Our April Pick Of The Month, Ryan Gattis’ All Involved, is a book both intimate and epic, as is looks at the six days of rioting in L.A. after the exoneration of policemen filmed beating Rodney King from different perspectives through interlocking short stories. The result is both emotional and balanced. We talked to Ryan about the history he covered, L.A., and hanging out with gang members.
MysteryPeople: What drew you to the L.A. riots as a subject for the story?
Ryan Gattis: Initially, it was the scale. I just didn’t understand how that much widespread rioting, looting, & chaos could be tied to one event—what happened to Rodney King & the subsequent acquittals of his police assailants. One day, sure, but six? At some point, I felt, the riot would have to have become something else entirely. The King verdict was certainly the spark, but the riots morphed into a far more sinister event on Day 2, driven mainly by crimes of opportunity. For me, the most troubling aspects of the riots weren’t necessarily what was happening in designated riot areas with helicopters hovering overhead; it was that large swaths of the city were left without police or emergency assistance, leaving a county of nearly 5,000 square miles open to its 102,000 gang members & potential crimes of retribution.
MP: What do you think the biggest misconception about the event is?
RG: That it is was only black & white, or only about what happened to Rodney King. During the course of my research I was told time & again that, black or brown, every neighborhood had a Rodney King. Everyone knew someone who had been beaten by the police. Beyond that, there are larger contributing factors that are rarely discussed or understood. For one, clear & effective communication is difficult in Los Angeles. With over 90 languages spoken & immigrant communities from nearly every country on earth, it is effectively a Balkanized city with some historic housing, voting, & employment issues. Throwing in a recession on top of that heritage, an unchecked police force, and some very serious problems delivering justice to its people of color (e.g. where the maximum sentence was 16 years in prison, Korean storeowner Soon Ja Du was fined $500, given probation, and 400 hours of community service for shooting Latasha Harlins, an unarmed 15-year-old, in the back), and the riots were a far more dense & layered event than can be explained in sound bites.
MP: How did you come about the approach to tell it in a mosaic of short stories?
RG: The book actually started its life as a novella. It was only Day 1 when I first wrote it, only the stories of the three Vera siblings. I hadn’t had a novel published in nearly ten years at that point, so when I sent it to my agent in London, I was actually expecting her not to understand it. I was very wrong. Within two days, she responded with enormous positivity & pushed me to write the entirety of the riots—all six days—as a novel. After that, I viewed each day as a novella, and that’s roughly how it ended up: with each 24-hour section clocking in at roughly 20,000 words. It seemed the best way to tackle a multi-day event structurally.
MP: What was the most challenging point of view to write from?
RG: It was James, definitely. I lived two blocks from Skid Row, on 5th & Main, for a few years. Because I didn’t have a car & I walked everywhere, I knew many homeless in the neighborhood and I spoke to them often. Many were vets. This was especially heartbreaking for me, coming from a military family, so that was part of my difficulty. But there was something more too: the things I could never get a handle on when living there, and even since, were the untreated psychological issues so many homeless people have. As I wrote James, I struggled with how to characterize his mental illness in a way that still afforded a degree of dignity, as well as plot insight. I’ve never written a character like that before, and I was very, very picky with his voice & word choice. I must have re-written him twelve or thirteen times, whereas the most I rewrote any other character was once.
MP: You deal with a lot gang characters and show aspects of their lives that are surprising and humanizing. What surprised you in your research on them?
RG: In my research, what surprised me most was how easy the former gang members were to relate to. They prioritized family, food, & work just like I do—although, perhaps, our definitions of that work, and our access to it, differed. I think, though, that those shared human values surprised them about me too. Here I was, some white boy professor & writer from Colorado who had traveled to them and stepped into their neighborhood, and I think their perfectly logical first thought was: was I for real? It always came up that I didn’t own a car. My Los Angeles is the one I’ve seen from bus & train windows. That’s how I built my mental map. Same as them. (In fact, one person I spoke to routinely called me “Blue Line” because I often rode the South L.A. line that goes through Watts & Compton.) After that, at some point during those first meetings, I would tell my own story of being a survivor of physical violence (when I was 17, my nose was torn out of my face & I had two facial reconstructive surgeries), and that never failed to 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—it was still there—but both took a back seat to what we’d been through. I was no longer an outsider to their culture of violence then. I was an empathetic survivor who could deeply understand their lives, their pain, and what they’d been through. That opened up opportunities to talk to them about their biggest fears, their dearest hopes. It was, and remains, an honor to have had those conversations with folks who have seen some of the worst stuff the world has to offer. Perhaps most importantly, I think the folks I spoke to during my research & background always understood that this was never a tourist trip for me. I remain in close contact with many of them to this day.
MP: Seeing the reaction to police brutality in Ferguson and New York after writing All Involved, did you notice anything different from those events and the Rodney King riots or was it basically the same thing again?
RG: I think the underlying feelings of injustice & racial targeting are very, very similar. There are certainly patterns there. Now, I have not studied the other situations and I don’t know if this applies to Ferguson or New York, but one of the biggest problems within L.A. law enforcement is their officers’ cultural aversion to living in the City of L.A. As a result, they police a public they do not know personally, or, in some cases, even care about. It is much easier to denigrate, dehumanize, or treat with derision if you can drive away at the end of the day and not deal with the people you have alienated or hurt. I do not know if this is an issue in Ferguson or New York, but I’d not be surprised if it were, and I am curious to find out. However, as I mentioned above, Los Angeles is absolutely its own beast. It is, without question, a breed apart. Its extreme diversity & sheer size mean there is no clean parallel for the scale of the 1992 L.A. Riots, which—to this point—remain the most destructive civic event in U.S. history.
You can find copies of All Involved on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.