I’m not denying anything.”
In fact, Mosley recently penned the introduction to Black Pulp, a new collection of genre fiction edited by Gary Phillips and Tommy Hancock, featuring heroes (swashbucklers, World War II pilots, boxers and detectives) of color. The book features new stories by Phillips, Gar Anthony Haywood, Christopher Chambers, Kimberly Richardson and Derrick Ferguson. (Full disclosure: this writer is featured too.)
While most people equate pulp with crime, the aesthetic actually encompasses so much more. “The books today that are considered great literature—writers like Shakespeare, Twain and Dickens—was once popular fiction,” Mosley says. “To me, popular fiction and pulp are very close. These are the stories that define us.”
Fitting right into the debate of literature vs. pulp is Mosley’s spiritual literary godfather, the late great Chester Himes. Beginning his career writing literary novels of the type James Baldwin called “protest fiction” (If He Hollers Let Him Go, Lonely Crusade), Himes later became famous his pulps.
In Little Green, Easy’s friend Jackson explains why he likes Himes’s wonderful Cotton Comes to Harlem over Ralph Ellison’s much more respected Invisible Man: “Ellison made a window that the White man could look inta, but it’s Chester made a door so we had a way out the burnin’ house.”
Snickering at his own line, Mosley says, “To me, Chester Himes is a better writer than Ellison, James Baldwin and Richard Wright. Sentence by sentence, scene by scene, his work is complex and the characters are never what we expect.”
Although some literary critics compare Mosley and Himes, writer and Georgetown University professor Christopher Chambers doesn’t agree. “Himes presented antiheroes and set these people loose in a universe of crafted moods, tastes, smells, violence, saintly sluts and dangerous virgins,” Chambers said. “These antiheroes had one job: put things back in balance, rather than save the world. Walter doesn’t write characters like that. Easy Rawlings often looks like a cork on an ocean wave, bobbing no matter how hard he swims.”
While Mosley occasionally revisits his favorite genre authors, he never reads any of the new crime writing kids on the block. “I can’t really read new mystery fiction, because I’m afraid that the plots will get into my head and begin coming out in my own work.”
Walter Mosley has won numerous prizes for his writings, and in 2001 was awarded a Grammy for his liner notes essay “The Stage of Life,” written for …And It’s Deep Too!, the Richard Pryor box set released by Rhino Records.
“Everything about Pryor was funny and real,” Mosley says. “He was a comic genius committed to changing the world through his art. He was an intelligent thinker, and the only comic who comes close these days is Dave Chappelle.”
Having recently returned to Brooklyn from an eight-city tour promoting Little Green, Mosley is currently working on various movie and TV projects as well as completing his 41st book, Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore—an erotic tale about a Black woman trying to escape the porn industry.
“Unlike some writers, I’ve never felt like Walter wrote to become famous,” says Carol Taylor. “He writes because he has to.” Though obviously prolific, Mosley modestly brushes off any suggestions that he’s special. “I just write what I write,” he says. “And I do it every single day.”
Cultural critic Michael A. Gonzales has written cover stories for Vibe, Uptown, Essence, XXL, Wax Poetics and elsewhere. He's also written for New York and The Village Voice. Read him at Blackadelic Pop and follow him on Twitter @gonzomike.