Scars & Memories: A Q&A with Ryan Gattis

Article by keaton

by Keaton Patterson

Ryan Gattis’ new novel, ALL INVOLVED, is many things: a gritty, ultraviolent gangland crime novel; a meticulously sourced work of historical fiction set against the burning backdrop of LA’s 1992 riots; and a panoramic view into a side of our society unknown to most and often ignored by the media. But mostly it is an elegy to the city of Los Angeles and its role as crucible in this American experiment, a strangely segregated socioeconomic melting pot prone to boiling over.

Even more than twenty years later, it’s difficult to peer through the smoke of the LA riots and come to any consensus of what it “meant” for this country. Even though much of the chaos was broadcast by national news networks, letting the entire nation witness the events unfolding in real-time, the conflagration was simply too large, too widespread to cover it all. ALL INVOLVED fills in these gaps.

In the tradition of Ellroy, Gattis’ novel—narrated by a panoply of voices and inspired by true accounts—traces a six day arc of anarchy. A group of enterprising criminals take the opportunity to even some long held scores. Of course, many innocent people are caught up along the way as well. Yet, throughout it all, Gattis lets the voices of his characters remind us no matter how incendiary the 1992 riots were, for many Americans such violence is an everyday fact of life.

Brazos Bookstore: Joan Didion wrote, “The city burning is Los Angeles’s deepest image of itself.” Numerous authors—Nathanael West and Thomas Pynchon, among others—have echoed similar sentiments. Set against the backdrop of the 1992 riots, LA on fire is definitely the dominant image of ALL INVOLVED. What are your thoughts on Didion’s declaration? What do you feel the ‘92 riots and by extension ALL INVOLVED reveal about LA’s “deepest image of itself”?

Ryan Gattis: Thanks for sharing this. I’d not heard it, but it makes perfect sense. The natural environment has much to do with the truth of this statement. Certainly there have been fire-inducing earthquakes—like Long Beach in 1933, or Northridge in 1994—and every year there are fires in the foothills, eating parts of the county & creeping ever closer to the city. Yet, I think this is only half of what makes this true, because Los Angeles burns with its civic disturbances as well, and these are powerful because they are not just recurring, but seemingly cyclical: the Zoot Suit riots in the 1930s, Watts in 1965, and, of course, 1992. Roughly every thirty years, as Lil Creeper points out in my novel, there is a man-made conflagration as well. The next one, in 2022, will be humans versus robots, he thinks. That humor masks a darker truth about Los Angeles, though: these disturbances re-flare because of similar foundational issues. When a lack of viable job opportunities, & access to quality education are not addressed, when over-patrolling & racial targeting remain prevalent, when law enforcement continue to live outside the areas they police, and most especially, when there is a justice vacuum within our poorest communities, the stage is set for another burn. Could it happen again? This is a question I am asked often, and my answer is yes, absolutely. L.A. has a riot problem & it has a lot of tinder.

As far as what my novel might reveal about L.A.’s “deepest image of itself,” I think that’s up to readers, but I will say that my work addresses the whole gamut: the setting of fires, the putting out, & what happens after. In my novel, I always set out to show the secret history of the riots by focusing on what happened in the areas not designated as riot-related—the areas with little to no media coverage, or police presence, or ambulance services. With my research, I always wanted to tell the stories we’ve not yet had access to, especially by going into neighborhoods most non-Angelenos have never heard of (and few Angelenos would even think of going to), because the Latino gang members in the book experience a very different kind of burn to those holed up in houses in other parts of the city & watching it on television. Lastly, I’d say that Anthony’s section is a deeply authentic take on what L.A. firefighters did during that moment in history, often while being shot at or threatened, to minimize the damage of a burning city.

BB: While your fiction covers a variety of genres—YA with KUNG FU HIGH SCHOOL and ROO KICKKICK AND THE BIG BAD BLIMP, pulp crime with THE BIG DROP series, and now literary fiction with ALL INVOLVED—you are known for your full-throttle depictions of action violence. In your opinion, what is the place of violence in literature? What is the difference, where do you draw the line of demarcation between a truthful, necessary use of violence and gratuitous exploitation?

