6 Questions with Ryan Gattis, author of All Involved!

by Jessica on April 22, 2015

On Friday, April 24th at 7pm, we are hosting Ryan Gattis, author of All Involved. Artist Chaz Bojoquez will be with him and they will be in conversation with Lilliam Rivera of Pen Center USA.

Vroman’s President, Allison Hill LOVES this book. She has nothing but good things to say about it and really just can’t keep telling people about it.

Allison says this about All Involved, “If you’ve talked to me in the last few weeks, I’ve probably recommended this book. It absolutely wrecked me. A novel set during the 1992 L.A. riots, this book is timely, gripping, beautifully crafted, intense, and important. It kept me up at night and it shifted my perspective in surprising ways. And having met Ryan and his wife this past weekend at the festival of books, the story behind the story is equally compelling.”

To give you a little preview of what will be expanded upon on Friday evening we were able to ask Ryan 6 questions about the process of writing a book like this and his specific memories of the riots and this time period.

Enjoy! We hope to see you on Friday evening!

6 Questions with Ryan Gattis

How long did you work on All Involved?  

I spent roughly two and a half years on the project—most of that on research. The prose composition clocked in just a bit over four months.

How much research went into this project?

I spoke personally with dozens of Angelenos, watched hours & hours of news footage—in addition to raw footage of the 1992 L.A. Riots, read every book I could find (Twilight: Los Angeles 1992 by Anna Deveare Smith, Official Negligence by Lou Cannon, Fires & Furies by Major General James Delk, to name a few), and dug through reels & reels of microfiche. My research primarily began with speaking to former Latino gang members about the late 80s and early 90s, a time it seemed to me, resembled the Wild West in many ways.

Did you run into any roadblocks in the research along the way and how did you get past those?

I wrote Days 1 & 2 pretty much straight through, but then I ran into a scheduling problem. Instead of writing Day 3 as I’d planned, I had to attend a wedding in Hawaii. It was there that a retired L.A. firefighter confronted me during cocktail hour. He’d heard I was researching the 1992 riots and he got in my face about it. He didn’t want me writing just about gang members, making them heroes. If I was going to write about the riots, I needed to do it right. I had to include people who were trying, desperately, to pick up the pieces, even as the city crumbled around them.

He was absolutely right.

When I returned home to Los Angeles, I met with nurses, retired firefighters, former highway patrolmen, graffiti guys, and more. Time and again, local facts of the era expanded my understanding of the riots, its dangers and its scale, and two of them blew my mind: One, a secret “neo-Nazi white supremacist gang” known as the Lynwood Vikings existed within the L.A. Sheriff’s Department and engaged in “racial hostility” and “terrorist-type tactics” while on duty (U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter, Jr.; Source: L.A. Times); Two, Navy SEAL team medics did their internships with the L.A. Fire Department due to the number of combat-related injuries the LAFD treated on a daily basis. Both facts underscored the idea that Los Angeles in the late 80s and early 90s actually was an asphalt war zone. Each fact was a harrowing thing to learn, but this was precisely how these discussions grounded me in the historical background necessary to describe 1992, helping me to weave a story of the hidden L.A. no one saw on TV during the riots, the marginal L.A. left with little to no emergency assistance, the L.A. without enforceable laws.

Where did the inspiration for this kind of novel come from? What interested you most about the subject matter?

With any long piece of fiction, I need numerous moments of inspiration throughout the process to complete it, but I suppose the initial push was simply wanting to write about a female gang member whose brother had died, and she needed to decided whether or not to avenge him. When I discussed this scenario with numerous former gang members for authenticity, I got told time & again that women weren’t involved, which was to say, not part of the daily gang activities that men are. I tried to accept this, but I just couldn’t. I thought about the character of Payasa day & night, until it finally dawned on me that she would need a major event to grant her the freedom to do what she needed to do—that event was the 1992 L.A. Riots. Once that clicked for me, and even the former gang members I spoke to agreed it was possible, I realized that this story was no longer simply about Payasa, but about an entire city instead. That raised the stakes. After that, I just had to go for it and see if I could do it justice.

Do you have any specific memories of this time period and the riots in particular?

I grew up in Colorado, and I remember, very concretely, standing in the kitchen of my parents’ home in Colorado Springs while watching a nightly news report. Before the clip rolled, we were warned that what was to come was very violent, and that those with weak stomachs should turn away. I must have been thirteen years old at the time, and I didn’t turn. What came next was Damian ‘Football’ Williams smashing something heavy into Reginald Denney’s head. When it hit, I felt it and recoiled. I think my father even shouted when he saw it. My next thought was that Reginald Denney was certainly dead, and that was the first time I’d ever thought I’d seen a dead body, right there in the intersection of Florence and Normandie.

There are 17 different narratives in the novel. What challenges did you face while moving in between voices and what did you find out or learn about that kind of writing?

It’s always a challenge to write outside one’s known experience, but that’s what fiction is all about. My biggest issue was using characters that already had dialogue in the novel, but I had not written their sections yet; when I finally did, I found out more about them, and had to go back & adjust their previous parts accordingly. The key throughout, I think, is to accept the story and characters as a challenge and understand the burden that falls on respectful research, background, & concrete detail in order to attain authenticity and do justice to the people & cultures portrayed. Honestly, if you had told me at the beginning of the process that my novel would contain 17 different first-person narrators when it was finished, I would have quit before I even started. I had the virtue of ignorance, in this case, and I literally took it one day—and even one character—at a time.