I learned early in my writing career that the best things one can hope for when being interviewed is that the interviewer spells your name right and also the titles of your books. I've found that most interviewers, even those who seem to be on your side (which is rare, by the way) have their own agendas, and sometimes no matter what you say you will find your words have been manipulated and/or taken out of context -- the facts distorted, as Mark Twain said -- to fit whatever agenda the interviewer wants.
Nor are some interviewers the least bit hesitant to add to or embellish whatever you actually said to make it mean what they want it to mean.
While sometimes this is done with the best of intentions, I've found that in most cases when it's a black person being interviewed the intentions are just the opposite.
One example of this happened in an interview I did for The San Francisco Examiner in the early 1990s. I had mentioned that a few stray kids occasionally stayed in my apartment for a few days or weeks and slept on the couch in the living room. For some strange reason the interviewer, a rather hostile (I thought) white woman, seemed to fixate on that couch and wanted to know if I'd gotten it out of a Dumpster. I replied that I had bought it at a Salvation Army store; however when the interview was published it was stated that the couch had come out of a Dumpster.
I'm still mystified in regard to the interviewer's agenda on this point, but since she was hostile -- which many interviewers seem to be -- I assume she was trying to imply that the couch may have been full of cooties or something, which one could expect in the "ghetto," and (maybe) therefore my kids were living in unsanitary conditions.
The "Dumpster couch"
An example of embellishment on the part of an interviewer may be found in the interview I did for CineSource Magazine in May of 2011 in which the interviewer writes, "Oh, that noise?" as if I had asked a question when in reality I did no such thing. What actually happened was the interviewer mentioned that gunshots had sounded a few minutes before I called and I laughed.
While this interviewer was on my side, so to speak, he apparently still seemed to feel that a little embellishment was necessary.
All of which is to say that when reading an interview about anyone, keep in mind that it may not be totally accurate.
And probably isn't.
May 16, 2011
Jess Mowry: The Bard of W. Oakland
© 2011 by Doniphan Blair
"'Gordon! GUN!' screamed Curtis, diving off his skateboard onto trash-covered concrete," is how Jess Mowry opens his now classic Oakland novel, "Way Past Cool." Violent, yes, black, check, but also hip, skater, multicultural and visionary. Mowry grabs you by the lapels and doesn't let ago, until, in this book's case, it's been translated into eleven languages and read 'round the world.
Mowry has also tackled other locals, lengths and media, from short stories to time travel mysteries and places like Haiti and New Orleans, not to mention working with Disney to make the "Way Past Cool" movie. Directed by Adam Davidson, it was shot in San Pedro, another hard-bitten California port town 350 miles to the south for a budget of just over a million, most of the money put up by Norman Lear (the sitcom producer), of all people.
Nevertheless, Mowry's central theme, and the subject of eight of his 14 books, is Oakland, not so much the specifics of its streets but the poetry of its violence, the moral dilemmas of its man boys, and, most of all, the thrill of adventure believable enough to fire the imagination of kid like Mowry himself, who grew up in West Oakland.
"Black women writers outnumber black male writers at least ten-to-one," Mowry told CineSource, when we first connected in 2009. "One will find relatively few works of fiction written for young black males. The genre 'adventure stories for boys' is almost totally absent from black literature except... sports and music figures. And 'gangstuhs,' thugs and hustlers. As a result, what sort of people do young black males have to nurture their dreams and imaginations? If there's a black Harry Potter or Indiana Jones, I have yet to meet him in a book."
"There are several reasons for this," Mowry explained, "And the fault cannot be entirely attributed to the greed, ignorance, and racism of mainstream publishing. I would lay more blame upon black publishers for producing mostly 'scholarly works' and non-fiction to 'uplift the race,' while ignoring the simple fact that no one will read scholarly works unless he or she develops an interest in reading in the first place!"
Born in 1960 in Mississippi, to a mixed couple, Mowry was abandoned by his white mother as an infant. Shortly thereafter, his father Jessup moved to West Oakland where he invested his savings into a small scrap yard.
An avid reader, Jessup imbued Mowry with a Hemingway-esque aesthetic: be good with the hands AND the mind. Reading down his father's bookshelves and then the local library's, Mowry found books to stimulate the latter, starting with Californian John Steinbeck. He also helped out around his father's yard. "Hard, dirty and dangerous," he said, "The kind of work most kids should do."
After a decade and a half of truck driving, merchant marining, pounding nails and working for his dad, Mowry autodidacted a round enough education to begin writing—despite dropping out of school in eighth grade. Along the way, he had four kids with one wife and was raising them in a school bus in West Oakland.
Mowry first stories were first picked up by the still extant San Francisco literary magazine "ZYZZYVA." When the checks started coming—although modest, Mowry has sold virtually all he's written AND supported himself—he moved the wife and kids into an apartment, another step in a diverse upbringing which seems to have served them well. 37, 36, 35 and 33, respectively, Jeremy works for the railroad; Martin is a junior high teacher; Weylan does graphic design; and Keeja is teaching kids in Haiti.
Meanwhile Mowry's literary "children" also started blossoming. "I approached this book with some trepidation," is how a 1993 San Jose Mercury News review of "Way Past Cool" started. "Gangs. Drugs. Children. The inner city. They have become quite faddish... and frequently nothing new is added to the discourse (but) Mowry is a splendid storyteller whose tough, no-nonsense prose rouses me." A year later, the paper heralded his next outing as "a bold an original literary voice which should be listened to. 'Six Out Seven' captured my heart and ignited my fury."
