In Ryan Gattis’s Safe, Ricky ‘Ghost’ Mendoza, Jr. has put his old ways behind him—he’s sober and has a good job as a DEA safecracker. But when the most important person in his life gets into serious financial trouble, Ghost is forced to crack a safe under the noses of the gangs and the Feds, hoping he doesn’t get caught. Or killed. Called “A finely-crafted whiplash of a crime staccato” by the Chicago Review of Books, Gattis takes us into the underbelly of Los Angeles, pitting a struggle for redemption against the dark politics of the city. He spoke with Geoff Manaugh, the author of A Burglar’s Guide to the City, on the phone to discuss his writing process, his 5 a.m. invitation to watch a safe get cracked, and why he loves Alfred Hitchcock. This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Geoff Manaugh: Let’s start with the research process for Safe. We might have to go back to your earlier book, All Involved, to talk about how you got into this world, but I’d love to know how you learned about gang activities, DEA raids, and, of course, safe cracking itself.
Ryan Gattis: Yes, absolutely, we do have to go back a bit to All Involved. When I started researching All Involved, it was a massive shift in how I work and how I write. I was with the street art crew I’m a part of, UGLARworks. We create wall murals for the city of Los Angeles and the County, too, and they were taking me to these neighborhoods and cities that I never would have visited before. I had to do something called “running interference.” People in the neighborhood are going to be curious and they’re going to come up and want to chat about the murals. I was the guy who would talk to people from all different age groups, ethnicities, and backgrounds. It gave me a good sense of LA and that tailed into spending time with some former Latino gang members.
Eventually, I talked to enough people that I was summoned by someone who had some real power in the late ’80s/early ’90s, which was a violent era in the history of the city. I was supposed to sit down with him and convince him that I was trustworthy and that I could write. That’s where the vast majority of the Latino gang stuff came from that informed All Involved. But I also spoke to nurses. I talked to retired firefighters. I spoke to folks who did all kinds of work. Much of it was thankless work in those areas, especially during a very difficult time. And I think that helped to round out the narrative so that it wasn’t strictly a gang book. It gave a sense of consequences and repercussions, and extended far beyond a place like South Central.
Sometimes, though, things just found me. That’s what happened with Safe. I got a phone call at five in the morning on a Sunday. When I picked it up the person on the other line didn’t say “Good morning,” or “How you doing?” All he said was, “Do you want to watch a safe get cracked?” Of course the answer is yes! The answer for anyone with any amount of curiosity is absolutely yes. So I drove there, and I knocked on the garage. I basically had four or five hours with some folks who do what the narrator of Safe does. They are freelancers. They work for the DEA or the FBI. Their skill set is so specialized that they can basically work for the highest bidder.
All he said was, “Do you want to watch a safe get cracked?” Of course the answer is yes!
GM: So these safe crackers were people who did not work for the DEA but were temporarily contracted to work for them, doing safe cracking?
RG: Well, it’s interesting, I didn’t want to go too far down the road of logistics because I already had so many questions about the potential difficulties of their jobs, but they made it very clear: “Look, we are officers of the court. So we are able to work for every single law enforcement agency. Everything we touch goes straight into evidence.” They have to be vetted as far as that’s concerned, but it’s all for the trial, because why else are you raiding other than to have a successful prosecution?
GM: Was that experience enough to kick start the basic Safe storyline, or did you need to hang out with them more? What happened afterward?
RG: I wish I could have hung out with them more. What I’ve realized while spending time in this world that exists in a gray area, or even an extra-legal area, is that everybody is really good at setting expectations. My expectations were set the minute I walked into that garage. It was simple: if they’re here you can talk to them—but once they leave, that’s it.
I was lucky because they had a British safe in front of them from the 1930s, and they had so much respect for the steel and for the company. For the safe as an artifact. What they were trying to do was crack it in a way so that it could be completely rebuilt. They wouldn’t destroy it. I mean, that’s what these guys do. They’re destroyers. They bash right through some of the most impressive locks ever devised and they do it quick. They were there for a little over four hours but, when they got to the point that they realized they couldn’t crack it in a respectful way and didn’t have the time to stay there, they busted it in six minutes. They just went right through it.
