Walter Mosley is the author of more than three dozen novels, including many mysteries featuring the L.A. detective Easy Rawlins. His latest novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, is about a 91-year-old black man entering the early stages of dementia and the last years of his life. But Grey's life changes after he meets a 17-year-old teenager named Robyn, without a family of her own.
Robyn cares for Ptolemy and introduces him to a local doctor, who invites him to join an experimental drug study that will help bring back his memory — but will simultaneously also shorten his life span. And Ptolemy must decide what to do.
Mosley tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that he wrote the novel — and imagined what Ptolemy was thinking — after watching his mother's mind deteriorate from the early stages of dementia.
"When you deal with a person who's experiencing dementia, you can see where they're struggling with knowledge," he says. "You can see what they forget completely, what they forget but they know what they once knew. You can tell how they're trying to remember. ... What I saw in my mom's eyes and in some of her expressions, was her saying, 'I want to understand it; I want to understand what you're saying; I want to enter into a dialogue with you; I want things to be the way they were.' That's the crux of the novel: What would you do to have things the way they were?"
In the novel, Grey meets with a doctor who offers him a medicine that will restore the electrical connections in his brain — and his memory — but only for a short period of time.
"The doctor says, 'I can give you this medicine and there's a chance that for the next three months, you're going to have perfect memory. There's a chance that you're going to be able to think the way you used to. At the end of that three months, it's a definite you're going to be dead,' " says Mosley. " 'If you don't take the medication and you've got a good body, you might live another 10 years, but you won't know a thing. So you make the choice: three months aware or 10 years in a daze?' "
Mosley, like his character, says he would take the three months.
"Ptolemy thinks that this white doctor with a big white mustache is the devil," he says. "And he realizes that his only choice is to deal with the devil. And that is accepting death in a way, but what are you going to do?"
On the condition of Ptolemy Grey's house
"He's been living in this apartment for maybe 60 years. He's 91 years old. He's been living there since he turned 30. Everything that's come into that house is still there: old pizza cartons, old boxes, newspapers, every toothbrush he ever owned. It's filled with furniture and memories and the belongings of other people in his family. It's really like a hoard of a house, but it's also his family and his memories all jumbled up together, piled so high that it almost looks like a storage unit. He can't throw away anything because he's not sure what's valuable and what isn't. It's not that he wants everything; it's just that he doesn't know how to get rid of things."
On the death of his parents
"I'm almost completely without family and it's a very odd feeling in life. I have no children. ... With me, there's nobody and it's an odd feeling. Losing my parents really set me adrift in more ways than one. It's not just losing them. It's losing the possibility of family."
On the differences between his life and his father's life
"My father's life was so decimated by his earliest experiences. His mother died when he was 7 years old, which he always said was the worst experience in his life. When he was 8, his father disappeared and he was on his own from the age of 8. It's necessarily different how we face life and how we are men in life. The difference between Easy Rawlins and that series of books and my new series of mysteries, the Leonid McGill mysteries, underscores that — what a different world me and my father lived in."