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“Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t get it wrong.” / To make certain I wouldn’t, she gave me homework: if I wanted to write a trial, I had to attend a trial. Simple.
 
"One of our most gifted novelists." MICHAEL CONNELLY, author of the Harry Bosch series

Hello Everyone,

Six years. That's how long it took to research & write The System. At one point, it became so heavy—& I faced so many obstacles—that I took a break to write Safe, & then came back to it fresh. To be perfectly honest: writing The System felt like writing three books at the same time.

Its structure is similar to All Involved, in that it is told through the voices of 12 different narrators (gang members, lawyers for both sides, a parole agent, a detective, a victim, a witness, & more) but this time, the story is of one, chronological criminal process—from crime to time. And in the new novel, each narrator recurs. They all have through-lines; they all change throughout the course of the story.

It is by far the most ambitious novel I've ever attempted, so when author blurbs started coming in a couple weeks ago, I held my breath.


Blurbs

It's extra humbling that these quotes have been given by folks who come from the professional or sub-cultural backgrounds represented in the book—whether from a death penalty lawyer, a former detective, or a former criminal...

+ David R. Dow has defended over 100 death row inmates in 20 years. He is the author of Confessions of an Innocent Man. He said:

"The System is a tour de force that shatters all the usual categories: It is a page-turner, but one you will want to read slowly in order to savor every gorgeous sentence. It's got bad guys and good guys, but you're never quite sure who belongs in which category. And if a novel is magical when you feel like you know the characters intimately, and like them, despite the fact they are mostly people you would ordinarily cross the street to avoid, then Ryan Gattis is a magician."

+ Few, if any, crime writers come close to touching David Swinson's resume. He started out as a uniform patrol officer before rising in the department & ultimately finishing his career as the lead investigator in the District of Columbia for investigating serial burglaries, high profile cases and organized criminal operations related to narco-fencing. Now an author, he writes the Frank Marr series. (And Trigger is a damn good read.) He said:

"The System is as real as it gets. Often brutal, but a beautifully written reality of not only life on the street, but getting caught up in, or working in the justice system. Absolutely brilliant how Gattis was able to accomplish such streetwise authenticity. Makes one wonder whether he lived the life on one side or the other."

+ Incarcerated in various California criminal justice facilities from the age of 16 to 39, Gustavo "Goose" Alvarez was released in 2013 and has never looked back. He is the co-author of the genuinely great Prison Ramen: Recipes & Stories from Behind Bars. He said:

"The System took me back, powerfully, to my incarceration in the early 90’s. Wow. I relate so much to this book, it's painful. I could swear I did time with one of these characters in County. That's how real this novel is. I had to keep reminding myself it was fiction. Front to back, it's not just an incredible work, it's an experience. Especially for those with no idea what it's like to be inside."

+ Last but never least, Joe Ide—South Central L.A. native & author of the excellent IQ series—said this:

"The System is an odyssey through a legal system you know but you don’t know. It goes beyond the lawyer shows, cop shows, expert opinions  and headline cases, revealing a clinking, clanking, jerry-rigged system that inadvertently seeks justice with a veracity that pulses with life. The ensemble of characters are fictional but not made up. Most are LA gangstas portrayed with an uncanny, documentary-like accuracy and grit. You’re not reading about them, you’re with them in a culture as accessible as a bus ride, yet as bizarre and byzantine as any you’ve seen on the Discovery Channel. The dialogue isn’t dialogue; it’s what you’d actually hear -- on the street, in a courtroom, on the prison yard. And so it is with the entire book, sweeping and specific, an overview in exactitude, its relevance and insight transforming an excellent thriller into a historical document."

I'm honored by these generous words in support of my work, & obviously I hope it makes you all the more excited for the release of the book later this year. I do all I can to attain authenticity in my fiction, so to get these kinds of endorsements from folks who know parts of this world inside & out, means everything.

And, of course, what insight I have doesn't come simply from reading, or speaking to people for research & background. It also comes from visiting the places mentioned in the book, keeping my eyes open, & taking notes. As an ongoing series only available to newsletter subscribers, I’ve been sharing stories from my 6 years of research on The System. This is the latest installment…