But it was incredibly nerve-wracking to be told, “Here are two of the most fascinating people on Earth, and you only have until they crack the safe to speak with them.” I didn’t know if it was going to be fifteen or twenty minutes, so I started in with, “Do you ever get left alone?” And they looked at each other and said, “Yeah, we get left alone all the time. That’s just a Hollywood myth.” Okay. I said, “Does anybody ever come back?” And they said, “Oh yeah, I had a gun pulled on me last week.” That’s when I think my novelist brain ticked on and I had to ask, “How many times have you had a gun on you in the last 35 years of your career?” And he said, “Oh, I don’t know. Too many.” And I said, “Too many? I’ve never heard anyone say that.”
GM: You’d think that’s the kind of thing you’d remember!
RG: Absolutely! They were so used to it, though, almost like a professional musician playing a concert. Like, I can’t estimate how many I’ve done, because I do it all the time. So the next question was, “Can you just explain the psychology of talking someone out of killing you?” They looked at each other in a way that suggested, “Wow, he finally asked an interesting question.” And I could see they basically had a silent conversation with their body language, deciding whether to talk to me about it. I’m guessing it’s because we had a mutual acquaintance that they were willing to be forthright about it, so they unpacked what they do, in terms of intelligently talking their way out of difficult situations. It planted the psychological seed for what really became Ghost. I only had four or five hours with these guys. The good news was the spark was so strong and so bright that Ghost was born that night as I was working and then he dragged me through the rest of the book.
How many people did you talk to for A Burglar’s Guide to the City? Forty? Fifty? More?
GM: I’ve never counted, to be honest, but it’s up there. There were people who didn’t make it into the book in the end, like architecture historians who I talked to about the history of home fortification. There were lots of cops. I had a strangely positive rapport with the LAPD. They seemed open to the book, including people in the Air Support Division and the Burglary Special Section. I met the preeminent expert in art crime in the United States who works at the LAPD, although he didn’t make it into the book. Then there were the people who claimed to be retired burglars, or who are now in the private security industry but have their hand in the cookie jar, so to speak.
It was tricky, because you have to negotiate those conversations really carefully. You can’t just walk into the LAPD and be like, “Hey, I’m writing a book that reveals the secrets of breaking into houses.” There’s no way they would participate in that. I had to find the right notes to emphasize with different audiences, to reassure them that I wasn’t out to reveal something that I shouldn’t. To prove to people that I didn’t want to denigrate what they do. I wasn’t there to cast judgment.
You can’t just walk into the LAPD and be like, “Hey, I’m writing a book that reveals the secrets of breaking into houses.” There’s no way they would participate in that.
RG: That’s what I connected to most, the way you did not cast judgment, because that’s what I try to do in my fiction. Pretty much every character in my book, if they’re doing something illegal, I’ve talked to someone who’s done that—including, unfortunately, murderers as well. It’s important to pull myself back a bit and allow the readers to judge for themselves. I wanted to convey as much respect as possible.
GM: One thing that interested me when looking at burglary and architectural security was the notion of the defector, like the idea from Alfred Hitchcock of the man who knows too much. An architect who becomes a burglar because that’s where their skills lie, or a burglar who goes into home security because they know how to break into things. In Safe it’s the same thing: a court appointed safecracker who realizes that there’s something else he can do with his skills. Did you look at this as a kind of moral betrayal or was it a form of empowerment, a kind of dark self realization?
RG: I think there are shades of each of those things. In particular this idea of “I was selfish, rash, and violent when I was young, and I didn’t know any better. But now that I’m older and clean, I know the error of my ways. I know they’re so terrible that I can never make up for them but I can try.” For me that’s the heart of the book, this heroic but sad journey for a redemption that he will never get. Despite all the people Ghost will be able to help, it will never be enough.
As I was writing, I thought a lot about Oskar Schindler. The beauty of what he was able to accomplish tied to the sadness of it never being enough. There’s that beautiful scene in the movie when he says, “I could have got more.” The question of when is enough, enough. I was raised on Hitchcock, so I love the character who knows too much but also the character who can transgress in a way that’s not immediately recognizable to law enforcement, like in To Catch A Thief (1955). I think that’s partially why I opened the book the way I did. I needed the score to be too big for Ghost. I needed it to be the dumb luck of stumbling onto a gang safe that had so much money in it that he couldn’t turn it down. But also, then, Ghost knew: the days of being able to take just a little bit out of every safe when he’s left alone are gone completely. It’s nice because that pushes the thriller aspect and crunches the timeline.
