To Live & Die in LA: Ryan Gattis on new novel Safe

Ryan Gattis's Safe pulls readers once more into the violent slipstream of his LA riots novel All Involved; the author talks safecracking, turf and the interpersonal skills of the LA underworld

Article by Alan Bett | 07 Jul 2017

Dystopias are so in right now. So, you won’t have to cast your mind far to imagine Los Angeles engulfed in flames: the shrieking backdraft of violence this would suck through South Central. Roving armed gangs of guys with names like Big Fate, Apache and Trouble G, who might use the chaos as a vehicle for settling old scores – the consequences of past slights and underworld power plays spreading like wildfire and sticking like napalm. But remember, this was close to the reality of a rioting LA in ’92 – truth spun into fiction for Ryan Gattis’s kinetic unblinking masterpiece, All Involved.

Gattis used the riots as a narrative map onto which he plotted intertwining lives: first-person viewpoints of nurses, firemen, and everyday citizens, but mainly the Latino gangbangers of Lynwood, who live by the rule that la clica es mi vida! (the gang is my life). Those such as the oh-so-loco Lil’ Creeper, who throws petrol (literally) on a city already ablaze, just to watch it burn. Or Watcher, the dead-eyed 12-year-old pusher and pimp, who when his lady is mistaken for his mother, spits back: “Fool, you better shut the fuck up… That’s my fresa, homes.”

But All Involved hit shelves in 2015. So, now the problem. How can your follow-up outgun such a book? Answer: it can’t. So with the new novel – Safe – you zoom in, focus from All Involved’s 17 separate narrators down to 2: Ghost, a DEA safecracker, who takes his skills off-grid to rob drug houses across South Central. And Glasses, the savvy yet conflicted gang lieutenant out to stop him and save his own neck from the cops and la clica. Even then, it’s not that simple. You still need fate to deal you a card.

“I was actually researching a completely different book when I got a phone call one day,” explains Gattis, on the line from LA. “It changed my life, but it also gave me the idea for Safe.”

A dramatic pause piques our curiosity: a phone call?

“Yes sir,” he responds, formality punctuating his laid-back manner and betraying a Colorado military family background that’s a far different cultural rubric to the LA gangsters who populate his pages – those who he befriended while researching his work.

He tells the story: “Well I’ve stayed in contact with nearly everyone I did research and background with on All Involved, except for a couple of folks who passed away. So, I had a call one morning, a Sunday at about 6am, and I knew it was from a number I could not,” he pauses again, muses… “disregard.” Some nervous laughter. “I answer the phone, and the only question is ‘hey, do you want to see a safe get cracked?’ The answer was obviously, yes!”

So, he throws on clothes, drives to the address and knocks on the garage door. “I walked in, the door closed, and here I am, you know, standing in a garage with two safe crackers and a big safe. And I actually got to watch them work on it… it was basically understood that you can talk to us for the time we’re here and after that you’ll never see us again.”

“I asked no questions about where that safe was from, who owned it and where it was going… But I can tell you that both of those folks basically hold the job that Ghost held, as freelancers for a major government organisation. And the first question I asked was, 'do you ever get left alone?'” His novelist’s intuition kicking in, a story already taking root.

“Oh yeah, we get left alone,” they reply. “It’s a Hollywood myth that we never get left alone. We’re officers of the court, its normal.” So, Gattis asks, does anyone ever come back while you're working, to try and recover what’s in those safes – drugs, guns, cash? They tell him yeah, they do. And people pull guns to take back what’s theirs. Often? "Yeah, too many times to count." And these safecrackers run through the psychology of talking somebody out of shooting them. “I put the other research aside and I started writing Safe that afternoon because I was so blown away by what they said.”

While Safe moves from ’92 to 2008, and from wide lens to sharp focus, what remains constant is the turf the story is played upon. The author CJ Box once wrote that 'it often doesn't matter much who did it and why, but where the story is set. Solving the crime is simply a vehicle to travel through the territory'. Voyeurism trumps narrative, meaning that setting must act as more than just a background set. Lynwood, bordering on the better-known Compton, is where Gattis draws his characters and stories from – in the way that, as far as crime writing is concerned, Dennis Lehane is Boston and Richard Price is Jersey and New York.

“That’s a really interesting connection you’ve already made, simply with language,” Gattis offers back. “The concept of turf in the criminal community, especially in the LA gang community, is extremely important. Obviously, it was more important in the 80’s and 90’s where people would do some pretty despicable things simply in the name of territory. But I think, with crime, it’s always important to know the social background, I think crime writing of the highest order has a sense of the society in a given city, the problems, the history that’s presented in those scenarios.”

He offers a respectful nod to Michael Connelly – to LA crime writing what George Pelecanos is to Washington, or The Wire's David Simon to Baltimore. “I like Michael Connelly a lot, but I don’t write police stories. He does. He knows those kind of cops, he’s been a crime journalist, he has the chops to do that kinda thing. I do the opposite. I’ve spent a lot of time with people who’ve been behind bars.”

For them to take him seriously, Gattis must study and know the defined but evolving culture of the LA crime fraternity inside out. Firstly, the visual: “The days of people buttoning only the top buttons of their flannels is gone… the days of people wearing handkerchiefs out of their pockets has gone. I mean, Hollywood never got the memo, they’re still making dumb movies like that, but it doesn’t exist anymore, not in serious criminal circles.”

