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"This is how much of my research goes—rarely at fancy restaurants, but often over food—and it takes time." //
 
"One of our most gifted novelists." MICHAEL CONNELLY, author of the Harry Bosch series

Hello Everyone,

A big thank you to all who stuck with me in the transition between newsletter providers, & a hello to new subscribers from the recent Booksweeps “Mysteries & Thrillers on Kindle Unlimited” contest. Congratulations to Runner-Up Pat & Grand Prize Winner Gina!

For those new to the list: I’ve done research & background work in South Central L.A. for a decade now. The bulk of that time is spent meeting with real people who have done the things I describe in my books, whether former gangsters, law enforcement, or lawyers. 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 Dinners

We’d met casually a few times at art events, Mister J. & I. Connections frequently happen that way, not entirely dissimilar to Goodfellas. I’ll be told, “You need to meet this person. He’s a friend.” Or: “He’s a homie.” And the tone will convey an added layer of importance. A reminder, almost. To be on one’s toes. Especially if it is an OG (Original Gangster, connoting years of experience & worldliness).

The first real sit-down I ever had with J. was at his request. He’d heard I loved food & had lived in England & Australia, & done home-stays in Japan. (He also knew that when I was 17, my nose was torn out of my face & I required 2 facial reconstructions to put it right; as a result, I lost the ability to smell & taste for about a year. Ever since I regained those senses, food has been a massive part of my life.)

We met at José Andrés’s restaurant, Bazaar, in Beverly Hills. (It was my first time at an Andrés restaurant, & I look forward to going again when restrictions lift; Chef Andrés is doing such great work helping people these days.) This was J.’s call. In my experience, few people love food as much as former gangsters do. Whether growing up with limited means, or having access to good food denied for a period of time (such as during incarceration), they almost unanimously scour markets for the best produce & meat, cook fantastically at home, & seek out fine restaurants all over the city for special dishes. Bazaar was one such place.

J. said I had to try the “Philly Cheesesteak” (those aren’t my quotes, by the way, they are the restaurant’s, & the menu describes the sandwich as “air bread, cheddar, wagyu beef”). I was skeptical, but the chef’s high-end riff on the Philly classic was exceptional: salty, but not too salty, & fatty without being too heavy. When J. asked what I thought, I told him exactly that. And he approved. I had passed a test.

This was all part of the initial feeling-out process. Could I be trusted? Being vouched for is one thing, but trusted is another entirely. This is how much of my research goes—rarely at fancy restaurants, but often over food—and it takes time. Sometimes years, & many meetings, before anyone will speak candidly. And some, it must be said, never will. Yet, what always helps is the knowledge that I write fiction, that I’m not there to write anyone’s stories. I’m there to listen. To learn the world.

The next time I met J. was in Koreatown. It was summer, 2015. This time, I’d told him that I was working on a new book. Through a go-between, I’d let him I know I’d like to talk about his pre-trial time spent behind bars in the 1990s, specifically in Men’s Central Jail (MCJ) in L.A. County. A month went by before he agreed to sit down with me. In fact, I thought the answer was no, & was already preparing similar sit-downs when he told me a time and place. (In total, I spoke to a dozen formerly incarcerated individuals for backgrounding on the era while writing The System).

I arrived at the address: a dark Korean barbecue restaurant lit almost entirely with accents of red neon & yellow light from the sodium bulbs of L.A. street lamps that was strong enough to crawl in through the floor-to-ceiling front windows. Layers of grilled meat smells hit me at the door & got stronger as I entered. The bulk of it came from the open-air kitchen at the back, and not far from it, sat J.

Cops and gangsters tend to sit the same way when out in public: with backs to walls, as far from windows as possible, but with a clear line of sight to as many exits as possible. J. was no different. Side dishes of banchan already covered the table: two bright red kimchees, one cabbage in what looked like broth, & various sprout dishes. I was five minutes early, but he had already ordered. Ribs came. Already cooked. Straight from the kitchen. “Some of the best in the city,” he said. He wasn't wrong.

As we ate, he spoke of the several times he had been locked up in a low voice, not because he was ashamed especially, but because he didn’t want to intrude on anyone else’s dinner conversations. He was considerate that way as he discussed what the interiors of transport buses looked like (where the cages were, how many seats) and smelled like. He spoke of the labyrinthine below-ground entrance to MCJ. He spoke of holding cells, & being packed in with so many others (a number with questionable hygiene, some still drunk or high, some with psychological issues) while awaiting processing. He spoke of the jail food between bites of rib and laughed, because he sure did appreciate being out, enjoying this freedom now, & never having to eat County food ever again. Near the end of the meal, the conversation veered into the loneliness of incarceration. The isolation. He spoke of waiting for family visits—the pain & frustration evident on his face.

I was humbled by all he shared. I’d toured MCJ myself after a law enforcement contact was able to add me on to an L.A. Times tour that new journalists must take (I'm not sure if they still do those anymore; they should), but these details were simply not things that could be known without speaking to someone who had been through it. Who had been shackled. And herded. And endured. What’s more, this understanding of the carceral architecture of the place—when combined with the collective insights of others like J.—allowed me to picture it as a setting, one that I could see my own characters in, & that made a tremendous difference when I sat down to write.

We are due another dinner when The System comes out & the state of the world is hopefully more conducive to such things. But this next time, I get to pick. And J. says I have to wow him. So, the stakes are truly high. I'm thinking noodles, maybe. Or molé. If you know L.A. restaurant options pretty well & have suggestions, I'm definitely all ears. I'll make a list.

Global Publication Date Changes for The System

I’m grateful to those of you who already pre-ordered my new novel, The System, especially those who patronized Bookshop.org & supported local, independent bookstores! With that said, some very difficult decisions were made in the past few weeks, & my publishers concluded that pushing the publication from July to December (USA: 12/8/20; UK: 10 DEC 20) was the best course of action. I apologize to everyone who hoped it would be out sooner, but this was unavoidable. For those on the UK side who are predisposed to review, however, NetGalleyUK does have proofs available now.

May Contest & Signed Copies in June


One more Booksweeps contest this month for copies of Safe, 44 other novels, & a grand prize e-reader. It is open internationally. In June, we will run a newsletter subscribers-only contest for signed & stamped copies of Safe. In the meantime, take care of you & yours.


All best wishes,
Ryan

P.S. One Last Thing: Series Poll

Your chance to weigh in on the direction of the ongoing series telling the stories behind the research for The System, which is only available to newsletter subscribers.

Which story about the research behind THE SYSTEM would you like to read next month?
1) My first visit to Men’s Central Jail.
2) My first visit to NCCF (North County Correctional Facility), the only super-max jail in the USA.
3) My first gang conspiracy trial.
Created with Poll Maker
 
 
 

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