But, if I’m super honest, the folks that are the most interesting to me are the folks who can commit an invisible crime over years and years. I love the recent story of someone who did an exploit on hotel keys, and he was just stealing folks blind because it took so long for them to realize they were vulnerable.
GM: Those stories are great, where the transgression is so subtle that you don’t even see it happening at first. Something is so perfectly stolen that you can’t even tell it’s gone. There was an example in my book of a lawn-care guy for a family and, even though they had moved and the house had been sold two times, the locks hadn’t been changed on the back door. This guy had no current connection to the current family that lived there, but he still had a key. He could enter the house like a ghost.
Let’s go back to your research for the book. I’m curious if there were any movies or books that stood out or that served as templates for you.
RG: I don’t want to seem like a name-dropper, but there was one movie that I watched a number of times and I was fortunate enough to talk to the filmmaker about it. It was Thief (1981) by Michael Mann. One of the coolest things to come from that meeting was when he said to me, “You know, I got sued because of that movie.” I said, “What? No!” He said, “I was in court for years,” and I asked what happened and he said a bunch of safe makers sued the studio. They didn’t like that the character had demonstrated a truly genuine way to break into these things. Granted, the end sequence is so pyrotechnic that it definitely could not be tried at home, yet they were so mad about it. Not that they were worried about the average American, but the criminal community and insurance issues and things like that.
I also watched Schindler’s List a few times, as an example of a person who wasn’t an exemplary person throughout his life but who hit a point of clarity where he has to deal with the call to action, this idea of “I have to do this. I have to make it right, I have to do right by others.” That was inspiring.
One thing that was super helpful was that I had heard rumors of folks who used sign language to stay invisible, never being on paper and never being on court transcripts of surveillance. It was a whisper, it was a rumor, but for a novelist it was more than enough to grab me and make me want to write about it. I taught writing for 10 years, and I’ve had a number of extremely talented deaf students, but I was not going to presume that I could write that or present it in a way that was respectful enough to the deaf community. So I reached out to Sara Nović, who wrote Girl at War: A Novel. Nović’s an amazingly talented writer that I think the world of, who happens to be deaf, and she was generous enough to actually go through those elements of Safe. I sent her the sections where Rooster is signing and she gave me grammatical suggestions like: “When we sign, it doesn’t adhere to traditional grammar; try a different sentence style.” It was such an amazing crash course in how to articulate that in just a written form. I feel like so much of what I write relies on body language, because so frequently characters will say one thing but mean another. Or threaten. And, if they’re dealing with someone who doesn’t understand the rules, they’re going to run roughshod over them. So elevating it to sign was really fun and interesting to research.
It was a whisper, it was a rumor, but for a novelist it was more than enough to grab me and make me want to write about it.
GM: It goes back to that theme of hiding in plain sight, or the invisibility of communication. You know, even if there’s a DEA agent watching the whole conversation, it’s unlikely that they would understand what’s being said. Your characters can communicate without being understood.
RG: But they were worried about that, too. Because, look: the guy who’s surveilling you might not know sign, but if they’re taking a video they could pass it on to someone who does know sign. So Rooster makes it clear, “We are never signing in public. We don’t want anyone to know we can sign, ever.” And that gets to those layers of intelligence involved in avoiding detection and layers of discretion. The power is in being invisible and people underestimating you.
That’s what I find so fascinating, and one of the final scenes hinges on that. We go throughout the book thinking that Rooster is one of the most powerful people ever, but then he comes up against someone whom he cannot shift. Because of folks above them, existing relationships, an invisible structure to the vast majority of people in that room, it’s going to go the way it’s going to go. We are fortunate that both narrators are able to articulate why that scene goes the way it goes. It was so fun for me to write a scene that could have been completely bombastic and violent—eight people drawing two guns each—but that’s not how it works in this particular world. It works through intelligence and discussion and evasion.
GM: The art of the deal.
RG: Absolutely. It’s business.
Ryan Gattis is the author of Safe, Kung Fu High School, and All Involved, a novel about the 1992 L.A. riots. He lives in Los Angeles.
Geoff Manaugh is the author of A Burglar’s Guide to the City and BLDGBLOG, one of the most acclaimed architecture and design sites on the Web. He lives in Los Angeles.