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Rodney King's co-author: Book was a 'gateway to a better life'

A new book, 'The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption,' by Rodney King and Larry Spagnola. Spagnola said that King saw the book as literally opening a new chapter in his life.
A new book, 'The Riot Within: My Journey From Rebellion to Redemption,' by Rodney King and Larry Spagnola. Spagnola said that King saw the book as literally opening a new chapter in his life.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Rodney King's co-author for his recent memoir "The Riot Within" took some time yesterday to talk with me about King and the process of writing a book with him — and to dispel a widely reported view that King had somehow received a small advance from his publisher and was struggling with his finances.

Larry Spagnola, who also co-authored a book with Guns N' Roses drummers Steven Adler, said that prior to King's death from an apparent drowning this weekend at age 47, the embattled figure of the 1992 L.A. riots was "proud that he had gotten to a new place in his life, with a fiancée [Cynthia Kelley] and a grandchild on the way."

Spagnola continued, "He was excited that the book was coming out. When I saw him at L.A. Times Festival of Books, he was smiling ear to ear."

In stories about King surrounding the publication of his memoir on the 20th anniversary of the riots, the media reported that his advance for "The Riot Within" was less than six figures. I posted Monday on why that figure might not have been completely accurate. King's publisher, HarperOne, reported to Publishers Marketplace, which tracks publishing deals, that the advance was between $100,000 and $249,000.

Spagnola didn't get into specifics on that number, but he said that the advance "was fair, and it something that motivated us." He added that "when Rodney got his first advance check, he and Cynthia went to San Diego and had a good time."

It was nothing high-rolling. They went to a spa and got massages.

Spagnola also noted that King appeared to be on a better financial footing than he had been in the past, when it was reported that he was living off the fumes of his $3.8-million settlement with the City of L.A. and doing odd jobs to make ends meet.

The idea for the book actually originated with King, not Spagnola. King had appeared with Adler in "Celebrity Rehab 2" in 2008. Adler spoke highly of Spagnola, so King sought him out. It wasn't a match made in heaven. At least not at first.

"We didn't get off the best start," Spagnola said. "I thought the project would go away. But we had a couple of sit-downs and talked about what we could do. He wanted me to capture his voice and get that on in the page." 

The two men ultimately bonded by comparing a very hard shared experience. "I had the crap beaten out of me as a freshman in high school," Spagnola said. "I have a scar on my lip and I showed it to him. After that he got very emotional." 

Spagnola makes it sound very much like Rodney King never really recovered from the beating he received in 1991.

"He couldn't understand why people were always asking him to talk about the beatings," Spagnola said. "He still had nightmares and would wake up with the sheets soaked with sweat. The most shattering passages from our conversations are from recordings back in October. He really did feel like he was going to die after he was tasered the second time. He clothes were soaked in blood and sweat, so he was a better conductor for the electricity. The effect was very severe."

By the time the only female officer on the scene walked back to her cruiser, he knew he was done, Spagnola said.

The book almost went the way of several other projects that King had considered over the years. "We weren't sure of anyone would pick it up," Spagnola said. "But we liked that it was bought by a major publishing house. And HarperOne stepped up in a big way. They had a really tight timeline and had to ship people around to get the thing out the door."

Obviously, HarperOne had a financial incentive to do this. But it's unlikely they would have had a book to sell without King and Spagnola.

Spagnola's only reservation was that he wished more people had come through to give King blurbs — short quotes for the book's jacket. "He really thought that the book was his gateway to a better life."

Writing the book was a difficult process for Spagnola — and not just because of the breakneck schedule. "When I did the book with Steve Adler, I had hundreds of pages of notes, fan mail, letters he had never sent. But Rodney was effectively illiterate. Everything had to be done completely verbally, by reading what I'd written back to him."

Spagnola agreed that it was ironic — tragically ironic — that King died evidently by drowning in his pool. "He was happiest outdoors. He loved fishing and swimming. It's sad but somehow beautiful that he could go to his maker through water."

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