What would you do if it was your last day on Earth? How would you conduct yourself? And what if you were in prison during a riot at the time? This is the dilemma faced by the protagonist in Ryan Chapman’s new comic novel Riots I Have Known (hardcover, Kindle). In the following email interview, Chapman discusses what inspired this story, what influenced it, and why the main character shall remain unnamed.
Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan
To begin, what is Riots I Have Known about?
It’s one man’s attempt at sharing his life story during his last hours on Earth, through the form of the Editor’s Letter in a prison literary journal. His attempts are complicated by a few problems. One, he’s easily distracted and a bit of an egomaniac; two, he’s barricaded himself in the prison’s computer lab while a large-scale riot escalates and approaches; three, he’s convinced he’s done nothing wrong — which the reader learns is spectacularly false. The novel is his confession / memoir, hopscotching across his youth in Sri Lanka, work as a Manhattan doorman for the one percent, and his years in prison leading up to the present moment.
It sounds like Riots I Have Known may have been inspired by current events.
I wish I could claim the political or social relevance as intentional. In truth it’s all luck. The novel took several years of rewriting, revising, and scrapping drafts until the voice clicked. That was my chief concern and hope.
If upon publication readers agree Riots captures the zeitgeist, then naturally I’ll deny all this and say I’ve always possessed oracular powers. It helps that comic self-delusion is a perennial American pastime.
So where did you get the idea for Riots I Have Known?
I’m not the sort of person to quote a philosopher, but if I may quote a philosopher, Pascal has a line about all of man’s unhappiness stemming from his inability to sit still in a room. I thought, What if that was an entire novel? Just a guy in a room? How would I make that interesting, engaging, memorable?
Humor was one solution. Another was our fascination with criminals and con artists. Then I added the ticking clock, with the narrator’s many enemies on their way to interrupt his Editor’s Letter with a thorough bludgeoning.
And how did the story evolve as you wrote it?
The beginning and the end were clear from the outset. Most of the work was in wrestling an engaging story into a form that has no natural need for it. If you or I wrote a goodbye letter to loved ones it probably wouldn’t read like a novel.
I’d liken it to throwing a deck of playing cards in the air with the intention of all fifty-two landing face up. There’s no expertise or skill in this. You just have to repeat the process until it happens.
That’s more or less how it went with Riots. I’d work on the story, pause, see if it worked, scrap it, and work on the story some more. This can be dispiriting. It helps to find pleasure in throwing cards in the air.
The main character of Riots I Have Known does not have a name. Is there a reason for this?
I wanted to strip him of that specificity, for the novel to depersonalize him as he is depersonalized by his circumstance and psychology. He’s a a blank and a chameleon.
He’s also of Sri Lankan descent, which you are as well. Is that why he’s from Sri Lanka as opposed to Afghanistan or Peru or West Orange, New Jersey? And is there also a reason why you didn’t leave his country of origin blank like his name?
One can’t write a novel set in America without addressing race, moreso for a novel set in an American prison. The carceral state is both a microcosm of society and an invisible component of it for most.
I had no interest in a didactic fiction spotlighting the iniquities of how lower class and minority populations are subject to institutional racism and corruption. Not only have far smarter writers already tackled this — and continue to do so — but it’s not the purview of art to push reform.
At the same time, I had to be respectful and sensitive to writing about an environment so outside of my own experience. And to do so with a rather dark sense of humor… I anticipate a few angry responses.
Within Riots, the narrator’s Sri Lankan nationality means he stands apart from the prison population’s affiliated groups. His position on the outskirts becomes an advantage: he can ingratiate himself with white nationalists and black Muslims in commissioning stories for the prison literary journal. As for his race, he’s Burgher, a small slice of the Sri Lankan demography born of intermarriage between European colonialists and the native Sinhalese.
As you said earlier, Riots I Have Known is a comic novel. Who do you see as the big influences on the humor in this story?
Martin Amis and Mark Leyner are masters of deploying wit and humor to tackle difficult subjects. While reading their novels you don’t simply laugh, you laugh despite yourself.
Aside from those people, are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on both what you wrote in Riots I Have Known and how you wrote it, but not on anything else you’ve written?
What about non-literary influences; are there any movies or TV shows that had a big impact on Riots I Have Known?
I remember watching several episodes of The Eric Andre Show and thinking, I want to make the literary version of that. As for film, Mike Leigh’s Naked, Noah Baumbach’s Kicking And Screaming, and Whit Stillman’s Barcelona.
Speaking of which, has there been any interest in adapting Riots I Have Known into a movie or TV show?
It’s early days, so…fingers crossed? The compressed timeline would seem to translate to film more than television, but there have been masterful uses of the frame structure in recent years, such as the first season of True Detective.
Finally, if someone enjoys Riots I Have Known, what similar-ish novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read and why that?
I wouldn’t claim Riots is on par with any of the following books, more of an apple-cheeked aspirant.
Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! is an achievement in deranged comic voice. It’s criminally underread.
Nothing about Roberto Bolano’s The Savage Detectives should work — a 500-page oral history of two wayward poets’ search for a lost genius? Really? — but the results are life-changing and literature-affirming.
Finally, Mark Leyner’s The Sugar-Frosted Nutsack. Look past the title and you’ll find the most inventive high-wire performance of the last decade.