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Walter Mosley. (Photo by WideVision Photography/Marcia Wilson)

20 Questions With Walter Mosley

The author known for crime fiction novels talks up his play at Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre Company.

Walter Mosley is the author of dozens of books, including the “Easy Rawlins” series that began with Devil in a Blue Dress in 1990. His play The Fall of Heaven—based on his “novel-in-stories” The Tempest Tales, and previously seen at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Repertory Theatre of St. Louis—runs through March 24 at Chicago’s Congo Square Theatre Company, helmed by artistic director Daniel Bryant.

What excites you about revisiting this play?
Every time it’s like working on something new. This is the first time I’ve dealt with an African-American company. I’m really happy about what they’re doing, and about the work I’ve written. Which is nice, because usually I’m so critical about it. I never read my old books, because it would just upset me.

You just did a whole series of events at Congo Square.
The first night I read from my book. The second night they showed the movie Devil in a Blue Dress and we talked about films and filmmaking. And the last night we did five-minute scenes from three of my plays.

Are those plays you’re still working on?
Well, I guess you’re always working on plays. One I wrote 20 years ago, a one-act I’m going to be doing at Crossroads Theatre Company in New Brunswick, N.J., in May, called White Lilies. EttaMae and Mouse, from my Easy Rawlins novels, are central characters. And I have another play they’ll be doing in New Brunswick in September, called Lift, about two people stuck in an elevator in a terrorist attack.

Why adapt The Tempest Tales for the stage?
It’s made of 24 very short stories; they’re like scenes in themselves. It’s about a guy who’s shot down by the police in Harlem, but he’s innocent of any crime they think he’s done. When he goes to get his judgment and is sentenced to Hell, he refuses to go. It turns out if you refuse, you don’t have to go. Heaven is very upset; they don’t know what to do. So they send him back to Earth with an angel in a human body. It’s a comedy, but it’s two people discussing the nature of sin and trying to work themselves around each other—it seemed perfect for starting to write theatre again after 20 years.

Is it difficult writing comedy?
I didn’t think of The Tempest Tales as being comic. When I wrote the play, it was just that everything he said seemed really funny. There’s a scene where Tempest comes back in a new body. He finds an old girlfriend and seduces her, and she turns to him and says, “You’re the best lover I’ve ever known.” And he gets angry that she doesn’t think the old Tempest Landry was the best lover. You might smile about it in the book, but it’s out-loud funny when you do it on stage.

What would you miss most about life on Earth?
Well, the angel in the play learns the small, pedestrian things in life are much more wonderful than his panoramic, highly charged, powerful, omnipotent and omniscient existence. When you sit in pedestrian life, you wish you had more power. But in the end, it’s nice just having a good cup of coffee, or a talk with a good friend.

Music and musicians figure into many of your books. How does music fit into this play?
Bringing in songs is really difficult for me, but luckily my directors have been doing it for me. My first director [in Cincinnati] was Marion McClinton. He’s just in love with music and making it a part of the performance. And the guy who’s doing it at Congo Square, Dan [Bryant], he’s really imaginative about music. The play ideally has only one blackout, between Act 1 and Act 2. So Dan is talking about music almost like a curtain, or something that ushers people along from one place to another.

What kind of music do you listen to?
Everything but polka music.

You had a role in the 2004 remake of The Manchurian Candidate. Was that your only foray into acting?
Oh my God, when I was a kid, I was in a company called the Afro-American Traveling Actors Association. I’m an awful actor. But I just loved it.

Are there playwrights you particularly admire?
I like many of August Wilson’s plays, but does that mean I like him? I like a lot I’ve seen by David Mamet, and many things I haven’t. It’s more the play itself than the playwright. It’s the same for me with books: I’m not interested in Love in the Time of Cholera but I love One Hundred Years of Solitude.

If you could hit pause and take a vacation right now, where would you want to be?
Somewhere peaceful and beautiful where I could write every morning.

So even on vacation, you’d be writing?
Absolutely. Writing’s like food. You don’t take a vacation from food.

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