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READING | Q & A WITH WALTER MOSLEY

Practical Words to Live By

March 19, 2000|BOBBY CUZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Since his first novel, "Devil in a Blue Dress," was published in 1990, Walter Mosley has become one of America's most celebrated black authors. Born in South Los Angeles and raised there and later the Pico-Fairfax area, Mosley has gained popular and critical acclaim for a series of novels set in post-World War II Los Angeles and featuring the reluctant private eye Easy Rawlins.

His most recent book, "Workin' on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History," is a criticism of modern capitalist society and is Mosley's second nonfiction work. Mosley, 48, now lives in New York with his wife, dancer-choreographer Joy Kellman.

Following is a question-and-answer session between Mosley and the Reading Page.

Q: Your parents both worked in the Los Angeles school system. Were they the ones that impressed the love of reading on you, or was that something you discovered on your own?

A: My parents liked to read and so I liked to read. I don't know if they talked to me much about reading, but they just read. And because they read, I read.

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Q: Did they read to you?

A: Some. Not a whole lot. It was much more the activity of reading in the house. They would be reading books and magazines and newspapers.

I think that what's important to parents is important to children. Parents don't have to do a whole bunch extra. As a matter of fact, I think it's even a mistake to say, "Oh, well if you read to your kids, then they'll learn how to read." Well, if you read to your kids, and that's all you do, then kids will learn that you should read to kids. If it's not a part of your life, it's not going to be a part of your kids' life.

It's kind of a funny thing. People ask me, "How do I get my kids to read?" I say, "Well, do you read?" They say, "No. But I'm not worried about me." It might happen, because some kids love to read anyway--but you can't just tell them. Especially if you're not doing it. You say, "Read a book." They say, "Well, you don't read no books. And I want to be like you."

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Q: What do you think about parents who lock up the TV set?

A: It depends on who you are, and what your relationship to the kid is.

You can't get rid of television permanently--I think it's a good idea to get rid of it for a while--but you can't get rid of it permanently, because it's one of our media. It's one of the ways in which information is channeled. And it's an immediate way. There's something happening right now; you may need to know that right now. You don't have time to read it in the newspaper the next day.

And also it's kind of a socialization thing. That's another thing that you can't ignore with kids. Every kid in school has a television, everybody's talking about things happening on television and your kid doesn't. That's something you have to deal with. I think the idea of being able to control it makes more sense. You know, "This is one thing that you do." This happens so many hours a day, or so many hours a week, or on the weekends, or whatever.

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Q: What about the computer?

A: Many of the things you get off the Internet, you read! So that's reading . . . but the quality of writing on the Internet is really not so high, as a rule.

So the Internet has a long way to go, I think. And I don't think it's going to [get better]. I think it's going to become much more like television. The reason that you're reading things now is because they really can't stream images quickly enough. One day the Internet and television will be interchangeable. I haven't heard anybody seriously discuss the quality of writing on the Internet. And I think quality is important in writing.

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Q: Do you think, in general, in your lifetime, that reading has been on the decline?

A: No, I don't think so.

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Q: Do you think that's a misperception?

A: Is it a perception? I think more people are reading. I think that more people are reading, certainly, than there were a hundred years ago. More people know how to read. . . . I think probably because more is available, people are aware of how few people actually involve themselves with it.

At one time, you'd be living in a place and they wouldn't have a library. There'd be no books to get. So you wouldn't question, "Well, why aren't people reading?" Well, of course they're not reading; there are no books to read. Now you've got whole libraries sitting there, and just about the same number of people are reading. But it seems like more of a waste.

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Q: How does one bridge the gap from being a reader to becoming a writer?

A: Well you know, I have a problem. Everybody talks to writers like they were readers in some kind of special way. I haven't noticed that it's true. I know a whole lot of writers who don't read very much. And I know a whole lot of readers who read a lot more.

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