So what does Walter Mosley, 43, America's hottest black author, think of himself? "I don't feel like an idol," he says, wriggling his bum back in the chair and smiling pleasantly. "In fact, I feel kind of normal."
I want to feed him frozen date mousse and apricot sorbet to honour the occasion. That is what President Clinton gave him last time he was at the White House. But Mosley won't even accept coffee. "Let's just sit," he says, wandering from the reception of his Nottingham hotel into a draughty restaurant mall. So we do - sit - next to a veneered table.
"Clinton likes my books because they remind him of the South," he says. (Clinton has also made a point of popularising black writers: it was not only artistic merit that prompted him to choose Maya Angelou, a black feminist, to deliver the inauguration poem.) So has it helped his book sales being Clinton's favourite writer? "Don't ask me that!" Mosley says. "Ask me something else!" When I insist, he says: "I like the fact that he read my books, enjoyed them and didn't try to hold that in. In fact, I voted for him."
Mosley's five books are about men. Black men. They are about slummy living conditions, about infidelity, death, love, compassion - all described in lush, lyrical words that rise like sculptures before your eyes. Holding the books together is Easy Rawlins, an unlicensed, unofficial and very off-the-books detective. This hero-detective is America's new love. "Easy Rawlins is so caring. He is such a kind, compassionate man," says a white, middle-class, middle-aged American woman on the train to Nottingham (she and her companion are attending the international crime-writing jamboree at which Mosley is appearing).
They do not mention Easy's antipathy to white (middle-class) American women. "He is marvellous," they declare.
He doesn't fit in with the image I have of him. I expected to meet Easy Rawlins - a man who drinks in the afternoon, chain-smokes and womanises. Someone who looks weary and worldly. Someone with scars on their face and a wiry, ravaged body. After all, this man must have lived in the slums to be able to write about the slums. But no - Mr Mosley emerges from his hotel room with the tousled, wide-eyed look of someone who sleeps like a kitten.
We meet as the OJ Simpson trial comes to its climax. The trial has played out the themes of Mosley's books: the way white police are alleged to conspire against black men; the way that black men can abuse women.
Almost immediately, I make a mistake. I ask him a question containing the words "black people".
"There is no such thing as a black race," he says, sitting up suddenly, his burgundy-silky shirt falling in ripples. "We are so intermixed that there is no race. No pure race. The fact that you are labelling me black is a fact of racism."
Mosley is half-Jewish. From then on I refer to "so-called black people". Mosley is happy with that. "You sound like Malcolm X," he says.
I ask him if he likes being "so-called black". "Yes," he says, "I like the free flowing creative chaos that you get from being black ... I like being part of a group of people in search of an identity." He also enjoys being part of "an incredibly powerful oral tradition". This theme comes up again and again in his books - how black Americans have their own language, their own stories, music, folk tales and riddles, their own grammar ("I is" rather than "I am").
He also appreciates writing for a black audience. "They pick up on a note, a beat, a rhythm which I recognise as part of our shared history," he says. Black Americans know what Mosley is talking about when he describes the brutal treatment of blacks by white police; how the authorities don't care when black girls are murdered but they start caring when a white girl is murdered; how a lone black man can hardly walk round town without bumping into a gang of whites strumming for a fight. "Ninety per cent of black people in America experience what I write about," he says.
Women in particular love his books. His thrillers take them into the man's world that they hear about but cannot enter. But we are also forced to look at other women from a male point of view. The sight is not pretty: Mosley has sprinkled an array of female characters through his books, whose function is to strip, deceive, mislead, spread their legs and please. He says "sex is just used as a metaphor". That hasn't stopped women from accusing him of "writing to titillate".
But then Walter Mosley is not noted for his willingness to appease. His life has been one of railing against accepted order. Brought up as the only child of a socialist, Russian-Jewish mother and black American father, his memories of his childhood have a political flavour. He remembers feeling irritated about how "nobody reacted" when "niggers" were put into "black dumb classes at school" and whites were put into "white smart classes ... They just said: 'Oh, OK,' " he says, still smarting 30 years on.
