Ryan Leone: The Tragic Loss of a Fresh, Brazen Literary Voice

D. Michael Hardy
11 min readNov 11, 2022

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Author Ryan Leone (pronounced Lee-own-ee) clawed his way out of the shadows of the underground world of drugs and quickly became an underground literary phenomenon. His debut novel, Wasting Talent, was written while serving a five-year stint in federal prison on drug charges and was published shortly after he got out. And then his life began to change. Soon, Ryan found himself with a massive cult following, a book high in the Amazon sales ranking, and a newfound friendship with actor Johnny Depp. He was appearing on podcasts as the featured guest, working on multiple projects, planning to get married to the love of his life and mother of his two young sons, and buying a house in Los Angeles (which is no easy feat these days). His optimistic outlook on life was felt by everyone around him and he was excited about the prospects for the future. Sadly though, Ryan would never see these prospects come to fruition.

Ryan Leone

I first met Ryan in person on a cool September evening in 2015. I had just recently emerged from a packed subway in downtown Los Angeles, but when I got my bearings, realized I’d come out at the wrong stop. I was six blocks from the bookstore, and as it turned out, there was another stop only two blocks from the place. I sighed, chalking it up to a lack of subway experience (we don’t have subways in Florida), then enjoyed my walk through the city, admiring its eclectic businesses — a minimalist coffee bar, an Indian restaurant, a craft cocktail bar with leather couches that was whispering to me.

As I rounded the corner onto West 5th street, which was bustling with rush-hour city traffic, I spotted Ryan outside, pacing back and forth and smoking a cigarette, jittery with adrenaline in anticipation of reading his new novel in front of an expectant crowd. A cacophony of wailing sirens, screeching brakes, and indiscernible shouts from passersby created a chasm between us.

I had lived in Los Angeles years prior and had since returned back home to Tampa, but a reading by one of my favorite authors, Jerry Stahl, had brought me back for a week that September (I used the excuse of the author event to return to L.A. to visit old friends and old haunts). Jerry, whose writing I had admired for years, would be reading from his memoir, Permanent Midnight, for its 25th anniversary. He would also be sharing the stage with two up-and-coming writers with similar stories of drug abuse, from their wild drug-fueled adventures to the inevitable near-death crash, their recovery and ultimate redemption through writing, and a new, sober life.

Joe Clifford, who at the time had published a few crime novels, would be reading from his memoir Junkie, and a young, rather unknown writer named Ryan Leone would read from his debut novel, Wasting Talent, which was quickly rising in the Amazon ranks and would, over the next few years, sell nearly 500,000 copies.

With Ryan at The Last Bookstore

As I drew closer, Ryan looked up from the groove he was carving into the sidewalk. The expression on his face was one of recognition and perhaps relief at seeing a familiar face (we had originally met online, via the Facebook event, and had begun to get to know each other over the weeks leading up to the event — Ryan was very proactive in promotion).

The man standing before me was several years younger, shorter than I imagined but well-built, his gray dress shirt barely concealing his weightlifter physique. With his short, clean-cut dark hair, the tattoos I knew covered his upper arms, and the manner in which he spoke — that distinct southern Californian dialect found only in those born in the region —it all reminded me more of a stereotypical surfer you might find stalking Venice Beach, surfboard under one arm, than an ex-con and former junkie.

Ryan greeted me warmly, giving me a firm handshake and halfway hug while thanking me for “comin’ all the way across the country” for the reading. I told him it was my pleasure, that I was a big fan of Jerry’s, and that anyone endorsed by Jerry was worth noticing. Ryan talked to me about how gracious Jerry had been, how much Jerry’s memoir had impacted and influenced him, and how grateful he was to Jerry for giving him this opportunity to join him on stage.

After the reading, in which it seemed Ryan took the spotlight over the other authors, we spoke a while longer as the other guests drifted out of the bookstore and into the cooling L.A. night, and then we said our goodbyes. I remember wanting to invite him out for a drink, but thought better of it and instead, found myself in a bar once frequented by Charles Bukowski. But that’s another story.

I never saw Ryan again in person after that night. I was back in Los Angeles in 2018 for a few days, but Ryan was out of town at the time. We kept in touch over the next seven years via social media, and it seemed every morning when I woke and checked Facebook, Ryan was posting about another project he was involved in. Ryan was finishing up his second novel, June Gloom, later titled Anti Heroes. He was working with his friend and actor Nick Stahl on a new film due to shoot in Florida the following year, while also shooting a documentary about his life, but then the documentary was put on hold due to “unforeseen circumstances.” Ryan was hanging out with Johnny Depp, who was a fan. He would be on next week’s episode of The Bret Easton Ellis Podcast. He’d begun to paint and had even found a company to make action figures.

In the midst of all this, Ryan somehow found the time to form “The Ryan Leone Foundation: Paul’s Project,” a foundation to help curb opioid overdoses in high-risk areas, and he was a big supporter of prison reform. At one point, Ryan sent me pages of the biography he was working on about Micky Avalon, “to get a fellow writer’s perspective,” he’d said. I was honored. He’d also sent me the screenplay for “Florida” and I’d told him it was fantastic. Ryan invited me to come to the set when they began filming the following year.

Ryan with friend Johnny Depp

“Thanks man, looking forward to seeing you again,” I told him.

But on the morning of July 2nd, 2022, I checked my Facebook and saw not what new project Ryan was involved in, but instead a post from his fiancé, Karina, which said that Ryan had passed away suddenly and that she felt “like my heart and soul have been ripped out.” I knew previously that he’d been in the hospital with breathing issues — complications of an overly-high methadone prescription — but also that he was planning to fly “to the other side of the world with my boy Nick Stahl to see my other boy, Johnny Depp.” So, the notion that Ryan had passed felt like some sick joke, or a publicity stunt. I kept waiting for Ryan to let us all in on the joke, but soon realized it wasn’t a joke at all. It had actually happened. Ryan was gone. He was almost thirty-seven years old.

