Tuesday, November 8, 2022

A Literary Crush by Gabriel Valjan

Have you met your literary hero/Author at a conference, or at an event? What was that experience like, or have you maintained your Author crush from afar?



The month is July and the year, 2004. The place is the now extinct Borders in downtown Boston. Little Scarlet, the ninth Easy Rawlins novel, is out. I was nobody, and less than a foot away from me stood Walter Mosley, waiting while the staff set up the table for him to sign books. He seemed tired, perhaps preoccupied, possibly nervous, but that can’t be, I tell myself. The man has been riding the waves of success. His Devil in the Blue Dress had been made into a movie, and then President Bill Clinton had praised the book and been seen carrying it as he walked down the steps of Air Force Once.  Walter Ellis Mosley had arrived, stingy fedora and all, and I was anxious to read his latest book.

            While we waited, I opened the book. I read the dedication page and said, “Oh, shit.”

Not words he might’ve expected, so he said, “What’s wrong?”

I replied, “You dedicated the book to Gregory Hines.”

            Knowing what I know about publishing and production schedules, I know that Walter had added that dedication as the book was going to press. Mr. Hines had died in August 2003. I couldn’t help but think of the last time I’d watched Gregory dance with his hero, Sammy Davis, Jr. It was an impromptu performance that night in 1990. Davis was visibly ill and frail, and yet he had set aside his pain and let his feet remind us what music can do for the spirit. They danced. Sammy was gone two months later. Then Gregory was gone.

            I said as much to Walter. His response? ‘Gregory was like a brother to me.’

            I was not a writer then. My first publication, a short story, was far in the distance; my first novel, even farther. While I admired Walter’s Easy Rawlins and dangerous sidekick Mouse, I’m grateful to Walter for bringing me back to reading. I’d been in the trenches, decades into reading, and I’d come to experience burnout. Few stories held my interest, and not because I was impossible to please. Literary fiction, in my view, was a lot of nothing happening and everything described in excruciating detail. MFA programs were in vogue, and almost everything from MFA grads were novels about an MFA student writing his first novel, trying to get it published against a backdrop of artistic angst, petty and jealous colleagues, and frustrated academics.

            There’s also the reader’s archaeological memory. Read enough, and you begin to seeto borrow a phrase from Reed Farrel Colemanthe ‘man behind the curtain.’ I can almost predict plot twists and turns of the screw, down to the page number. Each book has its own rhythm and structure, and Walter was writing jazz.         

And he reinvented the PI. Not only was his Easy Rawlins black in racist post-war America, but he was also westward bound as a cowboy, on his way to Los Angeles, deep into Marlowe territory.

I’d come to respect Walter for another reason. I would meet him again, this time as a writer myself. At a recent New England Crimebake, he was a Guest of Honor and talked about writing and his own journey. Walter is a modern incarnation of Cassandra from Greek mythology. He can’t help but speak the truth. He spoke candidly about the publishing industry, issues around visibility for authors of color, but he emphasized that the industry has always been about money and, perversely, fiscally conservative. On the matter of visibility, he would co-found Crime Writers of Color with Kellye Garrett and Gigi Pandian. When he wrote the stories he wanted out in the world, publishers declined because all they wanted was another Easy Rawlins. Easy was easy money.

I admire Walter’s hustle to get his work into the hands of readers. At Crimebake, he described how he’d walked out of one publisher’s office, crossed the street into another editor’s office, sly about promising another Easy if they’d take what he was offering. It was slick and gutsy but spoke volumes about Walter’s integrity. Where most authors coulda woulda shoulda flipped the switch to the printing press and written the wall of Easy Rawlins mysteries for financial security, he’d chosen to write something else altogether.



Catriona McPherson said...

Beautiful! My Walter Moseley story is kind of shallow, but I'll tell it anyway. He was the keynote speaker we managed to snag for the SinC in Great Writing session at Bcon the year I happened to be president. So for that one day I was in his face a bit. The next morning, as a result, he hadn't yet forgotten my name and, as he strolled past a gaggle of young men in the Bcon corridor - who all nudged each other and said "That's Walter Moseley", he lifted a hand and said "Hey, Catriona". All eyes turned my way. I didn't disabuse them. I hope none of them put effort into discovering who *I* was. (No one, basically.)

Gabriel Valjan said...

I'd hardly ascribe 'no one' to you, Catriona, and I'd think a majority of the crime fiction community would agree with me. You remain the best Toastmaster I've seen. E.J. Copperman| Jeff Cohen is my second go-to person. Yes, Walter is a gem and a gentleman. I love the photo I have with him on this post because the light overhead is *almost* a questionable halo. Thank you for stopping by and chiming in with your WM memory.