About The Author
Ryan Gattis is the author of the novels Roo Kickkick & the Big Bad Blimp and Kung Fu High School, as well as the novellas The Big Drop: Homecoming and The Big Drop: Impermanence.
He earned an MA in Creative Writing Prose from UEA and currently lives in Los Angeles, where he lectures at Chapman University. He is also a member of the urban art group UGLAR.
His extraordinary new novel is All Involved, set during the six days of rioting that erupted in Los Angeles in 1992 after police officers who had been videotaped beating Rodney King were acquitted.
The novel is presented in six chapters, each covering a consecutive day and each written from the point of view of a character involved in the disturbances, including gang members, a nurse, a firefighter and special ops.
This dramatic and fast-paced story, recounted without judgement, will offer any reader a new perspective on one of the most notorious outbreaks of civil disobedience in recent history.
In our exclusive interview, Ryan talks about how he made direct contact with gang members, his own experience of extreme violence and what needs to happen to stop riots like those in 1992 happening again.
Author photo © Sam Tenney
Questions & Answers
You did a lot of first-hand research. How did you make contact with former gang members? How were you received and how did you gain their trust?
I spent nearly 2½ years researching this novel, and much of that came while I was doing an internship of sorts with UGLAR (Unified Group of Los Angeles Residents), the street art crew I joined around 2010. This collaboration between visual artists and a writer was essentially an experiment, but one they quite rightfully wouldn’t let me embark on until I understood the depth of their craft. So I travelled with them to every mural site during ten months, and I did all the menial jobs: carrying paint and supplies, setting up, documenting progress by photographing the murals while in progress, cleaning and tearing down at the end of the day. Through this work, I actually visited many areas of the city I would otherwise never have visited: places like Lynwood (which appears in the novel), Lincoln Heights, and City Terrace—and I met many different kinds of people in these neighborhoods that I would not otherwise have met. I was most drawn to former gang members and how they spoke about their city, but when I first met a number of them, I didn’t actually know they’d been in gangs because that isn’t exactly information people volunteer to people they’ve just met. When that information eventually came up later down the line, I knew I potentially had access to a fairly unique group of people, and it made me start wondering how I’d write about that world.
As far as earning trust, I think a very large chunk of it came from being associated with UGLAR. We have a reputation that precedes us, and I definitely benefitted from the work Espi, Steve, Evan and Chris had been putting in for over a decade. Beyond this, I found it very important that I shared my own experience with physical violence with people when it became clear I wanted to write about Lynwood. I needed people to know that I was a survivor of violence (when I was 17, I was hit so hard that all the cartilage was torn out of my nose and deposited on the side of my face, and I needed 2 facial reconstructive surgeries), and that as a result of what I’d been through, I would take any story I wrote about the area and the people who lived there as seriously as possible. In this way, I made it clear the focus would always be on humanity and empathy.
Why did you choose to focus on the Latino gangs rather than the more widely recognised primarily African-American gangs, like the Bloods and the Crips?
I think people are already generally aware of the roles gangs like the Crips and Bloods played in the riot—they have been reported so extensively—and I found myself more drawn to what happened in the areas that were not designated riot-related because it gave me a blank canvas of sorts to tell the type of story I wanted to tell with fewer restrictions. It’s also a little-known fact that Latino gangs actually outnumbered African-American gangs by a fairly significant margin at that time, and I thought that worth exploring too.
You describe each of the six days of the riots from the point of view of different characters. Did you write them chronologically? And whose was the most challenging voice to create?
I wrote Lupe Vera (aka Payasa) first, and then Ernesto (her older brother) and then Ray (aka Lil Mosco), her younger brother. After that, I wrote each day’s characters in chronological order. By far the most challenging character (and section) for me to write was James on Day 6. I lived two blocks from Skid Row in Los Angeles for a number of years and I am very familiar with the problems that transients deal with in that area. Many of those living on the streets are veterans, and I find that utterly heartbreaking since I am from a multi-generational US Air Force family and I believe one of the great injustices currently happening in America is the continued underfunding of programs responsible for helping veterans. I believe I rewrote James’s section 12 or 13 times trying to find the right mix of dignity and disconnection present within his mental illness.
Do you remember your reaction, as a teenager at the time, to the acquittal and the riots?
I remember the feeling of horror I had as I stood in my kitchen in Colorado Springs and watched the nightly news as Damian ‘Football’ Williams smashed a chunk of concrete into Reginald Denney’s head. Those images will forever be with me.
Any reader will find new perspectives on LA's gangs and the 1992 riots in All Involved. But do you feel that you'd like the novel to achieve something beyond this, to offer any sort of political message?
I never set out to write a political novel, but perhaps there is some takeaway on that score. Gangs thrive in areas deemed at best low-priority by local government and law enforcement. In Los Angeles, police officers almost never live in such areas, and this creates a serious disconnect when it comes to their understanding of the 24-hour dangers inherent in these communities. What’s more, when areas become known as especially dangerous, patrols lessen in frequency, witnesses become harder to find, and successful prosecution of serious crimes drops precipitously, creating what is essentially a justice vacuum. It is within such areas that gangs assert dominance and institute rule over residents. However, the reason such things continue to occur is because there simply isn’t enough dedicated investment in these communities, which are frequently communities of color; there simply aren’t enough opportunities for betterment. These areas need better schools, more after-school programs, better healthcare facilities, and law enforcement committed to living within them and understanding their problems from the inside out. These are truly the only long-term solutions for LA’s near-cyclical riot problem, as well as the broader police brutality problems within the United States today.