To us at CineSource, Oakland is a symbol of a structurally ambiguous California, where real life and intellectuals, Apollo and Dionysus, desperation and dream, meet and trade punches. While the reality of West Oakland may occasionally intrude on our neatly organized, loft-living and oh-so-arty days, Jess Mowry has actually lived it and he has fourteen books, all up on his website, suggesting it was an enlightening as well as wild ride.
CineSource: Oh that noise? Just before you called, ten large caliber rounds went off right across the street [from CineSource's offices in West Oakland]. Now the police are swarming like lunatics, a good ten cop cars.
Jess Mowry: [laughter] I came up in West Oakland in the day of the Black Panthers so I know all about cop cars and the way that works. It is a shame kids today don't have something like the Panthers to believe in.
Were you hanging out at DeFremery Park [West Oakland] with the Panthers?
I wasn't much involved with the Panthers. For one thing I was only a kid, and, since I’m half-white, they had that thing about no white people allowed. Which may have been a major mistake. Many of the early anti-apartheid demonstrations in South Africa worked because there were good white people involved. I vaguely knew Bobby Hutton—which is to say I knew who he was, an older kid.
What was the vibe of West Oakland then? Was it as violent as you portray in your novels?
'Way Past Cool'—I wrote it in 1991 and it was published in 1992—was a reflection of when crack started flooding the inner city 'coincidental' with the Reagan Administration. My later books, the last one I finished, 'The Bridge,' reflects things today.
The 'Crack '80s' were vicious.
At the end of 'Panther,' the film about the Black Panthers [by Mario Van Peebles, 1995], it’s revealed that the latest government plan is to flood inner cities with crack. The agent himself is disgusted by it. I’m not saying the Panthers were angels—though Huey Newton's basic ideas were good. But then what do you have to work with: the human element.
Their feet were a little bit of clay but they were definitely the most dramatic thing to come out of Oakland.
The point I was trying to make before is that for black kids there was something to believe in: heroes. That’s what I keep running into with my work, particularly with the white mainstream publishers who are rejecting it.
They’re basically saying: Don't give black kids something to believe in! Don't tell them that playing the 'thugger' game is being a fool and populating privatized prisons. Some of my rejection letters are ridiculous; it’s like they don’t realize they’re saying these things. Or maybe some of them do and don’t care.
Something about Oakland: there is a tough side and there is also a hipster side. DeFremery has a skateboard park where I play basketball and the kids seem alright.
I still hear 'black kids don't ride skateboards,' which is funny because I see them all the time and those were the kids I grew up with.
What you were saying about Oakland: After the Rodney King [riots in 1992], my oldest son and his friends were saying 'Let's go beat up some white kids.' But then [they said], 'Well, we can't do anything to HIM because he lives here and we like him,' and 'We can't do anything to this one ‘cause he’s a good guy.' That is the thing about Oakland. It’s not like New York City where, when you get close to Harlem, the color changes on the subway. We had quite a few white people living in West Oakland, and that makes all the difference. You can’t hate good people who you know and like no matter what color they are.
And life is not as horrible here as it is in New York.
You can get to Emeryville to fish. You can still get out here: vacant lots, find some place to be alone, where people won't bother you. In one of my novels, ‘Skeleton Key,’ a boy finds refuge in a graveyard. They don't have these things in what I know about New York City—I’ve never been there and don't want to go.
But there still continues this harsh murder rate. Where do you think it comes from? Male territorial struggles?
No. It mostly comes from being told all your life you’re not worth anything because of your color. If those were white people being killed, there would be outrage all over the place. That’s another message I put in my books that tends to upset publishers.
You’re being told that you’re nothing, that nothing you do is going to matter, so you hold life cheap. Kids are born with a sense of self worth but that gets beat out of them in various ways. That’s where I think it comes from.
I was reading on the web about some PhD who came up with a theory: 'The US is spawning a generation of boy men.' Well, duh! Kids who never grow up become thirty-forty year-olds acting like adolescents. That is what it comes down to: a basic immaturity. If you believe statistics—and I generally don't—supposedly 80% of males in prison in this country—no matter what color—didn't have a strong male role models. What they are doing is basically acting out what they see on movies and TV.
You have made it your specialty to speak the vernacular of the streets—
I write mostly for kids—and being 51, anyone under 30 is a kid. I try to write in ways they would want to read, what I wanted to read at that age. I get emails every week from kids who, for lack of better word, discovered one of my books.
The language [in my books] is not always accurate; it’s a mix of what I grew up with and what I hear now. Some people find it hard to read but many white people find it very interesting. Of course kids have different vernaculars in different places, and words and meanings are always changing. I try for a sort of generic dialogue. But I’m writing for kids and my basic message is: Figure out what a real man acts like. More, what a real man IS! Did you happen to watch the 'Way Past Cool' movie?
No, I didn't. Is it on Netflix?
I think so, at least last time I checked about a year ago.
You co-wrote the screenplay, how was that experience?
That’s a story in itself. Originally, Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson were interested in it, through Disney. And, of course, Disney wanted to Disney-fy it. For example, there’s a scene a where the kids are being paid off with beer. Disney wanted me to have them take the beer to a liquor store and trade it for Cherry Coke.