RG: I’m a survivor of violence. When I was 17, I was struck so hard that my nose was torn out of my face, and I needed two facial reconstructive surgeries & over a year to fully recover. Violence, and how to represent it in art, is always a difficult question for me—one I try to handle with the utmost artistic seriousness. Absolutely there are elements of violence & crime in my work. I find that violence in art works most powerfully when it resembles reality, when its consequences mirror those in the real world. In my experience, violence is a terrible thing. It’s not something we want to happen to ourselves or any of our loved ones, but it does happen. It is part of our world. And yet, I think something that absolutely informs my writing is this: a violent, chaotic time or situation does not mean the absence of loyalty, family, hope, or love. All of those things are still there. In fact, it is often the dark moments that makes these true things, these good things about being human, all the more incandescent, vital, & important to characters struggling through difficult times.

For all the work you’ve mentioned, I’ve relied on Dr. William Peace, a surgeon & one of my oldest friends, to always advise me on what could happen to the human body in a given situation & how one might recover afterward. That research in absolutely invaluable to my work, because I strive for truth, which may sound silly to try in fiction, but still, it remains my constant aim. I try to give a sense of what it is like to be there, to feel it. Whereas I think violence that glorifies or exploits has no concern for characters; it cares only for one character, building up its hero—for plot beats in some set pattern, not consequences that change all those involved in a given exchange, because that’s messy; it’s too human, and when one is concerned with an exaggerated, stylized form of storytelling that treats other characters as discardable, humanity does not factor. To be gratuitous or to exploit is to push it in a direction of how one imagines violence to be, rather than what it actually is. Readers & viewers are savvy, though. We know true violence when we see it. It has a stilling effect, even an element of terror.

As far as a line of demarcation, I suppose I draw that at ever asking myself, “what would be cool here?” because cool—whatever that may be at any given time—does not factor. Cool is for others to decide; it is as changeable as fashion trends or weather. The truths of the human body, those are what matter in my writing, and they are not up for debate. We are more fragile than we think we are. We can, and often do, go very easily to pieces when things sharper or harder than skin or bone come in contact with us. And yet, even with seemingly grievous injuries, we can heal. The human body is completely remarkable, and on this subject, my compass is forever internal. It has been set by what happened to me. I understand the boundaries of physical pain & how it has the power to change not simply character but plot, and the reason I say that is because what I went through not only changed me, but it changed the course of my life, and the courses of the lives closest to mine as well. There is a trueness to that shared velocity. Violence is consequential by nature. It changes everything. Those who have felt it, know. It is written on us—and in us—with scars & memories.

BB: With the current state of race relations in America—from LA to Ferguson to New York and everywhere in between—ALL INVOLVED is a timely novel. What are your views on the social importance of literature in our day and age?

RG: Literature is tremendously socially important, now & always, because stories rise above arguments. Stories are not political. They can be, but they are not by nature. The dramatization process is woven with deeper stuff. Stories are soul work. They are alchemical, capable of stirring mind & muscle to action while giving each and every one of us a new pair of glasses with which to see the world in a new way. Perhaps it is too Forsterian of me, but I also believe that literature’s chief function is to use interiority to foster empathy, which is something we could use a lot more of at this time. In my research for ALL INVOLVED, I sat down with many former Latino gang members. Always at some point during our first meetings, I would tell my own story of being a survivor of physical violence, and telling this never failed to dispel awkwardness, elevate the discussion, & create a connection. From that moment, it was about being human together. That became primary. Where we were from & even cultural background—those differences were still there—but both took a back seat to what we’d been through & our shared understanding. I was no longer an outsider to their culture of violence then. I was an empathetic survivor who could deeply understand their pain and what they’d lived through. That opened up opportunities to talk to them about their biggest fears, their dearest hopes, and even some of their own pain. It brought us together. I believe literature can do the same.

BB: You’ll have no idea who we’ll talk to for the next Brazos Q&A, but never mind that: What should we ask him/her?

RG: What do you fear most when writing?

BB: Speaking of, Kirsten Valdez Quade wants to know: What’s the worst advice about writing you’ve ever received and why?

RG: A writing teacher once said: “Write only what you know.” I suppose he thought he was improving on that old creative writing maxim, but fiction—by its very nature—is freedom. To be told it can only be formed of non-fictive elements is not only preposterous, but it’s restrictive (even constrictive) & potentially damaging, especially for young writers.

All Involved Cover Image
$27.99
ISBN: 9780062378798
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Ecco Press - April 7th, 2015

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