Ryan Gattis shares how day-to-day life in the LA neighbourhoods that Hollywood avoids inspired his new novel, Safe.
“If you identify more with the city of Los Angeles than the movie industry, it’s hard not to resent the idea of Hollywood, the idea of the movies standing apart from, and above, the city.”
—Thom Anderson, Los Angeles Plays Itself
I was told not to visit South Central Los Angeles before researching All Involved. I did it anyway. I spoke to former gang members, nurses, firefighters, and more. I’ve kept in touch. Two years ago, one of those folks called me at five o’clock on a Sunday morning with a question: did I want to see a safe get cracked?
Yes. Yes, I did.
That day, I spent hours in a garage with two gentlemen who punch safes for a living. They’re freelance, hiring out to the DEA, FBI, and others. Thankfully, I was allowed to ask questions. Were they ever left alone? All the time. Did anyone come back? All the time. A gun had been pointed at one of them last week. How do you talk someone out of killing you? After exchanging a glance, the men gave some insight into their psychology of survival.
This is the only photo I was allowed to take that day.
Watching a safe cracking is different to how it is fictionalized on-screen. In person, it involved drilling, not stethoscopes, which makes me think of what else Hollywood so often gets wrong about Los Angeles: the landscape. On film, geography is often cut, spliced, and re-imagined.
This dislocation of space and place is what I try to counter with my novels. I write with specificity and detail, making use of actual streets, buildings, and routes in my work, grounding arcs and plots in the physical world.
There’s a saying in Los Angeles: “Don’t go south of the ten.” It refers to the 10 Freeway, which bisects the county, ending in West L.A., effectively separating north and south. Traditionally, North (Pasadena, The Valley) and West (Beverly Hills, Santa Monica) are considered desirable; South and East are not.
I live well south of the 10, and it’s where my stories almost exclusively take place, because I rarely see these places on-screen, and if they are, they’re rarely respected. South Central, in Hollywood’s imagination, has always been a place for villains, and few heroes.
In Safe, the narrator known as Ghost has breakfast in Rancho Dominguez. In the East Compton neighborhood where Venus and Serena Williams first learned to play tennis, Tamalería La Doña is a place where men shuck corn and women shape tamales:
When Ghost visits Compton’s Crystal Casino Hotel for an important drop, he goes to room 626, which overlooks the 91 Freeway:
When Ghost needs a place to meet that has two exits (one to the 405 Freeway), he chooses the South Bay Galleria’s parking structure:
My research process is simple. I travel. I talk to real people who have done the things I explore in my novels. For Angelenos who know the area well, it’s a nod of respect. For those who don’t, it corresponds to an actual road map. If anything, my work does not stand above the city; it stands in the city at eye-level—where it’s fused to the same streets I drive when I’m in Lynwood, San Pedro, or Hawthorne—because I believe anchoring my stories in real places, on real streets, not only honors the folks who aid me in my research and background, but better immerses unfamiliar readers in a place worth knowing.