Ryan Chapman’s debut novel, Riots I Have Known, is one of the funniest books of recent memory. Chapman writes with a blistering comedic voice, reminiscent of early Donald Antrim. Page after page, he deftly turns sentences into knives. I talked to Chapman over the phone in April 2019.
In a lot of ways, your novel feels totally fearless. Were there different versions where you went a little further or played it a little safer? Or was this always the general tone of the book?
I think the book was always going to have that tone. And that probably came out of writing it without an idea of what would happen to it at the end, as a project. It was really just the personal thing that I worked on for years to amuse myself before work. When it was kind of in shape, I gave it to my friend Justin Taylor [author of Flings] and I said, “I have no idea if this is good or bad. I have no idea if this is something that could be published.” And having worked in publishing, I had a pretty good sense of what was out there, and I thought this was a one-eighty from a lot of that. So it was a nice surprise that he gave good feedback and that other people were encouraging. It’s still very hard to wrap my mind around the idea that other people will read it. My other hope is that my family will read it and say, “Good job!” More likely: “What is wrong with you?”
I feel like all of your references are correct. Even on the first page, you mention “watching a Brando-esque scene-chewer in some Lifetime movie.” Lifetime feels like the perfect brand to mention there. Did it take a while to pick the right words for these moments or did it just come out in that way?
It just kind of came out that way. I knew that if I got too much in my head about what films and books and TV shows the character would mention, it would prevent me from writing with that headlong momentum that I wanted. During the editing process, there was certainly revisions to some of the references. And the nice thing with writing a novel is that it’s always in the back of your head. So if you’re watching a Lifetime movie, a little bell will go off in your mind: “Oh, that could work for that one paragraph.”
I really like that the main character is Sri Lankan. How did you come to that?
In an early draft, the protagonist’s race didn’t come up. But after the first or second draft, I thought, “This is ridiculous.” On the one hand, if you’re setting your book in America, you have to contend with race. And if you’re setting your book in an American prison–in many ways a hothouse microcosm of the country–you really have to contend with it. My father’s Sri Lankan, and I’ve been to the country a few times. We have some family there. If the character was Sri Lankan, he could operate as an outsider both in the scenes set in New York City and in prison, since there are very few Asians or Asian Americans in our prison system. Then I could bring in the stories from the family and things that I’ve encountered on my travels. That in itself was a literary territory that I hadn’t seen a lot.
At the same time, we’ve all read dozens of books by white guys set in Brooklyn. I didn’t want to write one of those. The Sri Lankan writing that’s come to the U.S. in the decades past has been pretty minimal. I felt that I could write a Sri Lankan character, but one who was deeply, deeply flawed and possibly sociopathic (and certainly a criminal), and wink at the fact that this might be the first Sri Lankan protagonist many American readers encounter. The polar opposite of the story of the good immigrant.
There’s great line from the novel where the narrator says, “If I may be so bold, the difference between these prisons and Westbrook is the difference between a house and a home.” It’s nice that he takes pride in his prison. There’s something really charming about that. I found that I respected the narrator a lot. It didn’t seem like you cared if the reader likes him, but I ended up liking him a lot.
That’s good to hear. I’m very interested in reading books with narrators who are charming and repulsive. I definitely have the desk-drawer novel that was very much a piece of student work. It was written when I had ambition, but I didn’t put in the work. With this book, I kept thinking, “What are things that only literature can do? That film can’t do. That a painting can’t do.” And I kept coming back to a narrator that might be incredibly different from the reader’s own life story and background. You can bring life into that narrator, even if they have committed terrible felonies and are wildly egomaniacal. If done well, you can charm the reader and try to build empathy. That was really one of the motivating factors for me: How charming and terrible can we make this person?
It’s so interesting that you have the system of the prison that you’re dealing in and also the politics of running this literary journal, The Holding Pen, at the prison. What was it like dealing with these different types of systems and how they engage with one another? You’ve worked for BOMB magazine and you’ve worked in book publishing. Maybe it’s more of a compliment than a question. It was just very funny how you found these parallels. Everything is a system, everything has its rules and its social mores.
I’m glad that was one of your takeaways because that’s the way I feel, and I wanted to portray that with this character. Life is a series of new systems: you learn as you go, and adapt, and try to make the best of. And if you’re someone with extreme moral flexibility, you can get ahead through dubious means, which I think is how a lot of people succeed. I’ll leave it vague but I’ll say that we see instances in history and in the news and even amongst colleagues where people figure out how to game the system and they do so in ways but you might not do yourself. I’m always fascinated by that.
One general thing about the book is that I feel like so many novels are much less concerned with how things are working on a sentence by sentence level. I thought of that Gary Lutz essay, “The Sentence is the Loneliest Place.” I just love that you really take care to make sure that every sentence really sings. Was that something that you came back to? Were there a lot of revisions that went into making sure that all of the sentences were really working?
