Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
“I love you Daddy. I need you.”
“You need this?”
And she made a sound that I cannot duplicate. It was deep and guttural and so charged with pleasure that I got dizzy and lowered myself to the floor.
The sounds Etta made got louder and even more passionate. She never made those sounds because of me; no woman ever had.
Mouse is crazy, I thought, just crazy!
But I wished for his insanity.
Etta did too.
Etta did too.
"A Red Death" (2002)
HB: Tell me about Mouse.
If Easy comes up to Mouse and says, “This guy from the IRS is after me,” Mouse says, “Well, what’s his name? I’ma kill the motherfucker.” He stands up to whatever the fears are in a fearless manner.
HB: There are times when Easy feels Mouse is over the edge. In “Black Betty” he thinks of him as “an ancient pagan,” who needs “to celebrate and anoint his freedom with blood.”
WM: He’s crazy. Maybe not even crazy. He just doesn’t fit any other description.
HB: Sometimes it seems Easy’s view of Mouse is the white view of black people — unrestrained, terribly violent and sexual.
WM: But only from an external point of view. My mother’s Jewish, and a couple of years ago people asked me to go on a tour for a Jewish Book Festival. I had a lot of fun, because there are a lot of Jewish characters in the books. I got asked on this tour if there’s a black side to Easy and a Jewish side and if the Jewish side is intellectual and philosophical. It’s true that there’s a black and Jewish influence on my work, but that’s not it.
Easy doesn’t represent the white point of view in any way. But I do think, from the outside, Easy might be an entry point. People identify with how he sees things and how he makes decisions. He’s a window on the black world — Easy, not Mouse.
HB: Mouse is opaque. He’s not a window on anything.
WM: Easy is kind of a historian. He’s experienced in the time; he knows the smell, the taste, the sound, the nuance of everything. Mouse doesn’t know any of that stuff. He doesn’t ask Easy if the guy is white or black; he doesn’t care. He just says, if he mess with me, that’s it. He’s much more a universal character in that way.
HB: I compare him to Johnny Boy in Scorcese’s “Mean Streets.” Harvey Keitel plays an Easy Rawlins type, balancing a lot of things, his wildness and his sanity, trying to hold it together. Robert DeNiro’s Johnny Boy doesn’t give a fuck. The intense relationship between those men drives the movie.
WM: Kind of like the relationship between Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Seigel. Bugsy was a loose cannon. At one point Lansky had to say OK about the killing of Bugsy — there weren’t too many ways around that — but he loved him.
HB: How did you find Mouse?
WM: I was writing a first person narrative about a rent party in Fifth Ward Houston, Texas in the late thirties. It started, “His name was Raymond but we called him Mouse because he was small and had sharp features. We could have called him Rat because he really wasn’t very nice but we liked him and so the name ‘Mouse’ stuck on him.” I didn’t know it was Easy talking until about four pages later.
And it built from there, from stories my father told me, and so on. Also, I kind of wish that he existed. I think of other people in literature like that — in a funny way, Kapinsky [??] in “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and Long John Silver in “Treasure Island.” They’re kind of lovable. You forgive them; you like them more than you dislike them for what they’ve done.
HB: Mouse is lovable?
WM: It depends on how you see yourself in the world. If I knew someone like Mouse, I would never talk to him, never accept a favor from him, never even ask him what time it was. I’d just leave him alone. Because I don’t think I could control him. Easy believes, whether he’s right or wrong, that he can control Mouse. It’s like hang-gliding; he thinks he can ride those air currents.
HB: In “A Little Yellow Dog” Mouse gets religion. And learns to read, which nearly traumatizes Easy. He says, “I could feel the world turning under my feet.” Mouse, it turns out, is reading “Treasure Island.”
WM: Mouse may be a sociopath but he’s not two-dimensional. He’s looking for something. The church is there in the community. So he addresses it.
