This interview was originally published in the books & entertainment section of the Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa.
Ryan Gattis (Picador)
Ryan Gattis listens. It’s an innate skill, honed by more than two years of face-to-face research that fueled the creation of this riveting take on the so-called “Rodney King riots” in Los Angeles in 1992. What if the events of that week were used to disguise revenge plots and the playing out of long-held gang grudges? Could it be possible to escape your fate?
These questions are answered from the first-person perspective of 17 very different players, from Latino gang members to firemen and nurses. The work is published as six different A-5 sized “booklets”, roughly 64 pages each, representing the six days of the unrest. It’s all fiction (interspersed with some fascinating facts) – and it’s powerful stuff.
“It started with a character that I absolutely wanted to write: Lupe ‘Payasa’ Vera,” says Gattis. Vera is a Latina gang member who loses her brother Ernesto on the first day of the violence. “I’d spent time doing research with former gang members, and I just kept getting told no – you can’t do that, there aren’t that many female gang members and certainly not at that time. Eventually, someone said that it would have to be an extraordinary set of circumstances – and my brain lit up. Payasa’s journey turned into a story about the city – a story about something that had terrified me as a Colorado teenager, watching the inexplicable violence unfold on television.”
All Involved shines in the sense that it doesn’t simplify. After footage of Rodney King being severely beaten by police was shown on national television, the fallout was ultimately more than just about race, and Gattis wanted to expand the story to show this. “I think the story was simplified for it to be communicated as quickly as possible, but it wasn’t simply a race riot: it was a media-driven riot, it was a riot of opportunity, it was a riot of anger related to the recession at that time.”
He was very much aware of the fact that, as a white man, he’d chosen to write a story that was not his own. He did indeed get pushback, but he had specific rules that, in the end, helped build empathy and trust with the people he spoke to. And it shows: despite the characters’ different voices and experiences, All Involved creates a vivid picture of a world slowly being broken apart, put through the wringer and pieced together again. “Stories and narrative – that’s why I get up every morning. I want to tell the stories that aren’t being seen, that aren’t cropped and cut and put together in a glossy way. I know I write about some of the darker elements of being human, but I think we need it as a group and a global community – we need to do our best to understand each other, and literature and art are really the gateway to this.”