Heroin Addict, Convict, Novelist

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Heroin Addict, Convict, Novelist

By Regina Walker 09/15/15

The Fix Q&A with Ryan Leone, author of Wasting Talent, on his current struggles with addiction and recovery.

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Ryan Leone
via Author

Reminiscent of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the debut novel Wasting Talent by Ryan Leone introduces us to a writer to be reckoned with. Published when Leone was 28, Wasting Talent is written in a staccato, abrupt, machine gun rhythm. The book is brutal. The main character, Damien, is a talented musician who has traded his passion for music for a love affair with drugs, primarily heroin. The book is the proverbial trip down the rabbit hole; all ID and ugliness.

Leone infuses the book with some humor but ultimately takes the reader on the rollercoaster of horror that is active addiction. Like Requiem For A Dream, the reader is transported to various states of impairment; high, withdrawing, overdosing and blacking out. The book feels authentic and, unsurprisingly, Leone spent 10 years of research as an active heroin addict prior to writing the book while serving a four-year stint in federal prison.

I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Leone and our interview process, in some ways, mirrored the book. Mr. Leone is a charming and gregarious man who was approximately three years sober and engaged to be married when I first began communicating with him. Some weeks later, the interview and Mr. Leone were somewhere quite different. We had completed the interview but he soon after relapsed. The staff at his detox allowed us to communicate during his treatment so as to update his answers for this story.

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When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

I think I always wanted to be a writer. I remember finding joy in writing as early as elementary school, when we had to write stories and read them in front of our class. I won a short story contest when I was 11 and had some poetry published when I was in high school. My teenage years were turbulent and that’s when I was introduced to drugs. Drugs changed everything for me; I started hanging out with different people and got heavily indoctrinated by the culture. My taste in literature, film, and music was certainly influenced by drugs. And I started to get into a lot of trouble. I was expelled from three high schools for drug-related offenses within the span of a month and, consequently, I was shipped off to programs for bad kids. These were the kind of programs where they teach you survival skills, like starting fire with sticks and making animal traps out of rocks. The other kids I was exposed to seemed far worse off than me, there were a ton of self-mutilators and most of the girls had eating disorders. I wrote my first novella during that time and it allowed me to internalize the heavy things I was learning about at such a young age.

I ended up going to a writing internship program outside of Boston when I was 18. We had to write treatments for a dating show that was on a public access channel. I was expelled from that program within a couple of months, by that time, I was shooting heroin already. I spent the next several years in-and-out of jails and rehabs throughout the country. A guy in one of the rehabs showed me basic screenplay structure and I started writing a lot of scripts in my spare time. I didn’t decide and commit to being a novelist until I went to federal prison and actually had the time and discipline to write a full-length novel.

How much of Wasting Talent represents real life events?

When I sat down to write Wasting Talent, I had a number of stories that I thought would make a good book and I wanted to write a roman à clef and tell them episodically. I was a heroin addict for 10 years and during that time some pretty interesting things had happened to me. People ask me a lot to give a percentage of how much actually happened. I’d say 80% is true. I was never a guitar prodigy but when I was using I had a lot of grandiose delusions about being a rock star.

I was flying all across the country going to treatment centers and I felt like I was something I wasn’t. Some of the gun fight scenes were embellished. I’ve never shot a gun at another person, but at the time that I was writing the book, literary/genre hybrid novels were en vogue. I fictionalized some stuff for the sake of making the story more entertaining but hopefully all of the feelings from the novel accurately reflect what it’s like to be on a drug run of that magnitude, that’s what I was going for. 

You spent four years in prison, could you talk about that?

In 2006, I had been going from rehab to rehab to try and get off of heroin. I think I just finally gave up. I was introduced to someone that was distributing large quantities of club drugs: Molly, LSD, DMT, etc. He decided to hire me and I went from being a broke junkie to making $10,000 a week. As the money increased, I started doing more heroin and cocaine. Eventually, I started selling heroin just so I could keep up with my gargantuan habit.

I had a connection down in East LA and I was picking up a couple pounds a week. Her boyfriend was doing time in a state prison, so she started smuggling heroin in for him and she got caught by the DEA. She told them about me and they had her sell me a half pound while she was wearing a wire. I got arrested by a federal taskforce and was charged with conspiracy to distribute heroin. I was sentenced to five years in federal prison and served four. I was 23 when I went in and they sent me to a really rough prison. It was a combative environment and violence was ubiquitous.

I continued doing heroin the first few years that I was in prison. I was constantly in debt with the perpetual threat of people coming after me for money. A gram of heroin in Los Angeles is $60 and a gram of heroin in prison is $400. There are only a few makeshift syringes that get passed around so there is the constant risk of contracting HIV. It was a nightmare. I’m a big opponent of mass incarceration and the government’s ineffectual policy of warehousing non-violent drug offenders. Prison radicalizes a person and exacerbates a problem that should be handled with better rehabilitation efforts.  