Disney didn't work out, so they turned it over to one of their divisions. It stagnated for a couple of years and then a director, Adam Davidson, came along. He had a hit at the Cannes Film Festival with his short 'The Lunch Date' [1990, Short Film Palmes D'Or] and Disney snapped him up. According to [Davidson], he found the script on a desk and wanted to make it but Disney wouldn't let him.
I co-wrote the script with Yule Case. Case started from the script he did for Disney, the 'Cherry Coke one,' they let him keep it. When you co-write something, each one claims they wrote it. Basically, I did a lot of corrections but, yeah, I got the co-writer credit on that.
There’s a lot dialogue that comes out of the book. Some of it works and some of it doesn't. There’s one scene when a 13-year-old actor speaks a perfect line from the book and there are other places where the book dialog falls flat. I learned that written dialogue doesn't always translate to spoken dialogue.
Did they make movies out of any of the other books?
No. I got a call around 1999 from Beau Bridges. He was interested in the novel that followed 'Way Past Cool,' 'Six Out of Seven.' We talked a little but his dad, Lloyd, passed away a month later and I never heard from him again. I haven't been approached, except from some indies who say: 'I want to make the movie, I want to buy the rights, but I haven't got any money,' that type of thing.
What do you feel would be a fair price to buy a book?
I don't know. I’ve gotten in trouble over the last 20 years being in the writing game by going with my heart and having people screw me. That’s what happened with the 'Way Past Cool' movie: 'We really want to make this and we’ll will pay you when it’s done — 'deferment' — but they ended up screwing me out of about $20,000 that should have been paid as soon as production started.
But you are earning your living as a writer?
Barely. Well below the poverty level in rural Mississippi—maybe even Haiti. I'm still making everything off of writing, such as it is. I’m currently putting my books on Kindle. The last few years a publisher has been cheating me out of royalties, but without a good lawyer there’s nothing I can do about it. Fortunately, they’ll probably go out of business soon and/or end up in prison.
The books are still in print?
Some of them are, some of them aren't. With the advent of ebooks that may change and even prove beneficial. There are books in foreign translation. I don't know how they’re doing but every so often I get a royalty check from Copyright Clearance Center, an international copyright thing. As far as I know, some of them are still in print overseas—they were translated into eight languages. I don't ask any questions, I just cash the checks.
In the beginning did you self-publish?
No, I’ve sold just about everything I’ve ever written. I started out selling stories to ZYZZYVA Magazine [http://www.zyzzyva.org] in San Francisco. I didn't know anything about the publishing business at the time.
A pretty powerful agent contacted me but told me my first two books were 'unsellable.' I sold one to an independent publisher in Santa Barbara—which is still in business—for a $500 advance. A story collection, ‘Rats In The Trees’ was picked up by Harper Collins and also published in the U.K., Germany and Japan. I did pretty good on that 'unsellable' book. I’ve found that you’re more likely to be rejected by an agent than by a publisher. My real first novel, 'Children of the Night,' was also pronounced 'unsellable' by my agent. I sent it to Holloway House in Los Angeles, made a $500 advance. It’s still in print. The agent finally sold 'Way Past Cool,’ my third book, to Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York. That’s when the fun really began.
And it’s been over 20 years since 'Way Past Cool' was published. The version I put on Kindle is what I call the 'Director's Cut.' It’s got some things that weren't in the original and a forward that explains to kids [things like] 'What's a beeper?' Back then the drug dealers had beepers.
But I’ve never self-published... other then Kindle, I guess. It’s a hard way to make a living. At least in Hollywood, most people know they’re scumbags. In the publishing business, they pretend they’re not, especially to themselves. The result is the same—you get screwed—but there’s a veneer of sophistication.
I see you haven't really written a street story recently, rather you've been looking back at history and New Orleans.
Yeah, 'Voodoo Dogs,' and there’s ‘Knights Crossing,” set in 1860, but 'The Bridge' is my latest—I finished it last year—it starts as a street story in West Oakland. The protagonist, a 13-year old Muslim boy, is questioning his faith. He testifies against the gang members who drive-byed his best friend. The remainder of the gang want to kill him so he has to move up to his cousins in a small rural town in the Sacramento River delta.
I write what back in the turn of the century—the 19th century—was called 'stories for boys.' Those were the kind of books I grew up reading. I would get them at second-hand stores and they were already 20-50 years old. I got a rejection from a major publisher, the young adult division: 'We are not publishing stories for boys.' Well, it goes back to [what I said]: 80% of the people in prison didn’t have positive male role models. Here we have white female editors who are 'not publishing stories for boys,' no matter what color. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
Writing is a very male thing, probably invented by men, since it uses a tool. In CineSource's last Oakland issue, you said that you didn't see any heroes, any Indiana Joneses for black kids—
I think Will Smith has done a lot: 'Independence Day' , when he was a fighter pilot. 'Men In Black' was good, too. In his way, he’s a lot like Bill Cosby.
But we need a hundred times that. Disney finally broke down, after 70 years of ignoring black people, and made an animated film with black characters, 'The Princess and the Frog' . There was also a Disney film about a haunted mansion with a black family—it dared to touch on inter-racial love. Hats off to Mickey for that. My thing of writing 'Voodoo Dogs,' set in New Orleans, was to show kids who use voodoo to do good. Everyone says 'voodoo is evil!' Well, yeah, because it's a black thing. Harry Potter’s magic is OK; leprechauns are OK; elves are OK but you mention voodoo, 'Oh bad, bad, bad!' because it’s 'black magic.'
