People usually remember as far back as the generation that raises them, says writer Walter Mosley.
Mosley had come into KUOW’s studios to speak with KUOW’s Ross Reynolds. It was 1992, and his third book, "White Butterfly," had just been published.
Easy Rawlins, Mosley’s main character, emerged from those memories. Easy was a fixer, a guy who does favors for people.
"Being black and living in the black community, you see there are a lot of people in the community who need help,” Mosley said. “They don't feel they can go to the police.”
Mosley was talking about 1940s and 50s California, a time when black Southerners were moving to California. Life was better, but blacks often felt a sense of displacement.
“They're from the South, and they fought in this war, and they realized in the war that they really were Americans and they really were equal. And they were looked on as heroes by the Europeans. But when they got home they were still in the South.”
In California, though, they felt like outsiders.
“Just that – not being able to come home, being displaced by your own sense of self is the kind of problem that black people have been facing in America forever," he said.
Easy channels that feeling in "White Butterfly:"
I wondered at how it would be to be a white man; a man who felt that he belonged. I tried to imagine how it would feel to give up my life because I loved my homeland so much.
"That little part of the book has a lot of resonance in the black community — that you belong, but you don't ever completely belong,” Easy said. “You don't have the full range of possibilities. And nobody you're related to has that range.
“You are an American, and you believe that you are an American, and you believe that you're part of the world. You might have even gone out and fought in wars and everything, but still you know things are different."
Easy takes after his father, Mosley said. Like him, Easy owns a building but doesn’t tell anyone about it.
"My father was a custodian for the Board of Education in Los Angeles, and he owned a lot of apartment buildings. And he had a Cadillac. But he would always drive an old Ford to work.
“I asked him one day, I said, 'Dad, Why do you do that? Why don't you drive your Cadillac to work?’ He said, ‘Because the day I drive the Cadillac to work I'm gonna not be able to work with the people anymore because they're all going to be jealous of me.’
“And it happened. One day he did drive to work with the Cadillac. He couldn't work well with anybody anymore."
Mosley started writing when he was 33. He was a computer programmer working for Mobil oil in New York at the time.
“I was working on a Saturday – a nice thing that consultants can do – and instead of writing my program, I was writing these sentences,” he said.
“One of the sentences was, 'On hot sticky days in southern Louisiana, the fire ants swarmed.' And I really liked that line a lot. I don't know what I think about it anymore but I liked it then. So I decided I wanted to be a writer."
Leaving the job wasn’t scary, he said, because it wasn’t secure.
“They had this bank of – analysts, I don’t know what they were called – white men in their mid-50s,” Mosley said. “They worked in all these offices right next to each other. One day I came to work, and they were all wandering around like they were lost. And they were crying.”
The men had been fired, their entire unit axed. “It wasn’t a thing,” Mosley said. “Get rid of all of them.” Leaving that job didn’t seem so scary after that.
He took a writing class and then enrolled in a graduate program at the City College of New York. The first book he wrote wasn’t picked up. The head of his program asked to read his second.
“I went away for a weekend and I came back,” Mosley said, “and he said, ‘Well, my agent's going to represent you now.’”