Class of 1991MA
Walter Mosley didn’t begin to write seriously until he was in his mid-30s, but he became one of the most acclaimed mystery writers of our time and a major presence in American literature, the author of more than three dozen books that have been translated into 21 languages. Although he may be best known for his crime novels, he has written nonfiction, political essays, science fiction, young adult novels and erotica. He is a recipient of PEN USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award and his short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Esquire, GQ, The Los Angeles Times Magazine and Playboy. His nonfiction has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek and The Nation. Mosley founded the Black Genius lecture series at New York University, was the guest editor of “The Best American Short Stories of 2003,” and has written for television, film and the stage. His novels have explored the black experience in America since the post-World War II era, moving from the Deep South to his native Los Angeles to New York. Time magazine called him “a writer whose work transcends the thriller category and qualifies as serious literature.”
Mosley was born to working-class parents in Los Angeles on Jan. 12, 1952. His mother, Ella, was white and Jewish and encouraged him to read European classics; his father, Leroy, was an African-American from Louisiana, described by Mosley as a deep thinker and storyteller, a “black Socrates.” Mosley attended schools in Los Angeles, went through a “long-haired hippie” phase, dropped out of Goddard College in Plainfield, Vt., and earned a political science degree at Johnson State College in Johnson, Vt. He moved to New York in 1981 and worked as a computer programmer for more than decade, learning during that period that writing was what he wanted to do. He enrolled in a postgraduate writing program at City College, where his mentors included the Irish writer Edna O’Brien, who told him, “You’re black, Jewish, with a poor upbringing; there are riches therein.” In 1997, Mosley provided the initial seed grant to establish the Publishing Certificate Program at City College, whose aim is to increase diversity in publishing. He received a Townsend Harris Medal in 1996 and an honorary doctorate from the College in 2005.
Mosley’s first novel, “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1990), was nominated for an Edgar, became the first in a series of books, and immediately established him as a mystery writer of the first rank. It introduced his most famous character, a black private investigator named Ezekiel (Easy) Rawlins, and was made into a 1995 film with Denzel Washington (pictured below) starring as Rawlins, a man faced with personal, social and moral dilemmas while living in the Watts section of Los Angeles from the 1940s to the 1960s. Critic David Ulin wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, “Read together, the Rawlins books compose a sprawling novel of manners about twentieth-century African-American Los Angeles that owes as much to authors like Dickens and Zola as it does to the aesthetics of noir.”
Mosley introduced a new protagonist in 1997 with “Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned: The Socrates Fortlow Stories,” about an ex-con seeking redemption. That book, which won the Anisfield Wolf Award, given to works that increase the appreciation and understanding of race in America, was made into a 1998 HBO movie, also written by Mosley, starring Laurence Fishburne.
In 1998, Mosley was awarded the TransAfrica International Literary Prize for his body of work. He is a board member of the National Book Awards and The Poetry Society of America, and is past president of the Mystery Writers of America. His many awards include a Grammy in 2001 for his liner notes for a Richard Pryor album entitled “And It’s Deep Too!”
In 2005, Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute gave him its Risktaker Award for his creative and activist efforts. The following year, he was the first recipient of the Carl Brandon Society Parallax Award for his young adult novel “47.” He has won two NAACP Image Awards for Outstanding Literary Work, Fiction: once for “Blonde Faith” in 2008, again for “The Long Fall” in 2010. In 2013, he was inducted into the New York Writers Hall of Fame.