After graduating from high school in 1970, Mosley left the Watts area of Los Angeles, California and headed for the East Coast. In 1977 he was awarded a bachelor's degree in political science from Johnson State College, Vermont. For a couple of years he floated through a variety of jobs, including making and selling pottery and operating a catering business. Then in 1979 his future wife Joy Kellman, a dancer and choreographer, walked into his life and together they moved to New York where Mosley got work as a computer operator.
It was then that Mosley's interest in writing was kindled - by Alice Walker's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Color Purple - a story about a black woman living in the South. "I thought, 'Oh - I could do this,' " he explains. Shortly after that he wrote a sentence "about people on a back porch in Louisiana". He was so taken with that single sentence that he signed up to creative writing classes.
His first novella Gone Fishin' featured Easy Rawlins but it was not a detective story. The work was rejected by a number of publishers because of its subject matter: there wasn't a market for books about black men, he was told. Mosley re-wrote the novella as a detective story, but the theme was the same: the life of Easy Rawlins. He called it Devil in a Blue Dress. The novel was published in 1990 and has just been made into a film. A Red Death was released a year later followed by White Butterfly (1992), Black Betty (1994) and most recently RL's Dream (1995).
Read in a block, the novels tend to blend together. They are all set in the urban jungle, in steamy stripper joints, underground clubs, housing projects, car parks and shopping streets. Easy Rawlins grows up during the course of four novels - getting married, acquiring a mortgage, adopting two children, then losing the wife and the mortgage. But the theme is basically the same: Easy Rawlins beset by temptation, aware of his shortcomings, in search of the baddy and just a hint of moral deliverance.
"People read my books too fast," Mosley complains. "They are so eager to solve the mystery that they skim." But I didn't care what happened at the end of Mosley's books. I read them for their cinematic quality. It gave me a buzz to be swished through red rooms, blue alleys, to follow Easy Rawlins as he disappears into a brothel to visit Marla the prostitute, who sits with "her legs wide enough to expose a thick mat of pubic hair".
The scene in White Butterfly in which Easy Rawlins rapes his wife by forcing her to have sex "the way dogs do it" has been particularly controversial. "I get women coming up to me, saying, 'Why did you include that scene?' But I was not proposing that men should rape their wives. I put it in to encourage people to discuss rape within marriage," Mosley says.
So does he have any qualms about titillating readers in this way? No, he says. The novels are just a reflection of real life: "That is what poor people do - they eat sweet foods or salty foods, they drink or get high and they have sex. If I were to ignore it, to pretend it doesn't happen, then the book would be a lie."
Mosley says he has made every effort to make sure that women are not misrepresented in his novels. "Yes, Easy Rawlins does appreciate women sexually - but he also recognises strength of character, intelligence and the ability to do things that he can't do," he says. Elsewhere in his books, Mosley is careful to ensure that for every female character who is humiliated or hurt there is another female character who is given a positive role. "That's what is important. If a man is given character and a female is given character then it can't be sexist," he says.
In one chapter, for example, a young woman "plump and the colour of a dusky orange" is watched by two men as she parades naked before a window. If that woman was the only female in the chapter then yes, her nakedness could be seen as gratuitous, says Mosley. But there are three other female characters in the chapter, all of whom are portrayed as hard-working women struggling to make a difference, he points out. They are not victims. They are not objects. They are tough.
"I don't write to change the world," Mosley says, stretching like a fat cat. "I'm not here to give answers either. I just want to raise the questions." He starts gathering together his belongings. "Ask me one more thing," he says. I think hard. "How did you find out about seedy caverns, fear, about the way people kill, the sad side of sex?" I ask.
"Let me put it like this," he replies. "I didn't have to go far to figure it out."Reuse content