The Big Idea: Ryan David Jahn
This is another one for the “where do you get your ideas?” file: Ryan David Jahn was on the trail of a day job and found a novel instead. How did that happen? And what tweaks did he need to make to have his real life job hunt take the shape of The Dispatcher, the crime thriller the novel turned out to be? Jahn’s here now to share the details.
RYAN DAVID JAHN:
Ian Hunt is less than an hour from the end of his shift when he gets the call from his dead daughter.
In that first line is the idea that propels The Dispatcher from beginning to end.
It was May 2009 and I hadn’t worked (except for the occasional day-labor gig) for the better part of a year. Cash was tight and my unemployment insurance was about to run out.
I’d sold my first novel in January, but there was no money in it.
I needed a job.
I was filling out applications, but they were coming to nothing, and after months of this I was running out of places to send them.
Then I found out the LAPD needed police dispatchers. I thought it would be perfect. I could get a job with the city, benefits and all, and material for my writing as well. There were bound to be stories in some of those emergency calls.
I sent in an application. About two weeks later I received a postcard telling me I had to take an aptitude test. The testing would take place at a high school on Washington Boulevard the following Saturday at eight o’clock in the morning, but I was advised to arrive at seven thirty.
I got there at seven fifteen instead, and found myself at the wrong end of a line that wrapped around the block.
Over five hundred people showed up. There were six positions available.
The testing took three hours. It involved remembering combinations of numbers and letters (4G5T HY5), strings of details (six foot tall white male with blond hair in a white t-shirt and blue jeans carrying a green backpack last seen heading west on De Longpre), and listening to multiple voices simultaneously while pulling salient details. I actually enjoyed it, and walked away feeling that I’d done well.
I also starting thinking about the day-to-day job of being a police dispatcher. I’d be on the phone with people during what might well be the worst moment of their lives. I imagined myself working the graveyard shift in Los Angeles’s downtown dispatch office, taking one call after another while throwing down mugs of coffee.
Then, for no reason, this scene played out in my mind:
I’m sitting at my desk with my headset on. The CAD system is up and running. I take a sip from a steaming cup. A call comes in.
“Nine-one-one. What is your emergency?”
The call is from my wife. Our apartment is being burglarized, there’s a man with a gun in our living room going through our things, and I’m not there to help. I’m sitting at a desk fifteen miles away, only able to listen to what’s happening.
I was terrified by the thought, so I knew there was a story there.
In The Dispatcher, the call doesn’t come from anybody’s wife. It comes from the protagonist’s daughter, who, after having gone missing seven years ago, has recently been declared dead in absentia, whose headstone is now planted in the local cemetery.
But it was that first idle fantasy that got my imagination going.
I spent the next several months trying to set the story in Los Angeles. I must have written four or five different openings, each one fifty to a hundred pages long. None of them worked. LA is a big, sprawling city with two dispatch offices (one downtown, one in the San Fernando Valley) and several dispatchers working in each at any given moment. I didn’t believe the phone call, it seemed too coincidental that this girl’s father should be the one to pick up, and if I couldn’t make myself believe the call, I wouldn’t believe what followed from it.
I finally realized Los Angeles was simply too big. The story, for that reason and others, needed to begin in a more contained environment. It needed to open on the narrative equivalent of a desert island before expanding to the larger world. I threw away the pages I’d written and again started over, this time in a small Texas town of my own creation (though based, in part, on a place I lived while growing up).
And this time I believed it. This time it worked.
After that, the story came together quickly, in a matter of weeks. Because once I understood the world of the story, I also understood the people who inhabited that world. Only these folks could live in such a place; only these folks could do what they do.
I had the right beginning, finally, and everything else followed logically from there.
A month after the first test, I learned that I’d done well enough to move on to the next step in the application process. Out of over five hundred original applicants, there were two hundred and fifty of us left. They tested our typing speed, and I moved forward again, along with a hundred and ninety-nine other people. I was interviewed by a three-person panel that consisted of two city-council members and a senior dispatcher, after which I was one of a hundred and twenty-five people eligible for and on the list to be placed in one of the six positions available.
They’d be hiring alphabetically.
So I didn’t end up with a job as a police dispatcher. I did, however, end up with a book about one — the better deal if you ask me.