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On art, Metro flare-ups and John Fante's cactus

On art, Metro flare-ups and John Fante's cactus
Ryan Gattis took his selfie at his office in downtown Los Angeles.

Colorado native Ryan Gattis' new novel, "All Involved," unfolds during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. The California section's Jason Song sat with Gattis over a plate of mole at Rocio's in Bell Gardens, grilling him about his research into gang life, his work with the arts collective United Group of Los Angeles Residents (UGLAR) , and public transportation. We later emailed Gattis questions and crunched the conversation into this:

Can you confirm or deny stealing a cactus from the late novelist John Fante's former house?

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Stealing is such a harsh word. I took a clipping — something I have on good authority that Fante did himself — from a large cactus that had grown over the property line. I paid for it with a handful of needles too. It survived, though. It's doing quite well in its new environs near my writing desk.

When you first moved to L.A., you didn't have a car. What did you learn?

I learned to sit back, wait and watch the city — night and day. Riding the bus gave me a tremendous appreciation for the diversity of this city, particularly its neighborhoods, architecture and people. Weird things happen on Metro buses. Conflicts. Discussions. All kinds of odd little flare-ups when tired strangers cross paths. I think taking a city block by block, overheard conversation after overheard conversation, is really the best way to understand it.

For your research, people opened right up, right?

No, people never opened right up. I did nearly 2.5 years of research and background to make certain I got the details right. A certain prominent former gang member did have to make it clear that it was OK for other former gang members to talk to me, but only after I sat down with him. That meeting was completely nerve-wracking. We didn't even get to speak until I handed over my phone, and after that he peppered me with questions about who I was and where I was from. It was essentially an interrogation.

Sometimes the best story ideas arrive in Hawaii. True or false?

True! I was attending a wedding in Hawaii when the father of the bride confronted me during cocktail hour. He'd heard I was writing a book about Latino gang members and the 1992 riots, and he thought that if I didn't at least include perspectives of the people who did everything they could to keep the city from burning to the ground then I might as well quit. It turned out he was a former engineer in the LAFD. Two weeks later, we were sitting down in L.A. and talking about what it meant to be a firefighter at that time.

¿Hablas español?

Hablo un poco de español. When I'd ask questions to clarify details of Spanish (and Spanish slang) usage in the book, I was often told, "You got a good ear, but you're not hearing it right." I always thought that was a beautiful way of saying I was dead wrong, but it was good that I was curious.

What piece of L.A. outdoor art would you miss the most if it got painted over tomorrow?

UGLAR's "Painting the Painters" on North Spring Street. It's an incredible piece that really pays homage to the previous generation of muralists with a ton of respect: Willie Herron, Kent Twitchell and Chaz Bojorquez are all portrayed on the wall.

A white guy who earned the trust of people from different backgrounds gets good reviews for a book about events he didn't live through. Good sign for L.A.?

I hope it's a good sign. I had to put boots on the ground. I had to go to Lynwood and spend time there, occasionally under adverse circumstances. L.A. is an incredibly diverse place and perhaps one of the enduring legacies of the '92 riots is the clear understanding that we need to talk to one another, and do our best to see things from another perspective, even if we don't end up agreeing.

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