'Easy Streak

WALTER MOSLEY

Publishing: Walter Mosley has his foot firmly planted on the rungs of the ladder to success with increasing popilarity for his Easy Rawlins mysteries

July 12, 1996|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Walter Mosley is in a very good place.

First of all, he is in the chapel of a handsome Episcopalian church, the pews almost Easter Sunday full with fans of his mystery books and last year's non-genre novel, "RL's Dream." He also is on the lower rungs of several best-seller lists with his latest Easy Rawlins book, "A Little Yellow Dog" (Norton, $23).

Consequently, he is on the lower rungs of writing fame, which he proclaims the best place of all, a place that allows him to still get out and meet his fans, without feeling overwhelmed.

"I think this is a wonderful moment in my career and I'd like to stay at it for as long as possible," Mosley tells the audience in St. Margaret's church before he begins to read. "Right now, I'm really happy."

And a little tired. In fact, he had come to this church after taking an afternoon nap, something he says he seldom does in his "real" life in New York, as opposed to the unreal life of a 10-city book tour -- five days and 10 events in the Baltimore-Washington area alone, including an appearance at Borders Books & Music in Towson tonight, and Fells Point's Mystery Loves Company tomorrow.

"Mouse had changed," he begins and his listeners laugh softly in happy anticipation. They may not know this work, which is not yet published, but they know exactly who Mouse is, and the kind of things likely to happen when Mouse shows up on Easy Rawlins' doorstep.

Mouse is a pivotal character in Mosley's five Easy Rawlins mysteries, which began with 1990's "Devil in a Blue Dress," a mystery set in 1940s Los Angeles. Familiar territory for the genre, except that Easy was a black man in Watts, the neighborhood where Mosley, 44, grew up.

Over five books, Easy has changed, Mouse has changed and, to some extent, Mosley's life has changed. Consider this tour, quite different from one that brought him to Baltimore in 1992.

Then, although already known as President Clinton's favorite mystery writer, he was one of three authors put on the road by their paperback publisher, Pocket Books, on the theory that the trio would draw more fans as an ensemble and, perhaps, cross-pollinate sales. Perhaps 30 people showed up at Mystery Loves Company for that event.

No need for sidekicks now. Mosley made the best-seller list in 1994 with his fourth mystery, "Black Betty," and gained new readers through the Carl Franklin film version of "Devil in a Blue Dress." Last year, "RL's Dream" brought him nonmystery readers, entranced by his novel about the blues. Today, Mosley's reading attracts a mix of all these fans -- mystery readers, who tend to be white, but also scores of black professionals.

"It's interesting to see him before a mixed group," says his publicist, SallyAnne McCartin, who has accompanied him at every stop along this tour. "He's very funny, but it's almost as if the black audience members give the white audience members permission to laugh."

The day after Mosley reads at St. Margaret's Church near Dupont Circle, he attracts more than 200 people to a noon-day signing at Olsson's books in downtown Washington, then gives another reading that night to a crowd 100-strong in the Georgetown Barnes & Noble.

Yet his fans still want more. Those waiting for his autograph at Olsson's jot down the rest of Mosley's itinerary. "This weekend in Baltimore? I'll tell my boss." "Where in Prince George's County are you going to be? Are you going to read?" "Is writing a book like writing a software program?"

The last question is not as odd as it might seem. Mosley was a computer programmer before he started writing novels. His first novel, "Gone Fishin' " centered on Easy and his best friend, Mouse, in their Texas youth. "Mouse had changed" is the first line of "Gone Fishin'."

But Mosley could not find a publisher for the book in the late 1980s. "This was P.T.M.," he likes to say. "Pre-Terry McMillan. The theory was: White people are not interested in black people. Black women don't like black men. Black men don't read.

"And I say, 'Yes, black men don't read --" theatrical pause -- " 'The Scarlet Letter.' "

"Gone Fishin' " was put aside, but not forgotten. Today, any number of publishers would pay handsomely to have Mosley's first Easy Rawlins manuscript. Instead, he decided last month to publish it with the Baltimore-based Black Classic Press, waiving his advance. Director W. Paul Coates reportedly cried when he learned of Mosley's decision.

"I'm not rich, but I realize that this was like giving a black publisher a million dollars," Mosley says. "And let me tell you, it feels good to give someone a million dollars."

The son of a black man and a Jewish woman, Mosley has long been troubled by what he calls "passive racism" in publishing. "This brand of racism isn't coarse or violent," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times in May 1994. "These racists actually support the rainbow -- as long as the sun doesn't shine on the musty halls of publishing."

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