Life & Culture

Bestselling author Walter Mosley: My black and Jewish heritage

What's next for the prolific writer? A new TV series about dementia


Whenever you’re writing, it’s always different,” muses Walter Mosley. “It’s like being out on the ocean, not on a road. It always goes this way and that way.” The distinguished 70-year-old American author has spent half his life bobbing up and down on those literary waves. He started at 34 and says he’s written every day since. During the 1992 election campaign, two years after Mosley’s celebrated debut novel Devil In A Blue Dress was published, Bill Clinton shone a spotlight on him, revealing he was one of his favourite new authors.

That hardboiled noir was the first in Mosley’s series of detective stories centred on Ezekiel ‘Easy’ Rawlins, an African-American WWII veteran — a character that was later brought to the screen by Denzel Washington in a critically-acclaimed 1995 film adaptation. While that was Mosley’s first experience of the movie business, he’s since broadened his remit to include occasional television work, notably in the writer’s room in the late John Singleton’s hugely underrated drugs drama Snowfall (the fifth season of which has just started broadcasting in the US).

When we speak over Zoom, Mosley has got his TV hat on again (and, indeed, a real hat; a very stylish black trilby that I suspect is a noir-ish affectation). He’s promoting The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, a six-part Apple TV+ show that he adapted from his 2010 novel. Originally destined to be a movie, it’s now a limited series starring Samuel L. Jackson — in one of the most vivid performances of his career — as the titular 93-year-old, a man with advanced dementia who takes a miracle drug that restores his memories temporarily.
“It was very important for me to write this, because this is one of those universal stories,” he explains. “If we’re lucky, we all get old. And if we’re unlucky, we might have Alzheimer’s or dementia. And even if we make it well and don’t have it, [the likelihood is] somebody else is going to have [it] — we have to deal with that.” In Mosley’s case, he watched his mother deteriorate with dementia, which accounts for why the portrayal of Grey rings so true.

“It is a personal experience, to be able to learn the language of dementia, that ever-changing language of dementia,” he says, with a little sigh. “What was so important about telling that story is that if you’re watching it, and you have some kind of empathy or sympathy with those characters — maybe from things that you’ve experienced — you’ll be able to think of it in a more positive way.”

Naturally, he’s delighted that a major streamer like Apple TV+ was willing to invest in such a poignant, intimate story (“the world is changing,” he remarks). And it marks the latest addition to an increasingly impressive body of work (novels, plays, screenplays) that’s led Mosley to be dubbed, in some quarters, “America’s blackest Jewish writer”. He grew up with a black father (Leroy, who worked in the LA public school system) and a Jewish mother (Ella, a personnel clerk).

While his characters tend to be African-American, Mosley has far from ignored his Jewish heritage. Growing up in California, “raised among Jews and blacks” as he puts it, he has always leaned into Jewish culture in his writing. His 2004 novel A Red Death, for example, brought Rawlins out of retirement, as an FBI agent asked him to spy on the Polish-Jewish community in Los Angeles. Rawlins also regularly gets assistance in his various adventures from Jewish gumshoe Saul Lynx.

There have been frequent literary debates about whether his work belongs in the Jewish canon, as former literary professor Harold Heft argued, as well as the African-American one. And his own background leaves people confused. As he told one writer: “People say to me, ‘Well, Walter, you’re both black and white’. And I go, ‘No, I’m black, and I’m Jewish. Jews are not white people’. They get mad at me. American Jews get mad at me. White people get mad at me. Black people get mad at me.” Stirring up a little controversy? That’s OK by him.

In the past, he’s said that the question of identity is “a dialogue that I don’t mind getting at”. He tells one anecdote where he was crossing on New York’s Staten Island Ferry with a Muslim associate. “[He] turned to me and said, ‘Hitler didn’t really kill as many Jews as they said he did, and he really shoulda oughtn’t a done it, but the Jews had all the guilder and them Germans just wanted to be free’.” It was a conversation he found hard to forget. “I don’t like anti-black Jews and I don’t like anti-Jewish blacks. It’s not that I don’t like them, I just don’t like the stance.”

Mosley speaks warmly of his family. “My father was a wonderful storyteller,” he says. “He’d sit down and just tell me all about his early life, what he did, where he went, what it was like, how different it was. And he was not only a wonderful storyteller, and incredibly funny, but also if I, as a child, started telling a story, he would just sit back and listen to me, because it made him happy. Great storytellers love other people telling stories. And I think even though I never knew it, he was actually making me a storyteller, even though I just thought, ‘I’m with my dad, I’m going to tell him these stories.’” His Jewish relatives would teach him Yiddish curses, he recalls.

An only child, he loved reading comic books — another inspiration in his quest to become a writer. He remembers seeing them in the barber’s or on grocery store racks. “They told me things about the world, they allowed me to think and imagine things about the world that I hadn’t experienced before,” he says. “And the wonderful thing about that, when you’re a kid, and you’re looking at comics, they belong to you, nobody else. They’re not teaching them in school, they’re not in the library, they’re not going to give you a test on it. It’s something you do simply because you love it.”

A Marvel Comics fan especially – he bought first editions of X-Men and Luke Cage, the company’s landmark Black superhero — he’s more than once returned to that childhood obsession in his adult years. Back in 2005, he conceived of a coffee table art book Maximum Fantastic Four, which concentrated on the artwork of their Jewish creator Jack Kirby in the famed superhero quartet’s first ever appearance in 1961. He even got a nod in Netflix’s TV show Luke Cage (the superhero, played by Mike Colter, kicks back reading a copy of Mosley’s Little Green).

Then, in November 2021, he truly lived the dream, teaming up with artist Tom Reilly for a six-issue limited series based around the Fantastic Four’s Ben Grimm, aka the Thing.
He recalls, as a kid, reading one comic in which this hulking character with orange skin filled out a form, marking his race down as “non-white”. “In my understanding, he was the black character, and I most identified with him,” he says. “Of all the characters, I loved him the most.” Of course, in recent years Ben has also been identified as Jewish by Marvel. It may explain a latent love of fantasy; even The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey’s mysterious drug that restores memories feels like something out of Marvel.

While Mosley calls this miracle drug a “fabrication”, he feels this more outlandish element of the story has been drawn from reality. “When you fabricate, you take things that are there, and you put them together to make something else,” he says.

“The pharmaceutical companies around the world are sitting there thinking, ‘boy, if I had a medicine that could give you back your memory, I’d be the richest person in the world. So I’m going to do that.’ And so, even though I don’t know any [company] doing it, I’m absolutely confident that people right now are. So it might not be real…but it’s realistic.”

While he’s occasionally dipped into sci-fi in prose (like 2001’s anthology Futureland) as well as erotica (2006’s Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel), quite where his work will take him next remains a mystery as fiendish as an Easy Rawlins case. “Writing is like a two-edged sword,” he says. “It’s always impossible. You’re going to create the story — and other people are gonna want to watch it and make their way through to the end. And that’s the bad part.” He smiles. “The good part is I love writing. I love to write. When I’m starting to write sentences, they’re happening. Even when they’re not working, the idea is growing. I feel that.

“I tell writers all the time: ‘Listen, you got to write every day, you got to just keep writing and writing and writing.’ They say, ‘Well, this isn’t any good.’ It doesn’t matter if it’s not any good. You just keep writing.

“You think when Tolstoy was writing War and Peace — the first word he wrote down — that it was good? No, it was not!”

After close to 50 novels, he’s not stopping.

“It’s like people who love boxing,” he says. “Who loves being hit? There are people who really like it… and it’s like that.”

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is available on Apple TV+ from March 11

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