Then secondly, the interpersonal: “Trying to catch the word choice, the sentence structure, the rhythm, the clauses… on top of that I would say, listening with my eyes… watching the language of gesture. The more and more time I spend with folks who have been gang affiliated and have lived in that world, there’s what they say, and what they communicate”

An example straight off the page: a climactic moment in Safe centres around a verbal sparring session between two gang captains, both as hard and impenetrable as diamond after years of intense pressure and heat on the South Central streets. Blanco’s name derives from the hue of his knuckles while gripping a bat. Rooster communicates orders in sign language, so his criminal instructions evaporate unrecorded into the ether. Although both are somewhere in their 30s, they're old men in gangster years. While others play chequers against the situations life throws at them, these guys play chess. Instead of pulling guns, Rooster simply asks Blanco:

“So what’s going on with you, big man?”

Rooster’s tone adds all kinds of questions for Blanco. Like, what the fuck were you thinking? Were you feeling bored, or what? Why even do this?

But Blanco only answers the actual question: “This and that.”

So, does this moment originate from a true-life tale gathered through Gattis’s research? “I can neither confirm or deny that,” he answers, with a hearty laugh. “A lot of the fun I’ve had in being connected to the folks who’ve really been through it, is I can pose ‘what ifs’. But in a lot of ways it also comes from having been a spectator, in rooms with folks who have some very real power, just watching how people interact with them.”

One example stands out: “One of the most fascinating experiences I’ve ever had, I ended up going to dinner with a guy I’d heard some pretty crazy stories about. And I was genuinely worried for my safety, going to that meeting. I happened to be going with someone who I knew very, very well and had been spending time with for a couple of years. We sat down at this meeting and this person that I was told to be scared of, basically didn’t say a word, basically had his head bowed and poured beer for [Gattis’s friend] all night, and that made me realise a number of things… this [friend] was far bigger than he had ever let on.”

Even with this level of access, it is a difficult and delicate process to tell the history or adopt the voice of a culture and ethnicity other than your own. Well known novelists have publically shied away of late, and years back, when London-based journalist William Shaw was researching his exceptional book Westsiders – the story of aspiring South Central rappers caught between the streets and the corporate music machine – he mentioned this work in a bar to an African American acquaintance, born and raised in South Central. The mood instantly turns: “What the fuck do you know about South Central?... You don’t know a single thing about it.” So, how does someone termed ‘a white-boy fiction writer from Colorado’ by those ex-gangbangers he interviews, gain permission to tell their stories?

His first connection to that world came through art. Gattis is part of the street art crew UGLAR, who years back had planned a mural, north of Downtown, in Lincoln Heights. “That’s gang territory, and we actually had to talk to the folks in that particular gang in order to do that mural. That was a massive eye opener to me. We basically had a negotiation which was very professional… in terms of, hey this is what we’d like to do, is that ok?

"The key is not to disrespect them in their own area. Cos we don’t live there, they do. They have to see that mural every day, so we have to be sure that it’s… something they can respect and not tag. And if it does get tagged we need to go there and to be on it. We need to go fix it immediately to help send that message that we care about it and we care about you guys and your experience of it.”

His second connection was through violence.

“Lynwood…” he explains, “it’s probably the place I’ve felt understood more than anywhere on Earth. That’s a weird thing to say unless I make it clear to people that I’m a survivor of violence.” When Gattis was 17 he was hit so hard by an American football player tripping on acid that his nose was actually ripped out. He had to endure two facial reconstruction surgeries and it was a year before he could taste and smell again.

“My whole life, I tell people the story of what happened to me, I get pity or sympathy. Most of the time in Lynwood I get empathy. I’m with people who’ve been stabbed or shot. In some cases, stabbed and shot. And we connect as people who’ve been through grievous physical pain. It just builds such a bridge… it helps people introduce me to others, has me sit down with their families.”

In both instances, the word is respect. Gattis tweeted out an LA Times story recently, suggesting that, 25 years since the last riot – which caused $1.1billion in property damage, 11,113 fires, 10,904 arrests, 2,383 injuries and 52 riot-related deaths - a majority of citizens felt another was imminent. His tweet raised the question over what Lil' Creeper might think of this news; we suggest fresh riots might be something the monstrous character would revel in. Maybe not, Gattis replied, he might have changed in the intervening years.

He sees, even in his most troubled creation, the capacity for positive transformation – possibly an effect of dealing with reformed ex-gangbangers whose own lives form cathartic narrative arcs. “This notion of growth is so vital because I see it. You know, every single former gang member I spoke to for All Involved is definitely not the same person he or she was in the late 80’s early 90’s, no question. You know, life changes, and if you’re lucky you grow up and you keep living and you get better.”

“The simple fact is… it’s simply not possible to have excellent decision-making skills at 15, 16, 17, 18 years old. We’re simply not developed enough to understand long term consequences.” And these are people unprotected from life and death situations most of us will never have to face. “But if you’re in a certain neighbourhood at a certain time, or in a certain era, consequences find you. In some cases they can be grievous, in other cases they might send you to prison, or you get lucky.”

Some feel the city’s current renaissance has grown from the fertile ashes of ’92. “The same things are true about fires in forests as in cities. It kills some things but it also provides opportunities for new things to grow,” Gattis suggests, while acknowledging the complexity of the situation and unsure of which communities will actually benefit. But in his writing, he describes a resilient, phoenix-like city – possibly a metaphor for those interviewees and now friends, who escaped the inferno of gang life – that will ‘push right through the flames and come out the other side of them as something broken and pretty and new’. 

Safe publishes on 27 July, from Pan Macmillan, RRP £12.99 Ryan Gattis will be appearing at Edinburgh International Book Festival in August