You versed yourself on those traditions?
I would hardly claim to be an expert but I’ve been to Haiti before the earthquake, and I spent some time in New Orleans French Quarter. Good writing is not that 'Creative Writing 101' bull: 'only write what you know' or what you have experienced. It’s about doing enough research so you know what you’re talking about. My novel about Haiti, 'Bones Become Flowers,' is the only 'adult' novel I have done so far. It was basically 90% research but I get emails from Haitians all the time, 'Oh you must have been in such and such a place.' That’s a high compliment for a writer. Fiction is basically a lie. But if you make it real enough, and people who actually live there find it believable, then you’ve done your job as a writer. A filmmaker has the same obligation.
These stories for boys should be very gritty and real.
I don't know what your childhood was like, but when you’re 13, 14 you’re a dirty, randy, little savage. I don't care if you’re living in a million dollar house over looking the ocean in Santa Cruz, California—you’re still basically a junkyard dog in a poodle parlor.
In fact, in another book I published on Kindle, 'When All Goes Bright,' the mother says her 13 year-old son should be 'living in box in the back yard, be washed with a hose and fed from a bowl.' That doesn't mean kids can't love, be gentle and tender, but they are wild and usually nasty things. I tell some of these established writers and publishers: Don't you know that today's Beaver Cleaver is dancing in tented shorts [ie with erections], camming with his friends [webcamera-ing] and jacking off and putting it on YouTube... or X-tube? Mainstream Young Adult publishers seem to have this belief that kids still act like the Brady Bunch—assuming kids really ever did, more like Pugsley and Wednesday Addams. They’re publishing stuff that kids can't relate to—even 'nice white kids.'
They’re writing like 30 years ago and they wonder why kids don’t want to read anymore. There is little TO read, little for kids to relate to. People are still writing dialogue like, 'Oh, what shall I do,' because it pleases some librarian in Des Moines, Iowa, or some Pollyanna parents on the school board.
You have to bust out with your own stuff and sometimes it does break through?
Yeah, you may starve to death doing it though. Hopefully, someone is keeping score in the cosmos, I don't know.
Are you still residing in Oakland?
I’m in North Oakland now, [near Rockridge], which is not to say I’m in some upper-class neighborhood. Actually, I’m renting a basement—I don't want to get into my blues is worse than yours—but it floods every time it rains. But I like it. I have a friend, Apollo, upstairs I have known since he was 13. He published his first book, 'Concrete Candy,' at 16 [1996, Anchor Books], here and in Denmark and France—still in print, by the way. And he’s working on others. He’s Greek so his last name is hard to spell: Papafrangou. [He publishes under the single name, Apollo, and 'Concrete Candy' is also an Oakland street story.]
So you guys have a little literary group up there?
Of two, anyway. He went to college and got his Masters. He’s learned a lot about writing that, in my opinion, he used to do instinctively but now he stops to think about it. To me, that’s not necessarily good, but he’s still writing.
You did not go the scholastic route—
I dropped out of eighth grade but I was always a reader. Everyone was reading in those days. I remember having a discussion with a drug dealer, who was 15, about 'The Hobbit' and the 'Lord of the Rings.' Everyone read. Also Robert Heinlein, 'Glory Road,' things like that. There wasn't anything else to read. There's hardly anything today either—except for Walter Dean Myers [HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/African_American"African American author of over 50 HYPERLINK "http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Young_adult_literature"young adult books]. There aren't any really any big time successful black writers who are writing stories for black [boys].
Except for the mystery writer Chester Himes and a few others. You could say [the ghetto] is like the Middle East, where they didn't write a lot of novels and have had a cultural atrophy. Wherever you have problems, you need a lot of stories to capture the interest of the reader.
Yeah, and hopefully with a positive message. That can also be done with film. Basically [it requires] showing black males doing something besides being a sports star, drug dealer or thug. When we were making the film in San Pedro [Los Angeles]—you wouldn't believe—it was like a war zone: automatic fire all night long! Half the time, we couldn't tell if it was the [actors] shooting blanks on the set or real ones a block away. Helicopters flying over and so forth.
I talked to some of the kids and they didn't know that there was any other world [out there], that they could be anyone else. No one ever showed them. For budgetary reasons, they shot it in San Pedro. Adam, the director, [loved Oakland]. When he was up here, I took him on a tour of West Oakland. He liked Lafayette Junior High and the old railroad station—who wouldn't like the railroad station?
Do you think Oakland has an iconic status as a black city, a mixed city, the city of the Panthers?
Black history here has a lot to do with World War II, when Kaiser was building ships and black people were moving here from all over the country. One of my novels, 'Ghost Train,' is a time travel thing: Two kids from West Oakland go back to 1943, when shipbuilding was going on, and solve a murder mystery.
Of course, there's the birth of the Black Panthers, which is hardly remembered by kids any more. And the fact that we have diversity—we DO get along. There are very few parts of East or West Oakland where a white person can't or shouldn’t go—in fact, a white person is probably safer—which goes back to 'We're of so little value.' But don't mess with a white person, that means trouble with the police.
Three factors, that black people came here to work in the shipbuilding and factories, that we had the Black Panthers and that people mostly get along, those would be my three things that make Oakland unique. Not that factories and people coming up from the South didn't happen all over, like in Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle,' but that is just one [of three] factors.
