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Nothing easy about writing for prolific Walter Mosley

ST. LOUIS -- He's written more than 30 books, including the popular Easy Rawlins mysteries, science fiction, literary fiction and a novel for young adults.

He's been translated into 21 languages and won a host of honors, among them PEN America's lifetime achievement award. He's the author of essays, political monographs and several plays, one of which, "The Fall of Heaven," is wowing audiences at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis.

Sometimes you don't wonder HOW a writer achieves what he does. You're stuck on wondering WHEN.

Walter Mosley says that's simple: every single day of his life.

But it's not discipline, he points out quickly. It's pure pleasure.

He draws a comparison:

"Suppose you have a friend who seems so happy and healthy, you ask for his secret. And he says, 'My wife and I start every day by making love.'

"Now, you might ask him how they stay so interested in each other after years and years of marriage. You might ask how they manage to make the time.

"But you'd never ask where they find the discipline!

"That's what writing is like."

At 59, he holds true to a pattern he established years ago: Get up, write for about three hours, spend the rest of the day as you please.

"I write wherever I am, usually at home [in Brooklyn]," he said when he was in St. Louis for the opening of "The Fall of Heaven," which is based on his book "The Tempest Tales."

"This morning, I wrote in my hotel room. The one time I couldn't write was on a cruise ship. The room was so small, I couldn't pace! But as a rule, I write wherever I am. If I have to catch an early plane or something, I know I shouldn't. I know there's no time. But I don't like it."

Slim and bald, dressed in dapper black accented with the dramatic gold Ashanti ring he always wears, Mosley looks every inch the New York intellectual he set out to become decades ago.

He grew up in Los Angeles -- and still describes himself as an L.A. writer -- but in his 20s moved East for a city that seemed to him more culturally exciting. He wasn't a writer then. He was a computer programmer.

"In the 1970s, you didn't have to do anything except say, 'I want to be a computer programmer,' and take a little training," he recalled. "But I always wanted to do something artistic.

"So I just started writing sentences. I thought I could be a writer. Once I got a story published, in the late 1980s, I thought I could call myself one."

It's been adding up ever since, but Mosley discounts his output. It sounds impressive, he suspects, simply because modern writers don't produce the way their predecessors did.

"Balzac and Zola wrote hundreds of titles," he said. "Conrad wrote and wrote in English, which wasn't his first language. And [Dickens'] 'Bleak House' is all my books in one."

He may yet catch up. Right now, as he works on a screenplay, Mosley is getting a lot of attention for his new novel, "The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey"; the next one, "When the Thrill Is Gone," comes out in March. "Ptolemy Grey" tells the story of a 91-year-old man with dementia who agrees to take an experimental drug that will restore his memory for a few months, then kill him.

Although the book has elements of both mystery and science fiction, its subject touches the author's heart. An only child and a divorced man, Mosley was solely responsible for his mother when she suffered from dementia in her final years.

Mosley's father was African-American and his mother was Jewish; he was close to both of them. After his father died 18 years ago, he gained a great deal of weight. After his mother died two years ago, he lost it, almost without any effort. He says he can't explain that, adding that "my therapist probably thinks he knows why."

Today his voracity is confined to his reading list, an eclectic mix of the classics and science fiction and history.

"I like stories," he said. "I don't like psychological novels, novels whose terrain is the psyche.

"Yes, half of 'Ptolemy Grey' takes place in his mind, in his dementia. But then something happens, and he has to make a choice -- and who wouldn't make the choice he does? The novel is about that choice and the adventure that follows it.

"The question in my mind is always, 'Who cares?' A good story isn't about how you feel. It's about what you do."

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