A Night With William Jefferson Clinton's Favorite Writer
A woman of my age should go to the bathroom before major events; I should know this by now; I’ve been taught, all my life, by Mama, to “go before we leave the house”; however, I still get too distracted now and then to act with any sense. I was sorry about that last night, when I went to see Walter Mosley speak at Christopher Newport University’s Ferguson Hall. Because I had moderated* a panel where four colleagues talked about four different Mosley novels, we all got tickets to the talk. But about halfway through Mr. Mosley’s talk, I felt An Urgency. I felt hot with embarrassment, and I felt forced to lean over and tell my girlfriend, with whom (and her husband and Juice) I had come to the talk, “I need to find the ladies’ room.” Without batting an eye, she pointed and said, “It’s right outside this room.”
I appreciated the fact that it didn’t even seem to occur to her to recoil in horror at the possibility that I’d have to leave the front row (“priority seating,” the usher told us) , in front of God and everybody, and run all the way back to the ladies’. As I mulled over this appreciation, I realized that, at my age, NONE of the people I truly like and love (virtually or IRL) would feel embarrassed by having to watch me do that. In fact, I know a couple who’d get up, all in front of God and everybody, and go with me. I have to say that I do not include my daughters in that number, although I like and love them, too. Either or both of them would just die of embarrassment in such a situation. Fortunately, I didn’t have to witness Juice’s embarrassment: when I thought about my friendships, for some reason, The Urgency passed.* I got to hear Walter Mosley talk about writing, politics, sex, race, celebrity, and family. It was a joy, thoroughly entertaining and enlightening.
Walter Mosley is a tall, roundish, balding, extremely light-skinned black man. (Juice, sitting next to me, asked, as he came to the podium, “Is he white?” She had been confused by her programme, which had a picture of a café-au-lait-skinned black man on the cover. The fact is, Mosley’s father was black and his mother was Jewish. This is how he describes his parentage; as he says, “Anybody who knows the history of the Jews in Europe would not call them ‘white.’ And I am not white.”) He was dressed entirely in black, black suit, black mock turtleneck shirt, black shoes; one corner of the back of his suit jacket was kind of hiked up over one hip. I kept getting distracted by that corner of his suit jacket. (My gf said she had had the strong urge to run up to the stage and pull it down, but she didn’t feel such solicitation would be appropriate or welcomed, so she beat the impulse down.)
Mosley talked about writing. He said that, every morning, he got up, made coffee, and turned on his computer. “After that, everything else comes easy.” He rejoices in the discovery (twenty years ago) that he is a writer, despite the fact that his father had wanted him to go into “the prison system, a growing industry,” and had predicted (wrongly) that he’d never make any money as a writer. When an audience member asked him, “What do you do to get started?” he replied, “Nothing.”
“You mean you just get up, drink some coffee and just write?”
“Yes. That’s what I mean.”
He said that every writer should take a poetry course. “I’m a terrible, terrible poet. Terrible. But taking a poetry course taught me about rhythm and rhyme and the sounds of words, how sentences should work –everything, really, about writing a novel, except characterization and plot.” He also said it might be a good idea for poets to take novel-writing courses.
Mosley talked about politics. He said that he hadn’t watched the debates. “What? Am I gonna suddenly change my mind [because of a debate] and vote for McCain? I guess I should’ve said ‘the other guy,’ huh?” He believes that, whoever we vote for, “the lobbyists will continue to run the country.” But, although he has decided to “vote for Obama, stump for him,” he realizes, he says, that one man can do only so much for an entire country. “We all have to go to work,” he said, “on November 5th, to create change, to end the control of those lobbyists.”
Mosley talked about sex. Or, rather, the sex in one of his new books. He published his thirtieth (?) book, Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel, this year, and the critics have panned it as “just porn.”
“And,” he said, shrugging, “it is. . . .It’s about sex. So if you don’t like to read about people having sex, lots and lots of sex, don’t buy it.” He was amused by non-critical reaction to the novel. “People were reading it, getting aroused by it, and not wanting to be aroused!” But, as one of the audience members (one of my favorite colleagues. I was so proud of him) pointed out, there is more than just sex, lots and lots of sex in the novel. Mosley was thinking of Sartre and Camus and Malraux (but not Eliot) when he wrote that thang. He was thinking about what happens to a person “when sex is the problem.” His girlfriend said, “In ten years, they’ll get it,” and he hopes that’s true.
