In 2010, there was a debate in academic literary circles as to whether Walter Mosley’s work should be considered Jewish literature. A similar debate has occurred as to whether he should be described as a black author, given his status as a best-selling writer. Mosley has said that he prefers to be called a novelist. He explains his desire to write about “black male heroes” saying “hardly anybody in America has written about black male heroes… There are black male protagonists and black male supporting characters, but nobody else writes about black male heroes.”
Mosley was born in California in 1952. His mother, Ella was Jewish and worked as a personnel clerk; her ancestors had immigrated from Russia. His father, Leroy Mosley, was an African-American from Louisiana who was a supervising custodian at a Los Angeles public school. He had worked as a clerk in the segregated US army during the Second World War. His parents tried to marry in 1951 but, though the union was legal in California where they were living, no one would give them a marriage license.
Mosley says that he identifies as both African-American and Jewish, with strong feelings for both groups.
He was an only child and ascribes his writing imagination to “an emptiness in my childhood that I filled up with fantasies”. When he was 12, his parents moved from South Central to more comfortably affluent, working-class west LA. He graduated from Alexander Hamilton High School in 1970. Mosley describes his father as a deep thinker and storyteller, a “black Socrates”. His mother encouraged him to read European classics from Dickens and Zola to Camus. He also loves Langston Hughes and Gabriel García Márquez. He was largely raised in a non-political family culture, although there were racial conflicts flaring throughout L.A. at the time. He later became more highly politicized and outspoken about racial inequalities in the US, which are a context of much of his fiction.
While working for Mobil Oil, Mosley took a writing course at City College in Harlem after being inspired by Alice Walker’s book, The Color Purple. One of his tutors there, Edna O’Brien, became a mentor to him and encouraged him, saying: “You’re Black, Jewish, with a poor upbringing; there are riches therein.”
Mosley started writing at 34 and has written every day since, penning more than forty books and often publishing two books a year. He has written in a variety of fiction categories, including mystery and afro-futurist science fiction, as well as non-fiction politics. His work has been translated into 21 languages. His direct inspirations include the detective fiction of Dashiell Hammett, Graham Greene, and Raymond Chandler. Mosley’s fame increased in 1992 when then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton, a fan of murder mysteries, named Mosley as one of his favorite authors. Mosley made publishing history in 1997 by foregoing an advance to give the manuscript of Gone Fishin’ to a small, independent publisher, Black Classic Press in Baltimore, run by former Black Panther Paul Coates.
His first published book, Devil in a Blue Dress, was the basis of a 1995 movie starring Denzel Washington. The world premiere of his first play, The Fall of Heaven was staged at the Playhouse in the Park, Cincinnati, Ohio, in January 2010.
Mosley resides in New York City.
~ Walter Mosley Quote ~