Damson Idris, as Franklin Saint, with Jesse Luken, as Officer Herb “Nix” Nixon, in an episode of FX’s Snowfall written by Walter Mosley
Walter Mosley has a theory about what it takes to survive and thrive in American society.
"I think, in order to make it in the world that America offers us, it's better if you're a sociopath," the author says. "That's who's successful in America today — doesn't matter if it's Trump, Bush or Clinton. That's how capitalism works, right?"
Turns out he's talking about Franklin Saint, the 20-something drug dealer at the heart of FX's Snowfall, on which Mosley serves as an executive producer. But it makes sense that Mosley sees the world that way, given that he's one of the era's most prolific and celebrated crime novelists.
In addition to creating hard-boiled detective Ezekiel "Easy" Rawlins, protagonist of 15 acclaimed novels, Mosley has written more than 50 books and won everything from a Grammy to a lifetime-achievement medal from the National Book Foundation. When he received that last award late in 2020 — officially called the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters — he was the first Black man to do so in the medal's 33-year history.
So why would a novelist who's explored not just mystery but science fiction, non-fiction, young adult novels, graphic novels and even erotica spend time developing a sideline as a TV writer?
"Well, the truth is, they give you more and more money, and money's good. I'm not complaining about that," he says, laughing. "It's also good for my career. This is a way to grow further and have people get to know you more. People say, 'Walter Mosley, isn't he working on that television show?' Nobody says, 'He wrote that novel.'"
Mosley might be overstating that point — plenty of fans know him for crackling novels like Devil in a Blue Dress and the Edgar Award-winning Down the River unto the Sea.
But now he's also gaining attention for his work on Snowfall — a job that began with an invitation from the show's late cocreator, John Singleton; he's written two scripts for the fourth season, now airing on FX and streaming on FX on Hulu.
Meanwhile, he is adapting his 2010 novel The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey as a limited series for Apple TV+ starring Samuel L. Jackson — and, with Amblin Television, he's developing a series based on Easy Rawlins.
During a conversation with emmy contributor Eric Deggans, Mosley brims with self-deprecating humor and blunt talk as he addresses such topics as his heritage, his writing, the CIA, that Apple TV+ series and why he left the writing staff of CBS All Access' Star Trek: Discovery.
Your father was a Black man from Louisiana and your mother was the Jewish daughter of Russian immigrants, and you say you feel strongly connected to both cultures. How has that surfaced in your life?
Most of my family, they were Jews, but they were also Communists. So they weren't very religious. But, you know, one of the great survival talents of the Jewish people around the world is assimilation.
And so, you come into a place and you become that place. You become more that place than the place is that place. But even people in my family on my mother's side, if you ask them what race they are now, they'd say they were white. "I'm a part of this. They let me into the golf courses now." And I say, "Yeah, but they didn't let you in 20 years ago. What do you think that was about?"
Does this come up as you're thinking of novels, TV scripts and other projects?
The thing about race is, it's all these different kinds of things, all different definitions.
If you're Black in America, you understand the people who love Trump more than they understand themselves. [Trump supporters] believe the lie that we [Black people] did this to them... created all their problems. But it really was Trump and his people who did it to them. Where you come from is how you think, and how you think is who you are. So I do talk about it, but in ways that are not necessarily so clear.
I think a lot of the industry has overlooked Snowfall. How did you get involved with a series based on the long-rumored story that the CIA worked with drug dealers in L.A. to create the crack cocaine crisis in 1980s-era California?
Five years ago, maybe six now, John Singleton called me and said, "Walter, I'm doing a show. I want you to be in the writers' room." I said, "John, I don't write television scripts." He said, "That's okay. You don't have to write; just come in the room and you'll be an adviser.... I just need you in there to back me up."
It was a good idea. I mean, anybody who knows John Singleton knows he spent his whole life helping Black people get from here to there. A woman who was working on the set, she had just gotten out of prison a week before. She ran into John because he lived in the same neighborhood. He said, "Come work on my show. If you can do it and it works out, then you can stay. If not, at least we gave it a try."
That's who he was, and that had a big impact on me. I was there for one season, and the next one they said, "Why don't you start writing some scripts while you're here?" And it moved along.
Thanks to his groundbreaking movie Boyz n the Hood, Singleton, who died in 2019, was already known as a filmmaker with an authentic eye for Los Angeles. So how did you help him develop Snowfall? What was it like, first stepping into the writers' room?
It's so hard to really even explain, because every writers' room is different. Most are very quiet — people are just working and historically, they're mostly white people. [Snowfall's] room was 80 percent people of color. We did a lot of arguing. It wasn't like we hated each other; it was fun. It was happy. We were all trying to figure out how to make this show work.
What was the biggest difference you found between writing for TV and writing novels?
A lot of being in a writers' room isn't so much writing the script that you're writing. It's everybody talking about what everybody's writing. So, you know, you write a script and everybody [has feedback]: What about this? What about that? Everybody has input. And I could accept that. If somebody says, "You didn't do this right," I say, "Okay, whether I agree or don't agree, let's see if I can make that work." And then you answer it in your own voice.