It is also a working class city of color in a very rich area.
Yes, the blue collar reputation. It was in the early 1990s, I think, [when] the Raiders [Oakland's football team] had a chance to go to the Super Bowl, and the national media was saying 'What's this town called Oakland?'
I remember reading in Argosy Magazine when I was a kid, an article on the Hells Angles. The article described Oakland as a 'grimy, industrial city across the Bay from San Francisco.' They got a lot of angry letters about that. 'This grimy industrial city' has many fine parks!
It is hard to compete with Marin County and San Francisco but it gives us a more egalitarian perspective. I assume you are also a big advocate of DIY filmmakers and authors writing and distributing—
I’m an advocate of anything that puts out something positive. I think we have a responsibility with so much negativity, especially today when it is visible to everyone on TV or the Internet. It doesn't have to be 'Mary Poppins’—we will all skip through the sunny fields holding hands and live happily ever after' type of stuff. [Of course,] there have always been wars, murders. There were more murders in New York City, per percentage of the population, a hundred years ago than today. Now we just hear about it all the time.
To counter, that we need as much film, books, TV, that have happy endings and positive messages. It doesn't have to be smarmy, honey dripping, but something positive and also something real. Something kids can relate to. Basically, what I try to do.
To go into the depth and darkness and show how to move forward?
Even Satan works for god... not that I’m particularly religious in the Judeo-Christian way, but it comes down to that. Even demons love compliments. You can be nice, if you want. Try to be good, whatever you think that means.
Looking back on your life, do you advocate the self-education system or a certain amount of schooling?
Well, I wouldn't send any of my kids to public school today. But, being realistic, I don't know what the alternatives are. People working two minimum wage jobs can't afford a private school and don't have time for home schooling. That leaves them between a rock and a hard place. Kids suffer for the rest of their lives because they got a crappy one-size-fits-all education.
Fortunately, my kids are all grown, and the strays I’ve taken in have all turned out pretty well. At least none are on welfare or in prison. Self-education, how I did it, was a freak that never should have happened. My dad [who was black, while Mowry's mother was white] was a reader. He taught me how to read before I was in kindergarten—and I suffered for that because of the one-size-fits-all system. He taught me that there was another perspective, that there were things outside of the neighborhood that I could be part of—if I wanted.
[As for] the rest, I can add, subtract, multiply and divide better than the average person at MacDonalds—not that I have anything against service industry workers. And I keep reading.
I don't think you get your McFreaking diploma and you are prepared for life—no! You learn something new everyday—as corny as that sounds. You keep on going, that is my philosophy. I keep reading, I keep learning. If something interests me, I check it out. Most people under societal peer pressure don't have the luxury of doing that.
Being of mixed race kind of helped [me] with that. It made me feel like an outsider. I feel I am spying on white people. Unless black people get to know me, they automatically think I’m white, so that’s given me a unique perspective, like I’m outside observing. There’s a thing in literature of the 'Tragic Mulatto' [dated to the 1842 author Lydia Maria Child]. I don't buy that. [laughs] You make your bed and lie in it.
Going back to self-education the way I did. No, it probably wouldn't work for most people and it didn't work for me because I was particularly intelligent. It just happened to be the way it fell together.
Are there any books that were strong inspirations for you?
Each in its way. The proper thing is to say is Ralph Ellison's 'The Invisible Man,'  which, of course, is a great book because of the black aspect. One of the books I read when I was 12 was John Steinbeck's novel, one of his little-known, and little-praised, novels called 'The Wayward Bus,' . For some reason, it spoke to me at 12. I read it every few years and it still speaks to me, [although] I laugh when I read some things.
I didn't get drunk the first time [at 12] because I saw the Hamm's [Beer] Bear cartoon on TV. I did it because of a scene in the 'Wayward Bus' where someone gets drunk. You never know where an influence is going to come from. For kids, it’s usually not the influence that adults are trying to protect them from... which goes back to publishing 'proper' books that most kids won’t read.
As soon as I read [' Wayward Bus'], I read most of Steinbeck, he was a big influence 'Cannery Row'  is a favorite and its sequel 'Sweet Thursday' . Also things like 'The Wind in the Willows,' a children’s book, or 'Alice in Wonderland,' were influences.
The more you read the more you expand you horizons, you get a little here and a little there, and some things tie in and some don't. Sometimes you find something that explains something you didn't understand and you don't know where it’s going to come from.
Anything of recent or local writers that intrigues you?
I’m still trying to catch up on the classics. I recently read 'The Life of Pi' [Yann Martel, 2001] and 'As I Lay Dying,' by William Faulkner . I don't recommend that for someone trying to read Faulkner because it was an experimental book. To me, it reads terribly. The writing gets in the way of the story, and that’s one of the worst things a writer can do. Even if it’s great writing and your reader stops to admire it, you’ve taken them out of the story.
He's pretty tough sledding.
Read his short story 'A Rose for Emily'—that doesn't take too much. In 'The Life of Pi,' the technical knowledge of zoos was great. But, speaking as someone who has worked at sea, if the author had put the same amount of time into researching ships and lifeboats, the book would have been a lot better—for me, anyway.
That was always something that ticked me off, even as a kid, reading something that made a technical point but the writer didn't know what the hell they were talking about. It would be better if they’d done a little research and gotten it right.
It looks like you have published about 20 books. If you wanted to introduce someone to your work, are there two or three titles?