Mosley talked about race. He pointed out that, after 9/11, he got “two thousand phone calls, one thousand from white people, and one thousand from black people.” Everybody was stunned and grieving, he said, but “only the white people were surprised.” (And one black woman, whom he laughed at.) He claimed that black people, having watched white people for centuries, always “know what white people are going to do. ‘See what Massa did right there? Know what he’s gonna do next?’”
Mosley talked about celebrity. People keep confusing him with another writer. Some gentleman at an airport told Mosley how much he had enjoyed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. When Mosley said, “I’m not August Wilson; I’m Walter Mosley,” the gentleman flapped his hand derisively at him and said, “Oh, never mind, then.” And then, at a panel, the late, great Wilson told Mosley, “I’m bout sick of people tellin me how much they like Devil in a Blue Dress!” Mosley doesn’t understand it. “I think I look like Billy Joel,” he said. At this point, I apologize, but I have to tell y’all that Juice asked me, “Who’s that?”
“August Wilson? A great playwright. He wrote The Piano Lesson, remember?”
“Not him. The other guy he said.”
“Yeah. Who’s that?” At that moment, after telling her he was a pop legend, I couldn’t remember any songs except, “My Life,” “Innocent Man” and the very, very, very end of “Just the Way You Are,” none of which I could sing to her at that moment. (Y’all help me. What Billy Joel would the child’ve heard?? Today, I remember the “la lalala” hook from “Piano Man,” but otherwise, I’m drawin a blank.)
Mosley talked about family. I liked his stories about his father, who told great stories and listened while his son learned how to tell stories. I liked what he said about his mother, who helped teach him how to function in the world. He said that he learned everything he knew about white people from his mother (although, as I said, he contends that she herself “isn’t white”). I liked what he said about his aunt, a very, very short woman “who was the strongest member of the family.” (He meant physically, too.)
Mosley was very generous with his time. During questions from the audience, one audience member, about a hunnert and fifty years old, apologized first for having "a bad cold," coughed (“all the way from his but-tocks,” said gf’s hubby) right in the microphone, and finally asked a question Mr. Mosley said he’d have to take notes for. But he answered a LOT of questions, patiently and as completely as (he thought) possible. Mostly, he was very effective with questioners. He knew how to cut off an answer and then move, expeditiously, to the next. He was good. I was filled with admiration.
And then he walked away to a table to sign autographs. The line was ridiculous long, but Mr. Mosley sat and signed and sat and signed. GF had left her children (one a 10mo) with Goobs and her own 14yo, so she was a little antsy about standing in that long line, waiting for an autograph. But the line moved rather quickly, so we got in it.
GF’s hubby had sketched Mosley while he talked. Hubby told us the story of how Toni Morrison refused to sign his sketch of her.
“Did I write this?” he says she asked.
“No,” Hubby replied, still not even seeing what was coming.
“Then I’m not signing this,” she said. “Next!” (Here, GF interjects, “And I shoved him aside and pointed my book –her book—at her. Got my autograph.”)
“I don’t like Toni Morrison anymore,” Hubby ended. But Walter Mosley signed the sketch, and my copy of Gone Fishin and GF’s copy of Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, and Juice’s copy of the programme.
Then he allowed everybody and her brother to take pictures with him. Around this time, I found one of my former students. Hadn’t seen her in years, though we email all the time.
“Ms. B! You gotta take a picture with me and Mr. Mosley!”
“That’s not happenin,” I replied, filled with dread.
But, honey, it happened.
I stood there, on the right side of Walter Mosley, one arm around me, feeling like a rabbit on the interstate. My former student was saying to Mr. Mosley, "I never would've known who you were if it hadn't been for her!" My stank friends were standing around, with their own cameras, yelling, “Stop bein so shy, Gine! SMILE!” I couldn’t. I hate picture-taking, and I hate forcing myself on celebrity strangers.
“Gotta tickle her,” said Mosley. And then he did: first behind my ear, then at my considerable waist. It’s gonna take me a long time to forget that. On the ride home, while everybody was laughing at the cougher, I had both hands on my face, thinking, I do not believe what happened. At home, in bed, I was still shaking my head.
It was the second coolest thing that happened that night. The best, best thing, ever, was being there with Juice, who had asked to be my date.
Dear Jesus, my Brother, thank You for the Great Ones.
* That means I kept the panelists from fist fights. No, really.
*No, I did not pee in the seat.