With the May release of Riots I Have Known (Simon & Schuster), his acclaimed first novel, Kingston resident Ryan Chapman has become the latest addition to the region’s seminal writing roster.
Chapman was born in 1982 to a Sri Lankan father and “American Air Force brat” mother, and grew up in Minneapolis. “In many ways it was what you might imagine as a standard Midwest upbringing,” he says, “but with incredible spicy food on birthdays and holidays.” He was creative from a very young age, winning a local library’s story contest in the sixth grade and trying to write Calvin & Hobbes-inspired comics in high school.
Teenage encounters with Philip Roth and the Irvine Welsh novel Trainspotting would prove formative. “I remember very clearly that lightbulb moment,” he says. “You could write something that artful and that transgressive and that funny; it was something that you could do, and there was a readership for it.” He studied writing at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington, and after his 2004 graduation lived on the West Coast and abroad before ending up in New York City’s publishing world.
Chapman gravitated toward acidic authors like Martin Amis, whose humor is soaked in paint thinner. “Writing humor – and dark humor specifically – felt natural to me,” he says. “I felt the divining rod shake, that I was in the right direction.” It took him some time to get there. He spent his early 20s on an autobiographical novel, but eventually became unhappy with what he saw as uninspired, uninteresting work. The next several years were spent “casting about” in search of better, more engaging material: a character who would suit the voice he had cultivated. “I wanted something that people hadn’t covered in fiction,” he says.
The work went slowly, “writing in the early morning with a pot of coffee in my system,” and it was several years before Chapman felt the slight work – 128 pages in hardback – take shape. But eventually he came to Riots I Have Known and its verbose, egomaniacal and pitilessly funny protagonist. Set over the course of an increasingly-out-of-control prison riot, the novel serves as the last will and testament of an unnamed narrator, a Sri Lankan immigrant who cons his way through American society before ending up incarcerated in a Dutchess County prison. But Riots isn’t quite a straightforward rags-to-jumpsuit tale, full as it is with asides and dense with references; and the more one reads of the protagonist’s selective confessions, published in an award-winning penal literary journal titled The Holding Pen, the further it all slips from reality.
“I wanted to create someone who would be seductive, but also repellent,” says Chapman, and the rest of the story, from its monologue structure to the inevitable approach of doom, proceeds from this narrator. He cites writers like Roberto Bolaño and Thomas Bernhard, as much for their wild, maniacal narrators as their bleak senses of humor. And Riots is certainly a funny book, reminiscent of Paul Beatty in its invention and incisiveness. “I try to use that element of humor to bring up or Trojan-horse difficult subject matter,” explains Chapman, “so that I can get at it indirectly.”
As funny as it is, Riots also serves as a backdoor assault on a good many things: immigrant narratives, the literary community and, especially, the American penal system. Chapman didn’t start writing a prison novel, but eventually it emerged as the ideal setting for his character and voice. He worked to get the details right, reading prison memoirs and investigative reports and speaking with formerly incarcerated people, and then transformed their insights through humor. “I wanted the book to occur a couple degrees off reality,” he says. “But I always kept in the back of my mind to respect that it’s a difficult subject and environment, and that the humor and satirical elements had to always point outward at the culture, and not back towards the prisoners themselves.”
The 37-year-old Chapman has recently seen more milestones than the publication of his first novel. He and his wife relocated to Kingston in 2017, purchasing a house after a decade-plus as Brooklyn-residing renters. In the way of many transplants, he has become an evangelist for the city, encouraging friends to visit and hosting Brooklyn writers at venues like Rough Draft in Uptown Kingston. It has all the joys of homeownership – a yard, “being able to see all my books at once” – but also a deep artistic community, full of writers happy to get a beer and talk about their efforts to fail a little better. And after a career in public relations, Chapman is fully employed as a writer, teaching the occasional writing class at the New York City-based Catapult and hosting Nerd Jeopardy! at Rough Draft.
He hopes to complete his second novel by the end of the year: a set of connected narratives about “unwitting victims of giant frauds,” people confronted late in life by realizations that leave them bereft, with nothing remaining. “How do you reevaluate what comes next?” he asks. As a late-30s first-time author, homeowner and transplant, one could say the same of Chapman himself. “I’m trying to wrestle with that idea.”