Actually I’ve written 14 books. If you count subsequent editions, reprints and foreign publications, I have no idea how many—and there are pirate editions I don’t know about. 'Way Past Cool' is quote unquote successful, so it must be good. But after going over it to put it on Kindle, there were things [where I say]: 'God, I can't believe I did that.' But of course that's history, so I can't change it now.
I would suggest some of my other books. Have you heard of Patrick Neate in the UK? One of his favorites is 'Six Out of Seven,' which followed 'Way Past Cool.' Or 'The Bridge,' my latest work. It’s like a musician, everyone wants to hear your old songs, but you want to play the new ones. As soon as I get this Kindle stuff done, I hope to start on another novel set in West Oakland about 13-year-old fraternal twins (brother and sister) whose parents run a funeral parlor. I’m not sure what it’s going to be about—there will probably be a ghost in it—but I like the idea.
People always ask: 'Where do your ideas come from?' 'Ghost Train' was written from a line of dialogue from an obscure English sci-fi TV show 'Sapphire and Steel.' A guy is talking to a ghost, saying, 'Tell me who you were,' and the ghost says, 'Don't you mean ‘who I am?' and the guy says, 'No who you WERE [because] you are dead.' I thought that was terrific, so I wrote a novel around it.
People are always quoting me this line from 'Rats in the Trees:' (about squirrels being cute) 'Take away their bushy tails and you have rats in the trees.' Well, that’s not original, that [was] a throw-away line in a 1980s sitcom, [but] what a great title! A lot of people are disappointed when you tell them your methods. It’s like when Sherlock Holmes said. 'When I explain my methods, people are disappointed.' Thomas Edison said: 'Ten percent inspiration and 90% perspiration.'
Even that 'Who were you' line, you have to write a book around it. And some of it is not going to be fun. [When] I was going over 'Way Past Cool,' which I hadn't read in 15 years, it all came back to me: 'Oh, this is the part I didn't want to write,' but had to be in there to connect point A with point C. But it looks OK. I think some really famous writer said, 'If you’re a good writer, no one can really tell the parts that you didn't want to write from the parts that you did.'
The editing principle. If some kid is reading this, what is the next step to becoming a writer?
I get emails all the time: 'I want to write, I am going to college and I want to be a writer,' and I say 'Send me parts of your work' and 99% of the time as soon as they realize that writing IS work, well... If you compute your hourly wage, at least my hourly wage, I probably make about five cents an hour.
I was lucky. I was at the right place at the right time with the right thing with ‘Way Past Cool.’ I got to bypass all that initial rejection most new writers get. The best thing I ever heard is that most real writers write because they HAVE to not because they want to. Why paint? Why climb mountains? Why do something to make yourself uncomfortable and/or poor? You do it because you have to do it. Or in your own small egotistical way, you think you can change the world.
I’m satisfied with the feedback I’ve gotten over the years. 'It changed my life!' I got [that] about 'Way Past Cool' from a kid in San Pedro [Los Angeles]. Whether he is in prison now, or dead, or went on to become a state senator, I have no idea. That’s the thing about kids, you hear from [some of] them and [some] you don't. I get enough of those kinds of things, but even one is enough.
Do you also get involved with meeting kids in writing groups or anything like that?
Not for some years, since the Internet has taken over. People contact me. There’s a reason the 'old wise man' was always on top of the mountain—you had to want to find him. If someone really wants to know about writing or discuss it, they can find me. It’s easy on the Internet.
As far as going someplace and trying to say something, when 99% of the people there are not really interested. I let other people do that. Not that I am great or anything, I just know what works for me. I would rather have quality than quantity.
Right. To get back to my question: Do you recommend kids keep a journal or something like that?
Whatever works for you. A journal works for some. Others outline their stories— I've never outlined a story. If it works for you—do it.
I just sit down and start punching keys. I don't know where something is going, even a short story. Sometimes I have an ending, sometimes a line of dialogue. Whatever works. If 200 words words [a day] makes you happy, fine, if 5,000 words, that's great. The only way you’re going to find what works for you is to start doing it.
Coupled with the fact that you’re never going to be a good writer about anything unless you read. Learn a little about a lot. That works for filmmaking too. There are a hundred times more young people today who want to be filmmakers than want to be authors. [But] it is still the vision and creation of the director: What he or she wants something. [It is] just as with the author: What he or she envisions the story should be. If you research things right and find out what works for you, [you'll be fine]. You don't need a million dollars to sit down and write a book like you do to make a film.
Well, you write the film first and then get the money.
That would be nice [if you can]. A lot of kids are writing screenplays. A professor at some college was complaining [to me] that he taught writing and [the students] weren't writing novels, they were writing screenplays. (Even if they didn't know it.)
Since you translated your book to the screen, what are your tricks for that?
Like I said before, what works on the page doesn't always work on the screen. It’s always worth it to ask young actors: 'How would you say that?' We had a lot of that down [on the set in San Pedro]. Sometimes the director wanted the kids to say or do something that was in the script but didn’t really work for the kids.
Of course, the writer is the last person a director wants on the set, even though they say they do. We had a lot of disagreements on 'Way Past Cool.' I have production tapes. I can show you four major scenes that were cut from the film that were in the book. They were cut, in my opinion, because they [were] giving black kids hope [hence not good for the overall narrative.]