The Gang Conspiracy Trial

Many a time have I sat on the couch with my wife watching any number of films or TV series that utilize aspects of the criminal justice system to tell their stories. In nearly every single one, she finds errors, omissions, or outright stupidity. This is understandable, of course, because she is a former criminal lawyer who used to clerk for the L.A. County District Attorney. Her guidance, in fact, is one of the secret weapons powering the realism in my fiction.
            So, when I told her that I would be writing The System, a novel using multiple perspectives to progress through every single phase of the criminal justice system—from crime, to investigation, arrest, incarceration, trial, & aftermath—in ’93/’94 Los Angeles County, she was skeptical to say the least.
            “Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t get it wrong.”
            To make certain I wouldn’t, she gave me homework: if I wanted to write a trial, I had to attend a trial. Simple. However, there was one catch. She would arrange nothing for me. I had to do it myself.
            So, in early 2018, I did just that. I drove to Downtown L.A. from our home in South Los Angeles, and walked into the Clara Shortridge-Foltz Criminal Justice Center (formerly The Criminal Courts Building, as it was known when The System takes place; in fact, if you have a moment, definitely read about its new namesake, Clara Shortridge-Foltz—truly an indelible & important California figure).
            As court schedules are not publicly published and I have made it a rule not to attend criminal trials to do with defendants from Lynwood, I had no plan but to show up and see what I could find. This tactic has served me well in my writing life, and it’s something I always told my students to do when I was teaching: always show up; you’ll figure it out.
            Plan-less, but not aimless, I proceeded to the information kiosk in the lobby after passing through the x-ray and metal detector. Two deputies stood on duty there. When I explained that I was looking to observe a trial, the two deputies exchanged a look.
            “Well,” the older of the pair said, “what you need to do is go to the ninth floor. All the interesting cases are up there.”
            They gave examples. Murders. Shootings. The rough stuff.
            So, I went to the ninth floor. I had to pass a second metal detector & security station to enter the broad hallway where everything seemed stained a shade of yellow, even the brown-tiled walls.
            You can’t see directly into the courtrooms, which L.A. County calls departments. You have to enter an antechamber before proceeding into any of them. The first department I checked out? Empty. I sat, though.
            Apart from its tile floors and a ceiling that looks like one giant, segmented light fixture—everything else was wood: the judge’s bench, the jury box, the clerk’s desk, the gallery, and the walls. (You’ve seen inside a department on the 9th floor of the CCB, by the way, if you’ve ever seen footage of the O.J. Simpson trial.)
            I stayed for a moment of peace while the clerk emerged from the back to shuffle papers, and then I stepped out. The hallway had filled up since I’d last been there. Two rows of people extended down and away from two separate departments engaged in jury selections.
            For my next attempt, I chose Department 102.
            By this time, I had already been working on the book for almost four years. The characters were intact. The case chosen. A gang conspiracy-driven attempted murder with two defendants who, through plot necessity, have separate lawyers.
            And what did I happen to walk into that day in Dept. 102?
            A gang conspiracy trial. With three defendants. And three defense lawyers.
            I got goosebumps. I couldn’t believe my luck.
            Every so often with a project, something almost inexplicably fortunate occurs that tells me I’m on the right path. An omen. And this was it. After many long years.
            Of course, I almost couldn’t stay.
            I was able to sit through morning proceedings before the judge ordered a break and called me forward.
            “You,” he said. “Stand up. Come closer. Who are you? Why are you in my courtroom?”
            Most folks had left, but those who remained—including the bailiff—eyed me.
            I closed my notebook. I approached the bar & its low, swinging gate that separated the gallery from the rest of the courtroom.
            “Are you a journalist?”
            “No, Your Honor, but I am a writer.”
            “So, again, I ask, why are you here?”
            “My wife used to work for the D.A. and she told me if I ever wanted to write about a trial, I had to attend one, Your Honor.”
            He laughed at that. And then told me I could’ve picked a better one. In fact, he’d be adjudicating a serial killer trial in the summer, and I should come back for that. (Of course, I didn’t tell him that the current case was perfect for me.)
            It lasted two and a half weeks, significantly longer than the average L.A. County criminal trial. (Mainly because several wire taps had been up & there were thousands of pages of text message evidence.) Most trials take days. I saw it all & took notes. Mainly, I learned the structure. The way a trial progresses. I studied the jury. I watched body language. I learned about the clerk’s importance, the flow of evidence introduction, and the necessity of clarity & repetition in witness examination.
            Throughout, I never spoke to a single juror, but we nodded respectfully to one other, on our entrances & exits. The same occurred with the families of the accused, & the bailiffs. I was able to ask questions of the prosecutors after breaks from time to time; I also spoke frequently with the judge, & one of the public defenders. And by the time the verdicts came in, I was fully able to appreciate the necessity for civility when dealing with issues of tremendous importance. Of the three gang members on trial, two were found guilty, but one—the young woman—was not. However, her triumph was short-lived. When the judge said that if nothing was holding her over, she was free to go, the clerk piped up: she was needed in another department, for another criminal trial.
            When I left, I nodded my goodbyes, & thanked the judge.
            At home, trying to write, I was fully overwhelmed by the experience & information. I finally comprehended why some take short cuts when writing trial scenes or sections. My first draft of The System was very long. I had to cut 40,000 words, a large percentage of that in the trial portion, in order to really push the pace. But I’ll tell you this: my wife was impressed. Though that may have been down to an Asst. U.S. Attorney—one who prosecuted gang members in the era the book takes place—having a read & making some sharp suggestions, too.
            The goal for this novel was always lofty. I wanted to write the best, most holistic novel possible about the American criminal justice system—one that incorporated the halls of justice and the streets through the myriad points of view of defendants, family members, law enforcement, & lawyers. It needed to be thrilling, and it needed to be accurate. Whether it ended up being the former is up to you as a reader, but I believe the latter has been handled.

Research Story Next Month: My first visit to LA's Men's Central Jail


Advanced Reading Copies for The System Are Available in the USA & UK

For those who wish to review The System on Goodreads, Amazon, or elsewhere, you can get a digital proof copy of the novel now, via NetGalley USA or NetGalley UK. If you've never reviewed before, fear not. My understanding is you can qualify so long as you promise to review honestly.

That's it for this month. Please do take care of you & yours.



All best wishes,
Ryan

 
 
 

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