Gentleman's agreement

His own success notwithstanding, best-selling novelist Walter Mosley charges the publishing industry with "passive racism."

Published December 2, 1995 6:54PM (EST)

Ask most writers about their work and the response is a well-rehearsed litany of woe describing in exacting detail the loneliness and torment endemic to their profession. The average author is an expert griper. Not Walter Mosley.

The 43-year-old novelist is an affable guy. With his tall frame, protruding middle-aged belly and dark curly hair, he even resembles an over-grown teddy bear. He responds to most questions with a smile and a ready quip. And why not? Things are have gone smoothly for Mosley the last few years.

Mosley's best-selling Easy Rawlins books have catapulted him into the first rank of mystery writers. His latest novel, "R.L.'s Dream," the story of a dying bluesman who once played with the legendary Robert Johnson, was released this past August to widespread critical and popular acclaim, though it took him away from the mystery genre. To top it all off, he's been embraced by Hollywood -- the screen version of "Devil in a Blue Dress," starring Denzel Washington, was released this fall and a slew of film projects are on deck.

Only two things seem to get Walter Mosley mad. First, he doesn't like being relegated to the mystery genre. At a recent talk Mosley gave in midtown Manhattan, the novelist repeatedly admonished one interlocutor to stop referring to him as a "mystery writer," going so far as to list his individual forays outside the genre for the assembled audience.

"I do more than write Easy Rawlins novels," he says, "and if that's all I wrote, I just wouldn't be happy with it."

The other thing that incenses Walter Mosley is racism in the publishing business. "The publishing industry is excluding people of color," he pronounces. "The door is closed,and it should be open."

Mosley was raised by his New York-born, Jewish mother and his Louisiana-bred black father in the racial cauldron of South Central Los Angeles in the 50s and '60s. He attended college and later lived for years in the very white state of Vermont. Like many in that iconoclastic state, Mosley bounced from job to job. After stints as a caterer and potter, he settled in as a computer programmer working on IBM mainframes. He didn't begin writing until reaching his mid-30s, and says he only started because "basically, I just enjoyed it."

Mosley says his initial encounter with racism in the publishing business came when he started shopping his first novel, "Devil in a Blue Dress." He recalls a decidedly lukewarm reception: "I just think they thought that a book with a black male protagonist wouldn't sell. My sense of the publishing world was that when you write about black men, there's resistance because of the perception that white people don't want to read about black men, black women don't like black men and black men don't read."

After establishing himself as a best-selling author, Mosley had the clout to take on what he perceived to be the endemic racism of the publishing industry. He characterizes it as a "passive racism" born more of institutional inertia than overt hostility: "It's always been the kind of business that's been separate from the mainstream. People hire people they know, and the industry is almost totally white. They say they can't find qualified people of color to hire. Who are they kidding?"

Such criticism might seem paradoxical coming from a black author who has succeeded by writing about blacks for a largely white audience, but when pressed on the subject Mosley won't budge. "Yes, I've personally done very well, but how many successful black authors are out there today compared to white authors? And how many blacks or Hispanics or Asian-Americans are in the important jobs in publishing, in the big publishing houses?"

Through his chairmanship of the PEN Open Book Committee, Mosley says he is seeking to bring more people of color into publishing. "Our goal is to integrate publishing on every level. An editor, in many ways, is more important than any writer. I'm not asking for a specific number, a quota, just some movement."

Mosley's activism does not seem to have slowed his prodigious output. He makes it a habit to write every day, arising early in the morning in his Greenwich Village apartment and writing for three to four hours straight. Currently, he's working on a new Easy Rawlins novel called "A Little Yellow Dog," to be released next summer, and also a series of short stories based on a character named Socrates Fortlow that will be released as an anthology in 1997. Another Rawlins tome -- "Bad Boy Bobby Brown" -- will follow the next year.

There are also a number of film and television projects in the offing. He is working with director Jonathan Demme on a project called "Subway Stories" for HBO and is negotiating with the network to make the Fortlow stories into a series.

Mosley plans to keep coming back to his now famous protagonist. He has visions of staying with Rawlins as the detective ages, eventually leaving him as an old man sitting on his porch in Los Angeles, delegating the crime fighting to a younger, abler assistant. It's not the money, insists Mosley, that keeps him coming back to the keyboard to flesh out Rawlins' life and times. "I like visiting with Easy, so I'm happy when I write about him."

Photographs by Peter Serling

By Richard Regen

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