There’s a scene that was filmed—where the kids surround a bad cop and you have this dramatic scene: A big black cop, blinded by mace, bulletproof vest, all these young kids around him, aiming their guns. He freezes and goes, 'Boys, boys, please don't kill me.'
The leader of the gang, a thirteen year-old, calls him a pussy and walks away. The other kids walk away too. The point is: These boys could have killed him, nobody would have known in that situation. It shows they made a decision to do the right thing even though they hated him—even though he was trying to kill THEM! They were better then he was.
Of course some might say it was cut because of the image of young black boys who could have killed a cop, but isn’t that the same message... they could have but they didn’t. There were several scenes when kids started to speak of the future: one of them wants to be a bush pilot in Africa. Actually [it was] only a sentence—but it was cut! I understand that scenes had to shortened but it’s more than coincidental that every scene cut was when the kids were being human, had hopes or dreams beyond the ghetto.
Sorry to hear that.
Well, I’m older and wiser and not as surprised now as I was in the beginning when I started this [writing] thing. Many of the rejection letters I get don't know what they’re saying. 'The Bridge' was rejected by one [white female] editor who didn't believe a thirteen year-old boy could make a Greyhound bus trip by himself, two hours from Oakland up to the Sacramento Delta, escorted to the bus by a cop!
But she had no trouble believing the gang was after him to kill him and that his friend was murdered in a drive-by!?! She had (probably) seen all those things on TV and in movies [hence] knew they were true, but apparently in her world thirteen year-old black kids couldn't make two hour bus trips by themselves.
Essentially, you are doing much the same work as you did then?
Yes. You go to my web site—a kind of corny symbolism—and there’s a kid holding a lantern in a graveyard. No doubt not politically-correct to some 'nice' people. I got my little candle out there, folks. If you want to see it you can.[http://timoun.tripod.com/]. I will probably continue doing it as long as I can.
Your site is incredible. I love the comprehensiveness of it.
Thank you. It’s a paint-by-number site, basic HTML. It’s been up since 1997. I do it all myself, it probably shows, I still run into [some] typos. It takes a lot of time. Tripod [web portal] changed their formatting last year and I’m sorry I updated. I’m still correcting and reposting things that didn't migrate. My literary agent told me 'You’re hurting your potential sales by giving stuff away.' But not everybody wants to read something off a website. I write to be read, period. If I wanted to make a million dollars—I figured this out a long time ago—I’m in the wrong business. My work is there, if someone wants to read it, they can.
If you paint a picture and no one wants to buy it, you can still take it out on a street corner and display it. Before the Internet, you could write a beautiful novel but, if no one wanted to publish it, all you had was a stack of typing paper. Now if someone wants to read it, there it is. Like the guy with his paintings on a street corner.
Points Of View
Q: After your international success with novels like "Way Past Cool", "Six Out Seven", and "Babylon Boyz" about black inner city children, plus a feature-length film on the same theme, why did you choose to write about adult characters in a drastically different setting like Haiti?
JM: When I first began writing it was never my intention to set all my stories in U.S. inner cities and write only about "guns, gangs, drugs and violence" among poor black youth. I wanted to write many different kinds of black books, adventure tales, ghost stories, maybe even a little sci-fi. These were the kinds of books I grew up reading, and I could never understand why there were few, if any, black heroes and heroines in them.
Q: Why would you want to write these other kinds of books when you have many published books and stories set in the inner city?
JM: Because that is a major problem in black fiction: there are almost no books that have black characters -- especially black male characters -- in settings and situations other than the "ghetto", or perhaps in sports. There are virtually no books with black heroes or heroines who travel the world and have adventures: no black ship captains or airplane pilots. This also carries over into film.
Q: Why do you feel this is significant, or needs to be corrected?
JM: Because there are virtually no contemporary role-models for black youth in fiction or film -- especially for young black males -- except gangsters, rappers or sports figures. Many black youth don't even imagine they could become ship captains or airplane pilots, or that they could travel the world if they wanted to. This certainly limits their dreams and life goals,
Q: You mentioned black heroines: why did you choose to write from a woman's viewpoint in 'Bones Become Flowers?' Aside from taking a chance on a black adventure novel, why choose a female point of view and risk critisim on that point alone?
JM: That's the kind of crap that draws criticism upon any author who "dares" to write from almost any point of view except that of their own social status and "place" -- or "station in life" as the British say -- but especially from the viewpoint of a different race. The criticism usually concerns one's "qualifications" to write from another viewpoint. It reminds me of a mystery novel by a white author about a black detective: this author was often questioned and sometimes attacked in regard to his qualifications to write from a black man's viewpoint. Yet, no one ever questioned his qualifications to write from the viewpoint of a serial-killer!
To me, and as Shakespeare once said: "The play is the thing." A writer has only one obligation, and that is to tell a good story, whether it be about Voodoo in Haiti, ghosts or time travel, or child soldiers in Africa... a novel I'm working on now. If one doesn't know, one shouldn't guess, which means that one needs to get his or her facts right; do all the necessary research to tell a good tale and make it believable. However, there is only one "race" on this planet -- the human race -- and being human, plus having a heart and compassion, gives one all the qualifications they need to write about other human beings. As far as the woman's viewpoint, I write stories from whatever viewpoint seems to work best in telling the tale.
Q: It seems as if you are still taking many risks with these kinds of black books.
