Author Walter Mosley Grew Up In LA But His Writing Is Soaked In The South
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The novelist Walter Mosley was born and raised in Los Angeles. His best-known work is "Devil In A Blue Dress" in the fictional series featuring an LA detective named Easy Rawlins. But Mosley's writing is soaked in the South - Louisiana in particular - a place we're remembering, along with the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In a recent essay in The New York Times, Walter Mosley calls Louisiana his literary grandsire. His family came from there, as did most of his neighbors in Watts, the part of LA where he grew up.
WALTER MOSLEY: When I was 7 years old, I was on the Art Linkletter show, you know, the "Kids Say The Darndest Things." And my accent was so thick. I didn't - you know, who knew about accents? You know, it was only years later when I heard it, I went, wow, I sound like I'm from the South. And really, where I lived in Los Angeles, it was the South.
MONTAGNE: You do - in this essay, you do write about it. You say that you'd be sitting around a kitchen table eating oysters...
MOSLEY: Swimming in Tabasco sauce.
MONTAGNE: Swimming in Tabasco sauce.
MONTAGNE: Describe for us a little then of - of the Louisiana bubble, you know, the Louisiana of Watts.
MOSLEY: Well, you know, the Louisiana of Watts is very interesting because it's very rural, which, you know, New Orleans was also way back then - the food that you're eating - you know, oxtails and gumbo and that kind of stuff. The accent, of course, was a very thick accent. People are very, very religious. I remember chickens walking up and down the street where I lived at 76th and Central. And gardens - people had - you know, instead of lawns, people had gardens. They were, you know, growing beans. And they were growing corn. And they were growing turnips and watermelons. People had picked up their lives, which they loved. These people loved the South. They just hated the racism of the South. And they just moved it into Southern California. And a lot of that is still there, though over time it dissipates, like it does in any culture.
MONTAGNE: So the stories you heard from your cousins or your aunts and uncles, your father - tell us one or two to take us to the New Orleans of your world.
MOSLEY: Well, you know, they're so interesting. For instance, my father's father was born in the eastern South somewhere and had another name. But then he did something. Nobody really knows what. But he did something, and he had to run. And he came to Louisiana, and he changed his name to Walter Mosley. So I'm a Mosley, but I'm not really related to any Mosleys because that's a made-up name for him. He lived in a neighborhood where he was the only black man in the neighborhood who could read and write. And so everybody in the neighborhood came to my father's porch to speak to my father's father. If they got a letter from a girlfriend, if they got a letter from the government, if they got a letter they didn't even know what it was, they would take it to him. If they got a piece of machinery in the mail and there was instructions, they didn't know how to put it together. And they would come to him, and they'd pay him, you know, 10 cents, 15 cents. And he would explain to them what they had there, or maybe he would write a letter for them. And my father sat in the corner on the porch and just watched his father and, in many ways, became him. You know, he learned then reading is the most important thing that I can do. And it was the most important lesson he ever got.
MONTAGNE: And your father was quite the storyteller.
MOSLEY: Oh, he was a great raconteur, yes. I mean - but, you know, it's interesting. Poor people tell stories, you know? They can't do anything else. You know, you're not going to go golfing. You're not even going to go to the movies. You're going to sit around the kitchen table. You're going to tell stories. And you do that long enough, and you get good at it.
MONTAGNE: When Hurricane Katrina hit, there were many stories that came out of there. You tell of one story of a man who was forced to choose, when it came to fleeing - he was forced to choose between his mother and his wife.
MOSLEY: It's such an interesting thing. It sounds mythic, right? It sounds like something that should've happened in ancient Greece. He lived in a house with his wife and his young child. And his mother lived in another house, and she was very stubborn. And she said, I'm not leaving. And the wife says, I'm not going to let our child die in this flood. And he saw both arguments. And, you know, finally, he sent the wife away. He said well, you take our child; you go. I'm going to stay here with my mother because I can't abandon my mother. What was so interesting when he was telling the story, it's that he was there for his mother. She survived. He survived. His wife and child survived. The marriage fell apart. But still, they all survived, and they were kind of happy in their survival. And, you know, when I listened to this guy talking, I went, wow, this is the stories my family used to tell me. They're stories of great hardship but told with smiles on their lips.
MONTAGNE: Walter Mosley, thank you so much for joining us.
MOSLEY: And thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.