Ryan Harrison Leone was born in Massachusetts in 1985, but moved with his parents to California at the age of three, an only child. He had a relatively normal childhood, but at age five was diagnosed with ADD and prescribed both Adderall and Ritalin, something which Ryan thinks was the initial trigger for his later drug use. “I don’t blame my parents at all,” Ryan said in a video on his drug use, “but I would urge parents to reconsider before putting their kids on such powerful drugs.”

In high school, Ryan began experimenting with low-key drugs like marijuana and LSD, but it was in his college years where things turned dark. In his video, Ryan tells a harrowing story of being forced to shoot up for the first time at gunpoint, just to prove he wasn’t a cop. “If I could pinpoint one moment that things started to go downhill very, very quickly, it was right when the needle was introduced,” Ryan says, recalling that crucial moment in his life, his calm, easy tone wavering slightly. From that moment on, Ryan was in and out of jail, often homeless. Eventually, he began selling ten-thousand dollars’ worth of heroin a week, all while his own drug habit was climbing through the roof.

But all of that ended one evening when Ryan was arrested by DEA agents while in the middle of picking up two pounds of heroin, his weekly run. He was later indicted and faced ten years to life. “I remember being petrified to go to prison,” Ryan said, claiming that his only real knowledge of prison were the clichés you see on television. “The worst thing I saw was someone pouring boiling baby oil on some guy’s eye, and his eyeball fell out. I still have nightmares to this day,” Ryan says, recalling the screaming that followed, echoing throughout the prison walls.

Ryan served five years and claims his book is what ultimately saved him. “I’d decided before I ever got into drugs that I was going to be a writer,” he said. “Writing this novel is what got me through federal prison. It really did bring me the life that I thought it would.” That first, and sadly only published novel to date, Wasting Talent, tells the story of Damien, a man struggling with a severe drug addiction and who mirrors Ryan’s own tumultuous past. It was written in a fast-paced, almost poetic style, and it perfectly captured the inner workings of a man struggling with himself to defeat his habits.

And for a time, it seemed that Ryan had finally beaten his demons. He seemed to have finally gotten his life together. He got sober and began hustling to earn money, selling the film rights to his book and signing contracts for two television shows. He had a second child with his fiancé, Karina, and the two of them began the process of looking to buy a house in Los Angeles.

When asked, Ryan credited his children. “Once I had children, it kind of gave me direction, it was a beacon towards a moral standpoint that I wanted to achieve, and that’s ultimately what was transformative for me.”

Ryan with fiance Karina and son Nikko

But sober wasn’t entirely true. For Ryan, sober meant a sizable methadone habit to keep himself from using anything harder. It meant trips back and forth to the doctor’s office, and while the methadone was prescribed, it seemed to be doing more harm than good. On July 1st, he found himself in the ER, suffering from respiratory and gastrointestinal issues from being on “way too much methadone 170 mgs!” he’d posted on Facebook. He was feeling like he “couldn’t breathe,” but he seemed more annoyed at this than fearful for his life. He was hopeful the issues would be resolved, and he’d be on a plane the next day to start working on a new film project. In his final Facebook post, Ryan wrote, “I need to stop being so reckless. I’m a dad now. Amen.” Less than twelve hours later, he was gone.

Countless people took to social media to express their shock and sorrow at Ryan’s passing. They wished his fiancé, his two young sons, and other family their condolences. They posted of their memories with Ryan, stories of juvenile delinquents getting into trouble, of adults making their dreams come true, of friendship, of love, of the past and what they wanted from the future. It was a moving tribute to a man who strived so hard for a better life.

Ryan Leone

I remember the feeling of loss I myself felt that day, the feeling that things are never promised to us, that we are fragile creatures and that at any moment, things can change forever. I felt powerless as I sipped coffee and stared out into the vast blue sky, and I did the only thing I knew to do — I sat down at the kitchen table and wrote a poem in his memory. It was a simple gesture, but one I felt my friend would appreciate.

Ryan’s father, Frank, wrote a long and touching memorial for his son. He begins the piece with the line, “It is not so much how long you live as what you do with the years you are here,” which I think speaks not only to Ryan’s character, but to so many of us who are working toward creating something good in the world, something we can leave behind for others after we’re gone, something hopefully eternal.

The memorial goes on to recount Ryan’s life, from childhood to his years of drug use and prison, to his writing and countless projects and family life. “Those of us who loved Ryan miss him dearly. But we find comfort in knowing how much he did to champion the cause of those most in need and how the shape of his legacy will allow his influence to endure for decades to come,” his father Frank wrote of his son. It paints the portrait of a young man in his prime who had finally defeated his demons and risen to claim a beautiful life all his own.

Despite all the years that have passed since Ryan and I first met, despite the highs and lows of his career, the image of Ryan that lingers most in my mind is of our first encounter on the streets of Los Angeles, of that young, restless guy with clean-cut hair and tattoos down his arms, smoking a cigarette and pacing back and forth outside of the bookstore. An image of a young writer, eager to share his words with others and looking forward to the future.

It’s an image that will likely stay with me for years to come, a still-life movie I can go back to time and again. A single moment of a writer, a man, human like the rest of us, anxious and hopeful for what might come next. And now immortal, both in the work he left behind, and also in my memory.

You can buy a copy of Ryan’s novel, Wasting Talent, here:

Wasting Talent by Ryan Leone

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D. Michael Hardy

D. Michael Hardy is an American writer of contemporary fiction and poetry. He is the author of the books The Ghosts of Us and Pain and Longing.