What: Ryan Gattis is a writer and educator. His most recent book, ALL INVOLVED: A NOVEL OF THE 1992 L.A. RIOTS, is grounded in 2.5 years of research & background spent with former Latino gang members, firefighters, nurses, & other L.A. citizens who lived through it. The novel has won the American Library Association’s Alex Award and the Lire Award for Noir of the Year in France. Set to be translated into 11 languages, it has been called “a high-octane speedball of a read” by The New York Times & its film rights have been acquired by HBO. Gattis lives and writes in Los Angeles, where he is a member of the street art crew UGLARworks, and a founding board member of 1888, a Southern California literary arts non-profit.
Where: Los Angeles
Interview conducted by email. Some questions and answers have been edited.
I just finish ALL INVOLVED and it was easily one of the best books I’ve read in the last year. How were you inspired to tackle the L.A. riots?
I’m so pleased to hear that. Thank you, sir. I think it’s safe to say that the more time I spent with former firefighters & former gang members, I realized that there was an awful lot about the riots that I had absolutely no idea had ever happened. The more I researched, the more there seemed to be, & a portrait of a neglected city emerged—one far more complicated & dangerous than what was portrayed on the news. To be honest, I wrote the novel to try to comprehend the depth & scope of that blind spot. Even now, I don’t know that I came close, but I sure tried my damndest.
Definitely. I felt overwhelmed almost every day. The book is separated into six parts, one for each day of the riots; every time I started a new one, I felt the weight of the subject matter, as well as the difficulty in writing believable, relatable historical fiction. For me, the first thing to do was dive into the research, ground myself with the facts, & then push forward from there. I read everything I could find (Deveare Smith’s TWILIGHT: LOS ANGELES 1992, Major General Delk’s FIRES & FURIES, Cannon’s OFFICIAL NEGLIGENCE & the L.A. Times archives). I watched the ‘live’ clips on YouTube, devoured documentaries, and, of course, I spoke to people about what they remembered, especially what they felt about what was going on in their neighborhoods that didn’t make it into the broader news coverage. After that, I think it was a matter of relying on character-focus to bring me through it, allowing the character to make decisions that felt in harmony with history but still show something entirely new and terrifying.
What made you decide to write a work of fiction?
All of my research with former Latino gang members was predicated on the fact that I was a writer of fiction, period. This is a group for whom a code of silence is a way of life; none of them would have spoken to me if my impetus was to tell their stories. It simply wasn’t an option, for all kinds of sound reasons. That said, I needed some core research & background to be on point (what were people wearing, listening to, talking about, & how did 11,000+ fires smell?), but I needed the freedom fiction provides to make my own connections between characters & plotlines—all the while expanding the scope to hit the heart & soul of the time.
In doing your research, what did you learn about Latino gang culture that surprised you? How about firefighters?
The sheer amount of detail in both subcultures could fill 20 books. For both groups, codes of loyalty are not abstract; they are a way of life—primarily of relying on others in order to stay alive, actually. In fact, the more I spoke to both, I was amazed at how much they saw eye-to-eye on the problems within the community, in particular South Central being policed by Sheriffs who frequently do not live in the neighborhood. Beyond this, I was amazed at how much work firefighters do beyond simply putting out fires. Firefighters live in these communities when they’re on duty; they shop at local markets; they know the residents; they also do ambulance work, as well as pick up bodies for the understaffed coroner’s office. As such, it’s safe to say they see every phase of life in Los Angeles County & its most difficult neighborhoods & cities. I learned pretty quickly that if I wanted a holistic & insightful view of an area, I should ask a firefighter, not a cop.
Probably one of my favorite subplots in ALL INVOLVED was the sputtering romance between a firefighter and a nurse. In your mind, what does this storyline bring to the overall narrative?
It brings a much-needed break from the intensity of the gang narratives & their push toward a final confrontation. It foregrounds humanness, which, really, was my goal for every character in every section. I think it’s also important to remember that dark times do not negate love, loyalty, & kindness—in fact, it shows these things to be all the more vital. They become sparks of incandescence. The provide hope. They light the way for characters, as well as readers.
I’m a survivor of violence. My nose was torn out of my face at 17, & I needed two facial reconstructive surgeries to fix it. My experience of it is not only deeply internal, but life-changing. So my relationship with violence in my fiction has always been the same way; I write about it how it actually is: realistic & consequential; I write about it in a way that I know other victims will recognize as truthful.
Like most writers, you started out as a reader. What were some of your favorite books from back when you first started reading?
When I was recovering, I became a bit of a hermit. I turned to art to help me not only fill my time but also to help me understand my new reality. Robert Cormier was a big one, THE CHOCOLATE WAR really stands out as a touchstone. TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD really hit me at that time, especially as I found that dealing with the level of physical pain I was dealing with dramatically increased my empathy level & then made it permanent. THE OUTSIDERS was a big one too. I must’ve read that one three times back to back to back.
What other publishing plans do you have for 2016 and beyond?
I’m working on a new book about a safecracker in L.A. I’d love to say more, but that’s all I can divulge at present.
- Dharma Kelleher
- Bryon Quertermous
- Larry Wilson (LitFest Pasadena)
- Sarah M. Chen
- Glen Erik Hamilton
- Jen Conley
- Christian Lee (Centum Press)
- C.S. DeWildt
S.W. Lauden’s debut novel, BAD CITIZEN CORPORATION, is available from Rare Bird Books. The second Greg Salem novel, GRIZZLY SEASON, will be published in Sept. 2016. His standalone novella, CROSSWISE, is available from Down & Out Books.