JM: Indeed I am, and it would have been far more profitable to give my former publishers what they wanted from me. Like most black writers, artists and filmmakers, I quickly learned once one has been cast in a role by the mainstream, he or she is expected to stay in their place and be grateful to have one. For example, although I consider Bones Become Flowers to be some of the best writing I've done, most mainstream publishers said in various ways that, "Jess Mowry's audience would not be interested in this type of book."
In other words, all that "my audience" wanted from me -- the audience that mainstream publishers had "assigned" to me. so to speak -- were guns, gangs, drugs and violence.
And/or these publishers held the racist belief that "black people don't read this kind of adventure novel."
In the case of young black males, mainstream U.S. society expects them to be gangsters, rappers, or basketball players,,, and/or to end up in privatized prisons. This is tragic in so many ways, not the least of which is that it proves, yet again, that despite all the lip-service about "equal rights, we are the world," and the supposed progress toward a "level playing field," too many people still want to see the same old stereotypes.
Perhaps this reassures those on top that they are still on top?
Los Angeles Times
April 10, 1992
Kindred Spirit : Like the Children in His Novel, Jess Mowry Knows All About Life on the Streets
© 1992 John Boudreau
Boys work the parking lot in East Oakland as night falls. They beg Jaguar and Mercedes owners for change to buy a meal. Businessmen walk by on their way to watch the Warriors in the Coliseum.
Only Jess Mowry seems to see the kids. He observes their moves from his sagging 1955 GMC truck as he waits outside a Denny's restaurant.
"Imagine how much courage it takes to do that hour after hour; approach somebody and do that little humble thing and get refused, or get cursed," he says to a companion. "Some people spit. And you do that every day. It probably takes more guts than you got. I've done it."
Like these kids, Mowry, 32, grew up on Oakland's meaner streets. He still lives in a poor neighborhood in West Oakland, but now by choice. His new novel, "Way Past Cool," is his third book and the first to be issued by a mainstream publisher.
He received a $30,000 advance for the book and has sold the movie option for $75,000. Paperback bidding will start at $150,000, says Sandra Dijkstra, his Del Mar-based literary agent. His publisher -- Farrar, Straus & Giroux -- mentions interview requests from People Magazine and CBS' "Street Stories," which Mowry has so far turned down because they want to interview him at his home.
"I don't give tours of the ghetto," he says.
Mowry's fiction, however, portrays the streets he's lived on and, by his reckoning, could have died on. Mowry's characters are gangs of children, sometimes armed and dangerous, who glide through life on skateboards, fending off predators circling their 'hoods. Their parents are gone and their lives are full of the lure of quick cash from selling drugs. They are cornered by poverty, "drive-byed" and provoked by police. Mowry calls them "Little Rascals with Uzis."
"He's a new literary voice, a voice that isn't like any other," says Jonathan Galassi, editor-in-chief at Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who bought "Way Past Cool" immediately after reading it. Galassi, a poet, likens Mowry's work to that of a modern-day Dickens: "He's someone who has come up out of a place where no one expected anything to happen, and that's where real changes come from. He's someone to be reckoned with."
"I can't imagine how it happened, how this 27-, 28-year-old who had been educated through the eighth grade, sat down and started writing these stories," says Susan Daniel. She and her husband operate John Daniel & Co., Publishers, a small Santa Barbara firm that published Mowry's second book, a collection of short stories, "Rats in the Trees," in 1990. "They were very rough, but his sense of the way a story should work, the tension that's needed, character development, were all pretty sophisticated."
Mowry "presents a picture that most of the people in this country have no idea exists, and probably don't want to know exists. My husband thinks (Mowry's) 12- and 14-year-old kids are dealing with the same problems, questions of good and evil, as Shakespeare's characters. It makes for classic themes in this very strange environment," Daniel says.
"I am hearing the same gunfire he's hearing," Oakland writer Ishmael Reed says of Mowry. "Everyone's writing an inner-city book now, doing an inner-city movie, and they are being done by middle-class people who don't know what they are talking about. He knows these characters he writes about better than anybody."
Mowry has little record of his beginnings. His father is black and his mother white. He only recently learned that he was born in Mississippi. His father told him his mother left them. (Not accurate - I always knew the story: JM)
Father and son moved to Oakland during the early '60s. Mowry quit school after the eighth grade and hooked up with a young drug dealer. The future writer carried a .45-caliber Army pistol.
As a teenager, he met Markita Brown. They have been together for 16 years and have four children, ages 8 to 16.
Mowry has lived on the street, collected scrap in the back of his truck, scavenged for aluminum cans and done mechanical work. And he read.
His father, who operated a scrap-yard crane, was an avid reader and gave him a hunger for words, Mowry says. Growing up, he devoured everything from Dickens to Dostoevsky. John Steinbeck and science fiction writers H. P. Lovecraft and Larry Niven are among his favorites. He read mechanical manuals and comic books. In class, he was always ahead of everyone else in reading.
"Maybe reading had something to do with it," he says of his turn from crime. "Maybe I knew there was another world out there some place."
In 1988, Mowry purchased an old Royal typewriter for $10 at a school auction and began to create his characters while perched on the back of his truck. He sold his first short story to the prestigious San Francisco literary magazine Zyzzyva.
"I'm getting published by these magazines with guys like college professors," Mowry says. "There'd be the list in the back, 'So and so is a professor teaching creative writing,' and there's Jess Mowry, 'Graduated eighth grade.' I'm wondering what people think."
(Actually, I didn't graduate eighth grade: JM)