“With a book, or even a television show, the reader or viewer can back up if something confuses him or her, or if he or she is distracted and loses concentration. With a book, a person can re-read a passage he or she likes or wants to get clear in his or her head.
“A play doesn’t give you, as the writer, or the audience the privilege to review or enjoy a passage over again. The play continues with or without you. Actors proceed. The audience listens. They have to grasp what you are saying and what is happening. They can’t go back to recall what they missed, and they can’t jump forward to get the gist of what’s ahead. A play runs its course and has to be clear and involving with every word.
“As a writer, I have to be cognizant of that. I can write a conversation or a passage that is all dialogue for a novel, but that is being read. It’s being absorbed by the eye. Listening is different. Holding people’s attention when they’re listening is also different.
“I began writing plays in 2007 or 2008 at the suggestion of my publisher. I had been interested in the dramatic form and was encouraged to see what I could accomplish. My first play, ‘The Fall of Heaven,’ about a man who argues when St. Peter commits him to Hell, was produced in 2010. ‘Lift,’ the play we’re rehearsing is also about souls, in this case two souls that connect in an unexpected way.”
Many were surprised when, in “Blonde Faith,” published in 2007, Mosley had his most famous and popular character, the Los Angeles detective Easy (for Ezekiel) Rawlins, crash his car down an embankment from which he was expected to return alive. More were surprised in 2013 when Rawlins, just about able to walk or concentrate after waking from a long coma, was return to circulation as the lead private investigator in Mosley’s latest book, “Little Green.”
“I was right to kill Rawlins off,” Mosley says. “I did Easy and myself a favor by having him injured in that crash.
“Easy needed a break from the book shelves. By writing a passage where he could be dead or unable to work, I kept him from losing vitality and his readers from losing interest in him.
“You have to know when to give a character, even one as popular as Easy Rawlins, a rest. Easy would have suffered if I continued to put him in a story ever year or couple of years. By leaving some breathing room between his last appearance and ‘Little Green,’ I gave readers the break I thought they needed from Easy, and I went on to other character and other books that I think honed by art.
“You have to challenge yourself to do something different. I thought it was necessary in 2007 for Easy to disappear and for me to work on new characters and new stories.
“Then I had the idea for a mystery set in the early days when hippies first began populating Sunset Boulevard in L.A. A young man would disappear among the hippies, and a detective would be asked to find him. Easy Rawlins was the right detective for the job. I saw him on the case. So I literally brought him back from the dead to search for Little Green, the missing character.”
When Mosley says “literally,” he is not exaggerating. The first thing you read when you open “Little Green” is a reference to Rawlins waking from a coma and thinking he has risen from the dead. Throughout the book, Easy will talk about the dead man who is working to solve a mystery.
Among Mosley’s masterworks is the 2010 novel, “The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey,” about a 91-year-old who lives alone and who doesn’t have much but realizes he is on the threshold of dementia. As Mosley’s novel proceeds, Ptolemy gets increasingly confused and less at home in the bit of the world he’s occupied for decades. He confuses his sister’s grandchild with his son and makes other mistakes while, even more sadly, regretting his life and wishing, at moments of lucidity, he had accomplished more.
Reading “Ptolemy Grey,” you can tell Mosley has been close to someone who lived with dementia.
“My mother developed dementia about five years before she died,” Mosley says. “The decline started before we recognized it. Years before. Thinking back, you can draw a timeline, but it was pronounced when it affected my mother’s life.
“I learned a lot about dementia and spent many hours trying to make myself understood to my mother and trying to interpret what she was saying or attempting to say to me.
“A lot of people gave advice. They said, ‘Put her in a home.’ I did not do that.
“Worst of all was the professional advice I received. Elder care is in a pretty dismal shape in the United States. I did not find any place I thought could take care of my mother as well as a supervised network of people could do at home.
“Social workers tended to be very bureaucratic and authoritarian. They did not regard, let alone treat, my mother as an individual. She was one of dozens, hundreds who are consigned to homes and hospitals where few get any caring attention.
“‘The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey’ was my way of expressing what I knew about dementia and a way to show readers the toll it takes on everyone.
“My mother was fortunate in that I could be responsible for her. I did not find the social work community responsive or responsible.”
“The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey” has been optioned by the actor Samuel L. Jackson and is being made into a movie for HBO.
“It will appear on television, not in theaters,” Mosley says. “More people will see the movie on television.”
Mosley, at the recommendation of his agent and publisher, has been looking a stories that could work on television and attract Hollywood. His first novel, “Devil With a Blue Dress” was made into a movie starring Denzel Washington in 1995.
“I like to write. I like to tell stories,” Mosley says. “I was living in New York and working for an oil company when I became interested in writing.
“I had an idea I might be good at writing, and I wanted to find out. The worst that could have happened is I would not have had the talent or discipline to continue.
“I think my enjoyment of the act of writing and a love for telling stories kept me going. I also enrolled in a writing course and received encouragement at home. It took years before I completed anything I thought other people might enjoy. I was writing every day for four years before I published a book.
“I grew up in Los Angeles, and that gave me a setting for Easy Rawlins. Other books have other locales. The point is I write every day and challenge myself every day.”
“Lift” runs through Friday, April 25 at Crossroad Theatre, 7 Livingston Avenue, in New Brunswick, N.J. For tickets and information, please call 732-545-8100 or go online to www.crossroadstheatrecompany.org.