I was really interested in his going to the minister. What does Mouse get out of religion? Crazy people are religious, too. Evil people are religious. But it doesn’t stick. At the end he says, well, killing’s all in the Bible, so killing’s OK. At the end he’s still Mouse.
HB: But we don’t know if he is going to live or die after “A Little Yellow Dog.”
WM: Well that’s what literature is about, right? We’ll see. I don’t know yet either. I have some time to figure it out.
HB: You wrote an angry essay about why you wound up writing mystery novels.
WM: I think you’re talking about “The Black Dick.”
HB: Where you said that giving in to the formulas of the mystery genre was the only way you could get published.
WM: I couldn’t get my first book, “Gone Fishing,” published. The attitude of the publishing world was that you couldn’t write a book about black men and have an audience — unless you had Bigger Thomas or were writing “The Invisible Man.” But not a book about fishermen; you couldn’t write about two young men coming of age in the sole company of black people where politics was not an issue, race was not an issue, and they weren’t all that educated so it couldn’t be existentialism.
I didn’t mind making Easy a detective. I did mind that I couldn’t do other things. [“Gone Fishing” will appear in January, 1997].
HB: Is Chester Himes an influence?
WM: I hadn’t read Chester until after I’d written “Devil in a Blue Dress.” I like his work very much but we’re very different writers. I tend to think more about Langston Hughes and Zora Neal Hurston. Chester’s work is angry in a way that I’m not angry.
HB: You have the ability to evoke the presence, primarily of black people, in a few powerful strokes. For instance, in “Black Betty,” you say Big Hand Bruno “had the ability to swagger even when he was standing still.” In “A Red Death” you write, “His color was dark brown but bright, as if a bright lamp shown just below his skin.” In “A Little Yellow Dog” you describe “a sweaty fat man who looked to be formed from a pile of wet mud.” Strong imagery.
WM: Thank you. One of my favorite novels is “Dead Souls.” I was always stunned that Gogol could explain Russian peasants in half a sentence and then go on and say something else in the other half. That’s how good he was. The other great Russian fiction writer for me is Babel, who also does it. I knew when I first found it, it was something I loved.
The thing I liked most about Carl Franklin’s direction of “Devil in a Blue Dress” is that Carl managed not to stereotype or caricature black people — really important, because everybody else, black and white, does. When I go over the top in my books I try to remember that when you come back down you have a real person to deal with. That’s important to me and to my audience, I think.
HB: Denzel Washington stressed Easy’s laid-back, wait-and-see side. On the page, Easy feels closer to the edge, hotter.
WM: True but Easy is also a very contemplative guy. He has middle-class aspirations. He’s not only literate but thoughtful about what the right thing is and how to do it. He loves his kids. And even before the kids, he loved his little garden. So both sides are there.
HB: At the end of the movie Denzel looks around and the camera scans his L.A. neighborhood. This is before the Civil Rights Movement. Maybe no one’s well-to-do, but the neighborhood has integrity. That last lingering shot is there to show you the community is intact, not self-destructing.
WM: That last scene is a little more powerful than it would be in my book, where there’s a lot of attention to how things fall apart, for example Daphne’s confusion about who she is and who she wants to be. But the ideas are the same. The book’s about community — the jazz club you go to, the neighbors you talk to. Carl underlined it. Book’s have more leeway. A movie has to make its points and get out of there.
HB: Speaking about music, you write in “A Little Yellow Dog”: Three notes and I knew who was playing. Three notes and I remembered the first night I’d heard that tune, the woman I was with, the clothes I was wearing (or wished I was wearing) . . . That horn spoke the language of my history; traveled me back to times that I could no longer remember clearly — maybe even times that were older than I; traveling, in my blood, back to some forgotten home.
WM: I like music very much. Easy likes music. I’d bet Mouse doesn’t like music at all.
HB: “RL’s Dream” revolves around the story of Robert Johnson
WM: “RL’s Dream” is a very important book for me in a lot of ways. Call it a literary novel if you want, or a blues novel. It’s about something which was lost.
