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.”