THERE IS NO DEADLINE pressure worse than being locked in a room while a riot rages outside your very door, threatening to barge in at any moment. Such are the circumstances for the unnamed narrator of Ryan Chapman’s debut novel, Riots I Have Known. Our hero, or perhaps antihero, is an inmate, the editor of the prison literary magazine called The Holding Pen, which has garnered accolades across the nation, especially with the reigning Brooklyn literati. It is a possibility that one of the published pieces may be the cause of the riot. Whatever the case, we find the narrator, penning his final column as the battle rages. Part rant, part confession, part love letter, this final epistle is a tragic comedy — the life and times of one errant correspondent attempting to eke out one last communiqué before his door comes smashing open.
I corresponded with Chapman online recently, about the state of the American prison system, humor in fiction, Big Macs, and growing up American–Sri Lankan, and whatever falls in between.
DAVID BREITHAUPT: What drew you in to writing about federal prison? Did you have personal or professional connections to the penal system?
RYAN CHAPMAN: I came to it in a roundabout fashion, after writing a terrible autobiographical novel. An editor friend wisely told me to shelve it and find something new. Since novels take a number of years to write, I devised a set of challenges to retain my long-term interest. My Catholic upbringing at work: I began Riots with the assumption it would be immensely difficult and slightly beyond my abilities.
So to answer your question: nope. I chose the carceral setting because it was, on the face of it, a terrible place for a comic novel. It was a hurdle to overcome. Which isn’t to say it was arbitrary. I’ve always been interested in the hothouse nature of prisons, how they operate as a microcosm of American culture, and the old adage of measuring a nation by how it treats its criminals.
It also activated my transgressive streak. “Why the fuck not?” is highly motivating.
How did you go about researching your subject? Having had my own experience with the federal system, I thought you portrayed an accurate rendering.
I appreciate that. My research included interviewing people who’d been incarcerated, in addition to plenty of reading on the subject. Ted Conover and Atul Gawande in particular have written excellent journalism on prison life and the deleterious effects of solitary confinement.
What struck you most about your research? Anything that surprised you?
To state the obvious and hop on a soapbox: the United States’s treatment of its prisoners is shameful. Anyone who says otherwise is simply ignorant. The barbarism and unchecked abuses throughout the system, not to mention the torture of extended solitary confinement, thrives in an environment of complacency and a nationwide preference of “out of sight, out of mind.”
Writing Riots, I didn’t want to fall into propaganda or didacticism. I looked for stories that illuminated the fuller world of prison life. There’s a scene in Ted Conover’s Newjack of New Year’s celebrations, with toilet rolls loosed from the second and third storys as improvised streamers. It’s a reminder of prisoners’ ability to refashion the outside world inside.
Were you able to visit any prisons for your research?
I made a decision early on to avoid any prisons in person, as I wanted the book’s pitch to be a few degrees off reality. I knew, and was advised by others, that it would be difficult to maintain that narrative distance once I toured correctional facilities.
So once you established the setting for your book, did you intend on writing a sort of black comedy, or did that just happen on its own given the juxtaposition with your very literate narrator and his immediate surroundings?
It came together quickly and naturally, or at least the idea of it. The setting, the humor, and the shape were apparent: a frantic monologue by someone monstrous who will die at any moment, and can’t for the life of him tell his story in a straightforward manner. Then, I simply had to write, fail, and write more until it clicked — probably around the eighth or ninth draft, though who knows?
For those who may not have read your recent essay on McDonald’s as an influence on your work, can you give us a quick overview of how Big Macs figured into your life?
My father immigrated from Sri Lanka in 1976 and then worked solely for McDonald’s until his retirement. This meant the fast food chain’s core principles — consistency, efficiency, and value — trickled into home life in all sorts of odd ways. (I’d have bruises on my shoulders from attempts at rounding corners in the fewest number of steps.)
I didn’t notice the influence on Riots until my editor pointed it out: the sentences are both information dense and joke dense, attempting to pack as much value as possible into the smallest novelistic unit. As for consistency, I’m drawn to high-wire experiments in voice, like Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides. I hoped to achieve the same, cutting any errant words in revision.
The McDonald’s influence also colors my approach to the reader. While they aren’t strictly a “customer,” I have a contract with them through the book. I don’t wish to waste their time or frustrate them unintentionally. (Intentional frustration, when used judiciously, can be useful in generating comic tension.) I know my novel isn’t for everyone. But if it’s for you, I want it to be for you 100 percent.
I did reread some passages because of their density. I didn’t want to miss anything. It was your vocabulary that sent me to the dictionary numerous times, however. I kept thinking you were the Charles Atlas of word-building. How did you become so word powerful?
I credit how long it takes to write fiction and reading, reading, reading. Nothing is better than carrying a novel in the back of your mind and coming across a word you just know fits that one sentence in that one scene.
The narrator’s expansive vocabulary had an intrinsic function: it’s how someone performing a smarter version of themselves would talk. (I can relate, as the guy who pronounced caveat as “caveet,” until corrected by a friend.) The additional function is more textual, more playful. I wanted to create a momentum where the particular denotations aren’t as important as the feeling engendered by their deployment.
Not to get too much in the weeds — or up my own butt, take your pick — but I liked the idea of a “man of letters” unknowingly misusing the very words he believes will exculpate and lionize him.
I thought it added to the juxtaposition once again, supplementing the surrealism of the narrator existing in a prison environment, boosting the dark comedy.
It’s always exciting to discover a narrative justification for skewing language, right?
Was there a Joyce influence going on?
This may discount my literary bona fides, but I was never a big reader of Joyce. I tackled all but the Wake and could never shake the joyless labor of working through his texts. Nabokov, on the other hand, injects prismatic light into his sentences. Pnin, Pale Fire, Lolita: all worth a dozen rereads. I’d also cite Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories for fashioning a line equally (and thrillingly) serious and comic.
Did growing up with a Sri Lankan heritage influence your sentence rhythm or structure? I wasn’t sure if you grew up in a bilingual household and how that may have influenced your writing if such was the case.
It was a monolingual home. I didn’t hear Sinhalese until first visiting Sri Lanka at age 10, as my father’s family was happy to shed the language upon immigrating. My sense is they saw Sinhalese as wholly functional.
I wish there had been more access to Sri Lankan writing or film. It was a total mystery growing up, apart from Michael Ondaatje’s books (which are formidable). I did read voraciously: teenage infatuations with Stephen King and Irvine Welsh, undergraduate ones with Pynchon, Beckett, and Nabokov.
I thought the humor in your book intensified the seriousness of your story. What role or roles do you think humor plays in fiction?
Humor disarms, and for that alone it’s useful in addressing darker subjects. The reader will forgive plenty if they laugh along the way. From a craft perspective it’s thrilling to explore different types of humor as well. There’s sentence-level wordplay, slapstick, and punning; the formalist’s wink of a well-placed callback; and the shock of the abject and the base. Another method for pushing the limit, or perhaps gently petting the limit’s cheek.