Yeah, definitely. There’s this idea in book publishing that literature is always in peril, whether it’s TV or video games or Instagram. And while I think literature is fine–it’ll always be fine–I certainly felt that it is maybe a little harder to keep people’s attention. You can do so if you’re great at plotting, making a Cracker Jack page-turner. I’m not great at plotting at all. I think it clicked when I was watching an interview with the writer Mark Leyner. He came out of poetry and really believes that his novels and his writing needed to entertain at the level of the sentence. Engage at that level, assuming the reader is always about to be distracted–you’ve got to hold on to them. That really guided my writing, and on a structural level, I also felt it was a fun challenge. It made sense that after a while, this narrator–if he does believe that he’s going to die at any moment–then he’s treating every sentence as his last. And he’s trying to convey himself in whatever way he can. At the sentence level, with each period he hits, he assumes someone’s going to break through his barricade in the prison’s computer lab and get him. I felt like that approach to the sentence then made sense within the book and outside the book.
I read an interview you gave with Publishers Weekly where you said that you wanted to write a novel with zero plot. I feel like you’re being a little facetious, there’s some plot in here. Was there just no outline? Just writing off the dome or?
I felt like if I told the reader that the narrator was going to die pretty early in the book, that was enough plot. People are like, “I’m in.” From early on, I just loved the idea of someone in a room telling their life story and they know–and the reader knows–that once they read “The End,” we’ll assume that the narrator has died. Once I had that, I felt I could get away without any of the traditional kind of plot markers. By doing so, it was a more fun challenge for me: How do you keep the reader engaged with the book since very little happens?
Yeah, and then it does that thing where it’s the classic questions of “Why now? Why this character?” Well, he’s going to die. There is no other time.
With writing a book, it takes so long, and I set these little challenges for myself just as a way to stay motivated. You fall in love and out of love with the project as you go. My hope was to try and write something that was a little bit outside of my capability. In the writing of it, I hoped to stretch as a writer in order to be able to do it. The decision to tamp down on plot and boost the voice was a part of that.
What would you say are the politics of the novel? There’s a great line toward the end where Betsy is on Anderson Cooper 360 and she’s telling Anderson Cooper that the story is not about the security of our prisons, but about the security of our borders. As a reader, I didn’t have much doubt about your personal politics, but it’s also just so funny that I feel like people on any end of the political spectrum could appreciate the humor.
That’s a good question. I certainly know what my politics are and I hope my book can be read by people with diverse political backgrounds. To some degree, I don’t know if it’s for me to say. My hope is that maybe a deeply conservative reader might come to it and balk at some aspects of the novel, but then one hopes they could change their mind about some aspects of their conservatism. At the same time, it’s never the novel’s purpose to be instructive in that way. If it is, then it just drops into propaganda. I wanted to have characters who represent a variety of beliefs, but I don’t know if it’s for me to say what those politics are and what the main takeaway should be with respect to those politics.
I think if the protagonist had been on the outside, he would have voted for Jill Stein. He definitely reminded me of a Donald Antrim narrator, like from “The Verificationist,” where the main character thinks so highly of himself and you end up with this the grudging respect for him. Where did you come down on this? Did you feel like you were buddies with him or were you just sort of like “Shut up” by the end of it?
No, I really like the narrator. He just kind of fits in that mode of a narrator that I love writing and spending time with, but would never want to meet in real life. I don’t know if it’s something wrong with me or if this is a general feeling with a lot of people, but most of the narrators I enjoy reading, and the movies I enjoy watching, are mostly populated by or created by total assholes. It’s this whole “never meet your heroes” type thing. I’ll say to friends of mine who work in film, “Oh, you met this director?” And they’re like, “He’s a jerk. Everyone hates him.” At this point, I just assume that’s the case. When I meet a musician or filmmaker who’s actually nice, it’s a welcome surprise.
Yeah, I remember living in New York, someone would say, “Oh, you’re going to that person’s reading? They’re an asshole.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I know they’re an asshole. I like their work. Who cares?” And, of course, it’s a difference between being a criminal asshole and just somebody who is a jerk. There are a lot of jerks in New York and they’re my people. I like these jerks.
Yes, and I’m stipulating that you hear stories of writers who have extreme moral failings when it comes to how they treat their romantic partners–
Yeah, that’s a different story.
On the other hand, some of my best friends are jerks.
It’s funny, interviewing you about your novel, the closest parallel I have is last year when I interviewed Ben Purkert about his poetry collection. This does feel like poetry where I just underline so many things. Like when the narrator says, “If I were to be afforded another hour, another twenty minutes, such time would be invaluable for scholars of post-penal lit.” It’s just such a pleasure to read. This line also struck home: “Nothing stays pure forever and at least we remained advertising-free.” That was devastating.
It was fun to work on the book, for sure, and there are some great jobs in the publishing industry and that world. But at the same time, every week there’s another great newspaper or literary journal that has to lay people off. It’s a pendulum between enjoying writing in that voice and getting really depressed about the subject matter.
Just so the readers know, you have a history of working in publishing and worked for BOMB magazine. I feel like now it’s got to be “Ryan Chapman, Novelist” from now on. I don’t really need you doing other stuff. Are you working on the next book?
In summer of 2017, my wife and I moved to the Hudson Valley, where life is much less expensive than Brooklyn. I could give myself a pay cut and try to live off freelance, spend more time writing. So I am working on another novel, you know, fingers crossed it’s in decent enough shape to show other humans this summer or fall. That’s certainly the fantasy and the hope: have the time and the means to keep writing books.
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan