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Walter Mosley was a 35-year-old computer programmer when he enrolled in the graduate writing program at City College in 1987. Just three years later–while still a student–he published “Devil in a Blue Dress,” the debut novel that established him as a new force in American fiction.
Three decades and 60 books later, Mosley has received the National Book Foundation’s 2020 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. The lifetime achievement award—whose previous recipients include Toni Morrison, Edmund White, E.L. Doctorow and Norman Mailer—honors a literary career born and nurtured at CUNY. It’s a career that includes founding a program at CCNY to open doors for minorities in publishing, an industry long known for its lack of diversity. We talked with Mosley about his life, his work and his decades-long bond with CUNY. Watch his award acceptance below.
CUNY Congratulates Walter Mosley on NBF Honor
His Latest: The Awkward Black Man
About the City College Publishing Certificate Program
Rick Firstman: Walter Mosley was in his mid 30s when he enrolled in the graduate writing program at The City College of New York in 1987. Just three years later, even before earning his degree, Mosley published his debut novel, “Devil in a Blue Dress,” the bestseller that would later be made into a movie starring Denzel Washington. More than 60 books later, Mosley is among the country’s literary masters. And this month, the National Book Foundation is awarding him its Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Mosley is the first African American man to win the lifetime achievement honor from the organization that presents the National Book Awards. Mosley’s life as a writer was born at CUNY, nurtured by faculty mentors and led him to establish a publishing certificate program at CCNY to open doors for minorities in an industry long known for its lack of diversity. I talked with Mosley about his life, his work, race, politics, and City College. Here’s our conversation.
Walter Mosley, thank you so much for coming on the CUNYcast and congratulations on this great honor from the National Book Foundation.
Walter Mosley: Why, thank you very much. I’m really happy about it.
RF: You’re in LA now during the pandemic? You have a place in Brooklyn also but you’re out there for a while?
WM: Yeah, I live in New York, I actually own a piece of Brooklyn so that’s mine. But, you know, I come out to LA a lot, you know, I’m from here. And also, you know, we do work with television shows and stuff, it’s easier to be here than not to.
RF: Right. And LA is where you grew up, of course, and where most of your novels are set. So I must say, I was unaware of your CUNY connection until I saw a reference to the City College publishing program in the announcement of the award. But the connection is even more pivotal, going to the very inception of your career as a writer. But I’m going to leave that as a little foreshadow and start even earlier in your story.