The Curious Case of Walter Mosley

By | Nov 30, 2011
2010 September-October, Culture

Mosley did not become a writer overnight. A person of the book, Ella filled her son’s library card with authors like Dickens, Zola and Camus. Mosley recalls that she was not warm but believed in him and instilled in him the notion that he “was special and could do things” he “couldn’t imagine.” But for all their pride, his parents’ ambitions for their son were modest. Ella thought he might make a good hotel manager. Leroy thought there was a career in prison work, though he advised Walter to “pay the rent and do what you love.”

Mosley, part of the baby boom generation, did not seem at first to have any direction. There was what he describes as a “long-haired hippie” phase drifting around Santa Cruz and Europe. Then a chapter at Goddard College in Vermont, where he tried to get credit for cross-country hitchhiking before an advisor suggested that really he should drop out. Eventually he enrolled in another school in Vermont, Johnson State College, about as far from South Central Los Angeles as he could get, where he graduated with a degree in political science. After a brief flirtation with grad school in political theory at the University of Minnesota, he returned east to be with Joy Kellman, a dancer. They married in 1987, divorced in 2001. Kellman is Jewish; Mosley chooses not to speak of their marriage. His face looks so pained when I bring it up that I decide not to ask him about reports that his wife’s parents did not talk to their daughter for several years after she married him.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Mosley worked as a computer programmer for Mobil, IBM and Dean Witter but also tried his hand at various trades—making and selling pottery, collecting jade jewelry, opening a catering business. He was making a living, paying the rent, as his father had hoped. But he told one interviewer that during this period he felt lost, empty.

Always a reader, in the late 1980s, he picked up Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple, and it rekindled in him an urge to create, not in computer code but on the blank canvas of the monitor. He enrolled in City College of New York (CCNY), attending classes at night and studying on weekends. He took poetry writing from Bill Matthews, creative writing from Frederic Tuten and fiction courses from Edna O’Brien, the Irish writer who is known for the emotional turmoil of her female characters. Reading his work, she told Mosley, “Walter, you’re black, Jewish, with a poor upbringing. There are riches therein.”

And so, while on duty one day at Mobil, he typed out a sentence about people on a back porch in Louisiana. “I don’t know where it came from,” he has said. “I liked it. It spoke to me.” The sentence read, “Hot sticky days in southern Louisiana, the fire ants swarm.” That is how Mosley began to write, and how he writes still. “First there is a sentence. Then characters start coming in,” he explains. “But the beginning is always just words in a sentence.”

That night, he went home and told his wife that he wanted to write full-time. She suggested he save enough money first to secure them financially for a year. He replied that if he waited a year, he might as well wait for retirement. A day later, she relented, telling him, “Walter, if that’s what you want to do, do it.”

12 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Walter Mosley

  1. pat says:

    Walter Mosely has bddn a long time favorite of mine. It’s good hearing how he got started.

  2. Grantman says:

    Looking forward to reading the article but your multiple pages format to gain ad impressions for your advertisers is a PIA. You should have a print friendly button. There are those of us who like to print out the articles and read them at our leisure and not online all the time.

  3. Dee Riley says:

    I loved this article about Walter Mosley. Although I have not read much of his work I love his idea and philosophy about writing. I read some pages from a book he wrote on the subject of writing and it is from that I feel motivated to continue writing in my own words and in my own style. For his wisdom and generous sharing of knowledge, ideas and encouragement I feel eternally grateful to him. I thank you for this article and for your interest in Walter Mosley as a man, a novelist and an artist.

  4. MonaLisa MackLamore says:

    On November 20, 2015 I was in the Library and saw the book “Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore” checked it out and was hooked! When I returned the book 2 days later. .. I check out three (3) more books on the 20th and completed them on the 25th at 11pm. I just could not put them down. I understand the people you write about as I am from L.A and from the same time. When will you have a reading in or around the area.

  5. Richard Ray Salazar says:

    I really appreciated this article about Walter Mosely.I also have a Jewish mother and Black father. I was adopted along with my sister by a black family.Coincedentally both psrents have Jewish parents.Growing up Yiddish names and phrases had become part of my casual conversation.At university I was to learn that I was not only Black, but Jewish, according to the Talmud Tradition.Since thst time I have studied both the Black and Jewish history and Cultures.The idea that one drop of Black blood makes you Black is aligned with the racist concept of race. I am very proud and celebrate my Black label,but I also appreciate and totally accept being Jewish.After all we are each a complex mixture of our parent’s biology and culture. Shalom!

  6. Mackie JV Blanton says:

    If it is indisputable that the origin of human beings arose in Africa, it is then also reasonable to assume that we all are at least ‘One Drop’ Black. So everyone is Black plus. Nonetheless, it’s our humanity that is significant.

  7. JN says:

    Shame on Walter Mosely! How dare he make a derogatory statement about the Congo and being a Congolese woman! Has he even ever been there? I doubt it. He’s simply bought into the stereotypes about Sub-Saharan Africa. Qiuite frankly, he seems narrow minded.

    1. Nat says:

      I don’t think he met that as an insult to Congolese women. He meant it as an insult to the imaginary person he was referring to.

  8. BFP says:

    I have never been to the Congo. But reading about this particular history of the Congo, I have read what many Congolese women have stated about their treatment. The Congolese (international?) organization “Women for Women” are valiantly and courageously fighting against the prevalance of ongoing “sexual violence and gender inequality” … maybe Mr Mosley was not making a derogatory statement but implying about the difficulties inflicted on the women.

  9. Mark Phillips says:

    Was a student of his when he taught at the Stone Coast Writer’s Seminar in Portland Maine. I very much enjoyed his writing advice.

  10. Mark Williams says:

    Every writer starts by experiencing life and language. The best can share their experience. Walter Mosley is among the best of the best.

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