One book I read said there was a time when the only door your house had was a back door and it was always open because you were always going to leave quickly. The blues, and many other creations of black people, were victims of that loss. We move ahead like cultural nomads, dropping everything we’ve done, creating completely new lives in order to survive. I found that if you lived on a plantation and wanted to move, you could leave any time you wanted but had to leave everything behind — couldn’t take the horse, the wagon, couldn’t take the furniture, even if you’d paid for them.
The blues is one of the things that got left behind. The people who picked it up, whether black or white, were mostly from a university setting. My idea was to write a novel about what it was like to live in Mississippi. What was it like to be an orphan living on the streets? And then later on, with the girl, what was it like to be raped by your father every day? Trying to talk about the blues as if it were mundane or pedestrian, not some high intellectual thing. I paid a price for that. Some people — the blues is their bailiwick — said we already know this stuff. Yeah, but the world doesn’t know it.
HB: “RL’s Dream” is about the blues but I didn’t feel it in the prose the way I do, say, in “Black Betty,” where it’s there all the time.
WM: I was talking about the lives of people in that book, telling how those lives were structured. The Easy books feed off that information but are not about it. “RL’s Dream” is a blues novel but not a musical novel. Also the Easy books are first person, and less contemplative. Easy doesn’t have enough time to be contemplative.
HB: You’ve started a new series, centered on a character called Socrates Fortlow. Will these be short stories?
WM: A book is coming out — “Always Outnumbered, Always Out-Gunned: The Socrates Fortlow Stories” — in the form of short stories, but there’s a narrative line so you could look at it as a novel.
People say, you’ve got to do something for the children. But they don’t really mean it. If you really want a story for children, you write stories like the Socrates stories. Because for children in the inner city you can’t really say there’s a film in which a good policeman tries to stop the bad gangsters, and so on. You have to write the truth and the truth is very serious. You have to state the truth and have the confidence that the young people reading it are going to think about it. But nobody has that kind of confidence in America.
I wrote the first Socrates Fortlow story for the Whitney Museum’s Hopper exhibit. They had asked me to write something for the catalog.
HB: But Hopper never paints black people.
WM: Once. And I used that painting.
My story’s about a kid who’s murdered somebody. The kid asks if Socrates is going to turn him in. And Socrates says, “No, we just two black people talking to each other. But you did something wrong.” And he leaves it at that. That’s what I’m interested in doing with the Socrates stories. They are a series of morality plays. But my Socrates doesn’t have the leisure the original had. When he makes a decision, he also has to take an action. How do you get a job? How do you get seconds on your dinner? And what’s the cost?
HB: How does the black-Jewish thing play out for you?
WM: I had a long conversation with a rabbi, and told him my mother’s Jewish, which means I’m Jewish. He said, “Why would anybody lie about that?”
My father is black, or was, and my mother is Jewish, and they made me. I don’t know what they were saying to each other while they were making me, but the act was an act of love. I was very close to both sides of my family. I knew everybody. They knew each other. It wasn’t an issue.
The Jews who came from Europe to America up until the forties or the fifties were people who experienced severe racism. I’m not talking necessarily about the camps but about ghettoes, pogroms, the kind of jobs you could get. Like my grandfather. They wanted him in the Russian army but he didn’t want to join because he didn’t want to clean out toilets. That just wasn’t his idea of fun. So most people when they came over identified with black people in America. That’s why I was on this Jewish book tour. Often their grandchildren and great-grandchildren don’t know the history. They identify with what they see on television, and don’t really understand.
I met an older Jewish woman who said, “You have to write about your mother; you have to write about your mother, too.” I said, “Listen. I.B. Singer is a great writer, and Malamud, and a lot of people who write about that. But I’m black in America.” When I was a kid, I said, “Dad, who am I?” And he said, “You’re a black man.” Certainly there are a lot of Jews in my books. But that’s not the story I’m telling.
That happens a lot. Black women come up to me and say, “Can’t you write a black woman detective? Just one?” Maybe I will one day, but you know.