Almost 30 years ago, Walter Mosley introduced Detective Easy Rawlins to the world and now Mosley is debuting his latest smooth-talking private dick, Joe King Oliver. Set in modern-day New York, Down the River Unto the Sea, offers Mosley’s powerful, rhythmic prose as readers climb into the front car of Oliver’s rollercoaster life.
Framed for a sexual assault he didn’t commit, Oliver’s career as a police detective was destroyed when he went to prison for the alleged assault. The novel picks up just as Oliver has begun to track down which of his former cop buddies framed him. He also finds himself helping a man who is in prison for allegedly shooting and killing police officers. All of this ensues while Oliver tries to raise his daughter, keep his libido in check, and peacefully co-parent with his ex-wife.
Having authored more than 50 books in a career that spans three decades, Mosley is a publishing veteran and his work has expanded to the big and small screen, as well as the stage. TheGrio chatted with Mosley about the inspiration behind his latest book, his writing routine, how he defines freedom, and much more.
TheGrio: We know you are a Marvel fan. Have you seen Black Panther yet?
Walter Mosley: No, I haven’t but, I will. I think Black Panther was first introduced in the Fantastic Four series. That’s when I first saw him when I was a boy. It meant a lot that I could see a Black super hero, a powerful Black man. I’m glad everyone is excited about the movie. I’ll wait to see it when things die down a bit. I’ll catch it in one of those theaters with the reclining chairs. You all are late. I’ve been a Black Panther fan for 50 years.
TheGrio: Speaking of being a fan, Easy Rawlins is a fan favorite from your numerous detective novels, but now you have a new detective in your book Down the River Unto the Sea. How did Joe King Oliver come about? Did he just pop in your head one day?
Walter Mosley: I decided that I wanted to write about a freedom fighter who is unjustly imprisoned. There are so many great activists in prison because they defended themselves against a system that actively seeks to deny them life and freedom. It’s not just Black people, but it’s a lot of Black people. Mumia is a good example.
I wanted to write about a guy who defended himself against the police and was convicted of murder. So, I decided to write about it from the perspective of a cop who loves his job, but because of the issues in his life, he comes to understand the other side and ultimately defends the prisoner.
TheGrio: In the book, Oliver is accused of sexual assault, but it turns out he didn’t do it. With all the #MeToo conversations happening right now, were you concerned that Oliver’s story might be construed as casting doubt on women’s claims of sexual assault?
Walter Mosley: One, I wrote this before the #MeToo movement re-emerged, so no. Also, I’m in complete agreement with the movement. I’m all for everyone’s rights being protected. I respect all of the women who have had the courage to come forward. For my character, his situation happened to be that he didn’t do it. That’s his particular story. Sexual relations and emotional relations are so complex. It’s grist for the mill when it comes to telling stories about the human experience. Talking about it is necessary.
TheGrio: It’s been a while since we’ve seen your work on the big screen. Any chance this will be adapted into a movie?
Walter Mosley: We’ll see. I’ve been working on a few on-screen projects. We just finished shooting the pilot for the Leonid McGill series. You know that show Snowfall? John Singleton asked me to consult on the writing in the first season, so I did that. For this second season, I wrote episode three, so you can see my work there.
TheGrio: Is it true that you write every day?
Walter Mosley: Not really, but I write no more than three hours a day. I’m no good after that. My creativity shuts off. When whatever I’ve written challenges and pushes my writing ability forward, I know I’m onto something.
I was asked to write about the 50th anniversary of In the In Heat of the Night. I was a little daunted by the task because In the Heat of the Night is a truly transcendent piece of art and Sidney Poitier is so cool.
I wondered if I could do this film justice in less than 2,000 words. It’s possible to be a good novelist and a bad writer and vice versa. But in the end, I think I succeeded with the essay.
TheGrio: With more than 50 books under your belt, you’ve written in numerous genres, including sci-fi, non-fiction, young adult fiction, and of course your detective stories. Is there any genre you haven’t tackled yet that you would like to try?
Walter Mosley: If you had asked me that a while ago, I would have said Westerns, but now I just finished outlining a western series with Gary Phillips. I have so many books, plays and screenplays to share.
TheGrio: The span of your creative output is impressive and inspiring. You have found a way to translate all those ideas in your head into something you can share with the world.
Walter Mosley: Thank you. I really appreciate that. This goes back to In the Heat of the Night. What made Sidney Poitier’s character Virgil Tibbs free was him believing in his own equality and acting on it. There’s that great “They call me Mr. Tibbs” scene. When you get to the point where you feel like you can do, feel, and say what you want, that’s true freedom. You have given yourself freedom as an artist, as a writer–which is a hard thing to do in America. You admire this about me because it’s also true of you.