You have been open about your own heroin addiction. How long have you been clean?

I started smoking heroin when I was 17 and went to my first rehab for it that same year. My addiction got really ugly when I started injecting it. Like I said, I used while I was in prison for the first couple of years. One day, a guy that I didn’t know that well, came up to me and offered me a free shot. I had made it a career stance never to turn down free dope and right after I did it, a guard came up to me and said that I needed to submit a random drug test. I was obviously set up. I had to spend two months alone in solitary confinement, which was complete introspective hell. It broke me down. It was a cathartic experience for me and I really reflected on my life and decided to get clean once and for all. I made it a little over three years before I had a relapse recently. 

I read that you wrote Wasting Talent on the sly while you were incarcerated. How did you manage that?

I wrote the first 10 chapters by hand while I was in the first prison. In the federal system they like to move you around and they shipped me to a much nicer facility in Wisconsin. They had computers there but you could only use them if you were enrolled in private college correspondence courses. So I had my dad sign me up for a creative writing course and I spent five hours each day in the computer lab working on Wasting Talent. I would put fake headings on each chapter so that it would say something like: “Creative Writing 101 - Lesson 1: Dynamic Prologue.” If they caught me writing a book I would have lost my computer privileges.

I worked up there for two years; some of the guards were cooler than others, so I think they knew what I was doing. It was always sketchy printing off chapters if certain guards were working. I was petrified I’d get caught and lose the privilege. The last week that I was in prison I printed the entire manuscript and it is one of the only things I took with me when I was released. This is another fallacy with the prison system; they need to be doing more things that are conducive to making a better life for us. They should foster creative endeavors like writing. I shouldn’t have had to do this in secrecy.

What is life like now?

My life looked great for three years. I started lifting weights in prison and it is something that I carried with me that was really helping me stay clean. I met a girl that I was crazy about and we got engaged. We were supposed to be getting married in November but then the relapse happened. I’ve always been a fan of hallucinogens; I think I bought into that whole “mind expansion/free thinking” idealism of the '60s. After three years of total sobriety, I decided to take some LSD. I justified it in my head because I've never looked at psychedelics as drugs that I abuse.

I had a transformative experience on peyote when I was 17 and I've always considered that kind of stuff as a means for therapy. I took three hits and had a pretty intense trip, it was almost uncomfortable after being totally clearheaded for so long. In retrospect, the LSD was a mistake. I felt like I wasn't sober anymore from that point forward and it wasn't very long before I did heroin again. I wasn't having a particularly bad day, I was just with friends and we started joking about it, and before I knew it, I had a needle in my arm again. I only did it that one night and remained sober for another month.

Then I went to a friend's birthday party while my fiancée was out of town for a week. They had cocaine and heroin there, I thought rather foolishly, that I could do it just that one night. That night turned into a week and by the time I picked my fiancée up from the airport I was completely strung out. She left me and I lost my house, just like that. My family knew and it was a really bad feeling, that I had lost control again. I went up to a reading in Berkeley and was still in the middle of my run. I had my friend deliver me a half-gram and I got drunk before I had to read.

I was meeting Joe Clifford and Tom Pitts for the first time, two fantastic SF-based writers, and here I am drunk and smacked out. It was embarrassing and the next day I went to the Tenderloin in San Francisco and spent the last of my money on crack and heroin. I called my friend and I had tears streaming down my face, I was at a total rock bottom. He works at a treatment center in Orange County and he got me into a detox down here for free. And that’s where I am now. I’m at an interesting fork in the road; everyone is recommending me going to long-term treatment and becoming involved in 12-step culture. I’m not sure what I want to do. I know that I want to beat this but I hate having restrictions to my freedom. I do know this: my way certainly wasn’t working, so maybe I’ll just listen to the suggestions of others and get through this.

What’s next?

I thought my future was going to look completely different just two weeks ago. I was going to get married and have kids and live the American Dream. My girl leaving me has spun me around and made me rethink everything. Staying sober is my top priority right now; this last relapse really brought me to my knees and freaked me out.

As far as writing, I’ve been fortunate enough to start forging relationships with other writers, who I really respect, which has guided me. I started working on a new novel a few months ago and got to 30,000 words. I really didn’t like it, so I deleted it and started over. I’m 10,000 words into the new one and I’m really happy with it. I expect it to be finished by next summer. For now, I’m taking it one day at a time and trying to get my life back in order.

Thursday, September 17th, Ryan Leone will join Jerry Stahl (Permanent Midnight) and Joe Clifford (Junkie Love) for a reading and discussion at The Last Bookstore in Los Angeles.

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