Walter Mosley hates to be pigeonholed. Perhaps that goes back to his origins: His mother, Ella Slatkin, was Jewish; his father, Leroy Mosley, was African American.
His genealogy perhaps instilled in him a desire to explore different avenues, and that’s what his life has been about. A computer programmer until he was 34, he’s now spent two decades as a prolific and successful writer.
Mosley is best known for his detective novels about Easy Rawlins (including Devil in a Blue Dress, made into a 1995 film starring Denzel Washington), but he hasn't limited himself to a particular genre. It irritates him when he’s called a “mystery writer.”
During a recent interview he told me, “I write all kinds of books. Only half my books are mysteries.” He’s generated more than 30 books, including science fiction and politics, which have been translated into 21 languages.
Even that hasn’t satisfied Mosley's voracious desire to generate words. He said he could easily crank out three novels a year, but his publisher discourages him because his works would compete with one another at bookstores. That’s tough advice for a man who feels compelled to write.
“I can’t stop writing,” he said. “Two days without writing drives me crazy. Three, and I’m bouncing off the walls.”
That restlessly prolific quality led him to yet another new form — his first play, The Fall of Heaven, debuting Thursday at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park.
“Playwriting is another way of thinking about things,” Mosley said. “It enhances my ability to write novels.”
In fact, The Fall of Heaven derives from a recent book, The Tempest Tales, a collection of short stories.
“Many years ago,” Mosley explained, “Langston Hughes wrote a series of very, very short stories about a guy, an everyman, who lived in Harlem and was interviewed by a black news reporter. I just loved those stories, but I thought Langston had a flaw in that the interlocutor did not have his own character, making them more like vignettes than stories. I decided to do a series of stories like that.”
While Mosley hates categorization, many of his stories are about crime.
“For me, all literature and many other arts are about crossing moral boundaries,” he said. “If those boundaries are not crossed, it’s very difficult to have dramatic tension. If you don’t have that, you have to replace it with something else.”
Altogether he wrote two dozen stories about Harlem resident Tempest Landry, a very culpable mortal who is “mistakenly” killed by the police because he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“He goes to heaven,” Mosley said, “and refuses to be sent to hell by St. Peter.”
In Mosley’s universe, this exercise of free will entitles a soul to come back and address issues from his life. “That creates drama, which tries to work itself out in the play.”
The Fall of Heaven begins with Tempest’s death and return to earth.
“An angel comes down to be his interlocutor," Mosley said. "At first, the angel thought this would be an easy job, but it is not. By the second act, Tempest gets the devil to represent him against heaven. It gets more complex.”
After succeeding in the solitary and self-contained world of fiction, Mosley had to make some adjustments as his writing moved to the stage.
“Playwriting is the hardest of all writing,” he said. “In a novel, you get to explain everything, including the characters’ thoughts. For instance, a guy is about to walk in through a doorway. I can write his thought about what he’s going to do when he walks in. And the thought can be interesting.”
In a note for the Playhouse program, Mosley writes that a play “is the work and the sweat of dozens of disparate minds surging to make a spectacle of the words scrawled down in an attempt to make that internal drama a living — a more than living — event. Actors, a director, designers of all kinds and so many others working with wood, money and words.”
A performed work is challenging.
“People talk at you for two hours or more,” Mosley said. “You have to make every word, every turn, every moment in dialogue count. Things build in a dramatic but not necessarily direct way. That’s very difficult. And I love it.”
Mosley has one of the best partners imaginable at the Playhouse with Marion McClinton. The veteran director is well known for his Broadway and off-Broadway productions of August Wilson’s plays. He received a 2001 Tony Award nomination for directing Wilson’s King Hedley II.
Mosley said he has loved theater since he was a teenager: “I can’t act, but for a while I was part of the Afro-American Traveling Actors Association. I’m always hanging around theaters, and I like actors and the whole thing.”
Will The Fall of Heaven lead to more plays? “I like the notion of it,” Mosley said.
He's already drafted two more scripts.
WALTER MOSLEY presents a free lecture as part of the Playhouse's "Perspective Series" at 6 p.m. Feb. 7. Get more information here.