Twenty people make comments, you change it, somebody else changes it and finally it gets to the actors. They change it. The director, he or she changes it . It's not like writing a novel, because when I write a novel, if someone doesn't like something, it's still going to be there — unless someone gives me a reason to make a change that makes sense to me.
Much of the last episode of Snowfall's season three, which aired in 2019, seems to be set in an alternate universe or a dream where the lead character, Franklin Saint, tries to go to college and live a law-abiding life. But racism forces him out of school, back to where he started.
I think that world is what it is. It's going to be that world, no matter what. Franklin might go to school and become an accountant, but he's still a Black man in a white world trying to make it through this shit. Some things can be different. But the world is going to be the same, and I know that's what we were trying to say there.
Franklin is the kind of person who has a kind of sociopathy going on in him, where he says, "If I got to kill a n----, that's what I'm going to do."
People say selling drugs is destroying your community. He says, "I'm just answering the need in the community," and that's a capitalist answer. Capitalism is just rife with sociopathy.
So, when I look at Franklin, I see him as the kind of sociopath who loves his children, goes to church and believes in right and wrong. But if they've got to chase somebody down in some cave in Pakistan and kill them, they're going to do that. It's who we are.
More recently, Snowfall seems focused on Franklin's work to build a drug business with cocaine he's getting from the CIA. How is that story going to evolve in season four? Will Franklin become even more ruthless?
He wants to believe that he can be good. I don't think that none of these people think they're wrong. And even if they are doing things that are wrong, they're living in a world where they are intimidated and limited by the system that surrounds them. So I'm just trying to talk about the people I know in my community. I'm not trying to make them look good.
This is the hood that I grew up in. And these are the people who I knew and who we've known all the way back there, you know? You can't really see Franklin as a hero. Nobody believes the CIA put guns and drugs in the hood, but we all know they did. Nobody believes that the police grab people and slaughter them and throw them in a grave someplace that nobody's ever going to find. But they did.
Franklin has to negotiate that world. We never really know where anybody is going to end up.
Let's talk about Star Trek: Discovery. You joined the writing staff in 2019 and told a story about a cop pulling you over and telling you he stopped all n-----s in certain neighborhoods. When human resources called, saying someone had complained and you couldn't say that word in the office, you quit and wrote a column about it for the New York Times.
Given the reckoning we saw over civil rights last summer, where people took a hard look at how race unfolds on TV shows and in offices, do you feel any differently?
You know, they didn't fire me or anything like that. I just thought, "God, I got to sit and worry about what I say, how I act?" And it wasn't the first time I had been scolded for what I said.
And so, I decided to just leave because I couldn't be creative in that situation. And then I decided to write the article because I thought it's an issue that we need to talk about. If there's a system, the system should work, saying, "Okay, you two have a problem, you should talk to each other." But obviously people are afraid to talk to each other.
I wasn't calling anybody a name. I was just explaining what happened to me, using the language that the police officer used when he stopped me. I can't say that?
If I'm attacking people or using my language to hurt people or bully them, I understand we need to talk about that. But you shouldn't be able to fire me for just explaining my experiences. I thought there was something wrong with that, and that's why I wrote the piece.
[CBS Television Studios responded at the time: "We have the greatest admiration for Mr. Mosley's writing talents and were excited to have him join Star Trek: Discovery. While we cannot comment on the specifics of confidential employee matters, we are committed to supporting a workplace where employees feel free to express concerns and where they feel comfortable performing their best work. We wish Mr. Mosley much continued success."]
Not a lot of your books have been adapted for TV, but you and Samuel L. Jackson are working on a version of The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey for Apple TV+. How did that happen?
I'm going to write the whole thing — I've already written most of the [episodes]. Basically, Sam wanted to do it. And Sam Jackson is — no hyperbole needed — one of the biggest stars in the world. So when Sam Jackson wants to do something, they say, "Okay, let's do what Sam wants to do." I'm very grateful to him for being committed to this, because I've been working at it for four or five years.
The book is about a 91-year-old man who suffers from dementia. When he finds a way to regain his lucidity briefly, he starts putting together clues regarding his grandnephew's killing. Why did this resonate with Jackson?
He said, "Damn, a lot of my people have been through this — a lot of my family. I want to tell this story." And we finally got to the point where we could make this series. But it's tough to get going sometimes, when you're committed to what the book is saying.
It's like, someone might come up and say, "I'd love to do an Easy Rawlins series, but can we make him white?" That's not happening.
Sam is brilliant when it comes to talking story and plot, and he says, "I want to do this book right here. I don't want to do something you're talking about over there. Do this book here." Which is great. I have a few other things that may get done; I did this thing about an anarchist detective, and people are talking about Easy Rawlins.
I think being out here — working with people, being available — has made that a lot more possible. Because Hollywood, it's the only place in the world where people can make something out of nothing.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2021